Cork publican: ‘Anyone that takes over a pub must be one or two percent a bit mad’

In a new weekly series every Monday, called The Bar Stool, CHRIS DUNNE catches up with Cork’s well-known bar owners
Cork publican: ‘Anyone that takes over a pub must be one or two percent a bit mad’

John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

ALONG with the catchy name of An Spailpín Fánach, the front of the South Main Street pub across from the historic Beamish and Crawford Brewery promises ceol agus cráic. The place has been providing pints, music and cráic for the better part of 250 years.

Owner John O’Connor is in a celebratory mood, now that the Covid restrictions have been lifted and he’s back in business.

“I often give a bar of a song myself!!” says John, who is in business 30 years.

“It’s great that we are experiencing some normality again and people can come out and enjoy themselves. I am absolutely thrilled to be open for business again full-time. It’ll be great to have music here and singing again.

“I missed chatting to the customers and catching up with them when we were closed.

“The music, the parties, the singing nights, the poetry nights, will all be in full swing again. It’s great. The Yarn Spinner nights and the Cork Singers Club will be going strong here again now that things are going back to normal.”

John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.
John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

What does John sing when he gives a song?

“Fiddlers Green or Green Valleys,” says John laughing.

He is in good company. An Spailpín Fánach has seen the cream of entertainers and personalities come into the pub over the years.

“We had Mary Black and The Furys. The cast of Fair City were in and out of here for a whole week when they were in Cork, and Pat Jennings came in for a drink too. They all loved the friendly atmosphere and the impromptu music sessions.”

John says March 14, 2020, was a terrible day for him and for his staff as they closed the doors of An Spailpín Fánach due to the pandemic.

“It was a sad day when we walked out the door,” says John.

“We didn’t know anything or how long the pandemic restrictions would last. We were forced to close for the bones of 17 months; nearly two years, with one brief reprieve in between. It was sad not being behind the counter serving our customers for that long.”

How did he occupy himself?

“I did a lot of cleaning!” says John.

“I made sure everything was ship-shape and up to spec. I came in every single day checking the fridges and the store area.”

John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.
John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

It must have been strangely silent in the usually lively pub?

“It was really strange having no customers to serve,” says John.

“I love the social contact in the bar. I am a real people person. It was strange having no-one drinking up at the counter or serving behind the counter when we were closed.”

Being closed was like a bereavement for John.

“Missing the social contact was huge for me,” he says.

An Spailpín Fánach goes back a long way.

“The pub has been going since 1779,” says John.

“I think it’s the oldest consistent pub in Cork. It was never anything else but a pub.”

Why did John, 61, who lives in Blackpool, want to go into the pub business?

“Back then it was fashionable to own a pub,” he says.

“It was a much sought after business. I bought it from Fergal McGowan, who now runs The Corner House on Coburg Street.

“My two children, Glenn and Helena, grew up here and they were reared here.”

Do they lend a hand behind the bar?

“They are good to help out when I need help; they are both well able. They both have their own full-time jobs,” says John.

“I have a staff of 10, one of my staff is with me 25 years and another staff member is here 10 years.”

John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork.
John O'Connor, proprietor, An Spailpín Fánach, Cork.

The pub trade always appealed to him.

“It was something I always wanted to do and this place appealed to me,” says John.

“The pub trade has changed a lot over the years; back then you could smoke inside the pub.

“We had a great relationship with Beamish across the road for the bones of 20-odd years. It is closed 13 years now.

“And we were the first pub in the area to do food. We used to have thirty, forty, fifty Beamish workers in every day. It was really busy.

“These days we have a strong regular trade and 30% of our customers are tourists. They love the music.

“It’s all about the music. Without it you have nothing. There is always something happening.”

An Spailpín Fánach is a traditional cosy pub with low ceilings, low lights and brick walls. It’s remained the same over the years apart from an extension in 1996.

“I doubled it in size and bought the building next door,” says John.

“I was careful to keep it old style-brick, stone and timber.

“We have a party room upstairs and downstairs is the public bar.”

John puts in long shifts at the pub. “I’m used to the long hours,” he says.

“I’m here every morning cleaning and setting up. And I’ve worked weekends all my life. I love it.”

John loves the characters who frequent his pub.

“Martin is one of our regular customers,” says John. “But we call him George!”

Why?

“Because he calls everyone George! And if he met you he would call you Georgina!”

An Spailpín Fánach is a friendly pub.

“Everyone enjoys the banter and the cráic,” says John.

He enters into the spirit of the friendly barman. “I love being behind the bar,” says John.

“I suppose anyone that takes over a pub must be one or two per cent mad, don’t they!”

John’s other passion is Kilreen Celtic.

“I was involved in the club nearly all my life, since I was 12 years old,” says John.

“I played with them and I managed them; Kilreen Celtic is a great club.”

John likes a bit of rivalry.

“I think competition in any business is healthy,” he says.

“People like variety and they like to have the choice to move around. That’s good.”

John is happy to get things moving again in An Spailpín Fánach.

“The first weekend the restrictions were lifted was brilliant,” he says.

“It was like old times. There is nothing like it!”

John invites me back to Spailpín Fánach for a drink some other time. I might get to meet George!

“And he’ll call you Georgina!” says John busying himself behind the bar; his second home.

“It’s all good now!” says John.

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