Third generation bar owner: 'We're like an old country pub in the middle of Cork city'

In week four of our ‘The Bar Stool’ series, Chris Dunne catches up with the owner of The Castle Inn Michael O’Donovan
Third generation bar owner: 'We're like an old country pub in the middle of Cork city'

Michael O'Donovan at the entrance to The Castle Inn on South Main street. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN the heart of Cork city on the South Main Street, at the famous Castle Inn, one of Cork’s great traditional pubs, Michael O’Donovan is in his favourite spot - behind the bar.

“To be honest, the tears came to my eyes when we had to close due to Covid, it’s great to be given the opportunity to get back to business full-time,” says Michael, who features in our series The Bar Stool.

“There is a bit of nervousness; it was like the first day back at school or starting a new job, but I welcome it and I’m looking forward to staying open for business now.”

Michael O'Donovan looking into the snug at The Castle Inn on South Main street. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Michael O'Donovan looking into the snug at The Castle Inn on South Main street. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Michael is the Cork chair of the Vintner’s Federation of Ireland, (VFI).

“I was kept busy when we were closed, contacting members, giving them information on how to apply for supports, etc, and dealing with constant questions. There was a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” says Michael.

“We did a bit of re-decorating here too, to freshen the place up.”

The Castle has been in the same family, the Connollys, (now the O’Donovans), since the early 1930s.

“We are the third generation to run the Castle,” says Michael.

“It is a real family business. My parents, Denis and Mary live over the bar.”

The pub has been on the site since at least the 1870s.

“We describe it as a traditional pub; an old country pub in the city,” says Michael.

“We make people feel at home and The Castle is a local meeting place.”

The home fires are always burning in the cold weather at the Castle Inn.

“The elderly people love the open fire and now they can sit and chat there together without social distancing.

Glad to be back behind the bar.
Glad to be back behind the bar.

“Not having to produce certs or I.D anymore makes life a lot easier for everyone,” says Michael.

“Now people can come in, walk up to the bar and order a drink and they can sit at the bar if they wish.”

Being closed for months on end was hard on everyone.

“It’s been a long and very difficult time for the licensed trade,” says Michael.

Things were uncertain.

“The Government closed the pubs on March 15, 2020, but I closed the previous day. We all thought we’d be back in a few weeks.

“We were able to open last September for a couple of weeks, but even then the (Covid) numbers started to rise again.

“People got nervous and trade dropped right off,” says Michael.

“The situation impacted far more people than just the publicans with their facilities,” he adds.

The local is a traditional meeting place.

“Pubs serve as vital outlets for many people, particularly the elderly living in both urban and rural communities,” says Michael.

Now things are looking up for the licensed trade and for the Castle Inn.

“This is my full time job,” says Michael, who is married to Clodagh. They have three children, Eoghan, Cian and Tara.

“I get a real sense of enjoyment from it. The pub trade is in my blood.

“It is such a relief to be serving our customers and our communities again.”

The Castle Inn was silent for too long.

“When I came in to the empty pub on the days we were closed, I used to say to myself; ‘where is everyone?’ It was so strange,” says Michael.

“Running this bar is a very sociable job, meeting different people and getting to know them over time.

“The Castle has a great atmosphere and a homely feel,” says Michael.

“We have the same customers coming into us for years. They are like old friends of ours. We missed each other for a long time.”

The wait is over.

“Having the noise back the first Saturday night we re-opened was fantastic,” says Michael.

It was like old times.

“Just hearing the laughing the singing, the shouting; it was just great,” adds Michael.

“It was fantastic to see people sitting down together and interacting in groups again.”

Old bonds were rekindled when the pubs re-opened.

“Customers are almost like family for many publicans because they have been trading in certain areas for so long. We know some people who have been coming into us for 20 or 30 years,” says Michael.

Michael O'Donovan has had a busy few years, as he is also the Cork chair of the Vintner's Federation of Ireland.
Michael O'Donovan has had a busy few years, as he is also the Cork chair of the Vintner's Federation of Ireland.

“It’s great to be back. Our job is to make sure people have a good time in a nice environment and leave safely.

“It is wonderful to see people enjoying themselves again.

“And it’s great people have the choice to move around to different venues again for dinner or for drinks without being told what they can and can’t do now, that things are almost back to normal.”

Michael loves being back behind the bar interacting with his customers and enjoying the banter with them.

“All the characters are different,” says Michael.

“One older gentleman used always to sit in the same seat at the same table. That was his niche. We had to move the table and he had to move to another table then. Let’s just say the comments passed weren’t exactly PC!”

Michael was happy that his staff were able to return to work too.

“And I could increase their hours,” says Michael.

“That put a smile on their faces. We have great part-time staff. Eoghan, who is 15, helps out too, stacking shelves, sorting bottles and doing a bit of cleaning.

“And Clodagh is great to give a hand when we are extra busy.

“We open at 4pm most days and earlier on Saturdays.”

Does Michael mind the long hours attached to the pub trade?

“You know, when you’re kept busy and meeting and talking to people, the time passes. You don’t miss it.

“I am so used to the business; I was born into it.”

Michael is looking forward to a long, busy summer.

“Hopefully we can continue in the same vein where everything is opened up and people can start living their lives again.

“So yes, we’re looking forward to a great summer!”

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