I created the best pub I could: The Shelbourne

As we continue our series on Cork’s pubs, CHRIS DUNNE catches up with Philip Gillivan of The Shelbourne Bar
I created the best pub I could: The Shelbourne

Philip Gillivan of The Shelbourne Bar, MacCurtain Street, Cork. Established 1895. Picture: Larry Cummins

WHEN Philip Gillivan, owner of The Shelbourne Bar on MacCurtain Street, worked as a hotel manager for the Fitzpatrick Castle, Killiney, he was lured down to Cork by hotelier Paddy Fitzpatrick, who bought the Silver Springs Hotel in 1987.

“I was sent down to Cork to put the hotel on the map,” says Philip, who is married to Maria. The couple have three grown-up children, Emma, Robert and Hannah.

Philip met his wife in Cork.

“I was here a year and I met Maria,” says Philip, who is the lastest bar owner to feature in The Bar Stool series.

“We spent four years together in Australia; I didn’t want to come back. In 1992, Silver Springs had expanded with more rooms and a huge convention centre. Paddy asked me back and I went back to work for him.

“The convention centre was the biggest in Ireland at the time, before the Point Depot or any other major events centre. 

"It was hectic, crazy busy. I remember the World Cup in 1994 and hosting dinners for 1,000-plus people in the building. There was never a lull.”

Philip Gillivan of The Shelbourne Bar, MacCurtain Street, Cork with a glass of whiskey. The bar has over 400 Irish Whiskeys on offer for customers/patrons. Picture: Larry Cummins
Philip Gillivan of The Shelbourne Bar, MacCurtain Street, Cork with a glass of whiskey. The bar has over 400 Irish Whiskeys on offer for customers/patrons. Picture: Larry Cummins

Philipp wanted to find his own niche in Cork.

“In 1996, I decided I’d like to get my own thing going,” he says.

“I wanted to be self-employed in hospitality. It was some baptism of fire! I went from wearing a black suit and dickie bow, organising weddings and events, to coming into a small bohemian bar.

“I bought here, No.17, which was called An Síol Broin at the time. Numbers 16 and 17 were two separate buildings.”

Philip later acquired No.16 and made the two bars into one, The Shelbourne Bar.

“There was every mix of people coming in; we had the new-age travellers with their dogs. Anybody could feel comfortable here. We often had the new-age travellers at the bar, with a judge and a garda at the bar too! We had every cross of client.

“An Síol Broin was an old rustic pub with a fireplace. I remember a girl used to bring in her two red setters and they’d lie on the couch without being disturbed. It was a very relaxed pub.

“The Crawford art students were regular customers. They still come in now.”

Philip bought the premises next door to An Síol Broin in 1999.

“It came up for sale and it used have a myriad of names, The Screaming Monkey and Greg’s were two names. It was closed for years.

“My good friend and accountant, Tim McCarthy, became my business partner and he helped me buy No.16. The plan was to amalgamate the two pubs into one. It was a huge undertaking. We knocked the walls between the two buildings and put the bar counter in the middle, that’s the type of style I wanted to create a good atmosphere.

“An Síol Broin was previously known as The Shelbourne in the 1950s and ’60s; so we re-named it that.”

That was a good idea.

“Lots of people, especially tourists, couldn’t pronounce An Síol Bron! The opening was incredible,” adds Philip.

“The Shelbourne instantly became one of the busiest pubs in Cork for its size. It was a different style of pub and it was near the Everyman theatre, which helped a lot.

Philip Gillivan at The Shelbourne Bar, MacCurtain Street, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins
Philip Gillivan at The Shelbourne Bar, MacCurtain Street, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

“One of the first things we did was to have clear glass out the front,” says Philip.

“Lots of pubs had stained glass. The clear glass was good because when people looked in they saw the high stools, the lighting, and the people inside. Girls felt safe coming in. The bar counter was close to the entrance and there wasn’t a long walk to it to get a drink.

“ You felt the good vibe as soon as you opened the door. It is the same today. You get an instant hit. It never fails.”

The Shelbourne employs 14 staff and barman Rory McGee holds the world record for making the most Irish coffees - 49 - in three minutes.

The pub is also an award-winning Irish whisky pub.

MacCurtain Street is a friendly street.

“When the Everyman was closed and we could serve people outside, they let us use their outside area and canopy,” says Philip.

“That really helped me in the pandemic. The space was great. It was invaluable to me.”

What did Philip do in lockdown?

“I stayed working in the background and I set up an online whiskey business. We have the largest collection of Irish whiskey. 

"If people couldn’t come to us, we went to them, offering different 5mm whiskey bottles for people who wanted different whiskies.

“Our products include Irish whiskey gift boxes and our services include online whiskey tastings.”

Does any of the family help out behind the bar?

“My son Robert works here part-time,” says Phillip.

His hotel background is a plus in the pub trade.

“Good customer service was ingrained into me,” says Philip.

“I created the best pub I could. It is the busiest pub in Cork per square foot. It is your typical pub where people pop in for a pint.

“Customers might be going to the theatre, the Metropole hotel, to Isaacs or to Greens. People using the train station are always coming and going.”

The buzz is good in The Shelbourne.

“We didn’t turn on the TV when we re-opened,” says Philip.

“We do have the rugby on Saorview. Going back to chat and talk is what it’s all about.”

Philip, 56, can’t believe he is in his own hospitality business 26 years.

“It’s mad!”

Did any famous people darken the door of The Shelbourne?

“The Munster and Irish rugby team often come in,” says Philip.

“When Keith Barry is in town, he pops in for a pint. Nobody takes any notice of him!”

Does Philip mind the long hours the pub business demands?

“I do!” says Philip laughing. “I’m getting older, but I have a great team here.”

The staff have another name for Philip.

“They call me Cinderella!”

At 11pm they tell me ‘go home now. We’re grand.’ I’m never here after 12. But I am an early morning guy.”

Does The Shelbourne serve food?

“We stopped doing lunch trade three years ago,” says Philip.

“But we are very relaxed and we have no bother with people who want to bring in a sandwich or a bagel. We don’t mind.”

Phillip has other interests too.

“I’m not a martyr,” he says. 

“In my free time I like hill-walking and cycling. I was a road runner.”

There are nice mementos framed around the bar.

“When Mick Lally of Glenroe, came in, we featured on the Evening Echo,” says Philip. “That was in 1999 in the old bar.”

He added: “And the fiver that’s framed with the letter is from a Clare couple who came in for a two glasses of Guinness and each thought the other had paid. So they sent on the price of the drink.”

Who are in the portraits?

“They were already here,” says Philip.

“I tell Americans that they are my great-grandparents. Sometimes they say I am like my great-grandmother!”

Any other characters?

“We have a grave digger called Finbarr coming in; his nickname is coffin,” says Philip.

“He asks for Carlsburg in a Beamish glass.

“Then we have Gerry, who sits at the bar with his head-phones watching black and white movies, oblivious to everyone else.”

Philip says many of his customers are not Irish.

“We have a lot of Spanish and Italian customers who settled here in the last 10 years. Erica and Ula from Lithuania and Poland are pure Cork. You’d never know that they are not Irish. It is like the new Cork and we are in the better of it.”

Does Philip miss his old role?

“I don’t miss the hotel trade,” he says.

“I never worked as hard, not even for myself. But the experience stood to me. No question. It gave me great knowledge of how to run a business cost effectively.”

The Shelbourne is well established on the Victoria Quarter of Cork.

“I have a great team,” says Philip.

“It’s all good.”

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