Cork publican: ‘The modern Irish pub is like a community hall’

In the latest of our series on Cork’s pubs, CHRIS DUNNE catches up with the owner of the South County bar in Douglas
Cork publican: ‘The modern Irish pub is like a community hall’

Tom and Maebh O'Connor, proprietors of the South County Bar & Café in Douglas Village, Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan

TOM O’Connor of the South County bar and cafe, Douglas, loves the business and the staff who support him.

“We have a great team here at the South County. I have two assistant managers, Sarah Burke and Steve Corcoran,” says Tom, who features in The Bar Stool series.

“Both are from Douglas and started as bartenders over ten years ago. They know the South County and our customers so well and do a great job of running the busy food and drink operation. We currently employ 35 staff between part-time and full-time.

“Most of our staff would be living locally. We have been blessed with great, hard-working, friendly staff over the years and the present is no different.”

Tom and Maebh O'Connor, proprietors of the South County Bar & Café in Douglas Village, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Tom and Maebh O'Connor, proprietors of the South County Bar & Café in Douglas Village, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

The South County is always ship-shape.

“Our day is always started with cleaning the bar and getting set up for breakfast. We have many loyal regulars for breakfast and lunch,” says Tom. “Some that are working in Douglas, others that are retired or that come in on their day off.

“My wife Maebh and myself love meeting customers and having a chat or a bit of banter with them.

“I think the modern Irish pub is like a community hall where staff get to know your name and there’s always a welcome when you return.

“The pub business in recent years, especially post-Covid, is lifted by events. Such events as day-after weddings, graduations, Holy Communions and Confirmation celebrations are all about meeting up with friends and family, and what better venue than your local pub?

Tom behind the bar.
Tom behind the bar.

“We have quiz nights, barbecues, and birthday parties every week, which is a great boost to our trade,” says Tom.

“The majority of business that we have at the South County is local. We try to support local sports clubs such as College Corinthians soccer, Douglas GAA and Sunday’s Well swim club, and in return their members are very loyal to us when out for a night or when booking a birthday party.

“We are currently looking at a craft and cakes market started on a Saturday morning.

“Music nights and gigs have been a big feature at the South County over the years. We recently started our live music nights again. It’s great to have live music back in the pub and it really adds to the atmosphere on a night.

“We have music three nights a week now and our famous sing-along Irish music session every Sunday at teatime.

“Tour groups for meals with Irish music or a whiskey tasting are a growing part of our business. We love to welcome tourists in and offer them the opportunity to pour their own pint of Beamish or Murphys.

The couple in their beer garden.
The couple in their beer garden.

“Sometimes, a bus will drop in for breakfast coming from Cork Airport and heading to Kerry. Most tours we host will be staying bed/breakfast in a local hotel and they come to us for dinner and some Irish music. We always try to get up for the ‘hokey-pokey’ before they go back to the hotel. This is always great fun that all the staff get a kick out of.

“Only this evening, I heard our resident balladeer Jimmy quip to a group of Americans to ‘Remember! The more you drink... the better we sound’.

“We did have a challenging time during the pandemic and the lockdowns were initially hard to handle. As a business, we had to endure it the same as many other types of businesses around Cork, and thankfully it is now a memory. So many people suffered during this time with health challenges of all types and sad losses too in families.

Tom and Maebh O'Connor, proprietors of the South County Bar & Café in Douglas Village, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Tom and Maebh O'Connor, proprietors of the South County Bar & Café in Douglas Village, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“It’s so wonderful now to walk around a busy bar and see our customers eating, drinking, and most of all laughing.

“When we were closed for all those months we did a lot of spring cleaning in the bar. We got our beautiful old floors and counters sanded and polished back to new and we also built a new outdoor space - the South County Beer Garden - which has a retractable roof and heaters. The beer garden has added a new dimension to the place, with people really enjoying eating and drinking outdoors.

“We are looking forward to a great summer 2022. We now serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week, and we also do a lot of food for parties at night.

“Our food business has doubled since re-opening after Covid, and thanks to our head Chef Lucasz and his team in our kitchen, people keep coming back. Sunday lunch is most popular for families. We serve a Roast Rib of Irish Beef every Sunday and most weeks it sells out by 4pm!

“The South County has been a family run business since 1974 when we came down from Dublin as kids.

“The bar originally was an old brewery pub owned by Beamish & Crawford. My mother, Mary, who is now 88 is recovering from an injury at the moment and we look forward to getting her back home soon. She worked in the bar with my dad, John, for many years.

“ad passed away five years ago after a nice few years of retirement and he would be very proud today to see his grandchildren, Ciarán and Ellen, working in the South County.”

Tom said they place a lot of emphasis on their employees at the South County.

“We have a great team, many of whom have been with us long term. We also have a new group of young staff that we train up and there is great satisfaction in seeing a young food server or bartender improve their confidence and learn new skills.

“Staff recruitment is a difficult area for our industry at the moment so we try to create nice, well paid jobs for people, with the hope that they will stay with us.

“Training of staff is a key area for us at the South County, starting with the welcome that they give our customers. A publican once asked me, ‘What if I train staff and then they leave ?’, implying that it was a waste of his time. I said, ‘What if you don’t train them and they stay !’…. That got him thinking!“

The bar is still very much a family run business, and the husband and wife duo work well together.

Tom said: “My wife Maebh comes from the Mizen Peninsula and is proud of her West Cork roots. As they say – West Cork is the 33rd county in Ireland! Many of our customers are from West Cork and are now living in the Douglas area. Also, we have many West Cork people that will call in for lunch or dinner when they are up in Cork for the day.

“Maebh not only grew up in a business but also a political family, the Sheehans in Goleen. As a result, she has a great interest in people and is in touch with customers’ needs.

“Paddy Sheehan, former TD, and his wife Frances were great in-laws and always delighted with their new connections in Douglas. We sadly lost them both in the summer of 2020. We miss them calling to the South County where they made great friends over the years.

“As a husband and wife team, Maebh and myself work well together and our aim has always been to make our employees fulfilled and happy at work and part of the extended South County family.”

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