After a century... final call at the Sextant bar

After a century... final call at the Sextant bar
A group from The Sextant Don team pictured in The Sextant Bar in Cork where they have played cards (from left) Kieran Cahill, Pat Caplis, Dave Lawless, Noel Lennon, Mick Melsop, Mick Spillane and Seamus Morrisson and Frank O'Sullivan, a former owner of the bar.Picture Denis Minihane.

A CORK institution will close its doors for a final time tomorrow night. As revealed in the Echo last week, The Sextant on Albert Quay is saying a final goodbye this weekend, after more than a century in existence. 

Current licensee Hazel Hutchinson was blown away by the reaction to the news.

From people calling in for a parting glass to the hundreds sharing stories and memories online — if she didn’t know how special the place was to Cork before, she certainly does now.

“The outpouring from people has been brilliant, they love the place,” she said.

Hazel and her team have been the subject of many of the compliments. She has been involved in The Sextant for close to a decade and has continued many of its proud traditions. Not least of these is supporting the pub’s long-running Don team, so synonymous with the bar that they are immortalised on its walls.

A group from The Sextant Don team pictured in The Sextant Bar in Cork where they have played cards (from left) Kieran Cahill, Pat Caplis, Dave Lawless, Noel Lennon, Mick Melsop, Mick Spillane and Seamus Morrisson and Frank O'Sullivan, a former owner of the bar.Picture Denis Minihane.
A group from The Sextant Don team pictured in The Sextant Bar in Cork where they have played cards (from left) Kieran Cahill, Pat Caplis, Dave Lawless, Noel Lennon, Mick Melsop, Mick Spillane and Seamus Morrisson and Frank O'Sullivan, a former owner of the bar.Picture Denis Minihane.

“I am going to The Sextant nearly 50 years, we formed a Don team there back in the late 70s,” founder member Mick Spillane explained. “There is a city Don league and we go around and play one week in our pub and the following week away, etc.

Although played in pockets of Dublin and Liverpool, Don is seen as a Cork game, albeit one that is not as popular as it once was.

“It is diminishing now, pubs are closing down and young people aren’t playing the game, it is a bit too complicated for them, they prefer to play with their smartphones!” Mick said.

“When we joined the Don League there were 64 pubs with a Don team, now there are 16. But there are a hardcore of 16 teams and we play away and we enjoy ourselves.”

He explained how they became the subject of The Sextant’s most eye-catching decoration, a painting of them mid-game.

“The painting came about because a customer in the pub struck up a relationship with an American girl, she was an artist,” he said. “She was intrigued by the game that was going on and agreed with [publican] Frank that she would do a painting. She took loads of photographs, vanished for a few months and came back with this masterpiece. It is an interesting item, sometime in the 80s and it is hanging there since.

“Someone threw a bottle through it a couple of years ago and in fairness to Hazel and the gang, they got it repaired and back up it went again.”

When the team gathered for one last picture in front of the photograph, they were joined by the man most mention when discussing The Sextant’s history.

Frank O’Sullivan jokes that he has only a small connection with the bar, having run it for just shy of four decades.

When he took over, in 1965, it was still a Beamish tied house, meaning he could only sell that brewery’s products.

He and wife Dolores saw massive change in the decades that followed, before finally stepping out from behind the bar in 2004.

“90% of the pubs that time were tied houses, there were only six free pubs,” he said.

This system ended in the late 1960s.

“That made a big difference, everybody was a free house then and everybody got an opportunity to buy their property.”

Over the space of a few years, he bought the bar and then the apartments above and the house beside it. It gave him a birds eye view of a time of enormous change.

“All the industry went,” he said. “You could start with Fords, then there was Dunlops and others, Irish Shipping was a big one.”

With the loss of the big employers came other changes, from the end of the train line collecting from the Ford factory to cultural changes.

“It was a very vibrant area but it was struggling with the places around going backwards and people moving out to the suburbs,” he said. “There was no pubs in the suburbs that time, the pubs in the suburbs of Cork are newer pubs.

“A lot of people would still come into the town on a Sunday morning, get the bus into town. That changed as people started getting cars.

“Corpus Christi would be a big day because everybody came to town. The men walked, the women went in to watch the parade because they weren’t allowed walk. Then he would go and have his pint and the family would have a lemonade and then that fizzled out.”

From the Siamsa Cois Laoi in the late 1970s, live music and other events also became important events for the city’s publicans. He describes the late 80s and early 90s as a particularly busy time, pointing to events that brought huge crowds to the area.

“The best things we had would have been the Tall Ships, Michael Jackson and the Siamsa Cois Lee, they were great,” he said. “Michael Jackson was huge for the city, absolutely superb. The Tall Ships was unbelievable too, it just wasn’t possible to serve everybody or cater for everybody!

“But then they built the tunnel. Before, everything had to pass us and all of us a sudden there was a tunnel. Say there was a Munster final or whatever and the guards were directing the traffic up to Blackrock, it took maybe 15 or 20% of your trade away all of a sudden.

By the time he stepped out from behind the bar in 2004 he could see a drop off in city centre trade and believes the tightening of the rules around drink driving has brought more challenges to publicans. But he said the city pubs, despite a healthy rivalry, stuck together to make it work and he believes the new generation of publicans are showing similar innovation. 

The Sextant at Albert Quay/Albert Street, Cork.Picture Denis Minihane.
The Sextant at Albert Quay/Albert Street, Cork.Picture Denis Minihane.

The closing of The Sextant has drawn most of the attention, but the beautiful rounded building was not only a pub, for individuals and families over the years it was also a home.

It was the childhood home of Dan Scanlan, whose family moved into the flat directly above the bar in the year of his birth, 1951.

He can remember the activity when employment along the docks was at its peak.

“There were hundreds if not thousands of guys working down there and in the 50s, they travelled to work on bikes,” Dan said. “At quarter past four, when they day shift would finish — outside our house and up toward the railway tracks was full of bikes.

“You had a guy at the bridge selling the Evening Echo, he would be out in the middle and the guys on the bikes would buy their paper.

“Sometimes they would be stopped by a train crossing and you could have hundreds of guys there on bicycles, stuck waiting for the train to pass.”

He described an idyllic childhood in the heart of the city.

“It was a fantastic place to grow up. We were very streetwise, the city and the docks were out playground. We would be running along the quays and docks, parents now would lose their minds! But it was nothing to us.

“All that area with the small houses was our area of friendship, practically every house had a young family. We were all friends and our local school was the Model School, now the courthouse.”

Living so close to the pub had its advantages.

“On Friday nights with no school on Saturdays Charlie [former licencee Charlie Murphy] would allow myself and my siblings, watch early evening TV in the lounge section of the Sextant, a novelty for us at the time as we did not possess a TV,” he said. “It was there that night, while enjoying crisps and Tanora, that we learned of the shooting of President Kennedy in an RTÉ news flash. I remember running up the stairs to give the news to our mother.”

Just a few years after moving in, the birth of Dan’s younger brother coincided with another historic moment, much closer to home.

“The no 1 and 2 buses used stop outside the door of the pub on Albert Street,” he said. “I remember asking alighting passengers one night what was the huge orange glow in the sky over Cork to be sadly told that it was the Opera House which was on fire.

“The night was 12th/13th December 1955, the night my younger brother Michael was born – and the night my father, who worked in the Opera House, was out of work.”

Their location then became important for a different reason.

“For the next 11 years, until it was rebuilt, [my father] worked in various jobs, one of them being with the Welsh National Opera,” Dan said. “He would travel back and forth on the Inisfallen and we could see it berthing from the back window of the flat. It came all the way up to Penrose Quay. We would know 10 minutes later our father would walk up across the bridge and in the door.”

Hazel Hutchinson, lease holder, and Frank O'Sullivan, a former owner of the bar, in the lounge area in The Sextant Bar.Picture Denis Minihane.
Hazel Hutchinson, lease holder, and Frank O'Sullivan, a former owner of the bar, in the lounge area in The Sextant Bar.Picture Denis Minihane.

Although Dan, Frank, Mick and Hazel all mourn the closing of the bar, they are also philosophical about the change. Hazel and her staff intend to bring the same atmosphere, and hopefully much of the clientele, to her new premises and Mick and the team will continue to participate in the Don League.

Frank and Dan both say they saw the redevelopment plans coming for some time.

But city councillor Kieran McCarthy believes it is important to have a citywide conversation about the development of this city and others like it. They are important part of the city’s heritage and this, he believes, needs to be acknowledged.

Other than dating the building to the 1870s and 1880s, it is difficult to pinpoint exact dates for the Albert Quay building, for example when it first opened its doors as a bar.

“This illuminates the problem with many of these buildings, that their histories are hidden away,” Kieran said.

“Some of the documents haven’t survived so we are left with the buildings themselves.

“[The Sextant building] is is an architectural conservation area so the building can’t be knocked. It is not a protected structure but it is in an ACA which means the exterior has to be kept. The interior is a different thing but because there is no plan before any of us in terms of what is going to happen to the building and around it, it is hard to comment.

“From my perspective, I have been calling on the council to have a chat about the urban design of the Docklands going forward. It is not enough to throw up a glas building and say that is modern architecture. Modern architecture needs to take threads from the old architecture, not all of it, it could be 5% or 10%, a nod to the old. I don’t want to see an Ikea-isation of buildings that all look the same, all glass boxes.”

He paid tribute to publicans old and new who have presided over the pub.

“Fair play to the owners for keeping it going for so long, it was very popular and well-respected and there was a huge pride of place in the city about the bar,” he said.

“All those traits need to be respected going forward. Whoever gets that building needs to have a sense of imagination about what to do with it.

“Some of the renovation on the South Mall has been well done. The Maldron put back in a 1920s window, that was tastefully done, it is that sort of imagination that we need.”

The building, along with the neighbouring Carey’s Tools were bought by the Cork-based JCD development company. Like Hazel, Kieran saw a huge reaction when the news broke, and he saw much of it centred around the future of the structure.

“There are a lot of people who are peeved off with this glass box design, they want more. I think the city as an old port city deserves better than throwing up glass boxes and saying that is the future. We haven’t has a discussion in the city on urban design and it needs to be had.

“What are the streets in the new Docklands going to look like? These are questions we haven’t discussed as a city, in terms of the nature and character of what the Docklands is going to be.”

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