'Drinking habits have changed': The Echo visits Cork's last early house

The early house was once a staple of Cork city’s social scene and a haven for night workers. Now, only one remains. Donal O’Keeffe visits the Welcome Inn at Parnell Place to savour this fading experience
'Drinking habits have changed': The Echo visits Cork's last early house

Paraic O'Regan, proprietor of the Welcome Inn in Cork pulling pints. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IT’S a fraction above freezing in Parnell Place just after 7am on the Saturday before the Saturday before Christmas. Dawn is still well over an hour away, and your breath hangs in the air. Over Oliver Plunkett Street the Christmas lights twinkle golden-white in the darkness.

With Charlie’s on Union Quay opting not to open early since reopening after the pandemic, the Welcome Inn (established 1845) is the last of Cork’s early houses.

As you walk in the front door from Parnell Place, there are already a few customers in residence, and the place is nice and warm, with the stove over on the left blazing and the telly on the far wall tuned to Sky News, with the sound turned off. It’s not overly bright in the bar, and a man at the counter, just inside the door, on the right, has already taken most of the work out of his pint. Everyone looks up when a stranger walks in, but there is nothing unfriendly in that.

The proprietor, Paraic O’Regan, a Bantry man, is here 20 years. He says you’d have to have a grá for it. He clearly does, and he’s a very entertaining storyteller. He works most Saturdays and he knows most of his customers by name.

“You’d have your few regulars, but it’s not what it was. Drinking habits have changed, and a lot of the older lads have passed on. When I started here, we would have guards, nurses, fire crew, all coming off night work, but that’s almost all gone now.” 

Two young men, trying very hard to look sober, come in the side door from Oliver Plunkett Street a little too quickly.

“Lads,” says Paraic, not unkindly, “ye need to head away for the breakfast.” 

They oblige, without argument, and at the counter, an older man who has just come in the front door asks to see the breakfast menu, to laughter.

“We’d get a bit of that, fellas out all night, but they won’t be served. It’s not worth the hassle. I’m not courting students or anyone else. I have my own clientele.”

A young woman comes in and orders a Diet Coke. She sits by the stove, reading her book. Paraic says that people waiting for an early bus will often come in as there are few other places open at this hour. A little while later she comes back up and asks for a coffee, to warm herself up. Paraic replies that he only has “the worst coffee”, but he’ll give her a nice mug of tea on the house. She thanks him.

“This is a local, really, above anything else,” he says. 

“I have lads from the northside and the southside, and they would see it as a local rather than a city centre pub. My colleague Dan is here longer than me, he’s here 27 years, and we run a very tight ship. It’s a nice pub, and you don’t want messing. Barred means barred for life, it’s not like Eastenders, there’s no see you next week.” 

A friendly man in his 40s sits at the counter and orders another pint. He works nights, and says, reasonably enough, that for him this is basically 7 o’clock in the evening. He won’t speak on the record in case his boss doesn’t agree with him. The craic is good, and everyone is friendly, but nobody wants to talk to The Echo.

“You’d have better luck if some of the auld fellas were here,” Paraic says. “RTÉ was here last year and they were telling stories to beat the band. They’d a sing-song going and all.” The lads over by the window are full of bla’guarding until they’re asked to talk on the record. Vows of silence all around. One of them volunteers the young woman. “Absolutely not,” she says without looking up from her book.

At the bar, Paraic says pubs are going out bit by bit, with drink culture shifting toward drinking at home.

“It’s the same with the early pubs, if there isn’t a demand for something, it ceases to exist,” he says.

It’s a nice pub, and it would be a shame to think of the city without it. It does feel like a local, and a pint there seems an attractive idea, if perhaps at a slightly later hour.

It’s half past eight and, stepping through the side door, it’s bright outside, and only a little warmer than it was earlier. The Christmas lights have been turned off, and, overhead, seagulls wheel and screech.

Even without drink, it’s disorienting to realise the day is only beginning.

Remembering early houses past

With the Welcome Inn the last of Cork’s early houses, it’s fitting that it has on the wall a framed Holly Bough article entitled “A stroll around Cork’s 33 early morning pubs”. The article is by Jim McKeon, and it’s from 2009.

“In the mid-seventies Cork city was as intimate as any Irish village, yet it boasted 33 early morning pubs,” he writes. “They opened at 7am, six mornings a week, and each one, bulging at the seams, had its own unique identity and colour.” Most of the “exemption pubs” were close to the docks, but one, Con’s American Bar, on Princes Street, was in the city centre. From there, McKeon takes the reader on a journey to the city’s early houses as they were nearly half a century ago.

“First we’ll walk up George’s Quay to the Anchor, then on to the Beamish Brewery gates to Cotts and over to the Washington Inn and The Raven, and into the Coal Quay to Cliffords, the famous Roundy House, Cotts, O’Connors, Dennehys, Market Bar and across the river to The Haven. Then it’s a stroll to the ever-popular Ivyleary, The Oriental and Ferryboat Inn, around the corner to Ahernes, across the river again to The Port Bar, The Marina, The Buchaill and The Sextant on the docks.

“Facing the City Hall are four together: Heaphys, The Black Swan, Riverview and Donkeys Ears … “We cross the bridge at Parnell Place to Twomeys, the Welcome Inn, Ivy Leaf, Queens Bar on the corner, and the Travellers Rest next to the bus station...

“We cross the river again to the final cluster of pubs on Patrick’s Quay in the shadow of the Sorting office – Tuscar Bar, Travers, The Green Bough and The Innisfallen.

“Many of these pubs are no more, either gone out of business or demolished. Cork has moved on … The lanes are gone, the characters are gone, and I wonder if progress is really going backwards.”

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