An Irishman’s Diary about how a famous public house went semi-private
One of the more disturbing rumours I heard in the past decade was that Gaughan’s Pub – a famous old drinking establishment in Ballina that used to sell tobacco, snuff, and world-class Guinness – had reinvented itself as a cafe/wine bar.
I (wrongly) imagined it as a cafe/wine bar, Dublin-style. Which, combined with the news that the change had happened during the last years of the Celtic Tiger, led me to conclude that the German ambassador was right and that, truly, Ireland had lost the run of itself.
In fact, as everyone in Ballina will know, the new Gaughan’s is not a Dublin-style anything, no more than the old one. That the place still exists at all is a cause for rejoicing. It is indisputably, however, no longer a pub, a sad situation I finally confirmed in person last week.
I had no right to feel proprietorial about the old Gaughan’s, having visited the premises only once, circa 1995. It’s just that it was such a memorable experience, I went away with emotional shares in the business that were still paying a dividend years afterwards. Hence the shock when I heard about the wine bar.
It was Guinness rather than wine I ordered on that first occasion. And I knew I was among friends when the man behind the counter, Edward Gaughan himself, inquired whether I wanted the beverage “cold or natural”. Of which menu options, I happily chose the latter.
I should explain that this was an era when there were still many people living who could remember Guinness served at room temperature, or something like it. When the idea of universally chilled pints – an orthodoxy then being imposed by the evil geniuses in St James’s Gate – was not yet entirely triumphant.
It wasn’t unusual then, especially in winter, to see old-school Dublin stout drinkers cupping their pint glasses in an effort to defrost the contents. And sometimes, in the west, you could still find the odd pub serving Guinness au naturel, with big creamy heads that had to be trimmed several times before the pint settled.
But Gaughan’s was the only place I know that ever offered it as a choice. The pints there were probably the best I ever tasted, although no doubt this was helped by the general ambience of the place, including the sweet smells from the tobacco counter, which, as cigar shops still do, made me (almost) regret not smoking.
The other memorable thing about that visit, however, was that the proprietor gave me a tour of his cold room. There he proudly demonstrated the keg of “natural” Guinness, which was the same as all the others except – Lo! – that it was protected by a lagging jacket, to keep the chill out.
The point of this was that his stout was subject to all the quality controls demanded, while giving customers a choice that they wanted. Yet, as he told me, the brewery disapproved of his practice, and the brewery would have its way, eventually. Cold-pint compliance now appears to be complete. Even in the west, the last pockets of resistance have been wiped out.
Anyway, strange to say, I had never been back to Ballina since 1995. So, passing that way last week, I took a detour to see for myself if it was true about Gaughan’s. I quickly found the place which, encouragingly, looked exactly as I remembered it. Less encouragingly, it was closed, at 6.30pm.
There didn’t seem to be anyone about, either. But I rang the bell, just in case. And a few seconds later, I was awkwardly inquiring of the aforesaid Edward Gaughan, on his doorstep, if it was true that he no longer ran a pub.
It was, he admitted. The end had come in 2006, on medical advice. Of the bar’s 70 years in existence by then, Edward had worked in it for 46, ever since leaving school. But the stresses of the life were wreaking havoc on his health and his doctor told him it was time to quit.
So he sold the licence and, after seven decades, Gaughan’s went dark, as they say in the theatre, at least at nights. It remains open in day-time as a restaurant. And no, he assured me, it’s not a wine bar. It just serves wine with food: simple but good food, made by his wife Mary.
The tobacco counter is gone too, sadly. Instead of snuff and other delicacies, the premises now displays art, the proprietor lending his front window to local painters who need a place to hang. As for the man himself, he is enjoying a well-earned retirement from pub management and now enjoys the odd pint from the more relaxing side of the counter in his own local, a place of some renown in north Mayo: Bessie’s of Kilcummin.