A night in the heart of Ennis
Has nightlife died in Irish towns? Not if a recent Friday night in Co Clare is anything to go by. Retailers, restaurateurs and revellers on O’Connell Street, Ennis explain how life goes on
It’s a Friday night in mid-January in Ennis, population 24,000, and O’Connell Street is busy. The narrow, curved street, lined with period buildings, is defined at one end by a distinctive commemorative pillar topped with a statue of Daniel O’Connell, who was declared an MP for Clare here in an 1828 by-election.
A rough tally of premises on the street comes in at 77, not counting those above street level. They include six bars, a hotel, six phone shops, two groceries, four shoe-shops, two florists, 12 clothes shops, a charity shop, two jewellers, two newsagents, two travel agents, a Milano, two fast-food restaurants, a camera shop, a bakery, a bookies, a Euroworld discount shop, a Boots, six vacant premises, and the entrance to a shopping centre, anchored by Dunnes Stores, that was built in the early 1990s.
A steady line of cars slowly navigates the one-way street, which is so narrow that there are scarcely three steps from one side to the other, and motorists are usually forced to crawl along to accommodate the jay-walking pedestrians who treat the street as if it is traffic-free.
Jo Walsh is on her way to dinner in Brogan’s bar and restaurant with friends visiting from Dublin, Fiona and John Power. They’ve booked a table and reckon on spending at least €100 tonight between them. “I love the fact this is still a proper street and not a mall,” Fiona Power says. “It has atmosphere.”
Friends Jane Halpin (14), Orla Kearney (15) and Jessie Slattery (15) are heading for Supermacs. Too young for bars, they say Supermacs and other fast-food restaurants around the town are where their friends meet to eat and hang out at the weekends. They are astonished when asked if they shop on O’Connell Street. “There’s nothing here for us,” Kearney says with a dismissive laugh, speaking for them all. “If we want anything, we go to Limerick.”
Thirty-two teenage boys are hurrying down the street, on their way to the cinema to see Sherlock Holmes. They’re visiting for the weekend, from Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, and playing some local matches. “They’re members of the Castlecomer community school hurling team,” says their escort, Pat Tynan, “and we’re staying in the Rowan Tree hostel.”
At the O’Connell Monument, Tom Daly is getting out of his taxi to collect a take-away order to deliver to a customer en route to his next fare at the Halfway House pub on the Clare Road. “I’m out from 8pm to 8am on Friday and Saturday nights,” he says. “There’s the pub crowd first, then the nightclubs at 2am, and Supermacs now stays open till 3am. And then there’s the house-party crowd, who start leaving anytime from 4am to 7am.”
There are 40 cars in Burren Taxis, and Daly, who was formerly a mechanical engineer, has been working there five years. He says he never makes more than €150 for each 12-hour weekend shift, “minus €30 for fuel”. Daly says he’s “extremely worried about the next 18 months. I don’t believe there’s a taxi driver in this town that can pay all their bills.”
Three years ago, he regularly took people who were emigrating to the airport in Shannon. “For the last year and a half, I’m taking their friends, who are going out to join them. Some of these are people who have jobs, but they want to join their friends.” His son, who is employed in Ireland, spent Christmas in London, “because that’s where all his friends are”.
One evening early in the new year, his taxi carried home some of the 200 people who turned up for a party for 40 people from the tiny village of Kilmaley, west of Ennis, who were home for Christmas. “Their homecoming was the talk of the place.”
Two days before Christmas, Daly was driving through a village outside Ennis, after a drop-off at 3am, when he saw a young man standing on a bridge. “I pulled in and went over to him. He’d had a few pints. He said he’d had no job for the last year and a half. He said he was thinking about jumping in.
Daly put the distressed young man in the taxi and drove him home for nothing.
Maria and Stephen Kelly are on their way to Brogan’s for a drink – “our regular Friday night spot”, as Maria says. O’Connell Street has “great character, even though some shops keep opening and closing”, they say, but “shopping wise, it’s over-priced”. Maria shops for both of them. “I’ll go to Galway or Limerick, usually Limerick.”
Husband and wife Christina and John are out for their nightly walk, arm-in-arm. “O’Connell Street is the heart of Ennis,” Christina says. “I like window shopping at night, especially the County Boutique. But we were just passing remark that several of the shops aren’t lit up at night any more. They must be trying to save money, but the street doesn’t look as nice.”
Pauline Whelan is a co-owner of Michael Fawl’s pub and off-licence, which retains its distinctive terrazzo flooring from the 1950s, when the place was last renovated. “We usually close the off-licence at 8pm,” she says, showing the counter where the old bacon slicer from the original grocery used to be. “It’s still out the back, along with the scales.”
The off-licence survives by selling speciality spirits – “you can’t compete with multiples” – and benefits from the fact that its period facade attracts tourists.
In the adjoining bar, two regular Friday-night customers of more than 40 years’ standing are present as usual. Paddy Ryan and John Cahir have seen many changes on O’Connell Street. “What I like about this pub is that it was always a talker’s pub, and it still is,” Cahir says.
“Young people don’t drink like us,” Ryan says. “Mobile phones have made them more mobile. They are always coming and going from different places. But when we come here, we stay here all night, and then we go home.”
“We’ve filled the place twice over tonight,” says Steve Kearney, co-manager of Milano’s 80-seater pizza restaurant. “We’re always very busy Friday and Saturday evenings, but we still tip away nicely on the other nights.”
Kearney makes a point of saying he bought all his Christmas gifts in Ennis, specifically to support local businesses. “The biggest problem O’Connell Street has is keeping the shops open. Anthony Daly’s closed very recently. We weren’t expecting that to go. He’s a name. If he can’t keep his shop going, that’s not a good message for other traders.”
There are 105 bedrooms in the Old Ground Hotel, and assistant manager John Maher says tonight there are 119 guests. “We have had to drop rates,” he says. There is usually traditional music in the Poet’s Corner bar at the weekend: “It holds people there in the bar.” The hotel’s Town Hall restaurant appears about half-full throughout the evening. “We’re one of the main meeting points of the town. Everyone comes here,” Maher says. “Christenings, confirmations, weddings, funerals.” As it happens, the hotel’s O’Brien Room restaurant has been taken over for the evening by 35 guests attending a funeral.
An elderly woman with a plastic Dunnes Stores shopping bag walks along the street and visits three public bins in turn. At each, she furtively posts in two empty naggins of Paddy whiskey, first looking around her briefly.
Friends Seamus Mungovan and George Lee are drinking pints in O’Dea’s bar, which is buzzing. “Friday night is our new Saturday, and 10pm is the new 9pm going-out time,” Mungovan laughs. “You still have to live, even though the economy is gone to hell. We’ve noticed people go out much later now, and less during the week. We avoid Saturday nights. It’s more a young person’s night out.”
“I have a theory the recession has affected men much worse than women,” Mungovan says. “If you look in the window at restaurants, you’ll see lots of tables of women but very few men. The restaurant trade definitely seems to have lost a lot of the male business.”
Both men estimate they’ll spend at least €40 in the pub, and Mungovan will pay an additional €10 for a taxi home. “We’re lucky, we both have jobs,” Mungovan says. “But the likes of us, we’re the squeezed middle. We have to keep everything going – mortgages, bills, everything. Everyone who’s working has to pay for everything.”
“It’s politically correct to take care of the less well off, but we’re the unfortunate ones who have to do it,” says Lee.
Proprietor John O’Dea, who has run the bar for 42 years, comes out from behind the counter to chat. “Business is down a good bit, but the weekends and the tourists in the summer keep it going. I still live over the premises, but I’ve seen so many people leave this street in my time,” he says. “It’s always better for a street when people are living on it.”
O’Dea would like to see the shops on O’Connell Street open until 9pm during the summer months to avail of the tourists the area attracts. “I still have great faith in the town, and in this street,” he says.
Tony O’Loughlin, manager of the long-established Brogan’s bar and restaurant, pulls pints and mixes gin-and-tonics behind the bar while he talks. It’s quiet downstairs now, with musicians outnumbering drinkers, but earlier there was a 50th birthday party in the function room upstairs, for 60 people. Downstairs, both the restaurant and bar area are busy serving food, each with the capacity for 45 people.
“There are too many shops on the street now that mean nothing, and that keep coming and going. Like the phone shops. We don’t need any more phone shops, or chain shops. They take away from the street’s charm and atmosphere. We need to hold on to as many old-style shops, and the people who run them, as we can.”
Brogan’s was up for sale last year, but O’Loughlin says it was taken off the market six months ago.
O’Connell Street is quieter. Activity has moved to the nightclubs on Abbey Street. A Garda car screeches up outside Hillbilly’s Fried Chicken Express. Two gardaí jump out and run inside the fast-food restaurant. “Is it over?” one of them shouts. I hurry to look in the window, expecting to see trouble of some kind. There is nobody in the restaurant except the kitchen staff and a man behind the counter – the guards have simply stopped for a midnight snack of chicken and chips.