Barfly: Sean’s Bar, Athlone, Co Westmeath

Claiming the title of oldest bar in Ireland, and possibly the world, Sean’s Bar in Athlone has a lot to live up to

Sean’s Bar in Athlone

Sean’s Bar in Athlone

 

Three German men have just stepped off their boat on the Shannon and wandered into Sean’s Bar. They’ve been playing cards for 20 years, with each sacrificing their winnings to a pot that would bring them on their first trip to Ireland.

It’s a Wednesday night and the bar is stuffed with regulars and local band Hickory Wind are lifting the rafters with Rockabilly and Americana.

The Germans love it and when they see the Guinness Book of Records cert on the wall saying this is the oldest bar in Ireland and Europe (and possibly the world) they think they’ve hit the jackpot.

They work as craftsmen and can appreciate the feat of keeping a bar standing since 900AD (The Brazen Head in Dublin claims 1198). We examine the floor which slopes precariously from the front to the back and landlord Paul Donovan explains that it was designed to let the river run free when it overflows. The Shannon would come in the front and straight out the back to the source. Great environmental design. In 900AD.

Donovan is pulling pints of Sean’s Stout, a local favourite that is busy keeping time with Diageo’s best. He and his brother took over in 2000. He’s passionate about Athlone and the town’s place at the heart of Ireland – the castle, the river, the people, the opportunity .

The bar is beautiful. The snug, the fire, the fishing rods overhead, the dark and the light reflected all around. Atmosphere reigns supreme and locals are well used to strangers. But having stood in the shadow of Athlone castle this long, there shouldn’t really be any strangers – not Irish ones at least. For those of us who truly love pubs, it should be a pilgrimage of sorts, to raise a pint in the oldest bar in the world. The welcome alone is worth it.

gquinn@irishtimes.com

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