New beginning for ex-senator as pubs and restaurants reopen

‘Politics has changed, mostly because of social media. I don’t miss it,’ says Imelda Henry

Former senator Imelda Henry at the Blue Lagoon bar and restaurant in Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Former senator Imelda Henry at the Blue Lagoon bar and restaurant in Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

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While some were looking forward to crowded beer gardens, lines of pints and rowdy sing-songs as outdoor hospitality reopened on Monday, there were also those who just wanted coffee and a chat in the sun with friends.

In Strandhill, Co Sligo, at about 11am it seemed that most people relaxing on the bustling seafront had either a surfboard in tow, or a panting dog on a lead who had just endured a very long walk.

All the tables were packed outside Mammy Johnston’s ice-cream parlour where retired detectives John McHale, Malachy Daly and John Molloy were enjoying a well-deserved cappuccino.

“I climbed Knocknarea this morning before I came here,” volunteered McHale. His one-time colleague John Molloy had just done a 10km run with his daughter on nearby Kellystown beach. “And I’ll tell you where I was. I went to Mass in St Anne’s this morning to pray for the two of them that they wouldn’t fall,” said Daly, who now lives in Chicago.

Retired gardaí Malachy Daly, John Molloy and John McHale at Strandhill beach, in Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly
Retired gardaí Malachy Daly, John Molloy and John McHale at Strandhill beach, in Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Strandhill is his “favourite place in the world” and he came home from Chicago for an extended holiday in April, having got his two vaccinations and a PCR test, but lockdown has been a nightmare.

“I was hoping to meet up with old friends but I couldn’t meet anyone. It was lonely,” he said.

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Outside Shells cafe next door, it was hard to find a free table but according to manager Laura O’Keeffe we were witnessing a bit of a lull, compared with earlier “when people were queuing out to the sea”. So great is the demand for sit-down snacks and outdoor meals, that food trucks and pop-up cafes are appearing around every corner.

Blue Lagoon

In Sligo town former Fine Gael senator Imelda Henry was welcoming back locals to the Blue Lagoon beer garden on the banks of the Garavogue river, at the premises bought by her parents Peter and Mollsie in 1961. Formerly a rock venue where a young U2 did a gig in 1980, the place has seen a few reincarnations since Christy Moore mentioned it in his song If I Get an Encore .

The one-time politician and her husband Aidan Meehan had 250 bookings for the beer garden on the bank holiday and expect to be as busy for the next few weekends.Asked if they were nervous about reopening in a Covid world, the former senator conceded that the butterflies in her tummy on Monday morning were akin to those she experienced on the morning of her wedding.

“I’m a bit nervous but also really excited,” she said. And anyway it’s less stressful than the cut and thrust of politics, she believes. “Politics has changed, it’s a very different world now mostly because of social media. I don’t miss it.”

Asked if she had been a victim of the keyboard warriors, she shuddered, and pointed out that she had been caught up in “Golfgate”, having attended the infamous Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden last year.

“It was vicious, the things that were written on social media. It was shocking stuff, really hard for my kids,” she said. So running a weather-dependent business in a Covid world doesn’t seem that stressful by comparison, to her.

Paul Harte and Hilda Harte at the Blue Lagoon in Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly
Paul Harte and Hilda Harte at the Blue Lagoon in Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

The lack of stress was palpable among customers at the Blue Lagoon, some there for the beer, and some for the Koha Street Kitchen food truck run by New Zealand native Sascha Viertel, who has been getting rave reviews. Sligo natives Paul and Imelda Harte were “absolutely delighted” to be be back in their local.

“We have missed meeting up with out friends,” said Paul, who has very close ties to the Blue lagoon. When it was a rock venue he worked on the door. “We called ourselves admission consultants, not bouncers,” he joked. He was also in the audience on the night U2 played. “It cost a pound to get in.”

The Hartes said the pub had been a focal point for many of their friends, some of whom won’t be coming back. “One lad, George Maguire, a local community activist and a friend to many, passed away recently but he will be remembered here,” said Paul.

“It’s like a big family when you come in here,” said his wife. “We all know each other for years so it’s nice to be back and to see everyone again.”

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