No TV or singing: sisters rule the roost in Donegal pub
The Brennan sisters have lived above the Criterion Bar in Bundoran all their lives
Nan Brennan, inside The Criterion Bar, Bundoran, Co. Donegal.Photograph: James Connolly
Patricia Brennan and Nan Brennan, inside The Criterion Bar. Photograph: James Connolly
Grandfather Clock at the top of the stairs. Photograph: James Connolly
One of the upstairs sitting rooms. Photograph: James Connolly
Patricia Brennan stands outside her bedroom. Photograph: James Connolly
Patricia and Nan Brennan in the downstairs sitting room. Photograph: James Connolly
Nan and Patricia Brennan outside their pub. Photograph: James Connolly
Walking into Brennan’s Criterion Bar in the seaside town of Bundoran, Co Donegal is like being taken by the hand into a piece of Irish history which has been preserved so remarkably well that you never want to the waltz to end. You may also be overcome with an urge to become best friends with the wonderful, unique sisters, Nan (80) and Patricia Brennan (78) who run it, have been reared there, and call it home.
Their own living quarters are tucked in behind the bar and lounge downstairs and above both upstairs. The building was a guesthouse before their maternal grandparents, James and Catherine Ward, bought it and opened it on St Patrick’s Day 1900. She’s an old beauty of a building, not the easiest to keep warm on this blustery day, but they adore it and the treasures they have preserved within.
“Daddy, James Brennan, came home from America in 1932 and married our mother, Mary [Ward] in 1933. When her mother died they took over the bar,” said Patricia.
The sisters have an older sister Caitlín who lives in Dublin and their younger brother Seamus passed away 10 years ago. “We never felt pressure to take it over really, it was that the others [siblings] had no interest. Mammy died in 1962 and Daddy stayed here until 1981 and then we took it over,” says Patricia.
Their pride in what went before, and what they have kept so well, emanates from them. “If you didn’t enjoy the work, you wouldn’t do it. It’s a hard life. Although, I suppose being reared through it, we didn’t think it,” says Nan.
The sitting room downstairs is as cosy as their welcome and I’m treated to Patricia’s delicious homemade mince pies by the fireside. “I’m the worker, says Nan, “I leave Patricia to do the cooking and that.” Connecting bar, lounge and living quarters is a glorious high-ceilinged hallway where a handsome John Dudley grandfather clock sits proudly. “It’s wound every Monday night, it chimes on the hour and the half hour. Isn’t it beautiful?” says Patricia.
They also have a dining room and kitchen downstairs overlooking the back garden and bottling room where they used to bottle their own Guinness. Their parents used to “run off a barrel of Guinness” into bottles before the children even got up in the morning and the sisters have kept all the bottling equipment. Under the stairs you will spot where the old telephone lived and an old directory remains taped to the door.
Halfway up the stately stairs is their bathroom which I remark to Patricia looks “out of a hotel”, then the landing splits off left and right into their two living rooms that overlook the street with two bedrooms off each of them.
You can’t help but feel a regretful sadness during a visit here for why we cast aside so many of our historical riches when it came to this kind of pub.
“All pubs were like this, the way the shelves and snugs are here in the bar, but they pulled it all out and put in plastic,” says Patricia. In the 1970s and 1980s when many of the old Irish bars were ravaged of their gorgeous original fittings and replaced with inferior materials, Patricia and Nan bucked the trend, as they continue to do, and preserved it.
There are rules here that you rarely see in any pubs, no TV, no singing and no swearing. Pride of place at Brennan’s is the art of conversation, a sweet, beloved rarity nowadays. They have never succumbed to the pressure over the years to change their rules. “We could have given in but we didn’t. We’re sort of, hard nuts now, the two of us,” says Patricia. “They can go and see the matches [elsewhere] and come back and talk about it,” says Patricia.
One evening, musician Phil Coulter was encouraged to sing his song “The Town I Loved So Well.” He was quickly told to hush. Coulter said that he’d played in everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House, why couldn’t he sing it here? “Because you’re just like everyone else,” Coulter was told, according to Philip McGlynn, general manager of the Great Northern Hotel and regular of Brennan’s. A friendship was forged. “Coulter loves Brennan’s and calls in whenever he’s in Bundoran. They are loyal, authentic, respectful women, they treat everyone the same.”
McGlynn adds: “Anyone who goes to Brennan’s will go back to Brennan’s.”
There was once table service in lounges here and a bell above each table would ring in the bar for drinks. “They still work, every single one of them. As we do say, everything still works in this house,” says Patricia.
Beautiful original mirrors and framed pieces adorn walls throughout the building, including a Mitchell’s Whiskey mirror with a misspelled “Irelad” and a Noah’s Ark picture that was used to teach religion, which is more than 200 years old.
One exceptional pearl is the furniture in the bar and lounges here. “Daddy went into Arnotts in Dublin in 1947, they made their own furniture then. The chairs and tables that are still in the lounges and [bar] are the ones that he bought and were only covered the once,” says Patricia.
The whole bar is cleaned from top to bottom, run and restocked every day by just the two of them. Both home and bar are immaculate. Many, myself included, would be exhausted just listening to half the work they do in a day. “I suppose we were reared up to it,” says Nan.
They have cared for, and unknowingly and knowingly, curated this piece of history they currently live and work in, with mutual respect for each other and the building. They have travelled extensively together – “we were in Cuba 28 years ago” – and their contentedness is refreshing: “Yes, we are best friends,” says Patricia.
From their tenure, they offer fantastic stories of how the tapestry of Donegal and society has transformed. “Women didn’t come into the pubs, except the man and wife went into the lounge. Men used to stand, that’s why the counter is so high. The stools came in at the end of the 1950s and women were allowed then, they went into the snug,” says Patricia.
“We have the two original solid oak barrels behind the bar where we used to get whiskey in 10 gallon casks, full proof. You’d measure it in [to a barrel] with so much water and rack it and marry in the whiskey to the water, so many hours, so many days. Then you had a hydrometer with weights to bring it down to 30 per cent, under proof, to fill into the bottles. That was the “in” thing then,” says Patricia.
Donegal was dealt a devastating blow when the narrow gauge railway lines that served the county were lifted from the late 1950s until 1960. They have never been replaced and the empty tracks remain around the county like scars through mountains and landscapes where sheep now graze. “We have one last bottle out of that barrel of whiskey in 1957 when the whiskey racking [and the railway] stopped. It’s up on the shelf there,” says Patricia. It is a poignant emblem of a different era, a heyday, as Bundoran, much like most of Donegal, lost such connection when the railway went.
Patricia laughs off the undoubted proposals from potential suitors they must have had across the counter over the years. Neither of them have married. “We hadn’t time for that [suitors], work came first,” says Patricia.
Brennan’s is a time capsule, a precious and unique Irish pub and building that’s as unassuming as Nan and Patricia. “We don’t even think about what will happen to it, we would like to keep it in the family though. You never know” says Patricia.
The sisters have a kinship between them as sure as the shoreline that stretches along their seaside town that they are so proud of. This is a tremendously special place, a rare piece of Ireland’s history and tradition. Pop in to Nan and Patricia; it will gladden your heart.