When Bundoran publican Nan Brennan died last Sunday at the age of 81, many reminisced fondly about the no-singing, no-swearing, no-television rule she and her sister Patricia imposed rigidly in their landmark pub on the town's main street.
And as Florida-based surf photographer Steve Fitzpatrick remembered in a fond online tribute, “no spitting” was another house rule in the Criterion bar, better known simply as “Brennans”.
The premises, a favourite with farmers and surfers, tourists and returned emigrants, writers and local people who knew their sisters for a lifetime, was regarded by many as a time capsule where Nan and Patricia (79) presided over a genteel atmosphere where civility and good conversation were prized above all.
Their maternal grandparents James and Catherine Ward opened the pub on St Patrick's Day 1900. Nan's parents James and Mary did a major refit in 1947 when they purchased bespoke bar fittings from Arnotts in Dublin, who manufactured furniture at the time. Very little has changed since then.
The sisters – at the funeral Mass last Tuesday Canon Ramon Munster pointed out that it was difficult to talk about one without the other, as they were always together – never lived outside Bundoran but they travelled the world.
Nan, who in accordance with her wishes, was waked in the bar, was born and died in the living quarters over the business. But as Pulitzer prize- winning journalist Kevin Cullen noted in a homage to the pub, published in the Boston Globe last year, Nan and Patricia had travelled to Cuba, Egypt, Syria and the Caribbean.
This week he remembered Nan fondly; how old fashioned she and Patricia were in some respects, and yet how eager to embrace the world. "Nan was a great feminist," he said recalling her horror back then at his suggestion that Donald Trump might win the Republican nomination. "I hope you're wrong", she said. "I wish I was," he added.
The trip to Cuba happened almost 30 years ago and Cullen liked to think of Nan “walking around Havana, talking to the locals, asking them about their healthcare”.
Everyone's favourite story about the pair is the time they sternly told singer songwriter Phil Coulter to hush when at the prompting of locals, he broke into a few bars of The Town I Loved so Well in the bar.
Coulter’s pal Philip McGlynn, manager of the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran, had set him up. McGlynn recalled the singer protesting that he had sung in Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, and his bemusement on being told that no one, including him, was going to sing in Brennans.
“He thought it was hilarious. He went back several times and often told the story on stage about the two old ladies who wouldn’t let him sing.”
Hotelier and former manager of the All-Ireland winning Donegal GAA team, Brian McEniff grew up with the Brennans . “The two girls were institutions,” he said. ‘Everyone who had left Bundoran dropped into Brennans when they came back so if you met them up the town they had all the news about who was home .
“Every heavy-hitter who came to town went there, including taoisigh. I had a pub too, but all the Fianna Fáilers went to Brennans,” said the brother of the late Fianna Fáil councillor Seán McEniff, who died earlier this year. “To be honest everyone was glad to show the pub off because it had such a nice old style.”
Broadcaster and writer Frank Galligan another regular, said Nan’s family actually had a brewery and distillery in the premises. “They bottled their own Guinness and they had two big casks of 100 per cent whiskey which they used to filter down with water to 30 per cent proof.” Seeing Nan in the pub was “like visiting a favourite aunty except she was pulling pints for you”, he said.
Over the years as big screens and fancy lunch menus were used to woo patrons to other establishments , Patricia and Nan keep the faith with the old ways. Anyone wanting to see an important game was urged to go elsewhere, and come back to their place to talk about it.
The pub was one of 13 around the country to recently feature in the Guinness Hop House 13 television campaign where Nan and Patricia tell the viewers: “We are surfing fans but we don’t surf.”
Patricia Brennan reopened the doors of the pub on Friday. Nan, the expert ballroom dancer who valued good conversation and company above all else, will be missed.
She is survived by her sisters Patricia and Cáit (Dublin), brother-in-law Séamus, niece Bríd and nephew Séamus.