‘They think you’re out of a museum’: The landlady in a Fermoy pub that time forgot
Nuala Fitzgibbon runs the quaint Fermoy pub that’s been in the family for 130 years
Landlady Nuala Fitzgibbon of Fitzgibbon’s Pub, Fermoy, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
On the East German side of the Berlin Wall, in Moscow’s Red Square and on the streets of Fidel’s Havana, avid traveller and landlady Nuala Fitzgibbon felt a million miles away from the counter of the small family pub in Fermoy.
First opened back in 1877, the pub is the place where she and her three siblings were born, grew up, played and where Fitzgibbon has worked all her life. It’s a place where memories were made, and the sound of sing-songs drifted through the corner house on McCurtain Street accompanied by wafts of smoke before the ban. Where farmers sold their cattle and spent their prize, where lovers still meet and where the card games draw the town’s elders.
Where groceries were once sold on one side of the small bar and where Christy Ring and the three-in-a-row All-Ireland winning Cork hurling side of the fifties once changed from their muddy sports gear into their finery in a bedroom upstairs after a game.
The pub frequented by Shakespearean actor Anew McMaster on his national tours and the place where, during the modern Irish nation’s complex birth, the odd British soldier darted his head around the corner of the pub’s door before deciding to head elsewhere. This was a hangout for locals in this garrison town and though politics and religion were banned as topics of discussion, the tribe who dipped their head under the doorway were largely of the same ilk.
But with her dear friend Eileen Joyce Fenlon on the case, Nuala Fitzgibbon was able to escape from the barrels, ashtrays and beer bottles to disappear into the relatively unknown. Excitedly they’d gather their passports, count down the days, change their currency and head off on another travel escapade.
“Eileen was far more adventurous than me. She’s do her research and find the most unusual places to travel to and off we’d go. Sure, it was fantastic. Sadly, she was too ill to join me in Cuba in 1988, she would have loved it. She passed away some time ago but I still hold onto those wonderful memories of our trips away,” she explains as we sip our tea at a table in the quaint old pub.
Fitzgibbon, by her own admission, isn’t a pub goer as such. The youngest of four children, she found herself running the family business and has never been able to walk away.
D Fitzgibbon – her father’s name, Daniel – is still above the door though he died when she was just seven after contracting a deadly flu.
The bar was busy from morning. On some evenings people would even come into our kitchen to have a quiet drink. Sure we knew no different
“I have a few nice memories of him,” she tells me as her new puppy Gile plays with her shoes. “I recall there were pleasure boats on the river Blackwater here and my father and I were in one. He was rowing up river and when we reached our destination there was my mother on the bank. I just couldn’t make sense of how she got there. It was a mystery. I often think of it, especially when I’m walking by the river.”
After he died her mother Mary had no choice but to plough on and keep Fitzgibbons going.
“She was a hard-working women. We’d bottle Guinness to sell and the bar was busy from morning. On some evenings people would even come into our kitchen to have a quiet drink. Sure we knew no different.”
These days Nuala opens six-evenings-a-week. The sing-songs are less frequent but its still an oasis of calm and a connection with yesteryear in this modern and expanding north-Cork town.
Tourists and those from elsewhere are often overcome by the charm of the old place though the novelty of their enquiries can sometimes wear thin.
“They come in and ask, ‘are you long here?’ – sometimes I say to them ‘yes, since around half past eight’,” says Nuala.
“Like they’ve no tact. They think you’re out of a museum or something. There’s no chat, just bang with the question. The doors hardly closed behind them and the drink wouldn’t even be filled.”
A picture of “Lovely Cottage” – winner of the 1946 Grand National – adorns a wall. “He was bred by my mother’s uncle in Fermoy,” she explains proudly.
You won’t find any plasma screens here – though for a period a television existed in what was the old sitting room.
“We used to have it inside there and people would come in to watch The Riordans and Glenroe – it was so lovely. And before that Get Smart and The Man from UNCLE. But then people started asking for Sky channels, the sports and so on, sure you can get blasted out of it with those and that’s not what our pub is about,” she explains.
With the sound of the Angelus bonging in the background on a distant radio, young Gile rolls on his back wanting to be rubbed. He’s the latest in a long line of dogs the landlady has taken under her wing.
“I had a wonderful little dog for 12-years, a Yorkshire terrier called Fitzie, but sadly she passed away. I waited a while and then went looking again. The dogs are great company. Gile is a cross between a Maltese and a Bichon Frise. She was so supposed to get a haircut today in Kilworth but the groomer had to reschedule. Gile is still half crazy, sure she’s only a pup but I’m growing so very fond of her,” says the woman who refuses to tell me her age because “I’m old enough to know better.”
Frequent visitors to this beautiful old pub will tell you its not unusual to see the diminutive landlady pulling a pint behind the bar wearing her slippers with a little dog by her side.
She’s given her life to this place. She never married and wonders if Fitzgibbon’s final days are approaching.
“We might be nearing the end of the line,” she says quietly. Our tea cups empty we’re approaching opening hour and that’s my cue to head back outside, into a world of noise and modernity, leaving the peace and homeliness of Fitzgibbonsbehind.