Getting ready to dock around the clock


Ideally, a good pub should have something of a meltingpot feel to it and this was undoubtedly true at the reopening of the Ferryman recently, when regulars rubbed shoulders with businessmen, film-makers, musicians, politicians (the Tanaiste, Mary Harney did the official opening honours) and . . . men with pencils behind their ears. These tradesmen have been kept extremely busy since last December when the pub on Sir John Rogerson's Quay, Dublin, closed its doors for extensive renovation or, to be more precise, reconstruction.

Two days before the opening I passed the premises and it looked far from ready, with a small army of builders working inside and out, but ready it was for the opening 48 hours later. The pub is now bigger, and a small hotel with 20 rooms is based on the first floor, along with a new restaurant, the Southbank. With the stylish Columbia Mills and Funnel bars and the more traditional Docker's all only a stone's throw away, it is now possible to have a full night out on the quays.

To many people, this may have seemed implausible a few years ago - but not to Tom and Bernadette O'Brien, who bought the Ferryman in 1991. It was their first pub venture but, even then, they could see potential in the area which, as Tom points out, was far from buzzing in 1991.

"The docks did die a death. When we came down here first, we were the only bit of life here. Everything else was derelict." At that stage, the Ferryman premises was half its present size and not located on the corner of Cardiff Lane. "The property on the corner was derelict," explains Bernadette. "Above the pub was also derelict; you'd have to put on a hard hat to go upstairs. We were basically trading in a room. After about a year, we moved into (the corner premises) next door and did it up. There was potential, we knew it, but other people couldn't see it."

The O'Briens' faith in the place proved to be well founded and a regular clientele formed, not so much of locals, but of people who travelled from around the city to enjoy a pint and some music. The world of music and arts was well represented: people such as Brendan Gleeson, Sean McGinley and man-about-town John Kelly were known to drop in for a drink. There was no effort to secure such a "name" clientele. Tom says, "People just took to it", and he has been careful to try to preserve the feel and atmosphere of the old pub, which is to be admired in these days of pub re-invention.

Music has always been one of the major attractions of the Ferryman, with sessions taking place almost every night. Tom and Bernadette are keen traditional musicians - they first met through music - and this love of Irish music has been passed down to their children, who also play. If you're lucky, you may find Tom stepping out from behind the bar to join in the session, not to mention the likes of Paul Brady or various members of Altan.

The atmosphere may have been preserved, but the new Ferryman certainly looks different. The old lattice windows have been replaced with much larger, single panes giving a brighter, airier feel. Two slightly raised seating areas beside the windows allow good views of the Liffey, although at the moment a couple of large containers opposite the pub somewhat detract from this. Between the ground floor and cellar is a mezzanine area, where a carvery is cunningly concealed - the counter can be folded away to allow space for seats or for musicians, as was the case on the opening night.

Downstairs is a cellar bar complete with a sturdy, old-fashioned counter, which was bought in Portadown, and an open fireplace. Quite what to make of the guillotine in the corner is another matter. The Cellar bar is aptly named; while it was being renovated, four arched, red-brick cellars, which extend right under the road, were discovered. It is more than likely, however, that they housed coal, not claret.

The entrance to the hotel is through a door on Cardiff Lane with the reception area on the first floor. This was done in an effort to maintain separate identities for pub and hotel and to prevent downstairs from turning into another hotel bar. The en-suite rooms upstairs all feature directdial telephones, multi-channel TVs and ISDN lines.

The Ferryman is the first development on the quays to be completed since the announcement of the Dublin Docklands area master plan, last December, and there is a preservation order on the building.

Strict guidelines had to be followed during the renovation, which, as Tom explains, was a large undertaking. "Everything inside was taken out and the four walls were held up with temporary steel. Then the steel columns went in and then the floors on top of that. Every brick was taken out, pointed, and put back in. About 30 or 40 per cent had to be replaced; I think the poor builder was out for weeks trying to get bricks that matched." The original Georgian sash windows have also been meticulously reconstructed, as is evident upstairs in the hotel rooms and in the Southbank restaurant, which offers a beautiful view over the water. A decision was made not to install doubleglazing as it would have ruined the appearance of the windows.

Originally built by Lord Cardiff (who gave his name to the adjacent lane) the two buildings occupied by the Ferryman date from 1790. At the turn of the century, the corner premises were tea rooms, while next door was a pub. In those days, when the quays area was full of activity, the pub was at the centre of local life: it was where the daily hiring of dockers would take place and where a large part of their earnings was spent.

With the redevelopment of Sir John Rogerson's Quay there will be more business returning to the area and no doubt the Ferryman will be at the centre of this. It is also to be hoped that the other developments will follow the Ferryman's example, with eyes firmly on the future but with a respect for the past.