Patrons of Ireland’s highest pub travel to see Kerry back on top

Bar closures indicative of rural decline but keys to Kingdom’s success lie in these roads

We were leaving Kenmare on Monday evening after a suitably ringed weekend and debating the best way back into Killarney. There is no such thing as the long or the short road in this part of the world, only the more or less scenic, and when it’s still bright and the sun is still playing like a rhapsody over MacGillycuddy’s Reeks it had to be the more scenic.

That meant the gently unhurried drag up to Moll’s Gap, then back down the neatly sweeping bends that cut straight through Killarney National Park before levelling out around Muckross Lake, hazardous in parts not only because of the narrow turns but the constant distraction of looking into the view beyond, or else narrowly avoiding the Sika stags that occasionally leap from the roadside ferns.

This is what sets the Kingdom apart from the rest of the country – a great variety of ground that is properly spread out and simply cannot be rushed through and even on its less scenic roads still a long way from Dublin. There is an extra depth to every trip that is only rivalled around Donegal.

One of my cousins from Kerry married his Dublin fiancee in Killorglin on Saturday, and as naturally divided as the party was on the outcome of the All-Ireland football final replay there was agreement on one thing: the 6pm throw-in on a Saturday evening is unfair and extra hard on all those travelling any of the distances from Kerry. Not that it would stop them. If they came with more hope than expectation last Sunday week, this time they're coming loaded with both.


Drive-by parish

From there it was only natural to continue the more scenic road and follow the Ring of Kerry around into Kenmare and get a proper feel for what football means in these parts. It began about 10 minutes out the road from Kenmare in the drive-by parish on the shoreline that is Templenoe, where alongside the signpost for the GAA grounds on the right there is a picture of the four Kerry players that come from here; brothers Killian and Adrian Spillane, plus Tadhg Morley and Gavin Crowley.

It used to be that places such as Templenoe were defined by its church and number of schools and shops and pubs; these days they’re defined by the number of schools and shops and pubs that haven’t closed. In Templenoe’s case the five schools are gone and only one of four shops remain; there is still one pub and although closed for the last few years the plan is to reopen it next summer, and in no small part because of what football still means.

It was once owned and run by Maura Spillane, mother of the Spillane brothers Pat, Tom and Mick, who between them hold a record 19 All-Ireland football medals. It then became Pat Spillane’s Bar, and ran successfully for some time before he leased it out and then rural decline set in. Five years ago, Templenoe GAA was also on the verge of extinction before Tom’s sons, Killian and Adrian, helped spark the revival that saw the club rise from Division Five to One, in consecutive seasons, collecting the 2016 All-Ireland junior title in Croke Park along the way. Tom recently purchased the pub from his brother and the plan is for Killian and Adrian to help run it when it reopens next summer and breathe further life back into the community.

In Kenmare the dozen or so pubs that are still open (beginning with The Horseshoe) are almost all decorated with a picture of the four Templenoe players plus the two of their own, Seán O’Shea and Stephen O’Brien. That six Kerry footballers all set to feature in the All-Ireland replay come from around here is clearly cherished, and the only mild rivalry between the two clubs means they can all feel as one. O’Shea’s parents run the dry cleaning and photography centre on Main Street; O’Brien’s mother Mary runs the Hawthorn House B&B around the corner on Shelbourne Street; Morley is back teaching here after a few years in Dublin, and even if this isn’t exactly rural Kerry there’s no denying football still lies at the heart of it.

A short drive out the less scenic road to Kilgarvan and following the next right turn, up another series of neatly sweeping bends, lies another pub at the heart of it all, and officially the highest in Ireland. When you live around the corner from Johnnie Fox's in the Dublin Mountains you know this has always been a gently disputed claim, only the Top of Coom, possibly the most rural if not most scenic pub in Kerry, has an Ordnance Survey Ireland sign to prove it: at 1,045ft above sea level, this is the winner in what is actually a three-pub race. The Ponderosa, in Derry, comes second at 967ft, with Fox's third at 924ft, yet what also sets all three apart is the fact they're all still open.

The Top of Coom was founded in 1846 in the shadow of the Famine by Jeremiah and Elena Creedon, and their son Timothy and his wife Ellie got the first pub licence, at the "recommendation" of the local sergeant, in 1891. It's now in the fifth generation of the Creedon family. Tim and his wife Eileen took ownership in 2006 and the pub also serves as the family home with their four sons, their sheep farm of some 200 acres spread out in front.

It’s been decked out entirely in green and gold, even though 45 metres past the pub is the border with Cork, where the road descends towards the Múscraí Gaeltacht and into Ballyvourney, roughly equidistant from Kilgarvan. Eileen was behind the bar with her youngest son Daniel, and even if there was no one else around at the time business this summer has been brisk, helped in part by the success of the Kerry team.

She also spoke of the fire which destroyed the place in May 2012, and without the goodwill of their neighbours and community the Top of Coom might have become another rural pub statistic. Last month’s Drinks Industry Group of Ireland report was another reminder: over the border in Cork, 25.6 per cent of pubs have closed since 2005; in Limerick the loss has been 27.8 per cent. Kerry has fared reasonably well, losing just 11.9 per cent since 2005, still a worrying lot compared with Dublin’s mere 1.3 per cent loss.

It's a reminder too that in a week when one Dublin pub closes and we are told why we should care, many others close and some people are asking why should we care?

Top of Coom reopened in April 2014 in the main because the community around demanded so. Without it there would be nowhere else for miles, not just to meet for a drink or a chat or to play some music but to come together to watch their football team, especially when they’re playing Cork. And even if it is a 660km round-trip to Croke Park for Saturday’s replay, the youngest Creedon son Daniel wouldn’t dare miss it. From the Top of Coom he hasn’t missed a Kerry game all summer.