Everyone needs a little shake around every now and then. It’s good for the soul to be tipped upside down and given an unexpected makeover. De Barra’s pub in the pretty West Cork town of Clonakilty is a classic example. A hundred years ago, this was a straightforward grocery bar with a bakery and storehouse to the rear. The Republican leader Michael Collins probably nipped in for a loaf of bread back when he was a young lad living locally. Fast forward to 1974 when Eileen Barry, the daughter of the house, married a heavyweight boxer from Portlaoise and the whole show went leftfield.

Bobby Blackwell became a boxer because his father had been a boxer before him. Indeed, his father managed the Irish boxing team during the 1940s when it counted such golden-gloved greats as Johnny Caldwell, Harry Perry, Fred Teele in its ranks. Bobby hung up his boxing gloves in 1975, had a stint at plumbing and moved to Clonakilty in 1980 to see what he could do with his in-law’s pub. ‘It was just a country pub until Bobby introduced the music’ says Eileen. Bobby has always loved music and he passionately believed that music would be the saving grace of the pub. Twenty-seven years later, you would be hard pressed to find a venue in Ireland with a more genuine enthusiasm for first-rate music than the de Barras Folk Club. ‘There’s Carnegie Hall, The Royal Albert, Sydney Opera House – and then there’s de Barra’s’, said Christy Moore. Christy is one of many well-known musicians who found the mellow, unassuming ambience of de Barra’s perfectly suited to their ambitions.

The instant one enters the pub, the musical ambience envelops. The wall, stage left, is covered in flutes, fiddles, bodhráns, pipes and saxophones. Unlike most rock cafes, these instruments have a very real history. The uileann pipes were played by a Tullamore piper at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. The mandolin criss-crossed Ireland for four years with Paddy Keenan and The Bothy Band. The fender jazz bass guitar belonged to the late Noel Redding, the former Jimi Hendrix bassist and a celebrated resident of Clonakilty. Redding also presented Bobby with the gleaming double platinum record of ‘Are You Experienced’, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s psychedelic debut album.

Wherever possible, Bobby and Eileen have left the original pub interior intact. That includes the scuffed red floor, laid down by Polish workers during the Second World War, which apparently comprises sawdust and mangle beet held together by blood from an abbatoir. They have also left the original bar in place, complete with a small snug. The most dominant features of the snug are the front-page newspaper accounts of the sinking of the Lusitania, a British luxury ocean liner, by a German U-boat on 7 May 1915. Nearly 1200 passengers and crew died in the attack, including 179 UC citizens. Bobby recalled an occasion when two American’s were reading these words. An old man seated beside them coughed slightly and said quietly, ‘I’m a survivor’. ‘My God’, said the Americans. They bought him brandy and stout for the remainder of the day while he talked cryptically of life on the Lusitania. When the Americans left, Bobby went up to the man and said: ‘Con, you were never on the Lusitania in your life’. ‘I never said I was’, replied the 96-year-old Clonakilty postman. ‘I just said ‘I’m a survivor’. And I am a fecking survivor’.

The bar runs through into the old kitchen where Eileen’s family had breakfast in her youth; the stove is still in position. A staircase to the left is bedecked with colourful masks, one carved with a chainsaw. A dark wooden corridor lined with photographs, bawdy cartoon and advertising posters leads directly to the purpose built auditorium where the de Barra Folk Club now congregates on musical evenings. The audience sit on old church benches and sewing machine tables with school desks counters. A large gap in the ceiling, which Christy Moore refers to as “Bobby’s Hole”, enables another whole floor to listen in.

If the bar-staff appear to be particularly interested in the tunes, that’s because they’re all gifted musicians in their own right. For instance, singer-songwriter Gavin Moore frequently serves pints here between his grand tours of Europe. On Wednesday nights, the stage is ‘dressed up’ as a sitting room for a particularly beautiful evening of quasi-theatrical entertainment. The line up changes all the time and, with its traditional roots, there have sometimes been as many as twenty musicians playing at once. The only instrument Bobby Blackwell plays is the till. And he plays it well. But he has been careful to ensure the venue does not get too big for its boots.

Bobby is the perfect host. His bashful twinkling eyes, ‘Old Man of the Sea’ beard and boxers physique contain a spirit much given to humour, story-telling and music. His attitude to de Barra’s has been simultaneously clever and proactive. He has retained the essence of the original, while simultaneously serving hot lunches and hosting some of the most atmospheric music nights in the land. It comes as no surprise that Bobby and Eileen’s son Raymond is now one of the key players in the family business.

Excerpt from Chapter on DeBarras Folk Club in ‘ The Irish Pub’, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2008)


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