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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 20 February, 2019

'The music soothes the brain': An Spailpin Fánach and the art of the impromptu session

The magic of the Cork institution.

THE FRONT OF An Spailpín Fánach promises patrons ‘ceol agus craic’ and ‘bia agus deoch’.

Located on South Main Street in Cork City across from the historic Beamish & Crawford Brewery, the pub has been providing pints, music, and craic for the better part of 250 years.

“The pub has been going since 1779,” says John O’Connor, the pub’s owner. “I think it’s the oldest consistent pub in Cork. It was never anything else other than a pub.”

O’Connor took over the pub 27 years ago. Prior to that, it had been owned by three individuals, including Fergal McGowan who now runs The Corner House, a music pub on Coburg Street.

#pub #ireland🍀 #corkcity #hellocork_ #pints

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What was it about An Spailpin Fánach that caught O’Connor’s eye?

“I suppose anyone that takes over a pub has to be one or two per cent mad, don’t they?” he jokes.

“It was something I had always wanted to do and this place appealed to me. It was a very settled custom in that our age group might be 30-50.”

It’s a traditional pub with low ceilings, low lights and brick walls. It hasn’t changed much over the years save for an extension built in 1996.

“I doubled it in size and bought the building next door,” he says. “But that was very careful and keeping it in the same mould. Brick, stone, timber – old style. You wouldn’t know it was an extension.”

The pub once served food, but ceased doing so following the closure of the Beamish & Crawford brewery across the road.

“Beamish & Crawford closed about nine years ago and they effectively killed it off,” he notes. “We used to have thirty, forty, fifty of them in every day, you know? That killed my food business.”

These days, the pub is chiefly renowned for being a music pub, which makes sense when you consider it shares its name with a traditional Irish song. It hosts the annual Cork Folk Festival and welcomes the Cork Singers Club every Sunday for nine months of the year. Additionally, it regularly puts on gigs and theatrical events in its upstairs venue including Chattyboo Productions’ annual Adult Panto. (Not suitable for children, before you ask.)

But sessions are the pub’s bread and butter.

“Downstairs we just have sessions,” says O’Connor. “They just sit around two tables and that’s the way basically. Impromptu.”

The pub hosts these sessions six nights a week, but they’re not so obtrusive that you can’t have a quiet one.

“The good thing about here is that it’s not in your face. You can have a good chat on one side of the bar and hear yourself rather than being blasted out of it.”

“You could have a grand conversation in the front and sometimes you wouldn’t even hear the music.”

He says musicians are fond of playing there because it’s so lo-fi.

“It’s old. It’s authentic. They don’t feel like they’re on the stage with lights shining on top of them and there’s not amplification where every word and every note is heard. It’s a session and they all get into it.”

As for what O’Connor thinks of the music himself?

“It soothes the brain.”

Irish trad session 🎶🎻

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An Spailpin Fanach is fortunate to have a strong local trade, says O’Connor.

“About forty, forty five per cent are all repeat customers but we get a fair amount of tourists also,” he says. “You would be amazed at the amount of tourists we get.”

As he explains, the tourists can often be repeat customers as well.

“We get an awful lot of repetitive business even from tourists where their daughter or son or relation might have been here five, ten years ago and they come back and say, ‘Oh, such and such was here three years ago. They had a great time. They said to ask for John or to ask for Willie.’ There’d be a lot of that, too.”

“They love it. They probably wouldn’t see anything like it. They’re very unique, all these old-style pubs. There’s not too many left in the country if you think about it.”

Asked for his own personal favorite feature of the pub, he hesitates before concluding that it’s the people.

“I like engaging with people myself,” he says. “I suppose it’s homely and it’s different. There’s always a good atmosphere and I’d like to think my staff are very good to people and they treat people well.”

The bia may be gone, but the ceol, craic and deoch are still there in spades.

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Amy O'Connor

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