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'I'll stop you there. He'll take the money': How Cleere's pub made new traditions in Kilkenny

Here’s to Cleere’s.

Image: Shutterstock/Madrugada Verde

BACK IN 1988, John and Phyl Cleere opened Cleere’s on Kilkenny’s Parliament Street. A few years later, they added a 100-seat theatre to the back of it and helped transform it into one of the city’s most important cultural venues.

Since then, it has been at the heart of every major arts festival in Kilkenny and become a cultural institution in its own right. Whether it’s Cat Laughs, Kilkenny Roots or the Kilkenny Arts Festival, you can expect to see Cleere’s in the programme.

These days, the pub is run by Johnny Holden and Paul McCabe. The pair took over the pub in 2010 and have helped usher the pub into a new era.

“We helped introduce the food side of things,” says Holden. “We do all the cooking ourselves. There’s no chef.”

“We started off doing soup and a big doorstep sandwich. That was it.”

Not long after he took over, Holden was visiting a restaurant in Waterford when he noticed a poster for Gorta’s Soup For Life campaign, which sees restaurants, cafés and bars donate €1 to Gorta for every bowl of soup sold.

Holden decided to get involved in the campaign and put on four different soups a day. He raised hundreds of euro, expanded his soup repertoire, and never looked back.

“There’s about fifty different soups we make,” he says. “From broccoli, pear and blue cheese to tomato and chorizo. The funnier the better, you know.”

The menu has expanded since then and now included dishes like vegetarian lentil pie with mustard mash and an Indonesian rendang beef bap. It’s a far cry from goujons and chips.

“We purposely didn’t put in a fryer,” he says. “There’s no fryer. That would destroy the pub, too. The smell of grease going down the stairs. It’s all healthy.”

A moment in Kilkenny time... #johncleeres #publife

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Aside from its unique food offering, Cleere’s is known for being somewhat of a music venue. Over the years, they have hosted gigs from the likes of Christy Moore, Sturgill Simpson, Calexico, Ray LaMontagne, and more.

Not only do they host gigs in the theatre, but they are also home to the longest running sessions in Kilkenny.

“In the bar itself, we have the Moday night session,” says Holden. “It’s not your usual session. The musicians start up at about 9.30pm. At around 10pm, all the older lads from town come in and all sorts of different characters.”

“They’re singing and reciting funny poetry and different stories. The pub goes quiet. They stand at the door and address the pub. It’s a great night now.”

Kilkenny is home to long-established festivals including Kilkenny Roots, Cat Laughs, and Kilkenny Arts Festival, as well as the likes of Kilkenomics, Subtitle, Kilkenny Animated and AKA Fringe.

Cleere’s continues to benefit hugely from each of these festivals and often hosts events, be it film screenings or intimate comedy gigs. (Indeed, it will host several gigs during next weekend’s Cat Laughs.)

Holden says the pub is a popular haunt among the city’s creative types and often used as a meeting place of sorts during the festivals.

It’s basically a centre. Like a hub for the different festivals. They all come in and meet with us and drink their pints.

Holden recalls the time Seamus Heaney stopped into the pub and caught the attention of the other patrons.

“You know you see these ads on the telly, these Carlsberg ads where the DJ stops the music?” he laughs. “He came up to the counter and they all looked up to see what he was ordering.”

#cleeres #kilkenny #christmas #rafflerealness

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One of the most popular Cleere’s traditions is the annual Christmas raffle. Every year, the pub raffles off vouchers, hampers, alcohol, and more. One year, actor Robert Sheehan left his scarf behind him in the pub and it was subsequently raffled off.

What everyone wants, however, is the top prize.

“The top prize is a beautiful telly,” explains Holden. “I got it out of a skip in an electrical shop in Kilkenny years ago. It’s a 1972 Murphy colour television.”

“That’s the first prize in the Christmas draw every year for the last fourteen years. We have an option on the night that you can take the television or you can take the envelope, There’s usually two or three hundred euro in the envelope.”

Holden says locals who don’t even drink in the pub will come in during December to buy a line in the vain hope of winning the television.

“They want the telly. It doesn’t work or anything. Lads want to turn it into a coffee table or a fish tank. They genuinely want to win this.”

Holden recalls one man offering the winner of the telly more than what was in the envelope to take the telly and sell it to him.

“Your man took the envelope in the end,” he laughs.

One year, the winner of the television wasn’t in the pub and they rang the phone number on the ticket, broadcasting the phone call over the speakers. “It was like Ryan Tubridy on the television show,” he says.

Eventually, the mother of the winner answered the phone. At first, she was concerned and feared there was something wrong, but Holden quickly put those to rest and shared the good news.

“I said, ‘His name is after coming out in the draw for the telly,’” he recalls. “She said, ‘Johnny? I’ll stop you there. He’ll take the money.’ I didn’t even have to ask her. She knew the score.”

“We can’t leave this telly go,” he says. “It’s worth thousands to us in lines.”

Great to be in #Kilkenny #CatLaughs #bankholidays

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Amy O'Connor

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