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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
story of my pub

'You can see the whites of their eyes': How Coughlan's went from quiet local to happening spot

One of Cork’s oldest pubs has a chequered history.

FOR THE BETTER part of two centuries, Coughlan’s has been in operation on Cork’s Douglas Street.

“The oldest record we have is from 1831,” explains Edel Curtin, the pub’s proprietor. “But it might actually be there a bit longer than that.” 

The pub was owned by the Coughlan and Ellis families, and has never changed hands. Likewise, the name above the door has remained the same throughout its run. By Curtin’s estimation, it is one of the only pubs in the city to have held onto its original name.

Several years ago, the Ellis family decided to lease out the pub and that’s when Curtin came on board. Upon taking over, Curtin realised she would have to do something to rejuvenate the pub and attract more customers. 

“Where we are in the city is a back street. It’s not the city centre. We were like, ‘We have to do something to attract people over to this side of the city.’” 

There was a room located at the back of the pub that was once used as a doctor’s surgery by one Dr Ellis. It had since been transformed into a lounge, but Curtin thought it had potential as a music venue. A former musician herself, she enlisted some of her friends to take part in a regular Monday night session. It quickly took on a life of its own. 

“There was a vibe in the room that lent itself to being a venue,” she recalls. “It was so intimate and small. It was like being in a sitting room.” 

A cosy sitting room at that. The former lounge had a seating capacity of just 65. Nonetheless Curtin thought that the venue might fill the hole left by the closure of The Lobby Bar. She wanted it to serve as a platform for rising stars as well as a venue for special gigs by well-known artists.

Soon the venue was booking household names like Mick Flannery, Glen Hansard and Lisa Hannigan, who were all drawn to the size of the room. 

“Lisa Hannigan said, ‘It’s one of those venues where you can see the whites of their eyes.’ It’s kind of terrifying because they have nowhere to hide. It spurs them on to give a really good performance.”

It picked up the award for IMRO’s Music Venue of the Year in 2013 and the rest is, well, history.

“It was a bit of a pipe dream but it actually worked.”

Curtin describes Coughlan’s as a quintessential local with a loyal clientele. Some customers have been frequenting the pub for over fifty years. When Curtin started holding gigs in the back room, some regulars were adamant it wouldn’t work. 

“When we started off at the very beginning some of the regulars saw us selling tickets for gigs in what they would have known as the lounge. They were like, ‘Nobody is going to pay twenty quid to see some fella play in the lounge!’ They didn’t get the concept but now they just laugh and they like the buzz around the place.”

With the exception of the music venue, Coughlan’s has changed little over the years. The layout is the same and the original fireplace remains in situ. There are nods to the pub’s past with Dr Ellis’ former medicine bag and medicine cabinet on display. Photos and posters from gigs adorn the walls. 

Aside from music, Coughlan’s is known for housing the largest selection of gin in Munster with over 200 gins available behind the bar.

“We were a little ahead of the curve,” says Curtin. “Before the Irish craft gins became very popular, we brought all the staff to London. We went to a few distilleries and made our own gin over there. A lot of the gins we would have sourced were from England because gin was so big there. We had a few French gins, Canadian gins. From all over the world, really.”

Then Irish gin exploded in popularity.

“Irish gin is probably the biggest one we have in the bar right now. It’s our biggest selling gin. Dingle, Blackwater, Gunpowder – they’re all very popular. They’d be more popular than the gins we started off with.”

“We’re lucky that we’re all very interested in the drinks industry and the psychology of drinks trends. We’re always looking to see what the next big thing to take off might be.”

The last few years have been monumental for Coughlan’s. Not only has it established itself as one of the city’s most unique venues, but Douglas Street has been named as one of the country’s best urban neighbourhoods thanks to local business owners and their concerted attempt to curb antisocial behaviour and transform the area. (They were recently rewarded for their efforts at the Pride of Place Awards.)

Going forward, Curtin has set her sights on diversifying the programming in Coughlan’s with plans for more hip hop, indie rock and stand up comedy on the horizon. 

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