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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
story of my pub

'Everyone is the same once they cross the threshold': The Clonakilty pub where Jimi Hendrix's bassist played

De Barra’s is an institution – and it all started as a plumbing job for the landlord’s mother-in-law.

FOR THE LAST eighty years or so, De Barra’s has been at the centre of life in Clonakilty. The pub has been in the family for three generations and is currently managed by Ray Blackwell.

“My grandparents Mr and Mrs Barry ran it originally and then it closed for a while only opening intermittently to maintain its licence,” explains Blackwell. In the 1970s, Blackwell’s father, Bobby Blackwell, met his mother, Eileen Barry, in Abbeyleix and they fell in love.

A plumber by trade, Bobby visited De Barra’s to do a plumbing job for his mother-in-law and it was there that he decided to take it over. “My Dad saw the potential in the bar and eventually ended up running it,” says Blackwell.

While De Barra’s started out life as a traditional pub, the older Blackwell decided to introduce music to the pub. Noel Redding, a former bassist with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, had settled in Clonakilty and started playing in the pub. Not long afterwards, they decided to develop it into a proper folk club and the whole family moved into the pub.

Redding went on to hold a weekly residency at the pub, which lasted more than twenty years. “In fact, musicians and bands from all over the world would travel to De Barra’s in the late eighties and nineties to see and play with Noel as our reputation and association with Noel grew,” says Blackwell.

The list of musicians who have performed at De Barra’s is as long as your arm – David Bowie, Damien Rice, Thurston Moore, Mic Christopher, Lisa Hannigan, Bell X1, Andy Irvine, Glen Hansard, Valerie June, Picture This, George Ezra.

Blackwell currently books the gigs and the pub continues to host weekly acoustic and trad sessions. It has also hosted several gigs as part of the annual Clonakilty Guitar Festival. So what is it about this folk club that musicians respond to?

“Acts can feel the musical history of De Barra’s when they arrive. It’s tangible. Also we are famed for our West Cork welcome. Musicians are guests in our home and as such treated accordingly. You’ll always get a nice cup of tea and bite to eat in front of the fire when you play here.”

“Welcome aside, we have worked hard over the years to make things as easy as possible for bands to come to De Barra’s. We have some great sound engineers, a state of the art sound system that’s regularly serviced and maintained, easy load ins and, of course and maybe most importantly, a fantastic audience that attend gigs here.”

As far as Blackwell is concerned, the charming intimacy of the venue lends itself it to one-of-a-kind experiences for gig-goers.

“For me personally, the intimate experience is the magical one. That’s the show you never forget. To be in a room with 80 -150 people makes you remember that you’re human, that you’re not a piece of livestock. You’re part of a real community, a member of a small group that has had a shared experience.”

While it may be known far and wide as a folk club, De Barra’s is still a quintessential local and continues to be frequented by all sorts.

“The front bar is a really amazing space to just sit in and observe. Tradesmen, hipsters, tourists, families, college students, bikers, politicians, hen parties – you get to see them all hanging out in this place where everyone feels comfortable and welcome. It’s really special.”

Blackwell says the pub has had some notable visitors over the years, but declines to mention any by name.

“Part of our charm is that everyone is treated the same once they cross the threshold,” he explains. “We’ve had famous people pass through with their families or come to shows and part of the experience we like to think that we provide is that you won’t be bothered while you’re here.”

Having lived and worked in the pub for much of his life, Blackwell has many stories to tell. Here’s one of his favourites. A man called Con The Miller used to frequent the pub and always sat underneath a photo of the ill-fated Lusitania. One evening, a busload of American tourists visited the pub and started gathering around the photo.

“Con proclaimed in between a sup of Guinness that, ‘I’m a survivor,’” explains Blackwell. The Americans were gobsmacked and started peppering him with questions and buying him drinks.

“A few hours later after the Americans had left and Con was full, my Dad went up to Con and said, ‘Con you’re an awful rogue. There was no way you were on the Lusitania.’

“’Ah Bob,’ Con replied. ‘I never said I was on the Lusitania. All I said was I’m a survivor.. And I’m 78 years old! What else would you call me?’”

The pub is filled with little trinkets. There’s a wall covered in dramatic masks, for instance, while musical instruments adorn the walls. Blackwell’s favourite feature of the pub is a photo of Irish musician Pecker Dunne playing his fiddle behind his back in the folk club.

“I love this picture. It in many ways to me is symbolic of so many things and in one shot sums up DeBarra’s. The Pecker was a travelling musician – the modern day version of that great bardic tradition – and playing his fiddle behind his back like Jimi Hendrix played his guitar.” A perfect marriage of old and new, tradition and innovation.

Four decades from when Bobby Blackwell did a plumbing job in De Barra’s and it’s still going as strong as ever. A unique music venue and a quality pub where a West Cork welcome is always guaranteed.

“To this day De Barra’s still feels like my home and as such visitors are treated as guests in our house,” says Blackwell. “I like to think that that feeling or vibe comes across when you enter the place. Tradition, family, history, authenticity – that’s the vibe.”

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