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'Musicians were looked down upon around here': How Gus O'Connor's became a legendary trad pub

The Doolin landmark has been hosting sessions for decades. So how did it start?

Image: Laura

SINCE 1832, GUS O’Connor’s has been a fixture in Doolin, Co Clare. Over the years, it has garnered a reputation as one of the best regarded traditional music pubs in ireland.

Originally established in the 1830s, the pub was taken over by John O’Connor and his wife Susan Shannon in the early part of the twentieth century. “She was one of the first women in Clare to hold a pub licence,” says Charles Monod.

The couple had twelve children including a son named Gus. Gus O’Connor took over the pub in 1956 and ran it with the help of his wife Doll for the next forty years or so. 

Doolin is steeped in musical tradition and Gus O’Connor allowed trad musicians to play in the pub, long before it was in vogue.

“Before the 1950s, 1960s, it wasn’t very common to have music in pubs,” explains Monod. “Musicians were looked down on especially in areas like here. They weren’t welcome in pubs but that’s where Gus and Doll came in. They were welcoming to everyone – including musicians.”

Under his watch, the pub hosted the types of sessions that have since gone down in history and are spoken about in hushed tones. Distinguished musicians from near and far played there including hometown heroes Micho, Pakie and Gussie Russell.

O’Connor retired in 1998 and sold the pub to its current owner, Patrick Sexton. Not only have they kept the name, but they have gone to great lengths to protect the pub’s musical legacy.

“Music heritage is a big thing,” says Morod. “It’s the number one reason why people are coming to O’Connor’s.”

At the height of the season, they will host a whopping nine sessions a week. Even in winter, they aim to have between five and seven musical sessions per week. 

Morod says there has historically been a drop off in custom during winter, but notes that it is changing somewhat as tourists become more savvy.

“You have a lot of people who would be aware – especially people who are returning – they would be aware of how busy summer is so they come during the winter because they are specifically looking for that cosy atmosphere,” he says.

“The balance between locals and tourists is completely different in winter. It changes the vibe. The winter is when to come if you have a specific interest in traditional music and local people.”

Given its location, it’s not surprising that the pub does so well with tourists passing through or even those on day trips to Cliffs of Moher. The pub does particularly well thanks to its food menu, which is served 363 days of the years.

Over the years, the pub has built up a vast collection of police department badges given to them by American tourists.

“I can’t tell you how it started. It’s an American thing. They come travelling with their badges. We’ve been collecting them years and years. It’s almost an attraction in and of itself.”

Similarly they have a collection of dollar bills pinned to a wall behind a bar.

“Every two years we take them down and we donate them,” he says, noting that the pub has links with a charity across the pond.

Aside from persisting with trad music sessions, Morod says the pub keeps Gus O’Connor’s memory alive by offering a friendly word to everyone who steps inside.

“Gus and Doll O’Connor were also famous for their warm welcome,” he says. “That’s something we try to keep up even when it’s very, very busy. We encourage the staff to spend even thirty seconds to have a few words with people who are only here for forty minutes.”

The warm welcome and hospitality is etched in the genes of the pub.

More: ‘We all have itchy feet’: Why The Sky And The Ground is an old-style pub that’s always changing>

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Amy O'Connor

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