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'People meet, discuss, hear stories and sing': How one of Ireland's oldest houses became a pub... again

The chequered history of the Hole In The Wall in Kilkenny.

Image: David Lee

WHEN MICHAEL CONWAY spied a run-down old building just off Kilkenny main street, he saw the opportunity for a neat fixer upper.

Conway had just become the consultant cardiologist for the Carlow-Kilkenny area, and the property seemed like the perfect spot for a studio of some kind to pursue his hobbies. Little did he know what he’d let himself in for.

“It turns out that what I had bought, without standing in it or getting it surveyed, was a national monument,” he says. “I now had a nightmare on my hands. I’d imagined it might take two or three years between myself and direct labour to fix the old wreck. Not a chance. It took ten years to rescue.”

“The old wreck” as it turned out was one of Ireland’s oldest townhouses. Initially built in the late 16th century, the tavern entertained some of the most powerful people in the country including Henry Grattan and the future Duke of Wellington. It even has links to the 1916 rising – Thomas McDonagh lived here.

Upon discovering this, Conway decided to honor the building’s history by restoring it as a bar. But progress wouldn’t be quick or cheap. Since the tavern was a monument, Conway had to step back and let historical experts take the lead. In the meantime, exhaustive research was done for conservation plans. He estimates that over the course of ten years, he invested more than a million US dollars in the project

By the time the restoration was completed, Conway was anxious to get the tavern on its feet and making money. Of course if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. “I opened it on the August 7 2009, more or less the day the recession started. You couldn’t make it up!” he laughs.

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The opening years saw The Hole in the Wall fight tooth and nail for survival. Early on, Conway noted the excellent acoustics in the pub, and started to book gigs with some of Ireland’s premier musicians. Having the likes of Mary Coughlan perform an intimate set put some wind in the pub’s sails, but when the recession hit hard, he found himself unable to draw bigger acts.

Instead Conway decided to develop local talent. “The Hole in the Wall gives a chance to people and it changes a lot. We’re basically punk metallers at the minute,” he says. “There’s no restrictions. We’ve been doing an open mic on Saturday nights and we’ve had a singer, Sheryl, who would be a professional opera singer in Venice. She blows the place away!”

Though the restoration cost a lot of time and money, the goal was to maintain as much of the original building as possible – the thick stone walls have been relatively untouched, and Conway reckons some of the timber has been there since the tavern’s heyday. The result is a small, cosy pub that eschews modern invasions like wifi and television. In The Hole in the Wall, conversation is king.

“It’s evolved into a place where people meet, discuss, hear stories told by people and sing,” he says. “When you think about it, it’s a refuge from the madding crowd kind of place. It’s tapping into a natural phenomenon in Ireland which is talk. We like to chat forever.”

Storytelling is a huge part of The Hole in the Wall. Conway describes the barman as a conduit through which connections are made and experiences are shared. The pub also hosts all kinds of theatre and storytelling nights, covering tales that range from the Titanic to the life of French singer Edith Piaf.

The stories even seep into the pub’s surroundings. “It’s constantly changing. The first two months of the year I dedicate to Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean,” Conway explains. “So we turn the tavern into a kind of hut with pieces from a hundred years ago. When people come in, they wonder what it is, and then you’re able to tell the story.”

It’s been a long journey for Conway, who acknowledges the absurdity of a cardiologist running a pub. But for him, The Hole in the Wall isn’t the kind of spot to get legless in on a Saturday night. Instead it’s a place where you make connections with your neighbours and share ideas, stories and songs.

“I never wanted to open a bar,” he admits. “And as a venue, we don’t encourage excessive drinking. I’ve actually stopped people who are overdoing it because I don’t want to see them as a patient. I restored it as a bar because that’s its history. We’re rejuvenating its energy as a place to discuss and have a good time.”

More: ‘We all got very excited’: How Drop Dead Twice grew a bar from a chance conversation>

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