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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 15°C
# story of my pub
'It's a little museum full of wonders': The magic of Levis' Corner House in Ballydehob
And how the landlady once told Kevin Costner he’d never make it as an actor.

“WE HAD NO intention of ever taking over a bar,” says Joe O’Leary, who runs Levis’ Corner House in Ballydehob, Co Cork, with his partner Caroline.

The couple have been running the pub since 2013. Under their stewardship, what was once a charming country pub has evolved into an intimate music venue unlike any other.

Levis’ Corner House has been in O’Leary’s family for over a century. He is the fourth generation to run the pub. The pub and grocers was previously managed by his grandaunts, Julia and Nell.  “They were kind of infamous down here,” says O’Leary. “They ran a great shop.”

Joe and Caroline moved to Ballydehob in 2013 on a weekend that happened to coincide with the death of his aunt Nell, who passed away at the age of 104.

At that point, the pub was being run by Joe’s mother. Things were quiet, but Joe and Caroline were buoyed by their own enthusiasm.

“It was during the recession and it was fairly depressing down here, to be honest. You’re talking on Saturday nights, you might have four people. It was a different planet. We came down and we were very new and enthusiastic. We kind of didn’t notice the lack of people initially and then that improved.”

Though he hesitates to use the word, Joe says the growth was “organic”.

“It was very natural,” he says. “Our own buddies initially were coming down from Cork and Dublin saying, ‘Jesus it’s great,’ and spreading the word that way.”

Before taking over the pub, Joe was the frontman of Cork band Fred. As such, he counts many musicians among his pals and has cultivated the pub as a music venue.

Over the years, the likes of Glen Hansard and Duke Special have performed in the pub. Levis’ Corner House now hosts a few gigs a week and prides itself on being a venue that prioritises the experience of the artist. All proceeds from gigs go back to the artist and it’s not a place where you’ll catch people chatting during the performance.

“We’re trying to provide a quality moment for people, for the artist and the audience. There’s a distinct lack of venues in Ireland that support the artist.”

Once a year, the pub hosts Secret Song, a daylong event that sees musicians, poets and spoken word artists perform in three areas across the pub. The capacity for the day is limited to eighty people and the lineup is kept secret from everyone – even the sound engineers.

“This year, we had eighteen artists play over eight hours,” says O’Leary. “We staggered it and we had amazing acts.”

While the pub might have an artistic bent, O’Leary says it attracts people from all walks of life.

“On a normal night, you’ll get an accountant, a farmer, a metal sculptor, a carpenter, a potter, a musician, a filmmaker, a mechanic,” he says. “You could have every mix of people and it’s amazing to see the traditional workers like mechanics and farmers mixing with the artists. It’s a total natural mix. Nothing being forced together.”

West Cork is home to a thriving arts community, something that works to Levis’ advantage. It’s the kind of place where someone like Golden Globe-nominated composer Maurice Roycroft (aka Maurice Seezer) will pop in and play the piano for no reason other than he enjoys it.

Indeed the pub has attracted many notable figures over the years.

O’Leary tells a funny story of the time Neil Jordan stopped into the pub. The director was scouting for Michael Collins and was accompanied by none other than Kevin Costner, who was originally slated to play the titular character.

Nell and Julia invited the pair in for a cup of tea and had a chat.

“Kevin Costner at the time was the biggest movie star in the world. In fairness, he’s a very humble man and he wasn’t acting the star at all. He wouldn’t get away with it here anyway, but he wasn’t doing it.”

They were just chatting away and Nell, my grand aunt, was asking him a few questions. ‘What do you do, boy?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m an actor.’ And she said, ‘Oh you poor thing, you’ll never make any living out of that. My sister’s at that always.’ She was in amateur dramatics. ‘My sister’d be at that and sure it’s only play acting, you’ll never do anything with that.’ And he said, ‘Actually I’m doing okay at the moment.’

While the pub may have undergone a reinvention of sorts, Joe and Caroline have gone to great pains to preserve the interiors and ensure the pub’s charm is kept intact.

One of Joe’s favourite little touches is a painting that hangs behind the bar.

“There’s a very famous picture here, a painting of Danno O’Mahony. Danno O’Mahony was a world champion wrestler in 1936, I think. He’s from here. There’s a lifesized statue of him in the middle of the village.”

“But there’s a picture and if you looked at it the wrong way, it’s this guy with his fist up against his chest and his other arm stretched out and he’s wearing underpants basically. Most people come in and they go, ‘Eh, what’s the story with the naked model guy?’”

He also points to old photos of the pub and passports dating from the 1920s and 1930s as among his favourite artefacts.

“It’s a little museum full of little wonders,” he says.

‘Amazon’s an off-licence, and we’re your local pub’: How Ireland’s independent bookshops staged a comeback>

More: The story behind the ‘Headache Well’ signs in a north Tipperary village>

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