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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 18°C
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Sean's Bar in Athlone is Ireland's oldest pub - and a bona fide tourist attraction
The pub dates back to 900 AD, thanks to an enterprising young man named Luain.

FROM THE OUTSIDE, Sean’s Bar in Athlone might look like a fairly run-of-the-mill bar. Walk inside, however, and it immediately becomes clear that’s not the case.

That’s because Sean’s Bar holds the distinction of being the oldest pub in Ireland. The pub dates back to 900 AD when a man named Luain established an inn on the site, which is situated near a river crossing.

It’s said that Luain used to guide people across the choppy waters and the area eventually became known as Baile Átha Luain, which roughly translates as ‘the town of Luain’s ford’.

The history of the pub was only discovered in 1968 when local man Sean Fitzsimons purchased the bar and carried out renovations.

“Sean researched it with the National Museum of Ireland,” explains Declan Delaney, the manager of Sean’s Bar. “It was researched by the Guinness Book of World Records and it was officially certified as Ireland’s oldest pub.”

Delaney says there are numerous references to the pub including mentions in the Annals of Clonmacnoise. During the renovations, several ancient artefacts were discovered.

There were walls made of wattle and wicker. They’re on display in the pub. He also found old coins in the pub. These were old coins used for barter and they were found on site.

Indeed, the pub contains several nods to its heritage. For instance, the floor slopes from the front door right through to the back. The reason for this, explains Delaney, is that it was prone to flooding from the River Shannon.

The sloped floor meant that floodwaters would flow in the front and out the back, and the owner would throw sawdust on the floor afterwards. Nowadays, the floors are often scattered in sawdust.

As Ireland’s oldest pub, Sean’s Bar is now a bona fide tourist attraction. It regularly attracts visitors from all over the world who are taken by the pub’s lively atmosphere, nightly trad sessions and roaring fire.

“For a lot of people, we’re one of their first visits,” says Delaney.

People get into Dublin Airport and they might be going to the West or Wild Atlantic Way and we’re often their first stop.

Many famous faces have popped in over the years, including U2, John C. Reilly and Nathan Carter. Dallas stars Larry Hagman and Linda Gray popped in at the height of the show’s popularity.

The most notable celebrity appearance, though? That would be Alf from Home and Away. “He came in a few years ago,” remembers Donnelly. “He poured a pint as well.”

I suppose Alf was a big one because if you think of anyone who is forty or under, they kind of grew up with him.

Meanwhile, reports that Boy George once owned the pub for a brief period in 1987 are (sadly) not true. Instead, Donnelly says it was just a joke that grew legs. “That was a local joke at the time. It was a slagging match with the old owner. People have reported on that so many times and sometimes it’s like, ‘Why change it?’”

More recently, the pub has launched its own bottled whiskey, giving customers the chance to bring a piece of Sean’s home with them.

“The reason why we launched the whiskey is because the very origins of whiskey began in Loughrea,” explains Donnelly. In fact, the Annals of Clonmacnoise has the earliest recorded reference to whiskey anywhere in the world in 1405.

People coming in often ask, ‘What did people drink years ago?’ When we researched the history of alcohol, we discovered that the whole region is steeped in the history of whiskey and that’s why we’re telling that story.

The whiskey is made in partnership with the West Cork Distillery and there are plans afoot to launch a whiskey experience in Sean’s.

As Delaney explains it, many visitors to the pub aren’t simply coming in for a drink. Instead they’re coming in for a one-off experience.

People have a thirst for knowledge. You might come in for a nice drink or for a birthday, but you maybe want to know a little bit more about it and that’s something we worked on over the last few years. We want to tell everyone the story of Sean’s.

Come for the Irish coffee, stay for the history lesson.

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