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'It's kept the street alive in tough times': How Tom Barry's became a local institution in Cork

From a tiny two-room pub to an icon of Cork nightlife.

TOM BARRY’S IS nothing short of a Cork institution. Situated on one of the city’s oldest street, it sits in the shadow of St Finbarr’s Cathedral and is steeped in history.

Bought by the Dineen family in the 1960s, the pub was previously known as The Caheragh Bar. Their daughter Betty Barry took over the establishment for a brief period before passing it onto her son, the late Tom Barry. 

“Tom Barry’s was born and he put his name over the door then,” recalls Aideen O’Sullivan, Tom’s partner and current guardian of the pub. 

Back then, the pub was small and quaint with just two rooms and a pool table. “Tom himself was the main draw in the early days,” quips O’Sullivan. 

Over the next few decades, Tom oversaw the pub’s expansion and helped turn it into one of the city’s most beloved watering holes. He sadly passed away in 2015, but the pub has continued to thrive while still keeping his memory alive.

The pub itself is charming and traditional with lots of hidden nooks and crannies. For instance, there’s an area known as Shyte Corner. 

“It’s named lovingly by the locals because people have tended to talk a lot of shite over the years,” explains O’Sullivan. 

There are cosy snugs and open fires aplenty. 

“We’re known for our open fires inside and outside, no matter the weather,” says O’Sullivan. “Tom used to have open fires on 25 degree summer days.” 

The pub has a selection of board games and a book swap shelf. They also put the Irish Times crossword on the tables each evening so punters can sip their pint and mull over the cryptic clues. 

“There is something for everyone,” says O’Sullivan.  

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But the pub is arguably best known for its stunning beer garden, which has been a fixture since the mid-1990s. O’Sullivan says it was ahead of its time and one of the first of its kind in the city. 

With a flower display tended to by Tom’s mother and an unmatched view, it quickly became one of the pub’s main draws and marked it as a destination of sorts. 

“We were a hidden away gem and people just started flocking there on sunny days,” says O’Sullivan. 

Three years ago, the pub installed a pizza kitchen in the garden and started serving up authentic wood fired pizza. Under the stewardship of head chef Emanuele Ferrari, it has become one of the city’s main spots for a pizza and pint. (They’ve proven so popular that they are now available to order on Deliveroo.) It also serves an Italian-inspired lunch menu as well as meat and cheeseboards. 

Drinks wise, they carry all your usuals as well as a vast selection of craft beers and cocktails. (Sister bar, Bar Pigalle, serves up craft cocktails right next door.) And they are of course renowned for their pints of Beamish. 

O’Sullivan says the pub has witnessed good times and bad times, but stayed afloat and served as an anchor of sorts on Barrack Street. 

“It’s kept the street alive in all the tough times,” she says. “The street went through a lot of crime and dereliction in the 1990s and in the recent recession, but Tom sailed through that.”

“Tom Barry’s anchored the street through the bad times. People would want to come here because of Tom Barry’s. It kept the street on the map.

“A lot of businesses have moved to Barrack Street and it’s on the up now with the growing economy. There are more pubs, cafés coming here. It’s really on the way up. The events centre in Cork will be just at the bottom of the street so it’s really coming to life.”  

Things were hard after Tom passed away, says O’Sullivan. But she credits manager Mary Counihan with helping steer the ship in recent years. 

“She has grown the business and brought it from strength to strength,” she says. She also heaps praise on bar managers Peter Polak and Ronan Murphy for keeping things running smoothly. 

She continues to work for the pub, but her main focus is on raising her and Tom’s two children, Autumn and Axl, who she says will one day inherit the family business and perhaps follow in their father’s footsteps. 

One thing is for certain: Tom Barry’s legacy lives on. 

“He was a very, very charming man and he drew the locals in back in the day when it was  a tiny pub and it built from there,” she says of her late partner. “People would come in to see Tom but it got so popular that it grew bigger than him and Tom was delighted with that. He didn’t want to be the draw of the pub. He wanted the pub to be the draw and that’s what happened.” 

More: ‘We never knew it’d be such a big deal’: How O’Connell’s in Meath ended up in an iconic Christmas ad>

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Amy O'Connor

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