The Thursday Tipple Reloaded: O’Connor’s, Ballinrobe (Good Friday)

The Thursday Tipple detours for one month only, for a special dispensation: to mark the end of an 89-year ban. It abandons Thursday and Dublin to describe my first ever pub pint on Good Friday.

On the start of the four-day bank holiday weekend we drive west for a few nights away. Good Friday had started overcast in Dublin but as we cross the Shannon late afternoon the mounds of grey peel back and an immovable sun hangs low in the sky. Excited, half-frivolous drive-time radio presenters document the first opening of pubs on Good Friday in Ireland since 1927 and the thought ransacks my head that we’ll have to stop for a legal pint en route.

Village after village in Mayo that we drive through, all pubs seem closed or uninviting despite doors being open. Have they not heard the news? I ask. Deeper into the county we venture, our options narrowing, until the car-filled streets of Ballinrobe tell us somewhere be worth it. Ballinrobe. Have I been here before? What do I know of it? Summer evening racing is all I can think of, from my college days working in a bookies.

On Glebe Street we find a large pub with unmistakable yellow exterior walls, door open, half-decent looking beyond the open blinds. Silence follows our entrance, neither sinner nor saint around. A tall, stern faced barman with greying red hair appears and we wonder if we’re crashing the non-party. But when we order two stouts the voice suggests welcome.

‘Nobody in today despite the novelty?’ I ask, noticing the clock shows ten minutes past midday or midnight, six hours off. The walls are an over-zealous pink, contrasting with the dark oak wooden furnishings. A white kettle beside a yellow Schweppes ice box reminds me of every other rural Irish pub.

‘Nah,’ he says shaking his red-faced head, looking unsurprised or unexcited. ‘Not yet anyway. Hard to know if we’ll get anyone.’ People are gone away for the weekend or are not bothered coming out, he explains. It’s then that I realise what we’d experienced driving through towns earlier, the same feeling as every past Good Friday throughout Ireland: quiet; abandoned; everyone gone somewhere else for the weekend.

‘Where are yee from?’ he asks, a candid, stock phrase we subsequently hear all over the west for the weekend. Common ground is found. He knows well the area in Dublin where we live. His late sister lived there and we update him on some of the pubs he once knew well. A smile crosses his face as he listens then tells us of his own seemingly rare reconnection to Dublin’s drinking world a few weeks earlier on the margins of a rugby match at the Aviva.

The Good Friday theme returns. His own experience since he married and had kids has been to go with his family to visit in-laws in County Clare. It was a day out with his family. Many publicans interviewed on radio earlier also characterised the day of closure as an opportunity, usually to get the pub renovated. The daughter of a pub owner in Dublin 2 told me recently the day has been simply rostered as one of barmen’s days off for Holy Week.

He tells us an anecdote of a barman travelling on Good Friday years ago to visit his future wife in a different part of the country. The man stopped to get petrol in an abandoned town. As he paid for the fuel he asked the cashier if he knew anywhere he could get a pint.

‘If you park your car two hundred yards down the road and come back up to me I might be able to show you,’ said the cashier. After parking the car he was led through an empty pub to a back bar heaving with people. I never asked if the man got to his destination that night.

‘How’s Ballinrobe doing?’ I ask.

‘Ah it’s alright,’ he says, again unexcitedly. ‘We’ve a Supervalu and a Lidl. There’s an Aldi on the way.’

The stout is penetrating. Another person arrives just before we leave. The woman is in the adjoining bar, talking to the barman’s sister, who runs the pub with him. She’s having a soft drink. There might have been a packet of crisps. Was it for this the Wild Geese spread?

‘Enjoy your weekend,’ he says with a nod and half-smile, reminding us to visit Cong, a nostalgic look on his face, maybe for foot-loose, fancy-free Good Fridays. Perhaps next year he might revert to closure.

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