Friday 17 January 2020

'Cappuccino Sessions' to co-working spaces - This Mayo bar is reimagining the Irish pub

The death of the rural Irish pub may have been exaggerated, Pól Ó Conghaile discovers on a visit to Castlebar

Declan Swift in Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Declan Swift in Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Kevin Swift, Declan Swift and Audrey Bouvard at Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic:Michael Mc Laughlin
Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Irish pubs are struggling, but recently, I stepped into one that's quietly thriving.

Walking through the cosy, beautifully lit Bridge St in Castlebar, Co Mayo, I noted events like lunchtime music ('Cappuccino Sessions') and comedy nights.

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I saw slick meeting rooms, decorated with vinyl and vintage radios - spaces used by groups like the local choir and Women's Shed.

A pizza van stops by on Saturdays, and there's even a co-working space ('Seomra') in a converted shed out back.

The word 'community' came to mind.

Over 1,500 Irish bars closed outside Dublin between 2005 and 2018 (down from 7,831 to 6,296, according to Drinks Industry Group of Ireland figures), removing local hubs and further hollowing out villages and towns.

So what did Bridge St's owners have in mind when they set about creating this re-imagined version of an Irish pub?

"Bar, meetings and music," is Declan Swift's response.

"It's sometimes like an oasis, sometimes a thriving, fuzzy mix of atmospheres... We felt the space should resonate like a village or town bar when you walk into it, giving a feeling of closeness and intimacy, but then opening up into what you might feel is more of a city bar."

After a previous pub on the site closed in 2015, Declan's family bought it, spent time developing the property, and reopened in March 2017. It doesn't do food. There's no Sky Sports (just one TV "for big Mayo games"). Salsa, chess and kayaking clubs are just a few that have booked its meeting spaces.

Kevin Swift, Declan Swift and Audrey Bouvard at Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic:Michael Mc Laughlin
Kevin Swift, Declan Swift and Audrey Bouvard at Bridge St, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Pic:Michael Mc Laughlin

Music ranges from 'after-work trad' to intimate gigs by the likes of John Spillane ("It's a listening crowd," Declan adds). Seomra's five desks are occupied by freelancers, marketers and designers.

Upstairs, goldsmith Nigel O'Reilly is a tenant whose high-end work has been worn by Saoirse Ronan, among others.

It helps that the Swifts have taste. With its slick gins, high-spec coffee machine and eclectic furniture and partitioning, Bridge St feels at times like a hip urban bar. But it is Castlebar to the core. You can order Mescan craft beers and Loch Measc gin. Paintings by Desmond Downey feature scenes like the old county cinema and a derelict development site locals will know well.

There's no single model for a successful Irish pub. But I love Bridge St's quiet confidence as a space not just where adults can drink and have the craic, but where people can chat, reboot, listen to tunes or have a laugh. It's got vision, but it also feels nourishing, like a cosy antidote to screentime, a place you might swing through to actively connect, rather than passively follow.

Keep it lit.

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