15 August 2018

Athlone claims the oldest
pub in Ireland. Is it the
oldest pub in the world?

Sean’s Bar in Athlone, beneath the shadows of Athlone Castle, claims to dare back to 900 AD (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have been staying for a few days in Wineport Lodge, outside Athlone, on the banks of Lough Ree. Having listened to legends and local lore about monks bringing wine from France into Limerick and up the Shannon to this part of the Irish Midlands from as early as the sixth century, it was inevitable that late yesterday I should find myself in Athlone in a place on the banks of the Shannon that claims to be the oldest pub in Ireland.

Sean’s Bar on Main Street, beneath the slopes of the Castle in Athlone, claims to date back to the year 900 and claims the title of the Oldest Pub in Ireland, if not the Oldest Pub in the World.

The Lonely Planet lists pub with a traditional ‘Irish Pub’ ambience’ in both the ‘25 Most Incredible Bars in the World’ and the ‘50 Bars to Blow your Mind.’

The Irish name of Athlone, Ath Luain, translates as ‘the Ford of Luain’ or ‘the river crossing of Luain.’ In Sean’s Bar, they claim Luain was an innkeeper who guided people across the treacherous waters of the River Shannon at an ancient ford.

The ‘old world’ atmosphere inside Sean’s Bar in Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Here they say that Saint Ciaran and the monks of Clonmacnoise brought not only wine from France and Spain up the river from the sixth and seventh centuries, but also used the river to keep themselves supplied with both beer and whiskey.

The lore and legends that have grown up add that both the crossing point and the pub date back to the year 900. Later, a settlement grew up around this river crossing, and King Turlough O Connor built a wooden castle here in 1129.

Visitors to Sean’s Bar are told the pub has detailed and documented evidence taking the history of the pub back to 900.

During renovations almost half a century ago in 1970, the walls of the bar were found to be made of ‘wattle and wicker’ dating back to the ninth century. Old coins that were minted by various landlords for barter with their customers were found too and dated from this period.

A section of these walls remains on display in the pub.

Later, they will tell you in Sean’s Bar, that the first mention of uisce beatha or whiskey anywhere in the world is found in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405, when they report the death at Christmas of Richard Magrannel, Chieftain of Moyntyreolas, after ‘taking a surfeit of Aqua Vitae.’ So for one mediaeval Irish chieftain, whiskey by the waters of the Shannon was certainly not the ‘water of life.’

The Guinness Book of Records was called in to authentic the claims of Sean’s Bar, and declared that the place holds the record of the ‘Oldest Pub in Ireland.’

Research continues into claims to the title of the ‘Oldest Pub in the World,’ and in Sean’s Bar they are still holding out hope of claiming this title too.

But Sean’s Bar seems to be content with its present claims, which seems to have enhanced its attraction to people boating on the Shannon and tourists from around the world who arrive in Athlone.

The old bar is crowded, even in the late afternoon and early evening in mid-week. It has an open fireplace, old walls, sloping floors, and an eclectic set of collections of ephemeral items on the walls.

The beer garden at the back leads straight onto the banks of the River Shannon between the bridge linking the town sides of Athlone, Roscommon and Westmeath, Connaught and Leinster.

Sean’s Bar is one of the ‘25 Most Incredible Bars in the World’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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