Half shop, Half pub, Full of character
In Dingle, Co. Kerry, you are truly blessed with a variety of cherished pubs, not to mention the breathtaking beauty of the Dingle Peninsula itself and its Atlantic coastline. Among them though, one establishment summarises the history of the Irish Pub like no other – J. Curran’s Shop Bar sitting atop the steep Main Street. On passing through the unassuming, shop-like front, you are presented with a bright n’airy room, of cream tongue-&-groove wood-panelled walls covered by shelves with every manner of beer bottles, spirits, rope, pots, buckets, all-weather clothing, tools & horse-racing memorabilia. Despite the cultivated clutter, the pub itself is an exercise in plainness and simplicity. The whole place is no more than a simple, square room, of black-slated floor, flanked by two long counters, each with their rows of bar stools, ordinarily populated by a few thirsty local folk. On the left, you have the old shop, still a functioning juncture for picking up the odd essential or two – and a delightful hark back to the dual-role of many of these fine old Irish pubs – and to the right you have the main bar. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Curran’s was a busy general merchant in Dingle’s bustling commercial centre. In that bygone era, local farmers would drop in to buy shirts and boots for themselves, animal feed for their livestock and a pint of stout for their troubles, all in one visit!
The pub was originally opened on Dingle’s Main Street by James Curran in 1871. Students of Irish language and history will readily be able to place that heritage in context by noting that Peig Sayers, a ‘seanachai’ (storyteller) made famous in the autobiography ‘Peig’ which recalls her life as a lonely fisherman’s wife , actually worked in the bar for a time as a teenager, given she was a distant relative of the Curran family. Upon the death of the original James Curran in 1907, the pub passed to his son John who managed the bar until his own death in 1926, when his widow Mary & their son James took over. In the event of James’ untimely death in 1940, Mary drafted in her other son Joe for help. Joe gradually took over all aspects of the pub’s business until Mary herself died in 1966, aged 91. When Joe died in 1990, the pub passed to his son James, who is the present owner. Consequently, the pub’s heritage and classic ‘untouched’ guise are all heavily linked to the Curran family’s ongoing patronage.
We are therefore talking about a pub that has barely changed in nearly 150 years, in light of its continued familial care and attention, allowing a unique peek into a slice of Irish public house life largely long since passed. Pubs like Curran’s, administered by several generations of the same considerate ancestry, are a privilege to be able to visit given their rarity. There is absolutely no guarantee such passing of the reins from one generation to the next will continue indefinitely; P. Frawley’s lovely shop pub in Lahinch, Co. Clare, unfortunately being one such reminder of that. OK, it’s not all doom and gloom. Dingle itself is rightfully regarded as an area of outstanding natural beauty and as such, is perennially a stopover on the tourist trail; to put in perspective, it was once cited as ‘the most beautful place on earth‘ by National Geographic. Dingle still pulls in the tourists and punters for its natural beauty, not to mention the Dingle Races, or the ‘Other Voices’ music show recorded each December to cite just a few reasons why pub doors in Dingle won’t stop swinging just yet. Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that Curran’s would remain open and viable at all at the next changing of the guard given the business challenges in the modern-day Irish licensed pub trade. Curran’s doesn’t use any of the modern tricks-of-the-trade to attract customers, just the promise of an escape from the whirlwind swirl of 21st century life. Let us merely enjoy the unique experience a pub such as this offers, whilst it remains under the watchful stewardship of the modern-day James Curran. Well, I say unique experience, but bear in mind too that in true, old, Irish pub style, that experience is likely to include some grizzly-eyed locals eyeing you up momentarily as you saunter in on ‘their turf’ but don’t worry; the few pints and the relaxing atmosphere always help to settle the nerves. Pull up a stool, you’ll find that their bark is worse than their bite.
Given the rarity of genuine snugs in the old public houses of Ireland it is charming and somewhat amusing that Currans in fact has three of them, in three of its four corners, available for privacy or devilment, depending on your motivation. On the far left, one box-like snug sits bedecked with framed pictures and an antique convex mirror, at the end of the shop’s counter, next to the old-fashioned weighing scales. To the far right, lies another similarly boxy snug framed by wooden and glass partitions and decorated with old photos, assorted advertisements and bits n’ bobs. This snug and the one that we actually ended up in ourselves – just inside the front door to the right – are the smart ones to grab, as they are right beside the bar! On our particular visit to Dingle, myself, Angelika and her mum were such besotted snug-seekers that when we sidled into Curran’s and saw that the front snug was empty, we slinked on in to it without batting an eyelid. It was quite a brave thing to do, being as it is that all newcomers are duly assessed upon arrival, but as I say, we were quickly old news and were able to relax with our drinks in our cosy corner of conversation. The snug itself was narrow but bright, full of that delightful, cream wood paneling, with a comfy bench seat covered in assorted cushions. To one side we had the front window, again with a high wooden partition to allow privacy, and to the other side we had the main bar, with our handy little window-slot to order our drinks. A poster of the Dingle Races reminded us that we were deep in horse-racing country, what with Dingle, Tralee & Listowel all having nearby racing meetings of note on the annual racing calendar. An old photo of a local Gaelic team hung overhead. The whole place just oozes of mementos from days long gone. So it was that we sat chatting and observing the mixture of seasoned regulars and small groups of holidaying 30-somethings down for the weekend looking for the craic and a sing-song. On some occasions they’d be duly obliged but it was still relatively early in the evening and so in the time we were there, the atmosphere remained calm.
One red wine, a Guinness and a pint of lager later (roughly to the tune of €14 or so), we were ready to stroll on to check out the motley choice of other great pubs Dingle had to offer. As we headed out into the brisk evening, we all agreed that Curran’s was indeed a unique place, well worth a visit and deserving of being regarded among Ireland’s most special pubs. The funny thing is, when we left Dingle a few days later, we still thought the same and yet had already concluded that Curran’s wasn’t even our favourite pub in Dingle (!!!) – that accolade in our minds, went to the colourful Dick Mack’s, but more on that later. Somehow it’s pubs like Curran’s, more so than others, that make me personally especially fearful that without proper consideration we could be on the brink of not only losing these unique places to gather & socialise but of losing a part of what it actually means to be Irish. Community. Conversation. Characters. Careful ownership and pride. Every time I come back to Dingle, I’ll be sure to drop by Curran’s for a drink, but also just to make sure that it’s simply still there. Now that’s something truly worthy of a drink.
– Words: Damien Smyth
– Photos: Angelika Appelqvist
Name: J. Curran’s Shop Bar
Address: Main Street, Dingle, Co. Kerry
Proprietor: James Curran
Visit because: Approx. 150 years of family-run care has preserved a rare picture of Irish pub-life of a bygone era.
Food served? (Yes/No): No
Tel.: +353 (0)66 915 1110
Social links: N/A
Location / Map: