Of the estimated 10,000 pubs in Ireland, the best one, it seems, is in a secluded Tipperary farmhouse and only open Thursday nights.
This may sound like a wee bit of blarney, but it’s all true and my wife can attest because she was there, too.
Pub owners Jim and Kae Ryan hold a seven-day licence, but they pack all the “trad” (traditional Irish music) and craic (pronounced “crack” and Gaelic for fun) into one night a week, often till 5 a.m.
Called Jim O’ the Mill, it was recently named Ireland’s best pub by The Irish Times. The Dublin-based newspaper went so far as to gush: “It’s the best pub in the world.” Not bad for a watering hole with just one beer tap serving up only pints of Guinness. Bottled beer, wine and liquor are also available.
Outside Jim O’ the Mill there are no lights or neon harp signs to suggest it’s anything other than a farmhouse on route 503 between the villages of Ballycahill and Upperchurch in County Tipperary.
For tourists, part of the fun is finding the place. We were warned we’d have trouble getting there in the dark. “If you get to Ballycahill look for the pub with the thatched roof and keep driving straight for a couple miles and if you reach Upperchurch, you’ve come too far,” said a waitress in the village of Horse & Jockey.
We had little trouble finding Jim O’ the Mill because there were at least a dozen cars parked in front of it on the narrow road by 9 p.m. that February night.
We found a safe place to park, turned on our phones’ flashlights and made our way to the charming old house not knowing what to expect.
As we stepped through the red door, we crossed the threshold into the beating heart of Ireland’s culture of music and storytelling.
We entered the “session” room and it was packed with nine musicians with fiddles, guitars, spoons, accordion and a bodhrán drum. There was nothing fancy by far. Chairs and benches were squeezed into this tight room of about four by five metres.
The music was raucous, earthy and exciting as everyone tapped along on the stone floor. The session room is the original kitchen of the 200-year-old farmhouse, with an enormous three-metre-wide open fireplace.
After a couple of songs, we squeezed past listeners and made our way into the middle room where younger folks were hanging about a smaller fireplace.
At the bar in the third room we met Kae Ryan, who welcomed us and asked about Canada and our Irish ancestors. Most North American tourists who find Jim O’ the Mill have Irish roots, she tells us.
When we return to the session room, local farmer Tom Stapleton, a member of the audience, is singing – a cappella – a very moving Irish folk song called The Green Bushes.
Then, the man himself, Jim O’ the Mill, appears through a side door with his fiddle in hand. Because there are so many Ryans in these parts, each one has a nickname. Jim Ryan’s is “Jim O’ the Mill” after his great-great-grandfather, a miller who built the house. Legend has it that his forebear also started the pub as a community get-together for farmers in the early 1800s.
“I’ve been doing this 35 years, but the pub’s been going for 200 years,” Jim tells us later.
A cattle farmer the rest of the week, Jim is a natural host. After each song, he looks around the room and either asks people in the audience to sing a song or request one. When shy Canadians decline to sing, the musicians immediately strike up their rendition of Ian Tyson’s Canadian classic Four Strong Winds.
On any given Thursday, Jim Ryan doesn’t know who will be there to play music. Sometimes his five daughters and their friends perform, or it’s musicians from all over Tipperary and beyond. This night Theresa Bourke, one of Ireland’s most talented fiddlers, was there playing along with an American from Washington, one of the students at her Fiddlers’ Retreat.
The music ranged from Andy Williams and Bob Dylan to traditional Irish jigs and reels. This year being the 100th anniversary of the Irish uprising in April, 1916, many songs were tributes to fallen rebels, such as the haunting ballad Kevin Barry, about a young man hanged by the British at age 18.
Just before midnight, a plate of wheaten bread and black-and-white pudding was passed around. It felt like a giant house party, not a pub. Amid the non-stop music, it seemed like more bottled water was consumed than stout or lagers.
Before we knew it, four hours had passed. We’d been to several other pubs for terrific trad on our trip, but nothing beat the craic at Jim O’ the Mill.Report Typo/Error
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