Quaffing Here For 11 Centuries: Sean’s Bar Claims Title of Oldest Pub in Ireland, Europe and Possibly the World
Sean’s Bar is a pub (abbreviated from ‘public house’) located in Athlone, in Ireland’s County Westmeath. This bar holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest public house in Ireland. In addition, it has often been claimed that this is the oldest pub in Europe, and it is currently seeking to be recognised as the oldest in the world. The mind boggles at the number of cheerful and woeful tales that must have been told in this spot over the last millennium.
Sean’s Bar is situated at a crossing point on the west bank of the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. Althone, the town where Sean’s Bar can be found, is said to have been derived from the Irish ‘Atha Luain’, which means ‘the Ford of Luain’ in English. Luain is said to have been the man who established the pub on the bank of the river. Being the pub’s owner, guided travellers across the dangerous waters of the Shannon in ancient times. The town was perhaps named in honour of him. A settlement later grew up around this crossing point, and a wooden castle was eventually built in 1129 by Turlough O' Connor, the High King of Ireland.
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The history of Sean’s Bar dates back to AD 900. According to the pub’s current website, the establishment has “a detailed and documented history right back to 900 AD”. Evidence for the building’s age has also been in its structure. During the 1970s, renovations were being made to the pub, during which one of its walls was found to be made of wattle and wicker. The use of these materials for the construction of houses was common in Ireland between the 9 th and 13 th centuries AD. The dating of the wall supported the claim that the building dates back to the 10 th century AD. In addition to this, ancient coins were also discovered during the renovations. These were “minted by various landlords for barter with their customers”, and were found to be contemporaneous with the wattle and wicker wall.
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Wattle and wicker wall at Sean’s Bar in Athlone, Ireland (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The majority of the ancient wall and the coins have been moved to the National Museum of Ireland, where they are on display today. A section of the wall, however, has been left in a glass case in the pub, and can be viewed by its patrons.
As a comparison, the oldest pub in neighboring Britain, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the Bingley Arms in Bardsey, North Leeds. According to the official records, this pub, which is situated on the road between two abbeys (and hence was originally known as the Priest Inn), was opened in AD 953. It has been claimed, however, that there is evidence suggesting that the pub was already in operation in AD 905.
The Bingley Arms, Bardsey, West Yorkshire, perhaps the oldest pub in Britain (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In any case, the Bingley Arms is not quite as old as Sean’s Bar, and the latter might just be the oldest pub in Europe, as some have claimed. Currently, the pub is seeking to be recognised as the oldest in the world, a process which could take a couple of years to complete.
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The modern-day interior of Sean’s Bar, 2014 (Sean’s Bar)
Sean’s Bar has been in operation over the centuries, and has undoubtedly changed owners a great number of times. At present, this establishment is owned by brothers Paul and Tim Donovan, who bought the pub from its previous owner, Sean Fitzsimons, in 2000. Fitzsimons, in turn, purchased the pub from an earlier owner in during the 1970s. Speaking of owners, it is rumoured that the English singer Boy George owned the pub for a short time, and that he was good friends with Fitzsimons.
Whilst the ownership of Sean’s Bar by a celebrity may be a rumour, it is clear that numerous celebrities have visited this ancient establishment over the decades. Some of these include Robbie Henshaw, an Irish rugby player who was born in Althone, American actor Larry Hagman and Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist of Queen.
Top image: Sean's Bar is located on Main Street, Athlone, on the West Bank of the River Shannon, and was originally known as Luain's Inn. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
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