Kieran Kelly’s ‘One for the Road’ – a literary pub crawl like no other

By Paddy Walsh

PUB quiz question: Where did John Doherty open a bar in Letterkenny in the late 1830’s?

And, for a bonus point (pint?), name his great, great, great-grandson who currently runs it?


Two questions that are fully answered in Kieran Kelly’s book ‘One for the Road’ which is to be launched next Wednesday (June 19) in the Regional Cultural Centre – a 200 year history that raises a glass to the memories of the numerous public houses that have, and continue to, occupy a special place in the commercial life of the town.

“What is a pub?,” the author asks when it’s put to him what the criteria is for inclusion in a publication of this nature.

One particular premises on the Main Street has the answer at least as far as it’s concerned. “Just a Pub”, Blake’s Bar advises its customers and passers-by on the sign above the door.

Back in the 1800s when John Doherty moved from his birthplace in Legnahoory to Letterkenny, he opened his bar on Upper Main Street.

Now run by Kevin Blake – that great, great, great-grandson – it is, according to ‘One for the Road’, officially the oldest pub in the town of Letterkenny that has remained constantly in the same family.

Family played a part in Kieran’s decision to come up with this publication in the first place. It was during lockdown that the initial idea sprang into life as he put together a fifty-page word document for his father, Hugh, relating to pubs in the town.

“It was something for dad to read to help while away the time when he was, like the rest of us, confined to home. And I thought he’s going to love this now and I asked him, what do you think, and he went “ah, it was alright, grand.”


The Swilly Bar and Restaurant (The Cottage Bar today)

Not quite the response Kieran had envisaged. But subsequently in August 2021, there was a return to the pubs and Hugh was there with a few others and they were having the craic and the banter and the singing.

“It was the most alive I’d seen him in a long time – back to himself after two years sitting at home. And it got to me.

“You can have a glass of whiskey or a can of lager in the house but it’s not the alcohol, it’s the place and the people you’re in there with and I got it then.

“My fifty-page thing was all facts and figures. It wasn’t showing what a pub is and the people involved, the proprietors and the customers.

“And I know if dad was here now, he’d thoroughly love this book. I had got it why he didn’t like the original but he’d be sitting there now reading about each of the pubs, The Hill and the rest of them and looking at the photographs throughout the book.”

And this is a work that contains numerous faces and places between the covers of its 374 pages. Images of publicans and patrons from over the decades – from the past to the present, a proverbial gallery that will, like the text, ignite memories and anecdotes among the readers.

Old photos retrieved from attics and family albums and presented to Kieran to be used to help relate the story of the characters and personalities who peopled these premises.

The pub trade in Letterkenny wasn’t without its tragedies as the author reveals. In December 1944 a fire at Rodden’s bar claimed the lives of Kitty Rodden and a maid, Winnie Martin.

“Three other people, John Rodden, her brother, Mary Devine and Delia Higgins, both nieces, were rescued from the blaze by jumping from the first-floor window, about eight feet from the ground.”

Delia Higgins would ultimately take over the running of the pub for 20 years after a complete rebuild before her passing in 1963, aged 58.
But this is a book to celebrate the two centuries of pub life in and around Letterkenny.

In his introduction to the book, Kieran stresses from the very beginning that there is more to the Irish pub than alcohol. “Sadly, many families have been devastated by the effects of addiction and alcoholism over the years, and therefore it must be stated from the outset that this book is not a celebration of the consumption of alcohol. Rather it is a celebration of the institution of the local public house, specifically in the town of Letterkenny, especially remembering the people who ran them and to preserve their names in historical record.”

The pub, Kieran points out, is not just a place to drink. “It is a meeting spot, a place to socialise, to gossip, to catch up with the latest news, to sing and dance and simply to enjoy each other’s company.”

And to laugh and banter and engage in sporting and political debates – the high stools, as is well known, the real seats of power!

Kieran, who has, not surprisingly, dedicated the book to his father, Hugh, who passed away two years ago, acknowledges so many who contributed in whatever way to the publication and is keen to mention in particular, Stevie Toye of Logopix, who designed the cover.

“He’s a legend and I’m very grateful to him and to all who helped make this possible.”

‘One for the Road’ will be launched at the RCC on Wednesday night next at 7pm.

Truly, a literary pub crawl but without the hangover…!

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