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My Illegal Irish Adventure

Shebeens date from the 1700's and are a well-established part of Irish life

By John ThomsonPublished 11 months ago 3 min read
The Connemara shebeen Photo: John Walsh

Like most travellers I check out the guidebooks before I jump on the plane. My recent trip to Ireland was no exception. Travelling east to west with Lonely Planet in hand I hit the major tourist haunts. Dublin’s Trinity College and the Book of Kells? Check. The Cliffs of Mohar? Check. The Titanic Experience in Cobh, the final departure point for the ill-fated liner? Did that. Kissing the Blarney Stone? No thanks, sounded like a mononucleosis-spreader to me.

Sure, the guidebooks help but I like chasing down the unusual out-of-the-way spots too. That’s the point of travel isn’t it? To experience people and places you normally wouldn't get to see, like the most westerly vegan café in Europe (it’s in Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands by the way). Or surfing lessons at Inch Beach, a tranquil-looking bay in County Kerry that can erupt into some pretty serious wave action. Who knew Ireland was a surfer’s paradise?

But it was a non-descript industrial park outside the city of Galway on the western edge of the island that captured by undying attention. I’m a reporter. I’m curious by nature and Ireland allowed me to unleash my inner sleuth. Local entrepreneur John Walsh and his shebeens didn't disappoint. Shebeen is the local word for an illegal Irish pub and Walsh has built four of them each one patterned after a rustic Irish cottage with flocked wallpaper, padded upholstery and working taps. They look like the real thing only smaller. And while they may conjure up thoughts of an illicit past, Walsh assured me his creations are government approved and fully licensed to dispense the suds.

Hoisting a few in a convivial and mobile environment. Photo: John Walsh

I had heard stories about Walsh and his shebeens beforehand so I called him up, invited myself over and got the story first hand. He said he built his first one on a whim about ten years ago. He told me it was originally a family trailer sitting in his parent’s back yard and he intended to turn it into a children’s playhouse. But for whom? He didn’t have children of his own.

“I didn’t have any kids so I said maybe I’ll turn it into some sort of bar,” he said. “I love the old Irish pubs.” And then he laughed. “I probably spent too much time in them in my youth.”

His first shebeen was called The Burren. It gave him purpose and a revenue stream.

"I gave up the drink three months before I started building," he continued. "After the first or second month I said alright, this is something I want to work on so instead of going to the pub on a Saturday afternoon I came over here and worked a couple of hours on it."

The first shebeen The Burren. Photo: John Walsh

The Burren quickly became a money-maker so he built three others, the Connemara, The Hay Shed and Paddy’s. He rents them out to wedding parties, corporate events and family get togethers, tows them to the desired location, usually to Dublin two hours away, and sets up shop. They all come with booze, two pull taps and hold 10 to 16 people each in a warm and inviting environment.

“They’ve got the cuteness, the Irish cottage factor,” he says, proud of the fact these aren't lame inflatables like a bouncy castle but the real thing only smaller. He decorates them with his own collection of pub memorabilia, plates, posters and antiques and is especially fond of an old tractor he has converted to bar duty in one of his later shebeens, the Hay Shed. The Hay Shed was the only unit still parked in Galway when I showed up, the others were rented out, so we met in the tiny bar and I took his picture as he drew a pint from the tap.

The Hay Shed. Photo by the author

John Walsh pulling a pint inside the Hay Shed. Photo by the author

I peppered him with questions. Can the shebeens travel outside Ireland? Yes they can. Do they come with a sound system? Of course. How long does it take to set up a shebeen? Approximately one hour.

It sounded fascinating. Then he told me the shebeens were a side hustle, an addition to his primary business manufacturing clean room furniture for the pharmaceutical industry. That’s what keeps him and his workers employed in a large factory inside the industrial park. So the shebeens were a side hustle but what a cool concept. And what fun. You too can rent a shebeen if you're ever in Ireland with a handful of friends and a trunkful of cash. The cost is negotiable.

I lucked out. The Hay Shed happened to be at home base so I got to sample a shebeen for myself and get a fascinating story in the process, one of the perks of ditching the guidebook and exploring foreign locations on your own.

Now, about Europe’s most westerly vegan café…


About the Creator

John Thomson

Former television news and current affairs producer now turned writer. Thanks Spell Check. Visit my web page at https://woodfall.journoportfolio.com

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