I first heard of this pub during the Russell weekend in Doolin last month. ‘Jim O’ the Mills’. Well that’s not strictly true. In fact I recall being told during my first week in Ennis back in May 2014 about a pub that only opens sometimes in a remote village in North Tipperary. It had slipped my mind until Cáit Ryan, whose father happens to be Jim of ‘Jim of the Mills’ told me about it. I determined to visit it at the next opportunity.
So on the Thursday before Easter I headed out there. As it happens the pub only opens on Thursdays so given that the next day was a holiday a big night was expected. Although only less than two hours’ drive from home I figured I would stay in a B&B as I didn’t fancy a long drive back in the small hours, but the nearest with spare rooms was at Nenagh about 45 minutes away. This turned out to be the best B&B I have come across in Ireland but more on that another time.
I really had no idea where the pub was so I got to the village of Upperchurch before dark to give myself a better chance of finding it. The regulation three pubs were all closed but I eventually found a man wandering the deserted streets (or should I say ‘street’) who gave the very clear directions of “turn left and left again and you can’t miss it”. He was right. But I needn’t have worried because when I returned an hour and a half later the parked cars on the main road well and truly gave it away.
With some time to kill I went back to Upperchurch and by this time Paddy Kinnane’s pub was open. I stepped into a dimly lit empty room and a request for food was met with “I don’t think so you have to order ahead“ from the young lass behind the bar. A little nonplussed (who plans the day before to go to Upperchurch?) but I was rescued by the manager, Jim Butler, who after checking with the kitchen told me “You can have steak or salmon.” Salmon it was, washed down with a Guinness, and it was quite magnificent. With beautiful fresh vegetables. The pub was a genuine traditional Irish Pub. Nothing ‘Plastic Paddy’ here – this was ‘Stone and Wood Paddy’. By the time I had finished my meal there were four punters at the bar. I was amused, this being Easter Thursday, that they managed to keep up a conversation for about fifteen minutes about the Mass which had just finished. Only Ireland! The walls were adorned with photographs and memorabilia with more than a Republican slant. Jim who was married to Paddy Kinnane’s sister, proceeded to fill me in on Upperchurch’s role in the 1916 Rebellion and the subsequent Civil War, and Paddy in particular. This prompted me to do a bit of research of my own so if you’ll bear with me I’ll divert for a while.
The eponymous Paddy O’Cuinneain (Paddy Kinnane) who opened the Pub in 1927 had joined the Irish Volunteers at the age of 22 in 1914 but this had disbanded soon after. Following the Rising in Easter 1916 he was involved on the fringes eventually joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He saw little action though but spent seven days in jail for refusing on principle to pay a fine of 2/6 for not having a light on his bicycle at night. He saw this as a political statement. Love it! In 1917, branches of the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein were formed in Upperchurch (the Upperchurch Volunteers). Paddy was involved in August 1917 in a raid on a hardware shop in Thurles where a hundredweight of explosives was captured. The company at this time had one rifle which Paddy had stolen from a British officer.
The Upperchurch Volunteers joined with some of the other local units to become the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and Paddy became the Commandant in 1918. From 1919 he was a wanted man and went on the run and never slept at home until 1924. In 1919 he was involved in a plot to assassinate an Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). In the 1920’s he was involved in a number of failed attempts to destroy RIC barracks in particular at Drombane and Doon.
Jim Butler told me had been a hunger striker but I am not clear whether this was in the 1920s or later. People think Bobby Sands and 1981 when ‘Hunger Strike’ is mentioned, but it has been used a lot in Ireland historically to push a political point and in particular by the Republicans – for example 8,000 internees went on a hunger strike protesting their detention in 1923. He remained active after the war and he was a colleague of fellow republican Sean MacBride (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize) and they were both elected to the Dáil Éireann in 1947, Paddy representing Tipperary.
Quite a history. Here is a photo of Paddy with Sean which is hanging on the pub wall.
But it was time to visit Jim of the Mills. First the name – an obvious homage to Ned of the Hills. This is a famous Irish song celebrating Tipperary man Edmund O’Ryan who led a gang of bandits in the 17th Century in the style of Roin Hood.
It was explained to me by Jim Butler that because there are so many Ryan’s in this part of Tipperary they are all distinguished by nicknames: Ryan the Giant, Ryan Sean Og and of course Jim of the Mills.
I thought I had plenty of time. Irish sessions always start late don’t they? So I arrived at 9:30 and the place was already packed. Not what I expected at all. Outwardly there was no hint of activity (except for the cars). No sign saying Heineken or Guinness. No blackboard saying “Trad Music tonight”. It just looked like a family home. The Ryan’s have been living here since 1990 but the house dates back to 1800. From 1815 it was used as a mill (Jim of the Mills!) But since 1982 there have been regular sessions here. Cáit Ryan told me it started with 5 or 6 people only.
On going through the red half door I walked into an Ireland that was of another time. Like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But here it was for real. I turned left and into the room which is called the ‘kitchen’ because that’s what it once was, packed with musicians all lined up in chairs facing the enormous fire place. I was taken through to the new ’kitchen’ and immediately pounced upon and introduced to Kae Ryan, Jim’s wife and a host of others. I was offered a cup of tea, the first of about half a dozen during the night. There were only a few seats left back in the session room so I got my fiddle out, found a spot and was immediately swept up by the non-stop music. As if by way of welcome for me the first tunes were a set known as the “Upperchurch Polkas”. I’ll definitely have them learnt for next time. There were no stars here and no egos it was music from the heart. We heard a beautiful song from Ella Stapleton, who had just won a prestigious singing competition and from Bridie Ryan (yes another Ryan but not related), who seemed to be MC’ing and a host of others whose names I didn’t know or don’t remember. There were all ages playing and singing and I love that there were plenty of local songs as well as the old standards. I even got to sing an old favourite of mine ‘Jim Jones’.
A lovely touch was the plates of bread and black and white pudding which came out during the night and disappeared with alarming speed. Did some come just for the pudding?
I caught up during the night with Jim, the host who sings and plays fiddle, and met three of Cáit’s sisters, Greta, Roisin and Erin, all steeped in the music. There is another sister Aine who is an actor and playwright. I have been to hundreds of sessions in Ireland now. Perhaps 700, but this was truly a unique experience. It had the feel of a giant house party. We were in the Ryan family home, but for one night a week it becomes the centre of the world. Four rooms are taken over by music lovers and lovers of the craic. It was absolutely ‘chockers’ as we say back home. There were little sessions going on all over the place. In the new ‘kitchen’ I was treated to unaccompanied songs from a number of home grown talents including Jim himself and then there was another small room where I joined Cáit and her sister Greta and their friends in belting out songs and tunes. Some decidedly untraditional! The noise was deafening, but somehow it seemed right. Then there was the bar which was jammed. A trip to the toilet took ten minutes and you made lots of friends on the way!
I was told there would be heaps of tourists but the people I spoke to were all regulars and from neighbouring villages. Maybe the tourists haven’t reached the Midlands yet.
I left around 4am but Cáit told me that she finished up at 5:30 and the music was still going.
This is certainly not the place to go to if you want to play quiet tunes in the corner and maybe for many of the tradheads there would be too much singing but wow, for a taste of the real Irish craic and an unforgettable experience and to meet a genuine, warm, Irish family steeped in the local history and tradition and with music coming out of the walls you really must find your way to Upperchurch in North Tipperary on a Thursday.
Thanks Cáit for inviting me and to Jim and Kae and everyone else for making me feel so welcome. Special thanks to Greta for grabbing my camera and taking some amazing shots. See you all again for sure…….