The Old Commercial Bar in Ardglass has just celebrated its first year with new landlord Barry Gilliland.
The bar dates back to the nineteenth century when the Magee family first worked there when it was a small hotel and then eventually took it over. And more recently in the early seventies, Ronan Fitzsimons took over from his aunts, then part of the Mulhern and Magee family, after he retired from the merchant navy and spend the next forty years working in the family business whilst also serving as the local harbourmaster for much of that time.
Ronan said: “Back in the beginning, the ‘Commercial’ was a stop over for the many agents and traders who were associated with the very busy herring industry that thrived in the village. The herring trade had run for 150 years and is still working to this day, but the large fleet of hundreds of small nobbies and nickies has gone and today we have several large trawlers landing in the port throughout the year during the seasons. The Old Commercial was always a small but very homely bar with lots of atmosphere. I was delighted to carry on the family tradition from my aunts who managed the bar many years ago.
Colin Neill, Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster, was encouraged by the Old Commercial having survived two world wars and a decline in the herring trade, and said: “It is a tremendous achievement for a small pub to be celebrating its 150th anniversary in the current economic climate when we have sadly seen the closure of so many premises over the years.
“Pubs are more than often at the heart of the community, as is the Old Commercial, and just to think that generations of local people and visitors have passed through this well run pub is a great hallmark as to the standards it has always maintained.
“Pubs are social spaces and I know that the Old Commercial is a great meeting place for its customers, to chat and to enjoy the craic and atmosphere of the bar. Pubs too are important for their charity work and it is amazing that across Northern Ireland last year local pubs raised over £2million for needy causes and I know that the Old Commercial is busy here in this respect running its weekly Thursday night quizzes.
“Running a bar takes a lot of personal commitment and working long hours and I have no doubt that Barry Gilliland and his team are up for the challenge. So on behalf of Hospitality Ulster I wish Barry and the Old Commercial every success in the years to come.”
Barry Gilliland added: “I received the offer to manage the business when the last landlord Sean Johnston decided to retire. However, I had no experience working in the bar or hospitality trade and it was all new to me. I have a plumbing supplies business and that is as far removed from bar work as you could imagine.
“But I approached it in a business-like manner and reflected on my own experiences as a customer and it all just grew from there. It was a massive learning curve but I found that the customers themselves were absolutely brilliant and gave me good feedback and before long the trade was building up quite strongly. We haven’t looked back since we took the plunge and pulled our first pint.
“We run a family business with my wife Debbie and daughters and a couple of great young bar tenders. Overall we have excellent staff who are very attentive to the customers. Looking after our customers is all important. Over the past year we have just been amazed how busy it has been.”
Barry changed initially some of the beer pumps in the free house. He introduced new draught beers including cider and Clonmel lager, and once the customers tastes had been established be moved the pumps to the centre of the bar area freeing up more workspace. And Barry too has made quite a number of small but significant changes such as creating a refrigerated room for his beer kegs and beer store.
He added: “What I really found amazing was the growing demand for cocktails, particularly the gin-based ones. Initially we had one brand of gin but now have over thirty and they are all used by our customers. Popular cocktails include Strawberry Daiquiri, Woo Woo and Sex on the Beach but we have quite a range.
“We also introduced from our new kitchen light lunches over the summer seasonal period which went down well, but ended them in the Autumn. We’ll start again next Easter with our food fayre. On St Patrick’s Day we will certainly have a pot of complementary stew on for the customers.
“One of our early changes in the premises was installing a wood burner in the bar which makes the bar much cosier. At the end of last year we also removed the old smokey coal fire in the lounge and replaced it with a wood burner.
“It has been a rollercoaster year and we have organised a few nights of music and fun which have proven to be very popular such as the local Irish music evenings, and we had a brilliant Burn’s night, our second, recently to celebrate Robbie Burns with the haggis. Ronan Fitzsimons recited the Address to the Haggis on the first session, and Jim Masson, a native Scot gave it an added ring of authenicity with his Scots accent second time round. The lounge was packed these evenings as they came to enjoy the craic and taste the tatties, neeps and haggis. We will be running another one next Burn’s night in 2019.
“We do get quite a lot of visiting golfers in too and the American golfers in particular really enjoy the old worldliness of the pub. We had Rich Beem, the 2000 PGA champion and SKY TV golf presenter, in the bar one evening and the local golfers had a ball in his company over a few drinks. He was quite a character and even succeeded in pouring his very first pint of Guinness!
“The American’s are very fond of sampling the Irish and Scotch whiskies and our top one for the whisky connoisseurs is Middleton, an Irish malt, which comes at £15 a measure. It is expensive but is quite well in demand.”
Barry explained he was looking forward to the challenge for 2019 and expects the days to be long. “After all”, he said, “the bar trade is about being there for your customer.
“And, in the middle of all of the work, I still manage to get out for a game of golf at Ardglass Golf Club which I really enjoy. It keeps my head clear after a few busy days pulling pints.
“As we were heading towards Christmas last year we really were busy most of the time. In fact our first January and February last year, usually quiet times in the bar trade, were quite busy which was very encouraging and we we have started this year off again in the same spirit.
“We have built up an excellent customer loyalty and that is something we are absolutely delighted with. Our customers mean everything to us and we will strive to maintain our standards into the coming year.“
The Old Commercial Bar’s
150th Anniversary Celebrations
which will run through the year
starting with the History Talk on the Bar
on Friday 23rd February
From 9pm in the lounge
by Ciara and Ethna van Vogt and Michael Howland –
‘From its beginnings in 1868 to the present day’