As the Metropole Hotel unveils its own new snug, Donal O’Keeffe takes a leisurely stroll around Cork and visits some of the city’s cosiest pub corners.
On a wintry night in Cork, as locals tramp in with snow on their coats, four young women sit by the stove in the snug of Reidy’s Vault Bar on Lancaster Quay. The snug – all dark timber, frosted glass and mirrored cabinets – is a place of warmth and refuge.
“Of all the snugs in Cork,” says one woman, over a balloon glass full of ice, fruit and, presumably, gin, “this is the snuggliest.”
The proprietor, Maura Reidy, has worked here for many years, and she can recall a time women were restricted to snugs, not so much by choice, but by powerful social convention.
“In those days, women were only allowed in snugs. They usually only drank sherry, port, or a small Guinness and milk. That was supposed to be good for the blood.
“Now, of course, women can drink with the best of them, and fair play to them.”
Catherine Coffey O’Brien, a community activist and a Workers Party local election candidate for the Cork City North West ward, remembers when women were confined to snugs:
Snugs are in the news in Cork at the moment, thanks to the recent opening of a snug in the Metropole Hotel. It’s a cosy space, and already very popular, but like most Cork snugs, it doesn’t pass the strictest definition of a snug.
“For me, an authentic snug has to have an independent door,” says Michael O’Donovan of the Castle Inn on South Main Street. Of the pubs visited by the Irish Examiner for this incomplete look at Cork snugs, only the Castle Inn and the Long Valley snugs have separate entrances.
Author and historian Tom Spalding is currently researching Cork pubs as part of his PhD in the Technical University, Dublin (formerly the DIT).
“Snugs were popular with women, but not exclusively for them. Some women frequented the public bar (although they may have been ladies of easy virtue) and many men who did not wish to be disturbed used the snug. Snugs were also popular with priests, guards, men wishing to avoid getting caught in a round, or trying to avoid a particular ‘regular’.”
Some pubs had several snugs, Spalding notes: “Callanan’s originally had two; Le Chateau was divided into four little bars. Most remaining snugs have been modified – the one in the Oval lacks its door for example.
“Snugs started to disappear in the 1950s, and the trend accelerated in the ’60s as lounge bars were introduced. These took over the role of the snug as spaces catering to women, but now in mixed groups with husbands or (whisper it) boyfriends. Changing fire regulations and other trends saw many Cork pub interiors removed from the 1980s onwards, and now few remain.”
Coffey O’Brien calls the segregation of women in public houses “almost an unwritten apartheid.
“But when you look at this country’s shameful history,” she says, “the snug was only a visible manifestation of our misogyny.”
The snug is not just part of Irish pub history. Its importance as a cultural space – not to mention as a theatrical device – was recognised by Sean O’Casey. The Plough and the Stars takes place in part in a pub with a snug, outside the doors of which momentous, revolutionary action is taking place. In keeping with this theme, author Louise O’Neill was recently invited to be ‘author in residence’ at the Metropole as it prepared to unveil its snug. Tom Spalding says it’s nice to see the tradition being revived in places such as the Met Bar or the Poor Relation, which did not have snugs before. “Perhaps in an age where everything we do is highly subject to public scrutiny, a little privacy and old-fashioned intimacy is becoming valued.”
Cork has plenty of snugs to choose from. BarBarella on Barrack Street (previously The Gateway, established 1698) is the oldest licensed premises in Cork. It has several snug-like spaces, as does its sister pub BarBarossa on Oliver Plunkett Street.
An Spailpín Fánach on South Main Street has been a tavern since 1779, and has three snugs. The first snug’s wood-panelling and stone walls have the unmistakeable feeling of authenticity. The second is further in, and has a fireplace at its heart(h). The third, and newest, looks the oldest, with its ‘Players Please’ and ‘Clarke’s Perfect Plug’ signs.
The Mutton Lane Inn, off Patrick Street, dates back to 1788. Its snug was only restored to use in the past few decades, its wooden partition walls rescued from storage.
Callanan’s on George’s Quay has been in Robert Crowley’s family for three generations. “My mother, Colette Crowley, nèe Callanan, is the owner. Her parents bought it in the 1930s.”
Some people love snugs, Robert says, and some hate them. “You have privacy, but you can feel outside of the atmosphere.” A pint sits on the table in the snug, sheet music spread beside it. A man steps in from having a smoke outside. “I’ll be in my office,” he says, closing the snug door.
The Castle Inn on South Main Street has been in the Connolly family – now the O’Donovan family –since the 1930s, and dates back to at least the 1870s. Owner Michael O’Donovan says the snug’s traditional customers were women and priests.
The Welcome Inn on Parnell Place dates back to 1845 and has what is probably the smallest snug in Cork. The Welcome’s snug will comfortably fit two people, or four at a pinch.
The Poor Relation on Parnell Place has recently added two new snugs.
The Vicarstown Bar on North Main Street has an old snug, now opened out, which still has its original stained-glass windows.
Sober Lane on Sullivan’s Quay has a newly renovated snug, with a separate hatch to the bar and a curtain.
The Oval on South Main Street boasts a traditional snug inside the front door, and an unofficial snug at the back by the fireplace. The Long Valley on Winthrop Street has one of Cork’s best-loved snugs. The original Victorian tiled floor is still intact, and the doors came from the White Star Liner RMS Celtic, which ran aground off Roche’s Point in 1928. The wooden benches were once intended for a planned Cork US consulate.
The Shelbourne on McCurtain Street has two luxurious snugs, and the pub’s proprietor, Philip Gillivan, says they’re a popular recent addition. “Some regulars gave out yards, but the snugs give you added privacy. To steal a phrase from a non-alcoholic beer, it’s for the pub when you don’t want to be in the pub.”
The Old Reliable on Shandon Street used to have a snug, but that was opened up long ago. Asked where all the women who drank in snugs are now, an older man raises his morning pint and says: “They’re all gone upstairs.”