One of the most fiercely debated pub quiz questions in Cork City is which hostelry is closest to the statue of temperance campaigner Fr Mathew, and patrons of the Long Valley on Winthrop St defend their claim as fiercely as any.
The Long Valley has been defying the Apostle of Temperance since it opened in 1842, four years after the establishment of the Cork Total Abstinence Society, and it remains more in tune with the citizenry of Cork than the teetotal campaign ever was.
But, as anyone who has ventured through the stout outer doors and sidled along the wood-panelled entrance hallway to the wonders within or spied a friend in the corner snug will know, the Long Valley isn’t all about the drink.
Owner Rita Moynihan, who died last week at the age of 83, always saw to that, ensuring that the food, the service, and the genial staff were just as tempting to the regular patron as well as the occasional passer-by.
Now the torch has been passed on to a new generation in the form of Mrs Moynihan’s son, Peadar, although he has been in loco regentis for a number of years.
The Long Valley has always been a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, with, near its entrance, a bevelled glass window displaying exotic wine, vodka, whiskey, and liqueurs, as well as small, cut-crystal glasses.
To the immediate right there is a hand-made frame showing an outline of the Great Cork International Exhibition of 1903 which was held in the Mardyke.
The snug is, in itself, a shrine to craftsmanship, with its etched windows and silver pewter door knobs. It even has its own diplomatic table, a stoutly built piece of furniture that was once the property of the American embassy in Dublin. It was shipped to Cork in the 1930s on foot of plans to open a consulate in the city, but these were abandoned and the table found its final resting place in the Long Valley.
In the cavernous main bar, the bomb-proof wooden counter remains unchanged since it was first installed in 1842. From fore to aft, beautiful hand-crafted tables, a stucco-styled glass panel partition, floor tiles almost as thick as the Valley’s famous sandwiches, and a men’s toilet partially open to the elements complete the picture of a place apart.
The large table halfway down on the right is from the Celtic, a White Star Line ship that ran aground off Roche’s Point near Cork Harbour on December 12, 1928.
Among the works of art on view is a fine bust of the composer Freddy May by Cork sculptor Seamus Murphy.
That visual assault is accentuated by the staff, who present themselves in stark white butcher coats as they move crab-like behind the bar, pouring pints for parched university students and constructing those skyscraper sandwiches at lunchtime for office workers from the South Mall.
As poet Theo Dorgan, once put it: “It would take a strong man in the full of his health with the help of three small children to munch through their mouth-watering sandwiches.”
Both patrons and staff at the Long Valley have always been cool, none more so than Mrs Moynihan herself. Her quiet, almost shy presence, innate politeness, and sotto voce greeting always providing a welcome contrast to the bustle behind and in front of the bar.
According to her custom, clientele were either Mr, Mrs, or Miss. First names were reserved for family and close friends. In turn, she was always Mrs Moynihan — never Rita — and even the most truculent customer observed this social etiquette or suffered a period in purgatory.
Likewise her husband, Humphrey, who died in 1994. He had his eccentricities, among them a propensity for playing loudly gramophone records of German military marching songs, but he had his standards, too, and would always insist on good manners.
As the Long Valley’s historian in residence, Jack Lyons explains in an essay on the pub’s website (yes, it has its own website — cool or what?) that he was once barred for over-familiarity with the proprietor.
“I’ve actually been barred from the Long Valley twice,” writes Jack, “once during the early seventies when I got too big for my boots and called a pint using the name Humphrey.
“Mr Moynihan peered down the bar towards me over his spectacles and approached. I was in the company of half a dozen cronies enjoying my spondulixed return to the backwater Cork after a successful exhibition in London.
“Mr Moynihan came to where we stood and leaning across the counter enquired of me: ‘Did we go to school together?’ ”
He was probably wearing a full-length white butcher’s coat at the time, a custom he adopted in the 1950s.
In her witty book, The Bushmills Irish Pub Guide, Sybil Taylor reveals the origin of the butchers’ coats as Humphrey explained it to her. “Oh yes, well,” he nodded and grinned, “I saw a New York bar on the television, where they all wore the white coats with black aprons. I thought it looked good. It’s a Victorian custom — goes with an old-fashioned bar. People like it.”
Humphrey had been an economics teacher in a school in Dublin until 1927, when he inherited the pub from his father, a Cork draper who had once worked in London as a Saville Row tailor.
Mrs Moynihan had worked in the Metropole Hotel on MacCurtain St and could recall an era in Cork when the annual film festival was a big event. She also had an amazing memory for detail and remembered the excitement in Cork during the making of the movie in Youghal in 1954. It was there she encountered Hollywood stars of the film such as Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart, and director John Huston, who stayed at the Metropole after filming.
Since 1960, she played a gently starring role in the Long Valley. Her final exit will be greeted with great sadness by all who had the good fortune to know her.