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01 June 2009

Leo's Tavern, Donegal

I visited Leo's Tavern during the Irish June holiday weekend 2009. It was somewhere I had been meaning to go back to for a while, having had a few very memorable nights there back in 1996 on the stage and being entertained by Leo himself. I had meant to go there when I was working in Belfast in 2007 but never made it and the opportunity to go during the holiday weekend in 2009 now that I'm in Dublin was too good to miss.

However, it's a changed pub indeed from 1996. Let me explain for those who went to the old Leo's and who might be thinking of returning. First off and not surprising at all considering his age, Leo himself no longer performs regularly - his accordion is still on the stage just like it used to be but his appearances are mostly limited to a few special occasions, coaches of tourists in the summer and playing at weddings. It was unfortunately inevitable that he wouldn't be able to carry on the 6 nights a week performances he enjoyed for so long, but for all that it's great praise indeed that he managed to play as long and as regularly as he did despite his age. We've certainly got a lifetime of happy memories from his younger days.

The pub was also redeveloped in 2005 and is now run by Enya's younger brother Bartley Brennan. The new pub includes a back room which has lots of Enya and Clannad memorabilia, a mini-shop and restaurant. These changes were necessary in part to accommodate the large crowds, particularly in the summer. The food is great - I didn't get to see the function room as it only opens for organised events. There is also separate public and lounge bars. The public bar is smaller than the old bar so has more of a cosy feel, however you need to go into the lounge bar/restaurant if you want to see the musicians. I was in the public bar and on the same ground where traditional music once filled the air, the TV was on instead with Britain's Got Talent final. There's fewer items of the band / Enya within the bars now, I believe that a lot of these are in the function room at the back.

Double Platinum disk for sales of Watermark in Australia

With Leo being a draw in his own right, his semi-retirement means that other artists take the stage with one act per night, generally starting around 10:30. A bit late compared to Leo's 9:30 or so. With the revamp what has been been lost is the authenticity of the place. Whilst accepting it needed to be larger, you no longer feel that you are on the same stage that Clannand/Enya began on - it's a bit like going into the room where W.B. Yeats wrote poetry, only to find it had been modernised as part of a refurbishment - the link to the past is weakened. The other thing which is lost is the ceilidh atmosphere which Leo brought with him. It wasn't just him on the stage but it was a real ceilidh with spontaneous performances from members of the audience, including myself and Moya Brennan on the same night in 1996. You didn't know what to expect, one night there was a brilliant Irish singer from Iowa. Such is the nature of a true, unorganised and spontaneous ceili but again that is lost. When I was there, despite it being a holiday weekend in June, the place was largely empty. Harder to draw people in with Leo not there and combined with the recession it's changed times indeed from the packed houses of a few years ago.

It's a pity I missed the 40th anniversary celebrations in September 2008, it would have been the best party ever but perhaps tinged with sadness marking the pub's former focus as probably the best music pub in Ireland.

Still, I hope to be back one day. Leo's tavern and Bunbeg are great places to get away from it all.


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