Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Saturday, 24 July 2010 12:09 UK

Ireland's oldest-serving publican keeps tradition alive

By Trish Flanagan
BBC News, Lahinch, Ireland

The Emerald Isle's recent boom and bust has seen new economic landscapes transform the country's way of life. But for publican Tom Frawley, who has been pulling pints for 81 years, his old-fashioned way of doing business will never change.

Tom Frawley
Tom Frawley is a man of routine

It is a summer morning in the small town of Lahinch on the west coast of Ireland.

But Irish weather is prisoner to no season. I dash into Frawley's pub for some respite from the cold, driving rain.

I am the only customer. The 90-year-old publican, Tom, is behind the bar reading a newspaper. I sit at one of the six high stools at the well-worn counter.

Lahinch, a tourist town buffeted by Atlantic wind and wave, fell prey to the excesses of the Celtic Tiger.

Dozens of holiday homes sprung up as investors cashed in on the property bonanza.

At the same time, the town developed a thriving surf business, with scores of cubs riding the waves of success.

The tiger is now dead. The surf industry has survived, but through the heady days of boom and bust, one man and his business never changed.

Sticking to routine

Frawley's is a tiny pub. A dozen customers would fit comfortably.

There is an abundance of dark wood panelling and a couple of spartan benches line the back wall. A fluorescent sign advertises: "No stag parties welcome here."

Exterior of Frawley's pub
Groceries and tea are also for sale at the rustic pub

But there is more than drink available. An assortment of groceries at the front contrasts with bottles of spirits at the back.

Plastic containers of salt, rusting tins of custard, boxes of stock cubes and faded packets of jelly. Several religious crosses and photographs adorn the shelves.

An old price list hangs behind the bar with the numbers crossed out several times.

There is no till or calculator, just a pencil on a string and a note pad with hand-written figures. Everything has the quiet air of seasoned age, like the owner.

Tom Frawley, the oldest publican in Ireland, is a man of routine.

Every day, except Good Friday and Christmas Day, he opens between 1030 and 1100 - maybe later if there are chores to be done. But he closes for lunch from 1300 to 1400 and dinner from 1800 to 1900.

Tom has been pulling pints for 81 years. He tells me that Guinness is still the most popular drink in his pub. That is no surprise because there is only the one tap on the counter.

No dishwasher, no refrigeration, no ice. You take your drink as it comes.

I look at the row of kegs behind the bar.

"Who changes those for you?" I ask.

A bachelor all his life, Tom has no direct descendants. If local rumours are to be believed he will leave the pub and adjoining house to the Catholic Church

"I do," he says proudly.

I marvel at the ability of this old man with limited vision. He had an eye removed three years ago when cancer set in.

"You are at the mercy of disease," he sighs.

A man comes in. "Have you cans of cider?" he says.

"I have," says Tom.

"Are they cold?" the man asks.

"No," Tom replies.

"Have you ice?" the man asks.

"No," says Tom.

The man murmurs something and departs. We do not see him again.

Witnessing change

A man of few words, Tom is not worried about trends or trade.

He took over the business when his mother died in 1961. It has been in the family for more than 100 years.

Little has changed in the pub but he has seen a lot of change. "There must be 600-700 holiday homes in Lahinch now," he says. "I remember when there were only three."

A wooden tea chest sits behind the bar - but it is just a relic.

Wholesale tea now comes in cardboard containers and Tom repacks it himself. The stamp on the bag reads: "Loose Tea - packaged and weighed by Tom Frawley, Lahinch, Co Clare. Lahinch's Oldest Pub and Publican."

"It has travelled all over the world," he says.

"I'll take a half pound," I say.

Alcohol on shelves in Frawley's
Scribbled hand-written price-lists adorn the basic alcohol displays

A bachelor all his life, Tom has no direct descendants. If local rumours are to be believed, he will leave the pub and adjoining house to the Catholic Church.

Tom is a daily Mass goer. He used to collect at church on Sundays.

"I handed in my seal of office," he says. "I've bad arthritis and my knees aren't up to it anymore," he explains.

He is sad about the crisis in the Church: "There are so many good sincere priests," he tells me. "They should be allowed to marry - there wouldn't be half the scandals."

Three men walk in but Tom continues our conversation.

"You've customers," I say. Tom looks up at the clock.

"It's 10 to one. I'll be going for lunch soon," he says. They take the hint and leave.

I worry about a 90-year-old man trying to cope with a drunken disturbance. "What about troublesome customers?" I ask.

"Oh, I nip it in the bud if I see it developing," he replies.

He has no plans to retire. "I'll keep going for as long as I can," he says.

Tom is squinting at his watch. "It's one o'clock. Time to close for lunch."

That is my cue to leave. I go out into the rain clutching my paper bag of tea. Tom's tranquillity follows me.

I am looking forward to a hot cup of Frawley's best blend.

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