Thursday, January 29, 2015

Byrnes in Kilcullen: How The Hideout came about

The internet, social media, the now almost old fashioned newspapers, and ever-present TV chat shows, make becoming a celebrity, or instantly promoting a business, available to everybody. But back at the turn into the 1950s that wasn't at all the case.

My dad, James J Byrne Jr, had recently taken over Byrne's Hotel from his father, James Joseph Snr, becoming the third generation of the business Byrnes in Kilcullen. (In this photograph, Dad is on left, with Grandad, and Dad's cousin Barney.) The hotel was part of a network of traditional village enterprises which had originally been established by my dad's grandfather, also James Byrne, and dad's own father. Dad got the hotel and the funeral undertaking businesses. His brother Tom took over the hardware and drapery, and the auctioneering. Their aunts, Peg and Nora, still ran the original grocery and bar from which Myshall-born James Byrne had started his career in Kilcullen. Its location is part of what's now the Eurospar supermarket.

Dad hadn't intended to be a publican. In the mid-30s he had studied for a degree in accountancy in UCD, a plan which was cut short when he was required to come back and help his parents. By then, his shopkeeper-publican father was also a county councillor, and a farmer and auctioneer. He had a lot on his plate at a time when the economic position of the country was far from stable. A man of means, and influence he was certainly. But not necessarily a man with a lot of spare money. Sons were required to pull their weight.

My dad was married seven years before his father took that leap of faith and effectively handed over all that he owned to his two sons, at the relatively young age of 62. But then, he himself had taken over from his dad when he was very young, on the demise of the original James Byrne. Perhaps he hoped to enjoy a long and happy retirement. As indeed he did, until his heart stopped one Sunday afternoon at the age of 82.

Anyhow, in 1950, dad and my mother already had three of their eventual five children. Dad felt they needed to move things on from the fairly ordinary crossroads pub. It then comprised a bar, a small terrazzo lounge, a big downstairs kitchen, and a yard for all the outside work.

The premisses would have served travellers since the first regular bus services began in the early 20s, the bus stop being strategically located outside, where it is to this day. Providing passengers and bus crews with refreshments, light food, and essential facilities at a time when the journey from Waterford to Dublin was significantly longer and far less comfortable than it is today.

By then too, there was a growing number of travellers with their own cars. There was a heritage of them stopping, as previous to my grandfather establishing it as Byrne's Hotel, the business had been Flanagan's Motor Bar. This was, I presume, partly an acknowledgement to the 1903 Gordon Bennet Race which had a strong connection with Kilcullen.

The 1950s was an age of new ideas, and an easing of the austerities caused by World War 2. Dad and mum liked travelling, and had already holidayed in various places in Europe, and even North Africa. When they decided to upgrade the 'hotel', they brought to it some of the things they had seen away.

So was born the The Hideout. A lounge bar, but with a difference, converted from the original large kitchen. Bark timbered inside, and gathering eventually an eclectic collection of interesting things. The first of these was a pair of fox heads presented by local landowner Ken Urquhart. Old guns, pike heads — and an axe which had been thrown at John Redmond — followed. As did ornaments crafted by German internees on The Curragh during the War, and many more unusual items. For those travellers who came by bus and car and stopped by, The Hideout became a place to talk about to their friends with a certain wonder.

What was eventually to be the core part of those conversations came about a couple of years after the establishment of The Hideout, when dad acquired the mummified right arm of the pugilist Dan Donnelly. Donnelly had fought a major encounter nearby on The Curragh, so his arm was mounted in a glass case above the granite fireplace that was the centrepiece of the lounge. The story of the arm itself had a history as fascinating as was the man it originally belonged to, and it became one of the things which eventually made the small village bar internationally known.

The food service was also changed, from the usual hotel dining room style and timings and behind the scenes kitchen. The old terrazzo lounge was converted in a Spanish villa style, with a counter along the arches. There were infra-red grill units behind, and those who wanted to sit at the counter and eat could watch their steaks and chops and cutlets being cooked in front of them. This was 'The Hideout Grill', with a constant enticing sizzle and smell, and open from midday until late in the evening. Unusually for rural Ireland, there was a comprehensive wine and liqueurs inventory, the latter all lined up in a rainbow of exotic colours against the back-bar of the Grill.

Apart from those who stopped in on their way north or south, there developed a serious clientele from the Kildare horse racing fraternity, drawn by their own camaraderie. Company always brings more company, and very soon The Hideout was the place for them all to meet, before and after race meetings. Both from the local courses of Naas, Punchestown and The Curragh, and also as a rendezvous closer to their bases when coming home from Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, and Gowran Park.

Dad and mum were both gregarious people, and while they worked hard, they also enthusiastically involved themselves in the social fabric that was developing around their business. Their own personalities were as much part of the attraction of The Hideout and Grill as was the food and drink consumed. By the 1960s the small cross-roads pub was known throughout Ireland.

Its proximity to Dublin, during three decades where Ireland was enjoying growth and lifestyle every bit as busy as the more recent Celtic Tiger era, meant that it became a destination for an ever-widening set of regular customers. They ranged from the ordinary Dublin family out on a Sunday afternoon drive, to the very wealthy of racing and enterprise. Newspapers often followed those latter movers and shakers, and the fame of the quirky pub and restaurant made copy for many pages of newsprint down the years.

There used to be a phrase in death notices, 'American papers please copy', so that passings back home would be notified to emigrant families across the Atlantic. Well, the American and British newspapers also copied some of the stories about dad and his pub, and people from those countries put The Hideout on their must-visit list of places when they holidayed on the Emerald Isle.

If he hadn't been a publican, dad would certainly have been a success in the then unknown field of public relations. He turned out to be a master at developing publicity around his crossroads pub in Kilcullen. Many of his initiatives made The Hideout exceptionally well known, and, as he famously sloganed, the place itself 'put Kilcullen on the map'. On a global basis, before internet, social media, and celebrity achievable by almost anyone, were ever considered.