Ballydehob’s landmark pub, run by Joe O’Leary and his partner Caroline O’Donnell, has been nominated for two awards. Kieran O’Mahony called in recently to show off his pub quiz skills
IT’S the kind of place that someone like Glen Hansard might just wander into on an unremarkable rainy January night.
And that’s exactly what happened when I visited Levis’ Corner House in Ballydehob recently. That’s the beauty of this gem of a bar. You just never know who will walk in.
Glen Hansard was on his way back to Dublin after recording some material in Schull when he decided to call in to see former Fred singer Joe O’Leary, and his partner Caroline O’Donnell from Annascaul, who now run the bar that has been in Joe’s family for over 100 years.
Joe is a grandnephew of the late sisters Nell and Julia Levis, who ran the bar for many years. It was a well-known West Cork watering haunt and attracted many celebrities down through the years.
And, judging by the clientele on a recent Saturday night, it looks like not a lot has changed.
Moving to Ballydehob was the natural choice for Joe and Caroline, when they started running the bar following Nell’s death.
‘We moved down to West Cork in March 2013, and Nell passed away the weekend we moved down, coincidentally enough. My mam was running the bar then and we were wondering what would happen with it. We didn’t have a notion that we would end up doing it, but after a few weeks we kind of said we’d give her a hand – it was only a weekend pub then, on Fridays and Saturdays,’ says Joe.
However, it wasn’t long before the couple were drawn into the place on a more permanent basis, and found they loved the social aspect and the craic in the bar.
‘It was very gradual transition and Mam still gives us a hand as it’s her bar after all, and we’re only keeping it going. Our aims were modest and still are – the main one being to keep the door open, and it still is.’ And it seems they are doing a good job of it, as John and Sally McKenna’s Guide saw fit to award them ‘Pub of the Year’ recently. They described the bar as ‘a template for the Irish country pub in 2016’ and added that Joe and Caroline have ‘rebirthed the legendary Levis’ bar in Ballydehob in the most sympathetic way possible.’
‘We didn’t even know we’d won it until someone came into the bar and told us, but we’re still waiting on the plaque to arrive – it must have got lost in the post,’ jokes Joe.
Joe and Caroline were also delighted to be shortlisted for the very prestigious IMRO Live Music Venue of the Year 2015 and it’s a validation that what Joe and Kerry native Caroline are doing is certainly working. The fact that this award is nominated by musicians makes it all the sweeter.
Walking into this famous bar does indeed feel like stepping back in time. You are likely to see anything from gas lamps to weighing scales, all in perfect cohesion.
‘We didn’t change the bar at all, and it’s exactly what it was. In terms of the layout, it’s the same as it always has been, and we have the various dolls hanging behind the bar that have been there for years,’ smiles Joe.
Despite the small size of the bar they somehow manage to squeeze in regular gigs behind the shop counter.
While I was there, Oscar winner Glen Hansard treated us to a wonderful song on the resident keyboard.
‘Putting on gigs here was a natural thing for me, as gigs in small venues are the ones that I like. We were wondering where we would put the bands and we just though why not put them behind the shop counter. Now, it just works,’ says Joe. From David Kitt to Duke Special, the bar is becoming a magnet for numerous musicians who are drawn to the venue that mixes up old school charm, with hints of modern vibes. It’s become part of a bustling West Cork music scene, along with fellow venues De Barra’s in Clonakilty and the recently re-opened Connolly’s of Leap.
‘The musicians we’ve had here love the place and the feedback we get from them is great. Our policy is that whatever the ticket price is, 100% of that goes to the artists and we also operate a fair pricing policy so we’ve never gone over €10 for any of the gigs we hold.’
Last October’s inaugural ‘Secret Song’ was a big success and it drew both local and international artists down to play at the one-day event. The quaint Parlour Room upstairs in the bar took centre stage, as various singers and musician played in the room for an unplugged session.
‘We hope to run it again this year and the joy of this event was that people were buying a ticket not knowing who would be playing.’
Joe and Caroline are just typical of the spirit and drive that you find in Ballydehob that seems to be a melting pot of artists, musicians and the creative – which is going through something of a mini cultural revival in recent years.
‘We get a very eclectic crowd coming here and that’s what Ballydehob has always been about and that’s the way a pub should be. That’s my idea of a social place. People are very proud here but also very progressive in general.’
On the night I was there, some of the local community gathered for a fundraising quiz for the annual Ballydehob Jazz Festival that runs over the May Bank Holiday Weekend. Joe is artistic director of the festival and the community pull out all the stops in planning this annual event.
Giving the customer what they want is part of what running a bar is all about, and Joe and Caroline are indeed embracing this. Their extensive gin menu is one example of their quirky take on pub life.
‘Some people get a surprise when they come in and see that we have 14 different brands of gin. We serve it in big glasses with a touch of elderberries and customers seem to enjoy it,’ adds Joe.
It’s safe to say that the legacy of Levis’ Corner House will continue under the stewardship of Joe and Caroline.
Oh, and, much to the regulars’ annoyance, this particular ‘blow-in’ took the pub quiz crown that night!
Levis’ Corner Bar gigs:
Laura Perrudin & Neil O’Loughlen – Friday Feb 5th, 8pm.
The Horsenecks – Sunday February 7th, 8pm. Rozi Plain – Monday Feb 8th, 8pm.
www.leviscornerhouse.com for more details