This rather unassuming-looking place, almost seedy with its plain wooden stools, smudged linoleum floor and cheap plaster ceiling, might be any totally forgettable bar in the British Isles. It’s not nearly as interesting, for instance, as the Ship & Whale Pub, or this unknown watering hole somewhere in Wales. You might pop in for a drink at this place and leave quickly. In truth, however, you’d be a fool to do that: this pub, called Sean’s Bar and located in Athlone, central Ireland, is a historic treasure. It’s the oldest public house on the continent of Europe, having gotten its first patron drunk in the 10th century C.E., more than 1100 years ago.
Like it or not, alcohol is one of the oldest inventions of the human species, and it is one of the most unifying factors throughout all of human history. The pursuit of drink and a good party has been part of the experience of living on this planet since human beings first emerged as the dominant species on Earth tens of thousands of years ago. Sean’s Pub was a latecomer in that sweepstakes, but as our modern historical memory is fairly shallow, it’s about the best we can do. In 1970 as this building on Side Street, Athlone, near the River Shannon–one of the vectors of Irish history–was remodeled, people found inner layers of walls made of wicker and primitive stucco, dating back to about 900 C.E. This corroborates the documentary record of the establishment which also holds that its original owners lived about that time. Thus, the space you see above, lined with modern beer taps, mid-20th-century stools and license plates, was once much different, a dark grotto lit by candles where smelly drunk guys with long greasy hair tottered over pewter and earthenware mugs of ancient liquor. I can’t help thinking that Sean’s Pub was open for business on the day Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the day the Great Fire of London started, and the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Few places have such amazing continuity in history.
Few watering holes on planet Earth have the staying power of Sean’s Bar. I must confess a certain pride in the name that has stuck to it in recent centuries. If I ever visit Ireland–which I desperately want to–this will definitely be on my list to visit!