The distinction of “oldest pub in the world” is something not to be taken lightly, and it’s a title several prominent watering holes have tried laying claim to. But of them, only one has an actual Guinness Book of World Records certificate authenticating its claim to the throne. That pub is Sean’s Bar, located in the town of Athlone, in County Westmeath, Ireland.
While romping around with the Tullamore D.E.W. team a couple weeks ago, we had the chance to stop into the world-famous pub and enjoy a pint with Sean’s Bar landlord and manager Timmy O’Donovan, who gave us all the dirt on Europe’s oldest neighborhood pub.
O’Donovan told us that Sean’s Bar’s roots date well back into the 9th Century, when its original founder, Luain, for which Athlone is named, opened it as a trading post to help travelers navigate the treacherous waters of the nearby ford. The bar itself borders almost directly on the River Shannon.
On first approach, one thing that stands out is that there’s none of the kitschy signage you’re used to seeing from “Yee Ol’ Village Pub”-type establishments. In fact, the bar looks a bit boring from the outside, like a “Sean’s Early 2000s Coffee Bar” instead of the oldest pub in all of Europe. But with its reputation, we found its inconspicuousness charming.
Of course, the minute you step foot inside the place, the vibe becomes entirely familiar, right down to the saw dust sprinkled liberally all over the floor. Even at 3 p.m. on a weekday, the bar is packed with patrons getting their taste of the local mud, but we should also note that the vibe never crosses into touristy.
One detail about Sean’s Bar that takes some getting used to is its noticeably downward sloping floor. In fact, if it’s your first time to the pub, don’t be surprised if you physically stumble for a minute or two. According to O’Donovan, when Luain first built the pub, he built the floor slanted so that on particularly wet days, rain water (or other fluids, if you use your imagination) would drain directly into the River Shannon, rather than pool up on the floor of the pub. Today, the floor is a protected structure, which means they can’t “fix” it. So, instead, they just coat it with saw dust. Hey, whatever works, right?
After you get acclimated to the floor situation, Sean’s becomes warm and familiar, its walls adorned with everything from old paintings to fish carcasses, old Guinness adverts, and a glass showcase filled with patches from police and fire departments all over the world.
Amid the afternoon rush, O’Donovan approached us smiling and eager to tell us about the pub’s crowning jewel, located on a wall toward the front of the bar. It’s a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records, confirming that Sean’s Bar is, in fact, the oldest pub not just in Ireland, but in all of Europe—and probably the world. And that—aside from the booze, of course—is the best part of Sean’s Bar. Everything—everything—is on paper. O’Donovan says the bar has detailed records of every owner since the bar was first built, including, for instance, Boy George, who owned the bar briefly sometime in the 1980s.
They’ve also managed to date the bar’s original walls back to 900 A.D., and while most of them were donated to the National Museum in Ireland (along with a few period-correct coins found mixed in with everything), O’Donovan pointed enthusiastically toward the front of the bar, where one of the original walls still stands. According to O’Donovan, these earlier structures weren’t built with the brick and mortar to which we’re accustomed, but rather stuff called wattle and wicker, which is literally mud, sticks, straw, and horse shit.
We drank a lot of beer in a lot of Irish pubs, and while each on this trip as special, none invoked in us the sense of heritage that Sean’s Bar did.