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The Ponderosa: Tall tale of highest pub in Ireland

At 946ft above sea level, Karl McErlean's revamped bar on the Glenshane Pass towers above all others

By Una Brankin

When it comes to lofty claims, pub landlords across Ireland are often to be found front and centre with boasts about the size, success or vintage of their establishments. For one new bar owner in Co Londonderry, though, the claim to fame of owning Ireland's highest pub can be said to be true.

Now a legend in its own right, the Ponderosa Bar & Restaurant on the Glenshane Pass has been fully restored and refurbished, and is set to become yet another major tourist attraction for Northern Ireland, and the island as a whole.

Ordnance Survey maps prove it is officially the highest pub in Ireland, sitting at 946ft above sea level amid the Sperrin mountains – higher than the renowned Johnny Fox's in the Dublin Mountains, which has attracted millions of sightseers, including international celebrities, over the years. In fact, the Ponderosa has been such a significant historical and unique site since the original bar, Buchanan's, was established in 1858, that a documentary is even being made about it.

The new owner, Karl McErlean, is originally from Maghera, but now lives in China, where he has run the South Asia department of the G-111 Apparel Group for the last 21 years.

"I saw an opportunity in the old building, which was badly run down, when it came on the market late last year, and put together an amazing team of professionals to rebuild it," says Mr McErlean, who came home for the Ponderosa's official re-opening earlier this week.

"They had to navigate through many pitfalls but they have created a world-class establishment.

"I wanted to create an entire experience when you visit the Ponderosa – there is something about this place which is hard to explain; people just feel better up here. I wanted to offer somewhere for the family to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon having a fantastic meal – and my old favourite, Mullins ice-cream, had to be on the menu too."

Anyone travelling the Glenshane Pass between the towns of Maghera and Dungiven is bound to have seen the extensive renovations at the site. McErlean's builders completely gutted the old premises and the new bar and restaurant – along with a shop – was opened quietly in March. Since then a steady flow of customers have injected the old life and vibrancy back into the Ponderosa.

"The response from the people of Northern Ireland and afar over the last few months on social media has been amazing and now it's finally fully operational," says Mr McErlean. "It's brilliant for me to see people hanging out here with a few mates, having a pint in the bar and watching sport on TV, as well as couples having a romantic meal and everybody enjoying the live music.

"I love our beer garden too – I guarantee no other beer garden in Ireland has views like we do."

The scenic Jonny Fox's might beg to differ, but there is indeed an indescribable energy which can be felt when you visit the Ponderosa, "a wee bit of Irish magic," according to local historian Joe McCoy.

A watering hole for weary travellers since 1858, the roads may have changed and the walls rebuilt a few times since, but it still serves the same purpose.

After the second owners, the Regans, renamed the place the Ponderosa, the site then was taken over by the late Philip Marquess and his brother John. At the time, Philip also owned the local Walsh's Hotel in Maghera and John became the director for the Marquess partnership until December of 2013.

Back in the mid-1800s, the old inn – nestled in the side of the Carntogher Mountain – was a handy refuge for the legendary leaping highwayman Shane Crossagh (the Glenshane Pass is named after him). According to local folklore, Crossagh escaped from Red Coats pursuing him for tax evasion.

"It was a short distance from the back of the Ponderosa that the old Derry road ran through, and so it was the natural habitat for the occupation of this highwayman, or rapparee, as they were called then," explains Mr McCoy. "He had a daring personality and challenged the three Red Coats to a fight, and as soon as he was let off the handcuffs, he escaped, making his famous three great jumps – all this with the burden of a broken leg.

"His story doesn't end well, though; he was eventually captured and hanged in Derry. But the three famous stones he leapt from to escape still stand and, of course, are known as 'Shane's Leap'."

The site on the old Glenshane Road is also linked to the first Declaration of Independence to reach the British Isles, which was rushed from Derry port to Belfast.

"A storm had prevented the declaration getting to London to be printed for the national newspapers and history has it that when the boat docked in Derry, a rider was sent on a horseback to meet the deadline for a Belfast newspaper to print the first ever copy in the British Isles," says Mr McCoy.

The Ponderosa also sits close to the site of a Second World War plane crash. On September 4, 1943, an American Cessna UC-78 Bobcat utility plane made its final flight, crashing into the mountains, and killing all three men aboard.

The dead men were Captain Loren Lee Miles, of the 8th USAAF, Commodore Logan, Commander of US Naval Forces in Northern Ireland, and David Grimes, vice-president for engineering with the Philco Radio Company, who were en route to attend a meeting in London with General Dwight Eisenhower.

For those still keen to see some of the older environs of the pub, much of the old Glenshane Road is still visible to the naked eye from the Ponderosa.

"You can still make out the sweeping corners that snake past the gorges, and the veins cut into the side of the mountain by the last Ice Age," says Mr McCoy.

"There are scarcely few places in our beautiful country which abound with such history and beauty.

"In fact, the outline of the Carn Mountains in the Sperrins is embedded into the Ponderosa's new logo and branding. It's great to see a local man injecting new life into the old place."

Factfile

To celebrate the opening, the Ponderosa will host an open air concert and family fun day this Sunday, starting at 2pm, with the Cool FM Roadshow with Pete Snodden, a live hip-hop dance display by Kirsty Kentic Kids, Innova Traditional Irish Dancers – as seen on Britain's Got Talent – as well as live music by the popular Tiny Lions at 4pm. For details, visit the website www.the ponderosabar.com

Claim ... and counter-claim

  • White’s Tavern, Belfast - nestling in the backstreets close to the Cathedral Quarter, White’s proudly lays claim to being Northern Ireland’s oldest public house, dating back to 1630, although the pub is not in its original location
  • Kelly’s Cellars, Belfast - built in 1720, the pub is most famous as the meeting place where the United Irishmen plotted their rebellion against English Rule in 1798. Legend has it group leader Henry Joy McCracken hid behind the bar when soldiers came in looking for him. Formerly in an alleyway, the pub now sits at the side of a square close to CastleCourt shopping centre after several buildings were demolished. This pub claims to be the oldest licensed premises in Belfast
  • Grace Neill’s, Donaghadee - another bar that claims to be the oldest in Ireland. Opened as the King’s Arms on High Street in 1611, the pub was renamed after long-term patron Grace Neill after her death in 1918. Her ghost is said to still be present today
  • McHugh’s - built as a private dwelling in 1711 and converted into a public house sometime around 1715-1725, the pub is housed in the oldest building in Belfast. During a 1990s refurbishment McHugh’s took over Dubarry's Bar next door
  • Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen - created as a Victorian bar in 1887 and run by the Blake family ever since - although not necessarily all of the same family - Blakes of the Hollow is an iconic bar both inside and out. The traditional exterior has been featured on picture postcards and inside the Victorian decor is still very much in evidence. It even features the traditional snug for ladies and their serving hatch at the bar

How the Ponderosa name was born

My claim to fame is that my family used to own the highest pub in Ireland, meaning I was lucky to spend a large part of my childhood on top of the Glenshane Pass. As a child, my father Niall Regan was the man pulling pints at the Ponderosa, and he's to blame for the slightly quizzical name it was given when he took over in the mid-1960s.

What is now the Ponderosa started life as a stopover for stage coaches going over the Sperrins in the 1850s. By the 1960s it was a welcoming home called Bradleys which also happened to serve drink. My dad and his father then bought it over. At that time, Bonanza was a huge television hit from the US. Set on a ranch in the Wild West called the Ponderosa, my grandfather Matt was jokingly compared to its patriarch Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Green, left), while my father and his brothers apparently bore a resemblance to Cartwright's three sons. The joke stuck and Glenshane's Ponderosa was born.

Dad had more than 20 eventful years in a pub so remote there was no phone or electricity (light in those harsh winters came courtesy of a generator). He was robbed 13 times, got shot at and tied up – but it was still the happiest chapter in his life. I'm always very proud to explain my link to the Ponderosa and I'm asked two questions. How it got its name – and is it really the highest pub in Ireland?

The only other pretender to the throne is Johnnie Fox's pub, in Co Wicklow, which sits 912ft above sea level. The Ponderosa sits at 946ft.

So now you know.

By Claire Harrison

Belfast Telegraph

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