Belfast Telegraph

Pubs of Ulster Pub of the Year Awards: The Railway Arms is kept in rude health thanks to Clare Johnston

By Ivan Little

Nursing's loss was the pub trade's gain after livewire Clare Johnston took a year's break from her surgical role in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital to run her parents' popular bar in Coleraine.

That was 13 years ago. And Clare is still there, managing the Railway Arms which is opposite -- where else but -- the town's train station.

Clare, who has just made the final for this year's Best Barperson gong at the annual Pubs of Ulster Pub of the Year Awards, has no regrets about choosing pub service over the health service.

"It didn't take me long to realise that I was happy here. And I've never really looked back," said Clare, who was born to be behind a bar. "My parents came here 40 years ago after running a pub in Glenravel. I was just a year old and I've grown up in the place.

"I was always in and out and used to help Daddy all the time. And all the customers looked out for me."

The grand plan had been for her brother Sean to go into the driver's seat at the Railway after Hugh and May Johnston retired. But he met a girl from San Francisco and decided to emigrate.

Which left Clare, who started training as a nurse in Belfast in October 1991, in a quandary. "But I didn't want the bar to go out of the family name -- it was in my heart so I said I would manage it for a year. And the rest as they say is history."

Clare's folks still take a keen interest in the bar -- they're still the bosses she joked -- but she has added her own touches to what is known across Coleraine as Johnstons' pub which used to be regarded as the preserve of working men where horse racing and football were the main draws.

Clare, 41, said: "I wanted to make it more women friendly and the first thing I did was to take the grills off the windows."

The bar has been renovated and a beer garden has been added along with a snug and a function room called the Loft.

One of the main challenges facing any bar in Coleraine is the lure of the thriving pub and club scene a taxi ride away in Portrush and Portstewart. And over recent times Clare has succeeded in slowing down the weekend exodus by putting on music in the bar.

"It's a really happy bar with a great staff and our regulars are almost part of the family," said Clare.

But Clare is also proud of what the pub has done to raise money for charity. She's the local chairperson of Cancer Focus and another cause which is particularly close to her heart is the BOOM foundation which recently won an award as charity of the year.

BOOM was set up in memory of Clare's friend Philip Wilson who died seven weeks before his wedding day to his fiancée Leona Rankin last year from a rare form of cancer called sarcoma.

To raise money for it Clare went teetotal for six months with the target of raising £5,000 for the foundation. She has also ran six marathons for charity. But she never walks alone.

For her pub is the base for Coleraine's Liverpool supporters club who have a special Anfield room upstairs filled with lots of Reds' memorabilia.

But the bar also plays host a smaller gathering of fans of the Pool's deadliest rivals, Man United.

"The banter can be hilarious," said Clare, who added she was honoured to be nominated for the Barperson of the Year award, which is run in association with Sunday Life, by one of her customers called Barry White...

The winner of the Best Barperson award will be revealed at the prestigious Pub of the Year Gala on Wednesday November 12 at La Mon Hotel and Country Club. For further information and to enter online, visit www.nipuboftheyear.org

All of the finalists in the Best Barperson category will be featured in Sunday Life in the coming weeks.

 

OUR SIX BEST BARPERSON FINALISTS

nominated by Sunday Life readers:

* Clare Johnston from the Railway Arms in Coleraine

* Kevin O'Brien from the Maypole in Holywood

* Margaret Ferguson from the Lakeside Inn in Ballydugan, Co Down

* Willie Gregg from the Harbour Bar in Portrush

* Christian Grey from Galgorm Resort & Spa in Ballymena

* Jordyn Busby from JD Tipler's in Portadown

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