PUB OF THE YEAR: O'Toole's Bar
It's easy to see why O’Toole’s Bar in Co Armagh is the current holder of the Pub of The Year title.
With its 200-year history, impromptu traditional Irish music sessions and warm welcome for regulars and first-time visitors, the successful bar certainly deserves the prestigious accolade.
The friendly pub, which is nestled six miles outside the cathedral city in the picturesque countryside of Ballymacnab, entered the competition for the first time last year.
Owner Bronagh O’Toole said: “The pub has been here for hundreds of years but when we carried out a major renovation we thought we should just go for it.”
She added that it was important that the building improvements did not interfere with the pub’s history. When renovations to the family home next to the pub were being made, they revealed 200-year-old children’s boots bricked into the wall which are now on display in a glass case.
“There is a lot of history involved so it was essential that we kept that,” Bronagh said.
“It’s a place for the community to go and catch up with the gossip. It’s their pub.
“Winning Pub Of The Year hasn’t changed any of that — it has made it better.”
Bronagh said she and the team were astounded when O’Toole’s won the overall award last year.
“There had been secret shoppers that we knew nothing about,” she said.
“We went along to the gala night in Belfast thinking we were only shortlisted for the regional pub section.
“When we won that we were celebrating and having a great night, then the nominees came up for Pub Of The Year. It took a couple of days before the feet were back on the ground.
“The regulars make new people feel welcome and the staff are very welcoming. The leaseholder Paudi Beagan is from Ballymacnab and he is a big part of the community. He’s had a busy year!”
Bronagh added that winning the accolade helped put the already successful business on the map and they’ve had people from all over Ireland as well as American and Australian visitors.
In March the pub featured on ITV’s No Place Like Home.
Bronagh, Paudi and the staff at O’Toole’s have not been resting on their laurels however and since their win have started serving food which has proved a hit with hungry punters.
“We have started a steak night on the last Friday of every month,” Bronagh said.
“It is very successful and is now booked in advance.”
Staff are now preparing for Feile Joe, the pub’s annual fundraising event in memory of Bronagh’s late husband, which will be held on the last weekend of August.
Last year the event raised £3,000 for the Niamh Louise Foundation, a charity which helps those who have been affected by suicide or self harm. “On the Saturday there will be a song competition and a band, with a football tournament on the Sunday and an open-air céilí and concert,” added Bronagh.
“It’s a real family day and we’re hoping it’s a big success.”
Bronagh is also planning to enter O’Tooles in this year’s Pub Of The Year competition.
She said: “The application form came through the door last week so why not? There have been a lot of new faces and they all seem to like what they see. It’s been a good year!”
Colin Neill, Chief Executive at Pubs of Ulster, added: “O’Toole’s was the deserving winner of the Pub of the Year title last year and is a fitting example of what makes a truly great Northern Ireland pub.
“The award was also a victory for the county with the title being brought to Armagh for the first time which has helped to reinforce the fantastic offering available within traditional and rural pubs.
“O’Toole’s clearly demonstrated the highest standards of service, product offerings, facilities and everything else that goes to create the perfect pub experience.
“The benchmark is growing year on year and we look forward to finding out who will take the title of Pub of the Year 2010 at our final gala awards night on Wednesday, November 3 in Belfast City Hall.”