Don’t go into Mother Mac’s hoping to catch a mid-week Premier League match, follow the races during Cheltenham or bask in the atmosphere of an All-Ireland final because you’ll be left disappointed. Proprietors Mike and James McMahon made a bold decision to have no TV screens in the bar and Mike has taken to turning the WiFi off lately because, “I was sick of people being on their phones”. This bar is all about “fostering conversation” he says and it’s refreshing to see someone actually take matters into their own hands and actively encourage the dying art of conversation by creating a space where socialising and interaction is paramount.
The duo bought this pub in the centre of Limerick city back in 2015. It was previously owned by the O’Malleys and it had been a grocers, a tea mart and a bottlers going back as far as 1906 so it has been a part of the cityscape for as long as most can remember.
McMahon passed the building one afternoon and noticed that it was up for sale and he says it led to some very interesting conversations. “Everyone would have said we were absolutely bonkers,” he says of their plans to buy and run it. “2015 was a very low time for pubs and a lot of publicans were trying to get out of it. We loved the building and we knew the area very well and it just felt right,” he explains.
McMahon wasn’t always a publican. He holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Limerick and has worked for many of the largest multi-nationals in the country including Pfizer, Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson. The brothers were both involved in hospitality in their 20s in well-known Limerick establishments like Docks and Trinity Rooms and they always had the idea that they might revisit it “as a semi-retirement plan” but that plan materialized a little earlier than they had imagined.
What’s in a name?
Mother Macs is named after their mother Margaret who sadly passed away a few years ago. “We are McMahons and we couldn’t figure out what to call the place and it was always known as the Round House by certain generations. We wanted to put our own stamp on it. We were sitting around the kitchen table with our late mother, talking about names and she said, ‘ would you not call it after me’ and either myself or James said, ‘What about Mother Macs?’ and it stuck and look it’s a lovely memory to have of her.”
Getting the pub up and running didn’t take too much work as the interior was already well fitted out from the previous owners. They gave it a lick of paint and did some minor modifications but aside from that the layout is how it was for the last 100 years.
To the rear of the main bar, they have a whiskey bar called Peggy’s Parlour which is also named after their mother Margaret. That is where they run and operate their secondary business, Limerick Whiskey from. Limerick Whiskey is an experience where tourists or locals can come to do whiskey tastings and walking tours. They carry out nine whiskey tastings a week and 12 walking tours between Monday to Saturday but don’t do any tastings or walking tours on a Sunday because “we need a day off!” states McMahon.
They are part of the Limerick One Pass where if you visit the city for a day or two you can buy a pass which covers about 14 attractions. “We actually work with a number of hotels and tour operators as well and we would have developed a back end of that website that would allow us to do a booking on behalf of their guests,” he explains.
Both Mike and James and four other staff are all WSET (Wine Spirit Education Trust) trained up to level 2 and about to embark on level 3. “We all have knowledge and awards so we can talk about whiskey confidently. I think everyone who is serious about the industry should do it, ” says McMahon.
Food and whiskey
It’s rare to find a pub that hasn’t gone down the bar food route because many publicans say they wouldn’t survive without that side of the business anymore. Again they buck the trend at Mother Macs and when asked about a food offering Mike laughs and says, “We have the best crisps in town and other than that we don’t do food.” However he says there is a wealth of choice on their door step from sushi, Filipino, Italian and Vietnamese food and they have evenings where customers can bring food in. McMahon explains, “We do evenings where we run the Taste and Texture series which is whiskey paired with food and we’ve done everything from sushi to Mexican to chocolate and it’s a bit of fun.”
In September they plan to run a very special event in conjunction with Pig Town Festival which will involve whiskey with a bacon inspired dish and they are open to collaborations such as these but aside from these the bar is purely drink focused.
McMahon is a very personable guy and admits to enjoying the social side of the job and makes an effort to get to know all his customers, even the tourists. “We have a fantastic regular customer base and great customers who frequent us and the beauty of having a pub with no TVs and no food is that all we can do is talk.
“As one of my regulars says, he doesn’t bring a newspaper in with him, he sits at the counter and gets all the news from those around him. Conversation is key. We know people quite well and know details that they share and unburden themselves about health issues or things. The WiFi is turned off for the last two weeks as I got annoyed that there were too many people on phones. Look it’s caused consternation and people aren’t happy but that’s the way I want it to be. It’s gives people something to talk about!”
Speaking about the importance of the pub in the community he points out that the pub has one of the greatest circular economies in the country. “The local pub will sponsor the local football team and they will spend locally so it all comes around. Any benefit to the pub will be passed on to the local community. We don’t sponsor sports teams but we sponsor other things like That’s Limerick a dance troupe that do cultural and musical performances. We are also sponsoring Féile na Gréine – a music festival of up-and-coming artists. One of the artists they had at it three years ago was Denise Chila, who has gone on to do great things. Another novel thing they do is host opera evenings. “We did opera in the lane beside the pub last year for three consecutive Saturdays before Christmas. We had two opera singers with an accompanist churning out fantastic atmosphere and we are hoping to do it again this year.”
Like most small businesses, the costs of doing business is the most challenging part and McMahon questions why costs are still rising when energy prices are falling. “The rising cost base is the single biggest issue. Just this week the price of Guinness has gone up and it’s difficult to pass it on to customers because there is only so much money that can be spent. At times it seems that there is no reason for those costs to be going up when we’re being told by the media that the cost of electricity and gas is coming down and stabilizing and yet we are seeing the prices go up. It makes it difficult for us because we have to review our offering, our staffing in terms of having the correct level but not to be overstaffed because it’s important for longevity that we get our cost base right. We have the highest rate of duty in Europe and we are quite expensive when it comes to alcohol so the cost base keeps increasing.”
He warns that we are at risk of being an outlier in Europe very quickly if we don’t do something about stabilizing costs. “If the cost of coming to Ireland is too high, we lose the tourists we once had. And it puts up all on the back foot and everyone would have the knock on effect of that.”
“There is a point where it’s a step too far and does it not make sense to keep going and unfortunately they are conversations that are going on at the moment. If the pub was to close down, you would have people sit in isolation and we are going backwards,” he starkly warns.
Good for the soul
A very important question left to ask is what is McMahon’s favourite drink? “I love a pint of Guinness or a pint of Harris Pale Ale – which comes from a local brewery in the city here and is very popular,” he remarks.
Looking towards the future I wonder if they might replicate the model somewhere else but McMahon says it’s hard enough trying to fill one pub, than to think about another. “It takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of heart and care to run a good pub and if you move to expand, do you dilute that down and spread yourself too thin? I’d never rule anything out but myself and James would be very conscious of maintaining the quality of what we do right now and we wouldn’t want to do anything that would affect that,” he explains.
Running a business has its ups and downs but he says that at the end of the day, “it suits the two of us and we are very outgoing people and we like to work. It’s good for the soul. You stand behind that bar counter and you are having wonderful interactions with wonderful customers. Sometimes you are laughing and sometimes you are crying but I leave every day feeling fulfilled.” You can’t ask for more than that! n