Sea sessions

The Glyde Inn in Annagassan, Co Louth is so much more than a pub; it’s an experience. Fionnuala Carolan met with Conor O’Neill who runs this charming establishment alongside his parents Paul and Anne O’Neill, the founders of the business

Picture Conor McCabe Photography.

There are not too many places (I’d hazard a guess to say no other place) where you can don a Viking helmet while sitting at a Viking-boat inspired table laden with fresh Irish seafood while learning about the history of the Norsemen. The Glyde Inn offers this very unique experience to its guests who can then enjoy live traditional Irish music while taking in breathtaking sea views. The Viking experience, which brings thinking outside the box to a whole new level, is mainly marketed towards tourists but the pub is already firmly on the map for its rich history and a reputation that precedes itself for its superb seafood. Conor O’Neill and his family are very much part of the local fabric, with different family members owning other businesses in this quaint Co Louth village by the sea.
“The building dates back to 1770,” explains O’Neill. “My father took over here in the mid 1970s and turned it into a pub. Prior to this is was used to store flour for the bakery next door.” The bakery was run by O’Neill’s grandfather who by all accounts was a very talented baker and all round good businessman. “My grandfather worked on The Queen Mary as a baker and he got word that the bakery here wasn’t going too well and was asked would he come back to help out as it was getting to the stage that they were thinking of selling it. So he came back and took over the bakery and did well out of it and eventually bought the bakery, bought this building, the shop across the road and the other pub up the road here. It’s all still in the family. He had a farm up the road aswell so he obviously did very well out of the bakery.”
It was Easter Sunday 1976 when O’Neill’s father Paul took over the Glyde Inn. Prior to that he was a bread man in the bakery. The pub has changed dramatically since those early days, with a sizable extension and they have come up with various initiatives to keep the punters coming back and make it a destination on the tourist map.

Food and music are key
Conor O’Neill is the managing director of the Glyde Inn

 Conor O’Neill is the managing director of the Glyde Inn

Food and music are very much entwined here. There is live traditional music every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday performed by a group of local musicians with Conor’s father, Paul O’Neill playing the harmonica.
The pub is renowned for its food which came about by chance really. O’Neill explains how his mother began cooking for the pub. “A few people came in one day and asked if there was any chance of something to eat and Mum happened to have soup on so she said they could have that. Then the next day a few more arrived in and we realised there was something in this. She went down to Darina Allan in Cork to do a cookery course and after that she did all the cooking for a while. All of a sudden it was thronged. My mum still does the baking – the apple tarts and the breads,” he says.
Coffee is another big focus of the business. O’Neill and his wife honeymooned in Guatemala and spent time tasting coffee and fell in love with a single origin Guatemalan blend. They decided to import it and have a local roastery in Dundalk roast the beans for them. “It’s more expensive than your average coffee but I think it’s worth it,” says O’Neill. A hatch at the front of the pub ensures that they have a really good takeaway coffee trade.

High achievers

The pub walls are adorned with a host of accolades from across the hospitality industry such as the National Geographic World’s Best Places to Eat Award, Irish Pub Award, National Pub of the Year Award and an Irish Restaurant Award. It is clear that there is a drive behind this business and O’Neill obviously didn’t lick it off the ground. “I suppose it came from Dad and my uncle,” he says when asked about it. “It’s pretty clear that there is business in the blood on both sides. My uncle did so well in the village and my mum grew up in a pub in Dunleer and my grandfather on that side was very good in business too.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. They have seen their fair share of hard times with the downturn in 2008/2009 which came just after a big investment to extend the pub and of course, they were stopped in their tracks like the rest of the industry when Covid hit. O’Neill says that they “tried everything in Covid” including take away pints and take away food, outdoor markets and they even covered the terrace with a marquee to host outdoor dining. They used the time to rebrand and relaunch the website and that has really transformed the business so for every cloud, there really is a silver lining.

Viking experience
The Viking boat shaped table where the virtual reality experience takes place

The Viking boat shaped table where the virtual reality experience takes place

So where did the idea for the Viking themed events stem from? O’Neill explains that Annagassan is one of the largest Viking sites in the world and in 841, it was the capital of Ireland and remained so for 12 years before Dublin. “In 2010, there was a dig on the site and they unearthed a huge amount of archaeological artefacts and remains that proved the Vikings were here and a lot of it is up in the National Museum now. It was worldwide news when this happened and the next week, there was nothing. I thought we need to do somethingwith this.” They started with an annual Viking festival and at one point it brought 10,000 people into the village but it ran its course. O’Neill wanted to keep this story alive so he came up with the idea of linking food to the Vikings and so this virtual reality experience was born. “We’ve had some help from the National Museum in Dublin and some local historians and it takes you on a tour of the Viking site back in 1841 in Annagassan through the eyes of Bjorn the bear. So you get a feel for what it was like.” The experience can be prebooked online on the glydeInn.ie for a minimum of six and a maximum of 30 people. O’Neill has already sold it to about 50 different tour operators for next year so he’s very positive about it.
While guests are enjoying the Viking story the kitchen is working away preparing the seafood which can include anything from lobster, razor clams, mussels, cockles, whatever is delivered off the boats that day. “When guests take off the headsets that banquet is in front of them. I have developed my own Irish Pale Ale with a local brewery and that goes really well with the seafood. Then they can stay for drinks and the music too,” he explains.

Looks like Narnia
Just like Narina! It is thought that CS Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia in the area inspired by the scenery

Just like Narina! It is thought that CS Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia in the area inspired by the scenery

Another facet of the business is its proximity to the sea. The back terrace is connected to the beach so you couldn’t be closer. The scenery is spectacular with the Mourne and Cooley mountains in the distance and O’Neill has reason to believe that this was inspiration for the book the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. “We knew he [CS Lewis] spent time in Belfast but we never knew he spent time here in the village of Annagassan and nearby Salterstown until a book named The Chronicles of Narnia and the Wee County was written about it. It’s believed that he wrote some of the Chronicles of Narnia sitting at this very bar.”
“The book alludes to the fact that his interpretation of Narnia is the view we have out the back of the restaurant. It is beautiful in the summer and equally beautiful in the winter when they are snowcapped and he describes this area as a place of unearthly beauty. I want to come up with a medium to tell the story. That’s the next thing,” he promises.

Sea swimming is very popular with the Glyde Inn staff

Sea swimming is very popular with the Glyde Inn staff

With unemployment at its lowest levels in years, O’Neill realises they are very lucky to be maintaining staff but he had to make some changes to ensure he retained key members. “We decided to close on Monday and Tuesdays to give everybody a better work/life balance and increase job satisfaction,” he explains. “One of the draws of here is that we have one of the best sea swimming areas in the country nearby. Our head chef is a big sea swimmer so before work he’s goes for a sea swim. And after work sometimes, I love just plunging into the sea too,” he says.
While he enjoys his downtime playing tennis in nearby Dundalk or travelling when he can, O’Neill is always looking at ways to push the business to the next level. “Every time I walk through the bar I’m wondering how we can improve this or that. We are still growing and I’m delighted at the direction in which it’s going. When you live in rural Ireland, you can’t sit on your laurels, you have to keep thinking outside the box. I don’t think we are anywhere near our potential yet and we are flying it,” says an upbeat O’Neill. Watch this space!

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