“The Farmers Journal for a song.”

I knew it was coming, there were too many of us in branded jackets to go unnoticed. So I faced the inevitable, cleared my throat and sang a few bars of Those Were the Days by Mary Hopkin. And with that, we were welcomed into the fold of the great Jim of the Mills in Upperchurch, Co Tipperary.

Last week, the Irish Country Living team had a special occasion to celebrate. We had been talking about the Thursday night music session since Janine Kennedy put Jim Ryan on the cover in 2021. “It’s just down the road from me,” she determinedly told us. Let me put the record straight. It is not just down the road. It is a good 30 minutes on the back roads of Tipp but in fairness, as it's calving season, Janine’s husband Pat offered to be the designated driver.

Being a gentleman, Pat dropped us off by the entrance and as we approached the rural music house, a rising chatter and the low drawl of an accordion broke the silence of the dark countryside. As soon as the door opened, the noise level rose substantially. You could barely get inside, there were people in every corner and when we did, it was like stepping back in time.

No fridges or tills

Arguably, not much has changed since Jim’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him ran the place. One Guinness tap and a few bottles are the drinks offering. There are no fridges or tills, and Jim’s wife Kae must be the fastest women at sums in the country. The chats and banter light up the room, as opposed to mobile phone screens. Music is at the heart of this establishment and as you progress into the parlour, you’re met with a healthy silence of respect. Whether you’re a seasoned musician or you can just about string a few bars together, everyone is afforded the same courtesy.

Perched beside the open hearth, with the glow of the embers lighting her face, one of Jim’s five daughters Greta was the understated conductor. With her accordion, she gently kept the session flowing. Beside her was Sheila O’Dwyer who travelled from Ballycahill, her larger piano accordion perched on her lap. Like any good musician, she follows the lead of the singer, providing a beautiful accompaniment. It brought me back to when my grandfather used play that instrument (most likely, in that very house). As a child, I would alternate between dancing around to his tunes to being mesmerised by the movement of his fingers on the buttons. Once again, I was captivated. The music flowed throughout the night from lilting traditional songs to a rowdy rendition of Bohemian Rapsody.

Music house

Jim of the Mills is more a music house than a commercial pub and I’m very aware our night is not reflective of the real situation in rural areas. In fact, it is very much at odds. A report issued last August by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) states that 1,937 small and family-run pubs have closed in Ireland since 2005. To give a sense of that impact, these figures represent an overall decline of 22.5%, nearly a quarter. That number stands even higher in the townlands and hinderlands surrounding Jim of the Mills, at 28.6%.

Last Thursday as music filled Upperchurch, there were many pubs where the only sound was the low rumble of a few locals on high stools.

What has enabled Jim of the Mills to survive and indeed thrive in this environment? I’m sure there are many factors, including low overheads and the fact they only open on Thursdays. But there is also something in a warm welcome and the mystical connection of culture and music that transcends time.