Until very recently, I ashamedly had never experienced a Thursday night at the famed Jim of the Mills pub in Upperchurch, Co Tipperary. I say ashamedly because I only live up the road (in a broad sense) and I have known some of Jim and Kae Ryan’s five daughters for several years. I knew it was the place to be on a Thursday night, but things – like school, childcare, work – always got in the way when the opportunity to go presented itself.
As it would turn out, work became my excuse (ahem, reason) to finally make a visit. On a recent rainy and cold December evening, we made our way along the winding roads between my home outside Templemore and the old mill, small farm and family home where the Ryan family have been hosting their Thursday evening sessions for nearly 40 years.
Entering into the warm, cosy space lit up with festive Christmas decorations makes me feel that this was worth the wait.
Jim of the Mills
If you haven’t heard of the place, Jim of the Mills only opens on Thursday nights and only has one Guinness tap behind the bar. If Guinness isn’t your thing, there are some bottled beers and spirits available for purchase, or Lucozade and tea if you’re the designated driver (drivers are necessary as this pub is located deep within the countryside).
True to the name, the pub was once a busy, bustling mill; originally run by Jim’s great-grandfather, his grandfather and then his uncle. Jim and Kae’s daughters are all creatives, teachers, musicians and artists in their own right: Roisin (30), Áine (29), Greta (26), Cáit (25) and Erin (23). Most Thursdays, you will find the sisters singing, playing instruments, socialising and helping their parents behind the bar.
“The house was in my family since it was built, around the late 1700s,” Jim explains. “The road here was upgraded in 1829 and they added on the shop, then. They sold, you know, what was needed at the time – which wasn’t a big lot of stuff. They’d mostly drink down in the kitchen, then. People would call up for a few messages and they’d buy a bottle of stout or a half of whiskey and go and sit down in the room below.
“This was back in the long ago,” he continues.
“I barely remember the tail end of it. There were very few motorcars around. There was no electricity; it was an easier way of life. People hadn’t much – small farms, you know. People lived frugally and they made the best use of what they had.”
The pub is comprised of three main rooms: the bar area leads into a room where, traditionally, meal from the mill was stored. This room, then, leads into the main attraction: a giant hearth and plenty chairs for musicians and observers which fills the larger space. This is where the sessions take place. Kae says, even during snow storms (and excepting the months during the COVID-19 lockdown), she can’t recall a Thursday evening where they had no music.
“I’m here 31 years now,” she says. “Jim had started the Thursday nights about 10 years before I came along – he picked Thursday as the night because it was a quiet night before the weekend. Jim only wanted to keep the tradition kind of going from his uncle.
“When we’re on holidays, we notice there aren’t many sessions [in other pubs] where everybody is included,” she continues. “Here, you might only be able to sing three notes – but they’re encouraged. I like that; the rawness of it. Every night is different, and we’ve never had a night where there was no music.”
A natural inheritance
Jim says it’s not just the physical mill he inherited from his uncle – there was a kind of “natural inheritance” he received from observing the pub and its patrons as he grew up; something his own daughters also experienced from growing up in a similar environment.
“I never intended to come up here at all,” he says. “My father had died and we were only young, I was 17 and my older brother was 19. The man here before me was Jim of the Mill again, you know, and my great-grandfather was [also] Jim of the Mill, so this branch of the family became known as ‘the Mill.’ My grandfather was Anthony Ryan of the Mill, my grand-aunties ran it a long time and they were all called Mary the Mill or Maggie the Mill. My daughters are all known as that; they’re associated with the house.
“I would have learned the auld yarns just by listening around when I was a child,” he reminisces. “I kind of retell those and then you might hear one here and there somewhere. There was always singing since I came here, and there used to be an odd session before I came here. The place was open, at that time, all the time. You know, on an odd night they might bring on the fiddle; there were some great fiddlers around here.
“This would have been back in the 40s and 50s. People, if they got into the humour, they’d always end up with an auld song. It was a natural kind of thing. For funerals the mourners would go from pub to pub on the way home, or people on their way from Thurles up to Kilcommon would call in here to see my Uncle Jim. Often, at the end of the night, they’d break into song spontaneously. It wasn’t something that was organised.”
A circular economy
In the spirit of Christmas, Jim and Kae tell me about past times and how small communities, like the one where they live, traditionally looked out for one another.
“One hundred years ago, they had really big trade here from the local people,” Jim says. “People came with their horses and carts from the surrounding hinterland and got their few messages. People used to come here with vans; we used to get a lot of stuff from the wholesalers in Limerick. We have it all here in the records, my daughter Greta found them recently. It’s a great history; people were writing in, saying they couldn’t make their payments this year: ‘I had a bad year; we lost two cows’ – and they might have only had five cows.
“There were always running bills, so it was fine as long as you paid off an odd auld bill,” he continues. “Because the shopkeeper had to pay the person that was supplying them, too. It went around in a circle; a real circular economy. The people would keep coming and putting things on the book and when they had nothing they’d still be grand for a while.”
“Everyone knew each other, and you knew they’d be selling pigs soon or whatever,” Kae adds. “They’d usually try to fix up then, around Christmas.”
A different idea of success
This probably isn’t surprising, but Jim and Kae never told their daughters to go study “something sensible”. They didn’t run their household on a strict schedule and, as their eldest daughter Roisin puts it, “we never had the 1pm dinner.” The Ryan sisters enjoyed school and excelled at their chosen subjects.
While Kae says it was tough, at times, when they were very little and the music got loud – and as youngest daughter Erin says, on a Thursday night you could never just “hang out in your pyjamas,” the sisters feel privileged to have grown up with such a rich culture. They keep some suckler cattle on the small farm attached to the mill, and Erin is currently completing her Green Cert via Gurteen College. The heritage of their home and family means a lot to them.
“We worked around the business on a Thursday, but the rest of the time we were flexible. With Dad, clocks don’t exist in his world – you just do things in your own time,” Roisin says.
She laughs as she tells me she’s not sure how successful they could consider themselves, but they are happy. And happy is more important.