LEGENDARY local, Thomas Maher – or Tom Maher’s as it’s affectionately known, is up for sale, and a family tradition that stretches back to 1886 will soon come to an end.
The pub was first opened by a gentleman called John Britton who ran it for a year before his untimely death after a traffic swimming accident in Tramore. His sister Ellen took the reins but soon after she passed away in her sleep and it was passed down to Mary Britton, who would go on to marry Thomas Maher senior. They went on to raise a family on O’Connell Street, which included Johnny Maher, a Christian Brother who would become secretary to three Popes in the Vatican, Willie Maher who worked as a barman there before moving to the UK, and Tom Maher Jnr, who would keep the legacy going.
Around this time, there was a lady called Mary who worked as a Housekeeper in the bar. Tom Jnr held a brightly burning candle for Mary and asked her to marry him not once, but three times. She eventually gave in and they married in the 1960s, with a young Bernard Kelly – Mary’s nephew who will come into the story later – taking the wedding photos!
As the bar became busier, Mary’s housekeeping duties soon incorporated bar work and some older regulars will remember the sweeping brush being used to summon whomever was upstairs to come down and help with the pulling of the pints.
There was little doubt that, with almost 75 years behind the taps, Tom was the longest serving barman in Ireland. He died in 2003, at 92 years of age, still pouring the whisky and pulling the pints. A few years earlier he had asked Bernard, who had a successful photography business in Waterford at the time, if he’d come into the pub to help his aunty out. When Tom died, the pub passed to Mary and when she died in 2012, it was passed onto Bernard and his brother Martin who lives in the States.
One of the most famous facts about Tom Maher’s is that for well over 100 years, it didn’t serve the fairer sex. Bernard explains the origin of that infamous rule.
“In 1886, women didn’t frequent bars at all,” Bernard said. “Tom Snr was a fairly conservative man so he set the precedent. When women tried to come in they were simply told “no, we don’t allow that type of thing in here”.
Tom Jnr took his turn behind the bar when he turned 21 and he didn’t dare go against his father’s rules.
“It’s a rule that just stuck,” Bernard said. “Tom wouldn’t go against his father and then when it was Mary’s turn, she wouldn’t go against her husband. The thing is, back in those days the Maher’s felt they had good reason to turn women away. They were real family men and felt that the combination of women, men and drink in a pub wouldn’t do much for the protection of the family unit. On a Friday, when the men got their wages, Tom would serve them one pint and then insist that they go home to their wives with the wages. If they did that, they could come back later that night for 2-3 more pints but if they didn’t, they ran the risk of getting barred.”
Tom Maher ran a tight ship and there’s probably a long list of people who weren’t allowed set foot in the pub. It was his way, or no way. When it was handed over to Bernard, he had a decision to make about the “men only” rule.
“I kept it up for about a year, mainly because the pub wasn’t suitable for women at that time,” he said. “For a start, we had no ladies toilets, no tables and chairs, antiquated lighting… it wouldn’t be a place where women would want to come anyway! It was a real old man’s pub.”
So, Bernard made a few subtle changes and on January 26, 2013, a lady (by the name of Nellie Walsh) was served in Tom Maher’s for the first time ever. The bar is still unique in many ways, with its old style Guinness bottles still stored in the shed out the back and its somewhat traditional opening hours. Bernard is 66 next year and he says that the main motivation for selling the pub is to spend more time with his family and not live out his years behind a bar, like the men who went before him.
“As any bar man will tell you, the bar life can suck you in and a year can turn into 20 in the blink of an eye,” he said. “It’s a very special bar, but it’s someone else’s turn now.”
Bernard said that he’d love for whomever buys the pub to carry on its great tradition.
“I’d love for someone to have the same interest that we had in maintaining the integrity of the house,” he said. “That has never slipped throughout the years. We have the finest customers in the town and I’d hope that they can continue to get looked after, and the respect for Mary and Tom and all who went before to be upheld.”
The asking price for the very special three storey premises is €320,000.