The rural pub has evolved along somewhat different lines to its counterparts in Dublin, Belfast and the other cities. By urban standards the traditional society of the Irish countryside might have been crude and impoverished, but within its vigorous fabric was retained the remnants of an ancient Gaelic tradition of music and literature. The secular gathering place of the people was the shebeen, a primitive and illegal drinking den where poitín and other homemade spirits were consumed in vast quantities. Here would come wandering performers, whose ancestors had been the bards and rhymers to the great Irish chieftains before the destruction of the native aristocracy in the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the shebeen there would be stories and recitations by Gaelic poets, and wild dancing to the fiddle and flute, played in a style whose origins went back to the remotest times. The itinerant musicians and storytellers had important roles as the gatherers and dispensers of news. As they roved through the countryside they would keep isolated communities in touch with each other and with developments at home and abroad.
The true country pub, in keeping with its ancestry from the shebeen, tends to be smaller and more basic in its fittings than those in Dublin and the other cities. Ellen's Pub, a little thatched bar in a remote part of Co. Sligo, offers some idea of the appearance of a shebeen, and with its fine local musicians hints at the uninhibited atmosphere of earlier times. The older, unchanged country pub will as often as not consist of only one small room, furnished with a mahogany counter and wooden tables and chairs.
The landlords of rural pubs were often remarkable for their wit and wide interests. Commonly they were amongst the leaders in their small communities and the guardians of local folk memory and custom. One such publican was the writer John B. Keane, of Listowel, Co. Kerry, whose plays about rural life like 'The Field' won acclaim both in Ireland and abroad. His literary success was not at odds with his profession, he was influenced by the local population and the patrons of his pub, on whom he based most of his characters and stories. The almost legendary Dan Foley of Annascaul, Co. Kerry, whose pub (now sadly closed for some years) was one of the most photographed in Ireland, is remembered as a forward looking publican and an expert on the history and folklore of the Dingle Peninsula. He was also an eager and highly proficient stage magician and conjuror, who entertained generations of local children with his tricks. Like innumerable other good landlords in country villages and towns, his endeavours helped revive the local economy by bringing in extra tourism and trade to the area. An earlier Annascaul publican, Tom Crean (1877-1938), was equally noteworthy. A native of the village, who left home to join the British Navy, he accompanied both Scott and Shackleton on Antarctic expeditions and is now considered one of the unsung heroes of Polar exploration. After retiring from the Navy in 1920, Crean returned to Annascaul and opened the 'South Pole Inn' pub, which displays photographs and memorabilia of his Polar expeditions.
The atmosphere in rural pubs may be far more muted than in city pubs, a legacy, perhaps, of Ireland's troubled history. A residual and deeply rooted secretiveness still permeates some older premises, especially those outside of areas popular with tourists. Hospitality to the stranger was one of the concepts at the heart of ancient Irish society, and the visitor will meet few people kinder than those he might encounter in a rural pub. Whilst an outsider may catch a glimpse of the inner life of a rural community in its pub, only after a long residence in the area can he expect to be fully admitted into its society.