County Westmeath is not a tourist destination; as with most countries, people travel along the coast, and the coastal drive is beyond beautiful in Ireland.
But you may want to veer off that path for a short while to visit Sean's Bar in the town of Athlone, as it is officially the oldest pub in Ireland, some say the whole world.
Ireland is known for its ancient history and contains one of the oldest buildings in the world. Newgrange is a Stone Age (Neolithic) burial chamber in the Boyne Valley, County Meath. It was constructed about 5,200 years ago (3,200 B.C.), making it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Newgrange is only an hour and a half drive from Sean's Bar.
Dublin's Brazen Head is another famous pub in Ireland, continuously run as a pub since 1198. They claim to be the oldest pub, but in 2004 the National Museum of Ireland, after conducting archaeological research, confirmed that Sean's Bar dates further back to 900AD. That makes 1,121 years old!
During renovations in 1970, they found the bar's walls were made of “wattle and wicker,” dating back to the ninth century. Old coins minted by various landlords to barter with their customers were also found.
The walls and coins are now on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin (a great museum to visit). Today, you can still see one section of the wall on display in the pub. In 2000, Sean's Bar was accepted as “The Oldest Public House in Ireland.” by the Guinness World Records.
History of Sean's Bar
The story of how the pub came to be starts in the tenth century when a local innkeeper named Luain Mac Luighdeach is said to have built the bar to cater to the passing travelers on the Shannon River (the longest river in Ireland).
Athlone, translated into Irish, is ‘Atha Luain,' which means the town of Luain or the ford of Luain. Luain was a man who used to guide people across the treacherous waters of the River Shannon long before the first bridges were built. While waiting for him to show them across the river, they could partake in food and drink in the bar.
Located on the main street in Athlone town, Sean's Bar is not fancy; it's rustic with indoor and outdoor seating that reaches down to the banks of the Shannon River. If the weather is nice, it's lovely to sit outside and enjoy their extensive selection of drinks, good bar food, and a friendly atmosphere.
The pub has not changed much since those renovations. That is a good thing; it's not out to impress, yet there is a romance about the place with its open turf fireplace, the fishing rods on the wall, and the cozy snug where you can chat the night away.
A snug is part of the Irish pub design, which creates a private space for those who do not want to be seen in a public bar. In the early 20th century, pubs were exclusively for men; respectable women would not go there. But they could go into the snug, blocked off from the main pub.
Fans of Peaky Blinders will remember that the gang uses the snug in their local pub to hold meetings away from public view. It was more expensive to order a drink in the snug, but privacy was worth it.
Not all snugs are blocked off; it's like a cozy nook today. They are lovely and great if you are out on a date night or want to have a private chat with friends.
On entering Sean's Bar, you'll probably wonder why the floor is sloped, did one side sink through the years? The funny thing is it was designed that way, maybe in 900 AD. The pub is located on a bend in the Shannon river, meaning both the front and back of the pub face it.
When the river overflowed, as it was wont to do, water would go in the front door of the pub and then out the back door, back to the river. The pub was designed to let the river run free. Great environmental design. In 900AD.
Today the floor is strewn with sawdust, a remnant of the past. The sawdust would soak up whatever water remained when the flooding stopped. So, the bar is keeping its history alive in many ways that you may not be aware of if you happen to stop by.
You can attend the nightly sessions of wonderful traditional Irish music that will get you nostalgic for the past. I requested a song called Willy MacBride, a nationalist Irish song about the war in Ireland. It's depressing but such an emotional song. The musicians were happy to accommodate, which is how the Irish are. Welcoming, friendly, and always ready to chat with strangers.
I am Irish, and we talk too much, but Americans love it. In the U.S., you wouldn't chat with strangers like in Ireland. It is so refreshing and something I miss about home.
It's also one of the reasons why so many Americans retire to Ireland each year.
As always, I recommend not traveling there during the summer months. During high season the pub will have between 500 to 1,000 visitors a day.
As someone with high sensitivity, it's always better to travel in the off-season anyway, so you should make the most of that.
It's a beautiful, rustic pub, but you don't want to be with that many people. And, forget about St. Patrick's Day; that's a nightmare.
Sean's Bar is on Lonely Planet's '25 of the Most Incredible Bars in the World'. So, if you travel to Ireland, make sure to make your way to Athlone town, and raise a pint in the oldest bar in the world.
How to Get There
& When to Go
Fly into Dublin airport. It's one hour, 20mins from Dublin to Athlone.
You can also take the train from Dublin's Heuston station to Athlone, a one-hour and 20min time frame.
The Irish drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, which can be disorientating. So I recommend renting an automatic car if traveling from the US. They are more expensive than a stick shift but easier to drive.
Best Time to Visit
Offseason, Spring, and Fall are the best times for HSPs.
*** St. Patrick's Day is crazy in Dublin, and many people travel worldwide to see the parade. Avoid that time at all costs.
Irish is the national language; however, everyone speaks English.
Euro in the Irish Republic.
English Pound in Northern Ireland.
Cash | Cards
Most places accept credit cards but always carry cash. Use Visa or Mastercard with no foreign transaction fees. ATMs in Ireland are called Cashpoint and are the best way to get cash.
The standard voltage in Europe is 230 V; buy a travel adapter before leaving the US.
999 – Call the emergency services by dialing 999 from a mobile or fixed phone line.
EU Emergency Number
Dialing 112 from any country in the European Union will connect you to emergency services – police, fire, and ambulance. Dialing 112 is free from any mobile phone, landline, or payphone.
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