BY DECLAN VARLEY
When PJ and Maura Grealish and their family bought the Kings Head a quarter of a century ago, one of the first things they did was light a fire in the famous 1612 fireplace. Unaware that the chimney needed cleaning the place soon filled up with thick smoke from the turfy fire.
Having chosen that morning also to discuss their plans for their new business with members of the jazz troupe as they came in for their regular Sunday morning session, PJ turned to the worried musicians and relieved their fears by saying “Well, we’ll be keeping ye, but getting rid of the smoke.”
And so it has continued, with the Grealish family working within the constraints of a historical iconic building to make a massive contribution to the arts and culture of the city.
This weekend, it marks 25 years of being in the capable hands of the Grealishs who consider themselves, not merely owners but 'custodians' of the famous establishment with a history dating back 800 years.
The Grealish family were no strangers to the hospitality business, having successfully run the Imperial Hotel and the Square Inn in Tuam. With five children in college in Galway, for PJ and Maura Grealish the logical step was to take that formula and see if it would work in Galway. And so in 1989, they bought The Kings Head, in the knowledge that it had great potential.
In becoming the new owners of the Kings Head, they were carrying on a tradition that had succeeded for 775 years before them. A daunting task it might seem and so it was. But all the Grealish family children rolled up their sleeves and mucked in, the experience of having run their Tuam businesses standing to them.
“Back then there were just seven staff running the place, mainly the family, but now over 70 staff work here to keep the Kings Head going,” said owners Paul and Mary Grealish this week as they looked back with pride over the last few decades as the premises became a cultural hub, nurturing and innovating the fledgling comedy scene in the city, and providing live music free of charge seven nights a week.
And in doing so, the Grealish family ensured that the King’s Head became a key player in the musical, theatrical and literary scene, not just putting on lunchtime shows in the back bar but providing a platform for emerging theatrical and comedy talent.
At that time, the new style of comedy was not as established as it was now, and troupes like The Flying Pigs were revolutionary in their withering treatment of age old Irish classics such as Peig and Playboy of the Western World — they found their home in the backroom of The Kings Head – their self-styled Sty In The Sky where they entertained thousands back in the days when stand-up comedy was in its infancy and when they boasted one Tommy Tiernan among their numbers.
The Kings Head became their postal address, their telephone answering service in the days before mobiles.
“This brought a great energy and life to the pub and to the whole area and over the years we have been at the centre of events such as comedy, Cuirt, and the Galway Arts Festival,” said Paul.
“These were rooms that we were’nt using so we just let them at it, but what emerged was the start of a major comedy movement in Galway and that continues to this day. Every year we host the Show Me The Funny events to unearth new comic talent, and this is a throwback to the days when many comedy stars got their encouragement and motivation from shows staged in the Kings Head.
Paul and Mary Grealish are philosphical about how this success has come about.
“With a premises as historical and iconic as this, it would be the easiest thing in the world to become just a tourist trap, a sort of Bunratty Castle which would be enticing to tourists only — but we have had to ensure that we stayed relevant to the locals, that they feel comfortable coming in here to eat and drink and to be entertained.”
And that is how it is with the King's Head. The fireplace just inside the entrance is just over 400 years and is still operational, but locals who come in and leave their pint on it and see it as a part of living history, one to be respected but one not to be overawed by.
The bulk of the day trade for the King’s Head now is in the food trade and to this end they have become a member of the Good Food Ireland group, a logical development stemming back to the days when family-made food was just that.
“When we had a Galway Arts Festival launch here in the early days, we served refreshments to the attendees, and many of them commented on how the scones were the best they'd ever tasted, so I remarked, 'yeah, my mother made them.' and they laughed, thinking I was joking. But she had made them, because that was the kind of thing we brought to here, the sort of homespun approach to running the business that we had grown up with.
“We've decided to mark the 25th anniversary because there are so many reasons why the Kings Head has been a success and this is down to the support of our staff, our customers, our suppliers, our neighbours, family businesses like Anthony Ryans, Freeneys and Murphys, in this part of the city, who welcomed us in with open arms 25 years ago. In that period, we have supported our loyal suppliers as well, all our meat comes from Collerans, all our bread comes from Griffins and it’s because of relationships like this that the Kings Head has worked and stayed part of the heart of Galway.
25 years might seem a small amount in a history that goes back 800 years, but the past quarter century is one that has seen major cultural and technological changes in way in which we entertain and enjoy ourselves. The Kings Head has been at the centre of that.
Whatever evolves in the next 25 years, you can be sure that the old venue will be at the heart of them, adapting to the various demands of who who work and revel within those hallowed walls, just as it has done for the eight centuries before.
The jazz session returns next Sunday morning for a once-off performance. And yes, the chimney has been well cleaned.