BUNDORAN, Ireland — There are not a lot of pubs in Ireland run by older women. There are even fewer where there’s no TV. There are still fewer that won’t allow a song now and then.
And until I walked into Brennan’s Criterion Bar on Main Street in this seaside Donegal town, I was unaware that there was an Irish pub where, beyond the prohibitions on TV and music, swearing is not allowed.
The proprietors, Patricia and Nan Brennan, insist that the Criterion has certain criteria. It is a shrine to the spoken word, the art of conversation, and profanity is considered a stain on that art, television and music unwelcome distractions.
“People come here for a drink and a chat,” says Patricia, who at 78 is the baby of the pair. “A television would ruin the atmosphere. And who wants to listen to foul language?”
Nan, who is 80, agrees.
“It’s not just us who want it this way,” she says, “it’s our customers.”
Their grandparents opened the bar, on St. Patrick’s Day, in 1900. Their grandmother Catherine insisted that it would be a pub where people could talk but not too loudly. Catherine Brennan was the boss of the pub, way ahead of her time, infusing it with a genteel ethos that carried through the years of troubles and tumult as Ireland fought for its independence.
Catherine Brennan’s son, James, and his wife, Mary, took the pub over and ran it until 1981, when Patricia and Nan assumed day to day control.
“We grew up in the business,” Patricia says. “It’s second nature to us.”
The two sisters never married. Their pub is closed just two days a year: Christmas Day and Good Friday. When they take their annual two-week vacation, their younger sister, Caitlin, drives up from Dublin with her husband, Sean, and they look after business while Nan and Patricia travel together.
Patricia and Nan have been to Cuba, Italy, Egypt, Syria, all over the Mediterranean, all over the Caribbean. They are a worldly pair, but their wanderlust is always brief, quickly sated, and they look forward to spending most of their waking hours behind the bar at their small, unpretentious pub.
There’s a snug at the front of the pub. Seven stools at the bar. There’s an adjacent room with plain tables and chairs that serves as the lounge. There are just five taps, two of them reserved for Guinness. They don’t serve food.
During the summer, Bundoran attracts a large number of vacationers, many of them Irish, attracted to Donegal’s beaches. The out-of-towners generally are not familiar with the unwritten rules, the criteria of the Criterion, especially the one about swearing. The Irish swear more than most. They inhabit one of the few cultures in which the F word can be contorted into a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and term of endearment.
But it’s not welcome at the Criterion, and when such words are uttered, Patricia Brennan unleashes what the locals call “the look.”
“I’ve seen it, the look,” says Peter McLaughlin, who has been a customer for more than 20 years. “It works.”
McLaughlin patronizes other pubs, but Brennan’s is special. He leaves there relaxed.
“It’s a good atmosphere,” he says. “Every town should have a pub like this.”
In all their years, Nan and Patricia said they’ve never had anyone ignore their demand for civil language. They have never had to call the police. Their insistence on civility inspires others to act civilly.
One of the reasons the criteria at the Criterion is widely accepted is because there are no exceptions. Some years back, a group that included the famous singer-songwriter Phil Coulter decamped at Brennan’s. As Coulter prepared to serenade the crowd with a rendition of his famous composition “The Town I Loved So Well,” Patricia and Nan reminded him of the no-singing rule.
Coulter wasn’t offended. In fact, he was impressed. Instead of singing the words of the song, he wrote them down for the sisters in a journal they keep for visitors.
Whenever there’s a big match or race on, someone might suggest, even half-heartedly, that the sisters allow a TV in just as a one-off. But Patricia and Nan won’t budge.
“We tell them they can go watch the match or the race someplace else and then come back here and talk about it,” Patricia says.
And, indeed, that’s not a big deal. Right next door, Gerry and Felicity Gilligan’s fine pub, The Railway Bar, has big screens for the soccer, the Gaelic football matches, and the horse races.
In recent years, especially, Irish pubs have tried everything and anything to grow or just maintain their business, from installing state-of-the-art widescreen TVs or high-tech sound systems for music, to high-end kitchens with gourmet food and myriad taps for international microbrews.
At the Criterion, the Brennan sisters are content to stick with what’s worked for 116 years. To call it a formula would cheapen its authenticity.
“Why would we change now?” Nan asks. “Besides, it keeps you young, talking to all the people. I wouldn’t change the atmosphere here for anything.”
As Nan spoke, Patricia finished putting a perfect head on the top of a pint, pausing just long enough to give not the look, but the nod.