Gerry Dolan with his good friend Nigel Farage.

Ringing the bell on the pub trade after 50 years

Gerry Dolan from Killycar, Milltown, recently retired from the pub trade after a career that spanned the best part of 50 years.

Having cut his teeth in the trade at the Farnham Hotel and the Dublin House in Belturbet, Gerry went on to work in popular watering holes across Ireland and the UK before firmly establishing himself as landlord of the Westminster Arms in London. It is here - just last month - that he placed the glasses on the shelf for the last time after 30 years at the helm of one of Britain’s most famous watering holes.

It’s been a “great” journey for Gerry and indeed his family - wife Marie, sons Gary and Mark; and daughter Lisa - all of whom were born at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin before Gerry set his sights on the UK and moved his family there in the 1990s.

Gerry was also born at the Coombe Hospital after his mother, Brigie, travelled from Cavan to Dublin in 1954, to give birth. He was to be Brigie and Frank Donlan’s only child and, as time wore, he excelled in both football and the skills required for the pub business.

“I first got a job as a lounge boy in the Farnham Hotel and then worked in the Dublin House in Belturbet,” Gerry recalled while speaking to The Anglo-Celt.

From there, he went to Bundoran for the summer months but, upon his return in September 1973, he observed cars outside the house and received word that his mother had died. It served as a huge blow to the ambitious young Gerry who remarked: “My teenage years were finished that day; it’s tough to lose a parent in your teenage years.”

“As I get older - I have three kids and five grandchildren - I realise that children and their parents become friends,” he says. “But this is an opportunity that I didn’t get to have with my own mother,” he laments.

Educated at Cavan Vocational School, Gerry is immensely proud of the fact that he got himself an “Ulster Medal” while in attendance after the team won the coveted schools’ title.

“I went to live with my aunt Mrs Farrelly and I was deciding what to do with my life,” he continued, before adding that his thoughts were on journalism or perhaps becoming a PE teacher.

But what’s for you doesn’t pass you, as the old adage goes and, while deep in thought about his future, an opportunity to run a pub in Rathkeale in Co Limerick came his way - ‘The First, The Last’ public house was to be Gerry’s first foray into becoming manager and gaffer of his own public house.

“Travellers had a huge community there and they frequented the pub,” recalled Gerry before highlighting how, contrary to some perceptions, there were no issues during those years. “That time was supposed to be a stop gap but I stayed there for two years and even met my future wife while running the pub when I visited Ballybunion in Co Kerry,” he recalled.

Gerry then set his sights further and went to Dublin where he worked in establishments in Ballyfermot and Rathmines. It was while there that he met a man by the name of T.P. Smith. The pair hit it off and before long they were in partnership together after purchasing the well-known establishment Lloyd’s of Amiens Street.

The Red Parrot on Dorset Street was the next purchase they made and Gerry remembers the “very busy days there”.

“It was beside Croke Park and I had some very busy days there,” he smiled. “I was also playing a bit of football with the Civil Service as well and life was good.”

And so Gerry soldiered on but, being a man to make the most of any opportunity that came his way, he received an offer to go to London to run pubs for the Brewery. “I did that for a year and I got the Silver Cross in Whitehall; it was a great location and I felt like I had landed in heaven. It was only 100 yards from Trafalgar Square. At that stage my wife came over with the kids and we all settled into family life in England.”

Meanwhile, Gerry was required to get his licence to trade and that necessitated a trip to Buckingham Palace. All of this was going on against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and anti-Irish sentiment that was beginning to take hold in the UK as a result of the IRA’s bombing campaign in mainland Britain.

“I found myself - an Irishman in London - going through the front gates and into the Palace,” he recalled. “I saw the Queen when I went there; she was walking by. I got the licence and worked away in the pub for three or four years and then the Westminster Arms came up.”

The well-established pub was just 400 yards down the road and Members of the British Parliament (MPs) as well as other famous people frequented there.

“I remember meeting Mickey Finn who was Government Press Secretary, a great character. He said to me ‘you should get the Division Bell in here’ [the voting bell in Parliament].”

Not one to sit still, Gerry immediately began plotting to bring the idea to fruition. “I got the bell installed and, not only did it become synonymous with the pub, it served as a major attraction to tourists visiting London. We got a lot of famous customers there. I saw five or six prime ministers coming through the doors and I became good friends with Nigel Farage.”

Indeed it’s no secret that Gerry and Nigel became good friends - a friendship it seems that has strengthened with time despite their differing opinions.

“Nigel used to come into the pub and have a pint in the early days of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). He and I disagree on Brexit but he did tell me some time ago that he was going to have a bash at the next election. It’s hard to know how that is going to pan out.”

As a General Election fast approaches in the UK, Gerry has concerns about the political direction the country - his beloved and adopted homeland - is going in.

“Politically here in the UK we are not great,” he continued. “There is a problem here in that, you have left and you have right. One can’t survive without the other and we all know that centre ground is the best but we don’t have this at the moment.

“Nigel Farage, love him or hate him, said a long time ago that England wasn’t able to cope with all the migrants coming in. The NHS is on its knees and the schools are overcrowded now and Nigel has tapped into what Joe Public is feeling. At the moment that is a vote catcher,” surmised Gerry.

“I do feel that genuine migrants should be looked after. The Irish were migrants for long enough but they came with the attitude of working and not sitting around all day,” he added.

Meanwhile, others who passed through the doors of the Westminster Arms during Gerry’s 30-year tenure, include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, Ted Kennedy; Angelina Jolie, Ken Clarke, Bob Geldof and Sting who lived next door to the establishment.

IRA man Sean O’Callaghan also frequented the bar. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s he worked against the organisation from within as a mole for the Irish Government with the An Garda Síochána’s Special Branch. In the mid-1980s he left the IRA and voluntarily surrendered to British prosecution for actions he had engaged in as an IRA gunman in the 1970s. Following his release from prison, he published a memoir ‘The Informer: The True Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism’.

‘Cavan for Sam’

And as Gerry looks back fondly on his 30 years in the Westminster Arms, he remembers mostly the chats, the faces and the personalities. But he is also very focused on his future. Gerry owns a number of successful racehorses and a greyhound called ‘Cavan for Sam’, which has won a “few races” so far.

He also owns a property in Sussex and in Northern Cyprus and he and his wife spend time living between the two. Gerry now has much more time to spend with his three children and his adored five grandchildren, as well as his “great son-in-law and great daughters-in-law”.

“We are a very close family and we get on well when we are together. I play a bit of golf and we do come to Dublin, Cavan and Carlow - where my wife is from. I like going back and playing a bit of golf in the Slieve Russell; going back to Drumlane and Milltown and Belturbet. The Cavan man will never leave you,” he laughed.