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Belfast Live
Belfast Live
Sophie McLaughlin

Co Antrim bar dating back to 1600s is 'oldest thatched pub in Ireland'

Nestled off the road between Randalstown and Portglenone stands one of the country's most famous and historic pubs.

Dating back to the 1600s, The Crosskeys Inn near Toome is the "oldest thatched pub in Ireland" and has become known the world over for its authentic charm and traditional Irish music sessions.

The stone-built cottage, which was once a coaching stop on the route between Belfast and Derry, has been owned by the Hurl family since they took over in 2001 and proprietor Vincent has worked continuously to keep the spirit and history of the Crosskeys alive for locals and tourists alike.

Speaking to Belfast Live, Vincent said: "It dates back to 1654 - whenever we came in here in 2001, there never was an official date for the pub and we would have always used the date of 1742 because it was referred to in a particular newspaper article.

An old photograph of the pub which is believed to have been opened in the 1600s (Justin Kernoghan/ Belfast Live)

"That newspaper article talked about the lease of land in the townland of Ardnaglass where is situated the noted public house where above the door is two crossed keys."

Further down the line as Vincent carried out more research about the pub's origins, in 2010 a beam collapsed above the Bottom Room and a study from Queen's University Belfast using a sample of that beam revealed a building date of 1654 which put almost 100 years on to the pub's history.

"Whenever I came in, there had been a fire that had damaged the other two rooms at the top end of the premises with, the previous owner and the pub had only opened up again when I took it over. The building was empty from front to back so we had to start putting the whole thing back together again.

"We went through a lot of the old photographs that would have been here and studied the walls to see where artefacts were placed so that some of the items that were salvaged from the fire were able to put back in place. Anything that was missing, we sourced it," he explained.

It is considered 'the oldest thatched pub in Ireland' and attracts visitors from around the world (The Crosskeys Inn/ Submitted)

Over the last 21 years, Vincent and his family have continued to add and develop the business and have put it on the map as a cultural landmark that attracts visitors from around the world.

Vincent continued: "The hospitality sector is always one that is impacted, whether it's recessions or recently Covid which closed it for almost two years so you are always adapting and looking for different ways to move the business forward.

"Even though it wasn't my background, hospitality is always something I saw myself working in and I always wanted to own a pub and although I didn't have a background in tourism, I became heavily involved in tourism development in the local area because of the pub."

In 2014, Vincent went back to Ulster University to do a Masters degree in Tourism where his area of research was Irish Whiskey tourism and the imminent growth of it, a passion that is evident through the selection available in the bar and which also lead him to launch his own eight-year-old single malt whiskey 'Crosskeys 1654' in 2017.

"The pub is a famous traditional music venue and is widely used to promote Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole for tourism and we have visitors from all over the world visit the pub," he said.

A traditional music session in the Crosskeys (The Crosskeys Inn/ Submitted)

"People ask me how far does the association between the Crosskeys and traditional music go and the previous owner and his father were dedicated to the promotion of traditional Irish music.

"I have continued on with this tradition but recently I had a photograph sent to me by a lady in New York and it was taken in front of the pub. In the photograph, there was a man called John Patrick Teeney and we know he went through Ellis Island in 1927 and the photograph is of him playing the fiddle out the front. This demonstrates that the music tradition goes back much further than we us initially thought.

"The musicians are very dedicated to the Crosskeys and they are a fantastic asset to not just the pub but also the local area. Whether it’s some of the older musicians stopping in for a tune or parents driving their children to the Crosskeys to play for visitors, the dedication and support from the musicians and their families is greatly appreciated.

"We have musicians who have been playing around the Crosskeys for over 50 years and every year brings new faces. The standard of music in the area is amazing and whenever they are travelling around Ireland and playing and competing, the name Crosskeys is there."

Vincent and his family have been running the pub for the last 21 years (Justin Kernoghan/ Belfast Live)

Vincent added: "It's the sort of pub that you never know what your day will look like - you don't know who you are going to meet or what is going to come up from one day to the next.

"We have had documentaries filmed in the pub, albums recorded, fashion shoots, eel suppers with local celebs and even the celebrities on one of the first series of 'I'm a Celebrity Get me Out Of Here' visited the Crosskeys on their departure."

The Crosskeys was named as the 'Best Country Pub' in the whole of the UK in 2017 being the first pub ever to be nominated for it in Northern Ireland.

He credits the continued success of the Crosskeys to the staff and the local people who have been coming through the doors every day for generations and supporting the business.

"Whenever you have visitors coming here, the local clienteles ability to talk to and welcome visitors to the pub is as important as it is for us and the staff to be able to do. The locals are very welcoming and love to share the history and stories of the area with the visitors.

Vincent and his wife Melanie and their two daughters (The Crosskeys Inn/ Submitted)

"My wife and children play a big role in the day to day running of the bar. My children from a very young age would have been helping here, giving out stew and sandwiches on days like St Patrick's Day. Over the years as they have got older they have become very hands-on and as a result, we have developed friendships with people from all around the world who keep in regular contact with us," he said.

"It's very important having my wife and children working here alongside me and you'll find that in most small and local businesses that are family-owned and family-run that this is the case. Over the years we also have been very lucky to have very good and very loyal staff.

"The staff themselves are as proud of the pub as we are, our customers and local community are also very proud of the pub. There is not another pub like it on the island of Ireland - this pub speaks for itself on the outside and whenever you walk in, you are expecting heritage and culture and that's what we try to promote."

Inside the Crosskeys music room (Justin Kernoghan/ Belfast Live)

He continued: "It has been said noted that during the Troubles, whenever there were very few tourists coming into Northern Ireland, there were visitors coming to the Crosskeys for the music and the uniqueness of the bar.

"I have always said, even though I own the pub, you're only a custodian and the pub is going to be here long after I am gone - it's more than just a pub. It's a community asset and what we are doing while we are here is running it for the community and they can hopefully benefit from its popularity."

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