The history of Tabhairne Leo (Leos Tavern) dates back some 150 years…
According to legend, Jack mór (big Jack) a handy man of Meenaleck village, heard the local land owner had broken a cart wheel at cúinne mór (big corner) between Meenaleck & Crolly. After fixing the broken wheel, instead being paid in cash he asked the land owner for a pub licence and fair day for Meenaleck. The pub licence (now Tessies) and Fair day (16th of each month) were granted.
Sometime after, another pub licence was granted in Meenaleck to Paddy Jack (known as Innod Jack which would in time become Leos) which was subsequently purchased by Neil McBride in 1888.The licence is framed and sits on the wall in the bar.
Presumably the pub changed hands a few times before belonging to Johnny Sissy Hughie. Johnny Sissy Hughie lived in Scotland and the pub had become run down as it was only opening for a few months in the summer, in order to keep the licence valid.
Leo Brennan, having travelled Ireland extensively playing with the Slieve Foy Band (consisting of his father, mother, brother and sister) saw that the dance halls were slowly but surely closing down across the country. Leo went solo in 1966 – playing 5-6 nights a week in the McFadden Hotel, Gortahork.
In 1968, Leo wrote to Johnny Sissy Hughie in Scotland offering to buy Innod Jack. A deal was struck and in March 1968 Leo became a publican as well as a musician.
The pub originally consisted of 3 trading areas with some letting rooms above. Leo wasted no time gutting the building, knocking down the internal walls and opening up the roof area. Unable to find a local builder to carry out the refurbishment work, Leo contracted Patrick McGlendy, Ballybofey after a playing gig in Letterkenny.
Together with his wife Maire (Baba), her brothers Noel and Padraig and her cousin John McFadden, Collhane, the roof was re-slated, windows replaced, a new bar installed and the pub furnished. Repairs and refurbishment cost just over half of the initial acquisition cost.
Just 3 months after Leo bought Innod Jack from Johnny Sissy Hughie, Leos Tavern opened its doors in July 1968, 1 week after the birth of Leo & Baba’s ninth and last child, Brídín. At the time of opening, local businessmen, licensees, solicitors and bankers didn’t give Leo a chance of staying in business for more than 6 months!
Leos Tavern got off to a flying start with Leos Tavern packed every night of the week, which was testament to Leo’s vision and understanding that there was a strong demand for music in pubs. This was great news for the village of Meenaleck and locals for the first time could avail of the villages two pubs – Leos or Tessies. Historically, locals had to choose which pub they were going to drink in that night and stay there, in spite of the two pubs being less than 30 yards from each other.
Leo & Baba knew very little about running a pub however together with Baba’s sister Brid Duggan and a little help from the locals, the business thrived. Not long after opening, Leo & his brother Lala (also a member of Slieve Foy) had to build a storeroom/cellar to cope with the demand.
Leos Tavern was a family affair from day one with eldest daughter Maire (16 yrs old) singing on stage with her dad as well as serving pints, together with her brothers Ciaran & Pol. Throughout the years the pub continued from strength to strength and was undoubtedly the foundation upon which Clannad & Enya (already well versed in classical music thanks to Leo & Babas encouragement as a child) built their careers and international reputations.
In 1988 Leo passed the reigns to daughter Olive, a trained chef working in London. Olive introduced bar food although the capacity to do so was severely limited due to the lack of any real kitchen facilities, presumably not a big consideration of Leos back in 1968 – after all the core business was Music, Drink & plenty of Craic.
In 1994, Olive got married and the pub was passed to Leo & Baba’s youngest son Bartley, an electrician working in London. It seemed a full circle had come about with another Brennan thrown in at the deep end, albeit with a strong family support.
Bartley duly learnt the ropes and in 2002, after several years of planning, Leos was raised to the ground and a new bigger & better Tabhairne Leo was built. The new Leo’s incorporated a bar, restaurant/dining room, stage, catering kitchen and provision for 5 letting rooms to the first floor, with the capacity to add on a tourist centre and further letting rooms at a later date.
The new building was moved 15 feet back from the road with a feature stonework lobby & facade, forecourt seating areas to front & side together with parking facilities for approximately 40 – 50 cars. The car park access was also broadened to allow easy access to the numerous tour buses that frequent the pub during the summer months.
Not bad for a business that was predicted to flop 6 months after opening its doors some 40 years ago.