The history of Tábhairne Leo (Leo’s Tavern) dates back some 150 years.......
According to legend, Jack mór (big Jack) a handy man of Meenaleck village, heard the local Landlord had broken a cartwheel at Coradh mór (big corner) between Meenaleck & Crolly. After fixing the broken wheel, the Landlord went to pay Jack mór but instead of a cash payment, Jack requested that the Landlord issue 2 pub licences and a fair day for Meenaleck. The 2 pub licences, which are now called Tábhairne Leo (Leo’s Tavern) and the other Teac Tessie were granted along with a Fair day which was called Aonach Jack or Jack’s Fair, which took place on 16th day of each month. This all happened around 1850 and Jack’s Fair lasted for about 100 years, with the last Fair day taking place in and around the 1950’s. Although the Fair days are long past, the local Cóiste Forbartha Mín na Leice (Meenaleck Community Committee) run an annual event in July of each year, celebrating Aonach Jack with stalls, farm animals and local arts and crafts.
The pub now known as Leo’s Tavern changed hands a few times before belonging to Johnny Sissy Hughie. Johnny was living in Scotland and the pub had become run down as it was only opened for a few days in the summer, in order to keep the licence valid.
Leo Brennan a musician, had travelled Ireland, England and Scotland extensively during the 50’s and 60’s, playing with the Slieve Foy Dance Band, which was a Family Band, consisting of his father, mother, brothers and sister. With the dance halls slowing down across the country and with the Slieve Foy parting their ways, Leo decide to go solo, playing at weddings and functions and also playing 5-6 nights a week in the McFadden Hotel, Gortahork. It was with all this in mind that Leo & his wife Máire (Baba) decide to invest in a pub.
In 1968, Leo wrote to Johnny Sissy Hughie in Scotland offering to buy the pub. A deal was struck and in March 1968 Leo became a publican as well as a musician, and duly called the pub Tábhairne Leo or Leo’s Tavern.
On the 16th of July 1968 just 3 months after Leo bought the pub, Leo’s Tavern opened its doors, which was also one week after the birth of Leo & Baba’s ninth and last child, Brídín. At the time of opening, locals and businessmen alike didn’t give Leo a chance of staying in business for more than 6 months!
Being the first singing pub in the area, Leo’s Tavern got off to a flying start with the place packed every night of the week, which was testament to Leo and Baba’s vision and understanding that there was a strong demand for music in pubs. This was great news for the village of Meenaleck, as locals for the first time, in a long time, could avail of the village’s two pubs – Leo’s or Tessie’s. It was reputed that in the old days, that when locals decided to come to Meenaleck for a drink, it was forbidden to frequent both pubs on the same night, they had to choose whichever pub they were going to have a drink in and stay there, in other word they could not “cross the great divide”, but thankfully that superstition change in later years.
Leo & Baba knew very little about running a pub however together with Baba’s sister Brid Duggan and a little help from other family members and the locals, the business thrived.
Leo’s Tavern was a family affair from day one with eldest daughter Maire, who was only in her teens, singing on stage with her dad as well serving pints, together with her brother Ciaran & Pol. Throughout the years the pub continued from strength to strength and with Leo and Baba encouraging their children in music and on stage, this was undoubtedly the foundation upon which Clannad & Enya built their careers and onto which they gained international recognition.
In 1988 Leo passed the reigns to daughter Olive, a trained chef working in London. Olive introduced bar food to Leo’s Tavern and continued to develop the place into a popular destination for Food, Music, Drink & plenty of Craic.
Then 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. In 2002, after several years of planning, Leo’s was renovated by extending the bar lounge and dining room area and also in keeping with the musical aspect of the Tavern the performance area and piano were given centre stage. The outside renovations have feature stonework walls, that utilises local red granite stone, and with forecourt seating areas to front & side, together with parking facilities to accommodate the cars and numerous tour busses that frequent the tavern throughout the year, Leo’s Tavern was ready to service and look after the local community and the ever-growing tourists that were and are travelling the Wild Atlantic Way.
Not bad for a business that was predicted to flop 6 months after opening its doors some 50 years ago.