A couple of weeks ago the LaoisToday team wrote a very humourous piece on Valentine’s Day about where Laois people could ‘find love back in the day’!
A number of well-known venues around the county and beyond were mentioned but it was the reference to the Montague Hotel that struck a chord with me.
I live right beside it and can remember every phase of its history, from prior to its development to this very day.
The site where the Montague stands was bought in the 1960s and construction started in 1967. It opened to the public in the summer of 1969 and from that day it was an incredibly busy establishment right in the heart of the country.
There was no motorway and there was huge passing trade so it was always busy. It was a huge benefit to the local community, employing many people in full and part-time jobs and was a great source of work for local students. One of the student workers was a young Charlie Flanagan who later went on to serve our county as a TD and is now the current Minister for Justice.
Living close to the hotel one of the first things I can remember is the beautiful smell of cooked food as I worked on our family farm nearby.
At that time I was in my late teens and was starting to go to dances and other functions. And the Fork Supper Dances in the Montague Hotel was the place to be.
It was the weekly highlight for younger people. And the not so young, I suppose – there was always a few wanderers would stray in!
All through the 1970s and 1980s there could be 600 people there on a Sunday night. For me, one of the highlights was the Sunday night in October 1972 when I was part of the Emo panel that won the Laois senior football championship for our first and only time. The party went on until about 10 o’clock the following morning!
Cars were not as plentiful then as they are now so a car – more often than not a Ford Anglia or a Hillman Hunter – that came in the front gates or down Mulhall’s Lane was always full loaded.
They came from Ballylinan, Ballyroan, Clonaslee, Stradbally, Timahoe, Portlaoise – you name it. From all over the county and beyond.
Different people had different habits when they arrived. Some would stand at the door until they got going. Some went out dancing straight away. Plenty of others went straight to the bar.
There was always plenty of good local bands. Har and the Escorts, Tom McDonald and the Yodling Band, Joe Kennedy and the Professionals, Seamus O’Brien and the Knights.
The Fork Supper was served at 11.30. Mashed potatoes, chicken and peas. There was no chips on the menu in those days. All served on paper plates and eat with plastic forks. The feed set the crowd up for more drink.
There was no draught beer ever served in the Montague on a Sunday night. The staff were just too busy. If you asked for a pint you’d be told where to go! It was large bottles for the men and gin and tonic for the ladies.
The odd time there’d be a disagreement, sometimes over a football match earlier that day or sometimes a lad might try to take another fella’s girlfriend. There was occasional punch-ups and the young lady who all the eyes were on could finish up with nobody to bring her home at all.
It was a different era, one where drink driving was the norm. After the night ended people would get back into their cars, take it good and steady and make their way home.
Because the Montague was the place to go, it was a great social occasion. Many a good match and a happy marriage was made. To this day any wedding celebrated in the Montague is set in stone and remembered on a plaque at the back of the hotel.
As it was so close to me I used to attend on a very regular basis. But after all my attempts, it finished up that I had to go to the Bridge House in Tullamore to find a woman!
I was there one night and was after having a few pints but I wasn’t overly impressed. I said to myself “I’m giving this place another ten minutes and I’m heading back to the Montague”. With that I met Bridget, asked could I buy her a drink and it went from there. We’re still together and married now 33 years.
The Montague was known all over the country. It was a famous stop-off point for Cork and Kerry supporters on their way to Croke Park for big games.
For many years Michael Murphy was the manager of the hotel – and a very good one at that. He was a very popular manager and great man for tourism and local communities. He also had a huge involvement in GAA, naturally enough being a Kerryman. And he was able to get every GAA Dinner Dance in the county for the hotel.
Many of the Ulster teams used the Montague as their base when they were going down the country and I remember on a couple of occasions having great nights in the late bar with Michael and the great Paidi O Se who was a friend of his.
While the dances were the big thing of the 70s and 80s, it did host two huge events in the 2000s. In November 2003, the Laois senior footballers were presented with their Leinster championship medals and the minor team with their All Ireland medals. The two ballrooms were full to capacity and there was an incredible atmosphere.
In 2004, the government of the time, with Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach, held a cabinet meeting in Emo Court. The full cabinet went back to the Montague for lunch and afterwards met with local people and attended events in the area that day.
Over the years too it was a great place for Sunday lunch and any type of family gathering – be it christenings, communions, confirmations, weddings and birthday parties. And there was hardly a local event that wasn’t held there, be it a meeting, a function or a variety show.
After the motorway opened in 2004 the Montague was always a quieter place. It changed hands a couple of times and there were no days like the old days.
From 2004 to 2007 it was very much on the wind down. In August 2007 it was announced it was closing and on the 16th of October that year it opened as a Direct Provision Centre for Asylum Seekers.
It is now over ten years as a home to people who have left behind very difficult situations, mostly in Africa.
It’s certainly a different place now to what it was.
As a hotel and a venue for those Sunday night dances, however, it’ll never be forgotten.