On the corner of Holmes and Kentish Town Roads is O’Reilly’s public house, holding pride of place among the bustle of the high street. Huddled outside the entrance you’ll observe some of its more dedicated patrons clustered together, smoking cigarettes and discussing the woes of the world.
O’Reilly’s is the modern day incarnation of a long line of notable alehouses which have stood on the same site over the centuries – and but one example of Kentish Town’s rich tradition of alcohol consumption. Its history is imprinted into the architecture, not simply in its Victorian façade but also in the two prominent plaques on its exterior walls – one marking its previous history as The Old Farm House and another noting that it was rebuilt in 1885.
In its nascence O’Reilly’s was known as the Star & Garter, until rebuilt into its present form with striking Victorian red brick exterior; as The Old Farm House it enjoyed a reign of a century or so before finally being renamed O’Reilly’s in 2001.
Kentish Town has, of course, been long known for its plentiful supply and long tradition of alehouses – however (believe it or not) they’re probably not as rowdy today as they have been in the past.
Rewind, for example, to the 17th century when, in 1634, seven Justice of the Peace certificates were issued to alehouses in the area. We don’t know exactly what the offences were – but it was something of an achievement for the capital. Later in the 18th century, when gin shops were highly fashionable, Kentish Town boasted a none-too-shabby eleven public houses in the licensing records.
Let’s now step inside. What’s immediately noticeable to my Irish ears is the lack of fellow accents; rather the air is filled with the chatter and voices of its regulars. Kentish Town has long played host to a robust Irish population (the 2011 census confirming nearly 8,000 Irish people living around the Camden Borough).
As a recent arrival I was hoping to find some of my fellow Muintir na hÉireann – but am disappointed. The single plastic tricolour taped askew to a supporting beam confirms to me that this bar is – drum roll – English through and through.
Inside the bar is a little dusty, its exquisite-yet-worn Victorian interior nudging the trappings of modernity. Gorgeous high ornate ceilings with black finishings are exposed to the glare of flashing multi-coloured lights from the slot machines below. There’s a certain charm in the grooves on the dark wooden bar, creaking under the weight of pints and elbows. Yet I can’t tell whether the furniture is itself vintage or just worn from decades of use by inebriated customers. And pinned high on a wall behind the bar is the immortal handwritten sign: Cash Only.
A strong sense of community exists within the premises – young and old gathered together, enjoying a drink throughout the day. When I showed up in the manor, the word on the street was that O’Reilly’s is a good spot for a nice pint and full of life at the weekend – and the rumours seem to be true.
Patrons are glued to the screen of a television, while the cheery barmaid serves up two frothy pints of ale to a couple of middle aged men chatting in a corner. And the Guinness isn’t bad, either.
O’Reilly’s may not be the favourite of the gastro-pub elite but that doesn’t stop it from being a beloved haunt of its regulars and weekend revellers.
If you’re looking for a totally authentic Irish bar, then as an Irish person I’d say O’Reilly’s disappoints a little. I failed to find any of my countrymen there, but perhaps it was bad luck; I may be more successful on another night.
However, it’s a special kinda place, for sure, and – to those who’ve never ventured inside – it’s far friendlier than you might expect.
Sources: Camden And Kentish Town Past and Present (John Richardson) and Streets of Kentish Town (Camden History Society).