It was Autumn and the falling leaves fell messily to the ground creating a rustic jigsaw puzzle of nature as twelve-year-old Alice skipped into the pub her eyes bright and expectant as they fell on her aunt Maggie who stood behind the bar pulling pints for the men who leaned easily at the counter. She ran to the couch and took out her school bag and from it emerged a book. She could hear the men talk between themselves on occasion, their voices a soft mumble with some soft sentences streaming into silence. Maggie kept busy, wiping the counter. She cast a gaze at her young niece who was lost in work. When Maggie chose to retire, it came as no surprise that she hoped Alice would follow in her footsteps and pursue the pub trade. She had been born and raised to the trade and Maggie was certain that her niece would excel at it. Many years later, Alice finds herself the secretary of the Donegal branch of the Vintner’s Federation of Ireland and goes about her work with an optimistic, upbeat and positive attitude.
The pub is renowned throughout the county for the charitable work that she, her family, her customers and the community carry out within the pub. “At Maggies we started our charity work with BBQ and the Pig on the Spit headed up by Tony Rodges. Over a ten year period we raised over a €123,000 for a variety of local charities. Joe McKean, later went on to win the “Good Neighbour Award” in 2006. It’s not all about me, it’s about the community. Everyone works so hard for charity. Last year, we undertook a big cycle that left Maggie’s and went through Annagry, Killybegs and then back to the pub. They raised twenty two thousand euro for the “Little Angels and the MS Society.” People enjoyed it, they had fun, there was great interaction, there were people singing on lorries and everyone became part of the charity event,” she said.
For the past 8 years, Alice and her team run a charity cycle for the Diabetic Federation. Over 80 cyclists took part in the cycle during summer of 2011. The mother of two has spent almost two decades behind the bar. Having spent her life in the pub which lies between St. Johnston and Lifford, she has watched customers come and go, social norms change and welcomed new customers with an open hearted smile.
“You always remember the customers who come back to you. We have been running a darts tournament in memory of Aunt Maggie for many years and every year between thirty five and forty teams turn up and you are always delighted to see them,” she said.
Over the years, the pub trade has faced grave difficulties as the smoking ban coupled with the cheap price of drink in off-licences proved a battle for the age old industry. Other pubs battled with the price of cheap drink close to the border.
“It has changed over the years. Right now, it is all about getting back to the basics. My aunt Maggie left me the pub twenty four years ago. I would always have been running around helping her when I was a child. You wouldn’t be allowed to do that now but back then it was different. When I was 12 years-old, I was sent to the Convent in Buncrana. Life was totally different. I went to secondary school and during that time she slowly became an old woman. When I was nineteen she retired. She left the pub to me, she always wanted me to have it. I worked for New Ireland Assurance company in Sligo and I did enjoy my work there. When I was twenty seven years-of age, I left my job and moved on,” she recalls.
Alice married Neil Sweeney and the two have two wonderful children, Maura (9) and Patrick (6) who attend St. Baithin’s NS. in St. Johnston.
Alice has faced adverse and challenging times within the industry with sheer determination. In 1991, Alice was national Macra Na Feirme winner of the 27th National Queen of the Land Enterprise Bord member.
She is at present undertaking a National Certificate in Advanced Culinary Arts at the LYIT’s campus in the Killybegs School of Tourism.
“We are have party on Saturday night and we at Maggie’s are going to treat it like it was our own. I can create my own party nibbles, my own food and all our staff will be there to enjoy the event with those who arrive. Killybegs has been good, it has taught me to go back to basics and that it all returns to the simple rule of good service. We are certainly going down the road of improving where and when we can,” she said.
She added that she hasn’t gone into full time catering as yet as you can never be certain of the numbers that will visit your establishment on a daily basis.
“One day we can five customers and the next you can have twenty. I am competing with places like Strabane and border establishments. These are challenging times but we must meet them head on with optimism and diversification,” she said.
She and her husband Neil Sweeney take the work that they carry out on behalf of their customers very seriously. Both husband and wife are not adverse to leaving customers at home at night to ensure that they arrive at their doors safely.
“We are trying to do everything right, we may not get it right all the time but we are doing our best. We are located near the border so we have to work even harder than other businesses so we are trying to ensure that our customers are treated to the best possible standard,”she said.
Alice believes that if you make a decision, you believe at the time that it is the right one and that there is no time in this life for regrets. “If you make a decision and you are happy with it at the time, you have to get on with that decision. You have to get back to basics and you will succeed with a bit of thought and diversification,” she said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Alice walked though the doors of Killybegs college with a feeling of optimism. It was the first day of Spring, the light frost of the morning had faded and birds sang on the leafy green trees as flowers were begining to bloom.