Jenny McHugh is what you might describe as a caring woman. Whether it’s caring for people in their home, as she does professionally with both Bluebird and Home Instead Senior Care, whether it’s looking after her 14-year-old daughter Sarah, or whether it’s making sure customers in the family business, Nancy’s Bar in Ardara, are well looked after, she busies herself, cheerfully and almost effortlessly, seeing to the comfort and contentment of those around her.
Maybe it’s because she’s the eldest of seven children and spent a fair bit of time looking after her siblings while their parents, Charlie and Ann, were working in the pub.
Or maybe, being part of the seventh generation of the family to serve the public in Nancy’s Bar, it’s just in her blood to look after people. After all, the pub has been synonymous with the best of hospitality for longer than anyone can remember. The eponymous Nancy was Jenny’s father Charlie’s great grandmother. She married his great grandfather Joseph. After he died, she ran the pub, which had already been in business from at least the time of Joseph’s grandfather, for a good number of years, and, though the name on the door still reads Chas. McHugh, the pub is known to one and all as Nancy’s. So, it’s fair to say that ‘keeping the customer satisfied’ is in Jenny’s DNA.
Whatever the reason, Jenny seems to find plenty of joy and happiness in her work.
Jenny has spent the whole of her life in the heart of Ardara, apart from a ten month stint in Scotland after she left school, and she obviously loves the village. It was Jenny who nominated Ardara in the Irish Times Best Place to Live competition.
“Mum read about it in the paper. She read out someone else’s nomination and told me, ‘You know you could do much better than that about Ardara.’ So, I put pen to paper. It was easy to do. The hardest thing was keeping it to the word count limit. I could have gone on writing!
“I was delighted when Ardara won Best Village. I felt we deserved it but I just didn’t think, with so many entries, that we’d get it.
“I think it’s a testament to the people of Ardara. The judge who came to the village told us she was so surprised to see how close everyone here is, how everyone watches out for each other and helps each other out.”
Jenny is also proud of Ardara’s reputation as the festivals capital of Ireland. She laughs: “We do manage to fit in an awful lot of festivals during the year! And it seems to work well. There’s not a festival yet that hasn’t brought in more visitors.”
She sees first-hand in Nancy’s Bar, which was just named Irish Pub of the Year by Georgina Campbell, how people are drawn to Ardara for its warm, welcoming atmosphere.
“There really is a wonderful community spirit here. Ardara seems to have a magnetic effect on some people. Once they visit, they come back again and again.
“I think people feel really at home here. They say that to us all the time, that once they come in and sit by the fire, they’re included in the conversation.
“It’s the same in the shops as well. Everyone’s very friendly and welcoming here, the way Ireland used to be. That seems to have been lost in some places, especially in some of the big cities.”
Jenny says Ardara was always like that, even from her primary school days. “I went to Gortnacart NS and really enjoyed it. In fact, my daughter went there too. It’s a lovely little country school, very close-knit, almost like a big family.”
She went on to St Columba’s in Glenties but “didn’t enjoy it as much” despite loving history and art. She explains: “I took it all very, very seriously. I think I’d enjoy it more if I went to do it all again. I’d be less stressed out!”
After leaving school, Jenny earned a Diploma in Anatomy, Physiology and Massage. “I worked at that privately for a while, then, after Sarah was born, I studied Childcare and went into that, looking after children at home. Two years ago, she completed a FETAC Level 5 course for Health Care Assistants and started working with the elderly.
“It was a tough course but really worthwhile and I love the work. It’s very, very rewarding,” she says.
Whilst Jenny is obviously a people person, I can’t resist asking what it’s like growing up in a house were everyone lives, and works, together?
“We’re lucky that we’re all so close, so it was always a very happy house. Growing up, we all just kind of gravitated toward the kind of work that we liked doing. Mum still works in the kitchen and Daniel is studying to be a chef, Dad, Connor and I are behind the bar and I also look after the entertainment. Also, when Dad has an idea, it’s usually my job to bring it to fruition!”
Most of the family are still in Ardara - in addition to Jenny, Daniel and Connor, Lauren is an artist based in the village. Suzie is just back from five years in London but is hoping to travel while Breena is a chef in London and the youngest, Alan, lives in New Zealand.
“Unfortunately, with Alan so far away, we don’t get many chances to all be together. Last year, all of us went on holiday together to Portugal. We did it again this year and Alan surprised us by turning up. We really love spending time together and, well, we know how to party too!”
Obviously, that’s no disadvantage when it comes to running a pub!
The craic at Nancy’s is legendary and this Saturday night looks set for a party that will go down in the annals as one of the best. It will be a massive celebration, as local footballing hero Paddy McGrath presents the Georgina Campbell award to the McHughs.
Jenny is already looking beyond the celebrations to the work ahead. “I’d say we’re going to have a big summer here, having won this award, so we’ll have to pull our socks up and show that we’ve earned the right to be called the Best Pub in Ireland.”
See page 18 also.