Sometimes life takes you on a journey that brings you neatly back where you started, seemly immune to ‘the best laid plans’ as the poet Burns put it. This has been the case for Aisling Kelly who after years studying and working abroad, finds herself back in the premises she lived above as a child, running a café in what was for years the family pub, The Punchbowl.
Kevin and Pearl Kelly were well known in Sligo town. Kevin was proprietor of The Punchbowl, a comfortable, welcoming pub serving good food and putting on good music. Pearl was a businesswoman, running two boutiques: Kay’s on Stephen Street beside the pub, and Downtown on O’Connell Street, where McGarrigle’s is today. The family lived upstairs until Aisling was twelve and she has many happy memories of those days. She fondly recalls all four children helping out, herself and her younger sister collecting glasses while her two older brothers took on more responsible duties. The pub was always well known for music, and she remembers the Fleadh well and the excitement it brought with it.
Aisling’s life took a rather different direction and after happy schooldays in the Mercy, she studied Business and Tourism in Sligo IT. The wide world beckoned to the young graduate and along with a small group of friends she took off for the excitement of San Francisco and the west coast of the United States. They embraced the American lifestyle with gusto, in fact one of them is still there, having made it her home. Intending to stay just the summer, she ended up spending 18 happy months working in bars and enjoying the attractions – the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and the nearby vineyards of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. In summer she loved the water sports on Lake Tahoe, especially the thrill of waterskiing. Winter brought snow on the mountains and a chance to try her hand at skiing of a different sort.
From there she went straight to Edinburgh to complete an Honours Degree and then back to Ireland to begin ‘real’ work. For three years she organised the famous Paul Claffey Tours for the Midwest Radio boss, getting some solid experience. This stood to her when she went to Dublin, and quickly found her niche in group travel and education. For eight years Aisling organised all sorts of bespoke educational trips for school groups. They varied from business studies to home economics which could include visiting an olive grove and learning to make pasta or pizzas.
In March 2014 the unthinkable happened: Aisling’s father Kevin died. The family has always been close and it seemed natural for Aisling to move back to Sligo to be with her mother. The pub had closed in the 1980s but the premises still belonged to the family and very soon a business idea was forming in Aisling’s mind. It turned out all those business and organisation skills were a fine apprenticeship for self employment. A busy period of planning, painting and renovation followed. Anything that could be reused or repurposed was – the chairs were painted, the tables recovered and the bar counter transformed into the café counter. That November she opened W.B.’s Coffee Houseto warm enthusiasm from the local community, and particularly from her mother.
San Francisco is surely the world coffee capital and Aisling knows a thing or two about how to serve the perfect cup. The whole team has done training to ensure that coffee culture is alive and well in Sligo. There’s a comfortable ambiance in W.B’s that’s a little bit west coast as well; artwork from local artists and a huge mural of the poet himself near the entrance.
She loves to welcome customers who remember The Punchbowl and perhaps had their first drink there, people who reminisce with fond memories of her father. He is gone but very much not forgotten. Café customers get a poignant reminder of bygone days from pictures on the walls – framed photos of Aisling as a young child with her dad, her mum outside Kay’s Boutique and a Christmas greeting card from the Punchbowl. Very fitting.