In the village of Courtmacsherry, in west Cork, there is a very special gastropub.
I stumbled across it in an unorthodox way. In early 2022, as I was flipping through my phone on my usual pre-bedtime TikTok session (TikTok is a social media platform which consists of short videos), I discovered an account which featured two men – chef Martin Buckley and restaurant manager, David O’Halloran – fixing up a pub they had purchased in June 2017 called The Lifeboat Inn.
Intrigued, I started following them and, over time, and without even realising, I grew very fond of the “Lads in the Lifeboat” and their story. Their kindness and genuine love for each other, their work and their west Cork home shine through each and every video.
Martin and David met in 2009. In 2015, they were married – first, they eloped while on holiday in the US. Then, after the Marriage Referendum was passed that same year, they had a 2016 wedding in Ireland to celebrate with their friends and family.
Living the dream
As they completed renovations on the pub, their TikTok videos became less about fixing things up and more about menu items; introducing followers to Martin’s easy-going yet upscale approach to pub food. This means a heavy focus on fresh seafood and ingredients found in their west Cork locality.
The pair had been dreaming of opening their own business since the early days of their relationship. David grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Portroe, Co Tipperary. The youngest of 14, he says he “escaped any kind of farming responsibility” and instead found himself working in hospitality from a young age.
Martin, originally from outside Macroom, Co Cork, also grew up on a dairy farm. He met David while in culinary school at what was then the Cork Institute of Technology (now Munster Technological University). David, at the time, was studying plumbing. Soon after meeting Martin, he decided to move to Cork permanently and go back into restaurant work.
After college, the pair made the decision, together, to move to London.
Make or break
“We went to London in 2012,” Martin recalls. “We were in our early 20s and we were kind of figuring out the rest of our lives – so London was a make-or-break decision. Hospitality is a difficult industry. We said if we can do it in London, we can do it anywhere. That was the mindset. We went, gave it everything, and it was really hard – we were working in Michelin-starred restaurants, and they can be really intense [environments].
“We were working 80-hour weeks and the pay is terrible; it can feel soul-crushing,” David acknowledges. “If we ever had a lunch break at the same time, we would walk around; talking about our future business and what it would look like.”
While they don’t always look back fondly on their time in London, both say they learned invaluable skills during these years. Eventually, they moved to Dublin and continued to work while saving as much money as possible for a down payment for their own premises.
The Lifeboat Inn
The opportunity to buy their own place finally came up in early 2017. On what they describe as a grey winter’s day, they stood outside The Lifeboat Inn and immediately knew this was the pub they wanted to make their own.
“We walked into the garden and just fell in love with the place,” David smiles. “We hadn’t even seen the [inside of the] pub, but we knew this was what we were looking for.”
“We were based in Dublin; we [had been] in cities for years and wanted to come back to that community setting,” Martin adds. “Courtmacsherry really fit into what we were looking for in the long term for settling down and building a life for ourselves.”
Martin and David spent every bit of their savings on the pub. For the following year, they would eat, sleep, breathe and dream building their business to a point where they had turned a profit – and turn a profit they did (which they promptly reinvested).
“We were just so determined to make the business work,” Martin says. “We had enough to open the building and that was it. We painted the walls – we got the paint from my father – we opened the doors and just got it up and running with nothing.”
“Our families were very good to us,” David continues. “Two of my sisters came and worked opening night and one of my sisters is a teacher – she gave me like three summers. We didn’t even have a bed for her; she slept on an air mattress.”
“We were sleeping on the floor as well – we had nothing,” laughs Martin. “On opening day I was getting [equipment and fridges] delivered and we were supposed to open at 5pm, but we had to open at 6pm because the stuff hadn’t been delivered and installed in time.”
Irish Country Living asks: did you serve many customers on your opening night? “Oh we did – we got smashed!” David laughs. “They all wanted to know what these lads had been up to all this time.”
Martin and David say the community of Courtmacsherry has been overwhelmingly supportive of them and their endeavours. They are thrilled to call west Cork home and feel that moving into a rural area as members of the LGBTI+ community, in their case, was a non-issue.
“We are quite lucky; we’ve never encountered any negativity,” David says. “I supposed it never crossed our minds. West Cork is really diverse.”
“Once people got to know us; they just let us express ourselves,” Martin agrees. “It was about building the customer base with a consistent product. Providing a good service with good quality and supporting local suppliers – reflecting the best of west Cork and hospitality in Ireland. Courtmacsherry is a very vibrant village – you have the two pubs, the community shop, there’s a takeaway, you have the hotel, and then you have the water activities [whale watching, boat charters, Gecko Adventures outdoor activity centre], beautiful walks – there’s a lot happening here for a small village.”
I’m not the only one who has been following Martin and David’s journey via TikTok. The pair say they have had numerous encounters with their followers – with guests even arriving from as far afield as North America.
“We advertise on all forms of social media, but I have never seen anything like TikTok,” David says. “There was one lady visiting from New York. She took a taxi from Kinsale over to have lunch and a taxi back – that’s over €100 for a taxi. Just because she saw us on TikTok. With other social media platforms, you might put up the ‘perfect picture’ – it’s curated. With TikTok, it’s rawer – people can either love you or hate you, but that’s how it is.”
“And we find our TikTok following is so die hard,” Martin smiles. “They are so supportive and encouraging. Obviously there is negativity there too, but we just ignore that!”
Approach to hospitality
A lot of David and Martin’s high-end dining experience has found its way to The Lifeboat Inn as they strive for seamless service and food. However, they both believe the “rigid” approach in most fine dining establishments just isn’t for them. Their view is clearly working as the pair recently won the publicly voted Food Lovers Choice Award for the Wild Atlantic Way region at the 2023 Good Food Ireland awards.
“We take a more wholesome approach to hospitality,” David explains. “We want the customer to be centre stage and we really push ourselves and can get upset when things aren’t right – but at the same time, we love the fact that we’re here in west Cork, we have local kids working for us and it’s a good environment. Last summer, we employed over 20 people, but this year it’s going to be closer to 30.”
Now open for six years this coming June, and having put so much hard work into their business, Irish Country Living the “lads in the lifeboat” if they have any regrets. “Zero regrets,” Martin immediately responds. “We’d do it all again tomorrow.”