Last orders for The White Swan in Digbeth

The White Swan

By Larry Cooney

It’s impossible not to notice Birmingham’s changing streetscape as a result of the on-going development in what was once the city’s Irish quarter, Digbeth.

The impending closure of The White Swan pub in Bradford Street, near the old Irish Centre, as the neighbourhood changes and Irish people move to other parts, would appear to have been inevitable.

Last week it was put up for sale for £450,000.

The pub is still standing on a street corner where other buildings around it have either been demolished or fallen into disrepair as work continues on the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line and work is set to go ahead on £220m Connaught Square retail and homes riverside development.

Just as inevitable as the changing demographic patterns of the neighbourhood is the wistfulness and tinge of sadness felt by many of The White Swan’s hundreds of Irish patrons.

In 1969 a Roscommon couple took over the three-storey Grade 2 listed Victorian pub venue, built in 1899, Agnes Creaton and her late husband Michael.

Five decades is a remarkable tenure in one of the best known and popular ‘watering-holes’ in Birmingham.

The Creaton family celebrated their half century in The White Swan just two days after Birmingham’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the biggest in the country.

For many of their loyal regulars the White Swan has been much more than a ‘local’, as their many tributes to Agnes, and her daughter Angela, suggest.

In recent years Angela took over the day to day running of the place from her mother, who was widowed when her children were young.

Paddy Foy of the Midlands Republic of Ireland Soccer Supporters Club said: “The White Swan was not just a pub, it was the heart of Digbeth, both in the good times and the bad ones but Angela and her mother Agnes behind the bar always welcomed their customers with a smile.”

Another regular, Lorraine Costello, exclaimed: “Oh not another Irish pub going. As a family you have all done an amazing job. Good luck to you all in the future. Many a good night was had in the White Swan”.

The recently elected chairman of John Mitchel’s GAA club Kevin McGinnity said: “Best of luck to you Angela, sad times but new exciting times for you, many memories and stories.”

Angela Creaton

When Agnes’s late husband Michael decided to take on the pub and move in, back in 1969, it was sight unseen.

The kindest description of the place, recalled Agnes, was that it was “a work in progress”.

She added: “I remember as I gazed out onto the concrete yard and saw the upstairs room with a broken roof , I sobbed for our family home we left behind in Roscommon.”

She could never have foreseen that just six years later she would be left a young widow when Michael died suddenly – on St. Patrick’s Day in 1975.

At the time it was uncommon for a woman to run a pub on her own, let alone juggle the responsibility with raising four young children – Angela, Bridget, Maggie and Andrew.

President Higgins in Birmingham with wife Sabina

But Agnes persuaded the brewery to leave the pub in her hands and The White Swan went from strength to strength to become a major Irish social hub in close proximity to the Birmingham Irish Centre.

The family became an integral part of the local Irish community, attending St. Anne’s School, and Church, as well as the Irish Dancing Classes at St. Anne’s Parish Centre.

Angela said: “It made sense to stay here. Running a pub is a way of life, not just a job. After fifty years here we have lots of happy memories here as well as lots of sad ones.

“It will be quite a wrench to bring the curtain down on so many years of the family’s lives. There are lots of changes happening in the area and I fear the days of a purely drinking pub may be numbered.

“The developments are slow going because the site in which we are located was demolished in 2007 and is still not due to be completed until 2023 so who knows what is next for the new owners of The White Swan.”