Wartime rationing and a famous poem built an Aussie pub legend, writes Pamela Wade.

Seventy years ago an Irishman walked into a bar. That's hardly a unique event, but what distinguished this visit was that after riding his horse 20 miles through the north Queensland canefields with a mouth as dry as a drover's dog, and his head full of visions of a mug of cold foaming beer, Dan Sheahan ended up with nothing more thirst-quenching than a poncey glass of wine.

It was 1943, rationing was in force, and the day before, a convoy of American troops had stopped in town and drunk the pub dry. Gloomily sipping his warm wine, Sheahan wrote a poem, A Pub Without Beer and then rode back to his farm, a disappointed man.

Thirteen years later, the poem was reworked by Gordon Parsons, set to music and recorded by country singer Slim Dusty, becoming in 1957 Australia's most successful single. The Pub with No Beer still earns the royalties; and it also brings a steady stream of country music fans to stay at the Lee's Hotel in Ingham, some 90 minutes up the highway from Townsville.

There's no mistaking the pub: there on the first floor balcony is a life-size statue of Sheahan on his horse, and above the pavement tables is a large painted sign proudly proclaiming its status as "The Original Pub with No Beer" (there are rival claims from a pretender down in New South Wales). More important to patrons is the promise "Guaranteed to never run out of beer again!"


Certainly, indoors the ranks of fridges are stacked with cans and bottles as well, of course, as shelves of frosty glasses. There's nothing fancy in the taps, none of your boutique rubbish: this is a XXXX sort of place. It's well-lit, modern, air-conditioned — the building has been through several incarnations since it was established in 1875 as a telegraph station-cum-hotel — and isn't short of a wide-screen TV or five in its Cane Cutter's Bar; but the past is present here too.

Naturally there are wrinkled, leathery old men leaning on the shiny mango-wood bar and behind them the walls are covered with mementos of the hotel's history and the sugarcane industry that supports this town of 6000.

Slim Dusty and Dan Sheahan are here too, in large portraits, and in the hotel's foyer there's a framed, signed 78rpm record of the famous song. To mark its 70th anniversary, a re-enactment was arranged, with army trucks trundling up from Townsville crammed with men in wartime uniforms to drink the pub dry again: "We had to serve the actors ginger ale - there were children in the audience," Helen the receptionist explains without irony. A cavalcade of 20 mounted Sheahan descendants then rode into town for a ritual disappointment, the poem was read to the crowd of 5000, and the day continued as a Country and Western festival.

Helen shows off the foyer — "It's just as it was in the 1960s" — and the displays of local artwork in the dining room, and the beer garden, where the Italians have come to play cards every day for the past 50 years.

"Have you seen the carpark, an acre of bitumen carpark out the back?" she asks proudly. "We have semi trailers out there!"

You probably have to be an Inghamite to feel that thrill but few would disagree with what Sheehan wrote in the original poem: "If there's aught to resemble high heaven down here/ 'Tis the place of joy where they ladle out beer."

Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Cairns, via Brisbane, with return Economy Class flights starting from $808. Ingham is 236km south of Cairns.