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Byron Shire
November 29, 2023

The Rails: live and friendly for 35 years

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Staff, a couple of occasional visitors and hotelier Tom Mooney, centre front. Photo Jeff Dawson
Staff, a couple of occasional visitors and hotelier Tom Mooney, centre front. Photo Jeff Dawson

Mandy Nolan

The Rails has been a cultural mainstay in a town where businesses can change quicker than Melbourne weather.

The Rails Hotel in Byron Bay, aka The Railway Friendly Bar, has just celebrated 35 years under the ownership of licensees Tom and Cath Mooney.

Live music, seven nights a week, has been a big part of the pub’s appeal, with legendary touring bands playing one night and locals the next.

Tom believes that in the face of ongoing affluence, we need to remember the town’s working class origins.

‘If you look at Jimmy Willing’s backdrop, it was of an era when it was a more working class place.

‘I miss the 80s when the industry closed down, and the surfers and alternatives came in… but they didn’t want to change anything too much; the modern charge of newcomers want to change everything… I think you should hold onto the heart of good things.’

The key word in the business name is Friendly.

The Rails has long been the bar that locals frequent; they are appreciative that their quirky gathering place has changed little over the last three decades.

For people returning to Byron Bay lamenting how much the place has changed or developed, it’s grounding to grab a beer at the Rails, and eventually someone you once knew will wander in.

It’s a little bit like the bar out of TV’s Cheers, except instead of Ted Danson we’ve got Tom Mooney!

A professional rugby league footballer in the 1970s, Tom played as winger for Manly-Warringah and South Sydney clubs.

When that chapter closed, he was ready to tackle a new adventure, so he and his wife Cath made the move to sleepy Byron Bay in 1981 before the term sea change was even coined.

In 1988, with two small children, Cath and Tom Mooney took charge of the Rails and the little pub found its feet.

‘We wanted the kids growing up in the country. This place is like the town I grew up in; back then it was a hard-working industrial town,’ says Tom.

Industrial town

‘Most people don’t realise how industrial the town was back then. We had the meatworks, sandmining, the place was full of hard people, and it was like where I grew up in Wauchope.’

Tom and Cath’s connection and understanding of the importance of small-town communities that has seen the Rails get involved in some key projects.

‘We started the rugby club back in 1982, and we’ve sponsored soccer, hockey… that’s the sort of things pubs do in small country towns… but alas we’re not a country town…

‘It’s still very much a family thing from our side,’ he says. ‘My son and daughter, (the babes in arms on arrival) Luke and Hannah, both work there and it’s a family pub for the town. Lots of people used to bring their babies along to listen to the music; now those kids are 30 years old!’

The Railway Bar is one of Byron’s most significant historical locations, with the first stationmaster being appointed in 1904, and the refreshment room being opened in 1908.

And while the trains are yet to return, the music and the beer continue.


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