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Dublin's Pubs, A Walking Tour
by Fred Ferretti

Save for the father and his son, not a one of the musicians who came together that Sunday in Dublin knew the others. The banjo player, picking at his four strings, and his shy ten-year-old son, following him on a fiddle, had never played with the man running his knuckles rhythmically on a small, thin goatskin drum called a bodhran; and none of them had ever met the young fellow with the peculiar Irish bagpipe, the uilleann pipes, fed by air from an underarm bellows. But there they were that Sunday afternoon, together in a pub called HUGHES, its walls hung with sepia photographs of old Dublin, its stained, leaded windows fogged by the heat inside meeting the cold of the outside air.

What they were about was putting music to a stanza by the late Patrick Kavanagh, the County Monaghan farmer poet known universally as Paddy and admired to this day in the pubs of Dublin for both his rhymes and his capacity for drink. Traditional Irish music would follow soon enough — an air or two, a reel, or perhaps a Kerry set for a few who might like to step. Before any of these, however, Jim McFarland, an itinerant singer, would be intoning, in a soft baritone, the words of Paddy Kavanagh:

If ever you go to Dublin town Go into a pub and listen well, If my voice still echoes there. Ask the man what the grandsires thought. And tell them to answer fair. O he was eccentric Fol dol the di do He was eccentric I tell you.

The banjo strummed to the words, the fiddle echoed its chords, the bodhran thumped, and from the uilleann pipes came a wavering peal. Listeners sipped glasses of stout and lager or cups of hot coffee, clapped their hands, tapped their heels and toes, and occasionally whooped. For about an hour it went on, and then the impromptu orchestra disbanded as easily and quickly as it had assembled.

"It is like this every Sunday," Michael Hughes told me. It always has been, as least for the forty-one years that Michael, and before him his father, Martin, have been behind their bar. Hughes is a special pub in a city of many pubs — six hundred, someone will tell you; nay, more than a thousand, will confide another. It sits on the northern bank of the River Liffey, bounded by produce and fish markets on Michan Street, a Garda station (Dublin police) on Chancery Street, and the Four Courts on Inns Quay. Says Michael Hughes, "We serve breakfast to the market, cash checks for the police, and give our joint of the day to the lawyers, at lunch."

There are many such pubs of local traditions. DOHENY & NESBITT, on Lower Baggot Street in eastern Dublin, is a preserved Victorian that keeps its back bar collection of tankards, oak casks, and pump handles dusted; and its classic Dublin pub partitions of carved wood and etched glass, which divide the bar's length, waxed and polished. Actors from the Abbey and Gate theaters are its regulars, and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with a lager at a small café table among the theater posters is a quiet pleasure. A block away, on Merrion Row, it is O'DONOGHUE'S, where traditional Irish folk musicians congregate, with strings and whistles, to perform, and where, they will tell you, Senator Robert Kennedy sang more than a little during a Dublin visit.

These are the sorts of establishments one encounters when ambling through Dublin; marvelous old pubs, their ages counted not by years but by generations, surrounded by the tradition and substance of this handsome city, places encrusted with literary and political history. They are refuges of poesy, sentiment, and romance, where people come to drink, to talk about their past and their heroes — for the Dublin pub is, more than anything else, a place where people are warmed by the company of others.

Dublin is such an intimate city that walks to various landmarks — Trinity College; St. Stephen's Green; the Four Courts; the Custom House; O'Connell Street, with its statue of James Joyce and its bronze of Anna Livia; Joyce's evocation of the River Liffey; even the small tan brick row house on Synge Street in which George Bernard Shaw was born — will put you within steps of pubs steeped in the city's past. The converse is true as well; a determined crawl of these pubs will inevitably place you near monuments to Dublin's history.

Many of the pubs are virtual historic shrines in themselves. The BRAZEN HEAD, just a few blocks away from Hughs, signals its previous life as a coaching inn with a swinging, varnished sign that reads OLDEST PUB IN DUBLIN, EST. 1198. The squat white building lists, the result of its walls settling decades ago; but the pub, with its peat-smelling fireplaces, seems always to have musicians playing against walls filled with images of Robert Emmet. Etchings and prints of the eighteenth-century Irish nationalist share space with an old burled grandfather clock as well as muskets and sabers, which hang from the ceiling above the bar.

Beneath one of the portraits is a printed legend: "He had lived for his love; for his country he died. They were all that to life had entwined him. Nor soon will the tears of his county be dried." Alongside is another sign: "Reality is a hallucination caused by lack of alcohol." The Brazen Head's patrons, it is said, see nothing in toward in such a juxtaposition.

Farther up the hill of the Liffey's south bank is the heart of old Dublin. Dublin Castle, its tower dating from the thirteenth century, sits on a high ridge that was once the site of a Gaelic ring fort, later a Viking fortress. A mere block west is the exquisite Christ Church cathedral, founded in 1038, a pile of chiseled gray stones that mixes centuries and styles from Norman to Gothic. Both of these monuments are on a winding street, the name of which changes, as one walks west, from Dame, to Lord Edward, to High, to Cornmarket, to Thomas, to St. James.

Where it is Thomas, near the Guinness Brewery, is LYNCH'S, a working class bar that serves perhaps the best Irish coffee in the city. It is one of the few Dublin pubs to carry its name in Gaelic over the entrance; P.O. LOINGSIGH, or Patrick Lynch. There have been Patrick Lynches behind the bar for generations and there is one now, and he will tell you that along the alley — just outside the door — Emmet led his revolutionists to their arms cache. He will add that in the early part of this century the pub was a meeting place for the old Irish Republican Army and as a result has come to be known familiarly as "The Gunman's."

Follow this street east until it becomes Dame, and you will reach Grafton, a street of boutiques bordering an area of central Dublin where the city's most public poets and dramatists once prowled. The blackened stones of Trinity College and its Old Library, home of the Book of Kells, anchors the northern end of Grafton. Two blocks east into this cultural core, in a square marked by Kildare and Merrion streets, is the National Gallery of Ireland, its jewel a newly discovered Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ; the National Museum of Ireland, with its collection of Celtic and pre-Celtic gold; and the zoological National History Museum.

Just off Grafton, on Chatham Street, is NEARY'S, a pub from Edwardian times. It has been frequented by actors for decades — a circumstance of convenience, for its back door, in Tangier Lane, is next to the Gaiety Theatre's stage door. The pub, with two immense cast-iron arms protruding from its facade, each holding a lantern, was "perfect for the likes of Liz and Burton," Martin Dunne, an actor, told me, as well as for Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien, who reputedly wrote much of the novel At Swim-Two-Birds off in one of Neary's private corners.

"Would you be hearing some O'Brien? Yes? Good." said Dunne, and, taking a drink from a pint of stout, he recited:

When things go wrong and will not come right
Though you try the best you can.
When life looks black as the hour of night,
A pint of plain is your only man.

A couple of blocks away, on Duke Street, is DAVY BYRNES, a modern outpost with a pale-green interior and a white marble bar. Pleasant, with a restaurant menu rather than the simple sandwiches or snacks favored in most pubs, this pub also exists in literature. James Joyce wrote in Ulysses, "He entered Davy Byrnes. Moral pub. He doesn't chat. Stands a drink now and then." Barmen are often still referred to as "curates" by some of the faithful for, as Joyce would say, morally abiding by the "Holy Hour" — 2:30 to 4 on Sunday afternoons, when pubs close so barmen and drinking men can race home for dinner with their families.

A particularly pleasant stroll, one that takes you through block after block of utterly graceful Georgian architecture, begins at the corner of Grafton and St. Stephen's Green and continues east along Merrion Row and Lower and Upper Baggot streets (all the same street). On Lower Baggot, you will find TONERS, its highly polished bar a stage for row upon row of small varnished tradesmen's drawers that once, when the building housed a grocer's, held sugar, tea, and other staples. As you admire the bar, you will be told that this 1817 pub was the only one to have served a pint to William Butler Yeats, who preferred socializing at his home in nearby Merrion Square.

With the ribbon of his pince-nez dangling alongside his right cheek, Yeats is reported to have told his friend Gogarty, who brought him to Toners, "I have seen a pub now. Will you kindly take me home?"

MULLIGAN'S, in appearance, could be the sort of simple establishment that Yeats might have tolerated. Plain, with nicked chairs and tables scattered around the barroom, it occupies the middle of a small street called Poolbeg, just off the Liffey's south bank. This gas-lighted old pub was once a stop-in for Joyce, later Behan, and has become the congregating place for Dublin's journalists, according to Gary Cusack, the third generation of his family to be behind the bar. The Irish Press is around the corner, and The Irish Times and The Irish Independent are but a few blocks away. Mulligan's barman points, smiling, to two signs — "Customers are allowed 30 minutes drinking up time by which time they must have left the premises" and "Trade Union Labor Employed in these Premises" and suggests that they illustrate the sort of working-class clientele he serves.

Two of Dublin's visually splendid pubs are owned by Ryans, though the proprietors are unrelated. On upper Baggot Street, Andrew Ryan presides over THE WATERLOO, a pub with a bar of polished mahogany, banquettes of brown velvet, and beautifully wrought stained-glass windows, above which is an expanse of authentic Georgian coffered ceiling in green, maroon, and ochre (white stained by years of nicotine). Andrew Ryan has been the Waterloo's owner and barman since 1961.

"An elderly staff is best," he says. "I know what people want, and they know that I know what they want. That is what a good pub is about."

The other Ryan is William P. Ryan, and his pub is W. RYAN, in northwest Dublin, just off the entrance to Phoenix Park, a 1,760 acre preserve that contains Dublin's zoo as well as the homes of Ireland's president and the United States ambassador to Ireland. Surely Dublin's most beautiful pub, W. Ryan has an oval-shaped bar that is a masterpiece of ornate carpentry — arches, coves, flutings, crowns — all stained dark and varnished to glistening. Along the pub's entire front, just behind the windows, is a screen of stained glass of a quality that would do for a church, did it not read WINES — RYAN'S — SPIRITS.

William Ryan, seventy-seven and behind his bar for fifty-nine years, controls the "snugs" to the rear of the bar. These private cubicles can only be opened when Ryan or his assistant barman releases a latch on the bar side of the snug's door. When customers either wish more drink or desire to depart, they must ring a bell. Those who patronized Ryan's establishment, unseen, have included the young Prince Albert of Monaco, Gregory Peck and Daniel Day-Lewis.

In the northern reaches of Dublin is KAVANAGH'S (no relation to the poet Paddy), situated at the old, now closed, entrance gate to Glasnevin Cemetery, hence its nickname — "The Gravedigger's." Many historic funeral corteges have wound through Prospect Square past this pub — those of Charles Stewart Parnell, the nationalist who came to be regarded as the uncrowned king of Ireland; Eamon De Valera, the New Yorker who became first the president of Sinn Fein and later prime minister and then president of the Republic of Ireland; and Daniel O'Connell, the Catholic leader known as the "Liberator," who fought England for Irish independence in the House of Commons. (Dubliners differ as to whether O'Connell is buried in Glasnevin; in pubs, most say he is) "All are united in death in Glasnevin — friends, enemies, pretenders, as well as the beloved," says Eugene Kavanagh.

Eugene is the sixth generation of the Kavanaghs, who since 1833 have owned this pub he calls "working class Victorian." He likes to talk about the gravediggers of Glasnevin and how the Kavanaghs served them." When the gate was closed in 1879, a custom started. The diggers couldn't come round for their jars, so they would knock with their shovels on the wall of the pub that faced the cemetery. The Kavanaghs would pass drinks through the bars of the gate, which was risky, for if the diggers were caught drinking they'd be sacked. As far as I know no one was ever caught."

His is an old-fashioned pub. "We have no television. We practice the art of conversation here. Musicians? No. I don't like musicians, or music, in my bar. I like people here. I have a pay phone and it cannot be called. It can ring out only. Some say to me," You're odd, Eugene, and I say, "Yes, I am."

Not odd at all, one might argue, in this city of individualistic pubs. Just different.

Article Resources, Pubs:

Brazen Head
20 Lower Bridge Street

Davy Byrnes
21 Duke Street

Doheny & Nesbitt
5 Lower Baggot Street

19-20 Chancery Street

1 Prospect Square

144 Thomas Street

8 Poolbeg Street

1 Chatham Street

15 Merrion Row

139 Lower Baggot Street

The Waterloo
36 Upper Baggot Street

W. Ryan
28 Parkgate Street


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