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Kevin C.Kearns

Dublin Pub Life and Lore – An Oral History of Dublin’s Traditional Irish Pubs

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    Recognising the social changes, publicans began to install attractive lounges with comfortable furniture where couples could drink together. After wives became accepted in pubs, single women gradually appeared on the scene. During the 1960s and 1970s segregated pubs toppled like dominoes. Those local neighbourhood pubs which continued to bar women were condemned, and sometimes even picketed, by feminist groups as dark dens of male chauvinism as the regulars were viewed as a mean pack of sexist Neanderthals. Walsh’s public house in Stoneybatter was probably the last truly segregated pub in Dublin. Tom Ryan, head barman at Walsh’s for fifty years, still refused to seat women at the bar in 1988 when he confidently proclaimed, “It’s a male preserve. Men prefer to be on their own. I know this from experience. Women just wouldn’t fit in.” Ironically, a woman owned the pub. In 1990 she sold the public house to new owners who opened the establishment to women on an equal basis—and Ryan decided the time had finally come to retire
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    Some of the safest IRA pubs, he reveals, were the following: Kirwan’s, the Seven Stars, and Phil Ennis’s pubs in Parnell Street, Backhand pub in Coleraine Street, Macken’s in Church Street, “Big Macken’s” pub in North King Street, McGowan’s in Francis Street in the Liberties and Walsh’s pub in Stoneybatter which was a “notorious” house for harbouring IRA men on the run. Other well-known safe pubs back in the 1920s and 1930s were O’Hagan’s in Cumberland Street, the Barrel in Benburb Street and Leach’s on Drumcondra Road. All had pub staff who were active in the Movement which gave them their “safe” status
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    there was a network of “safe pubs” in Dublin where IRA activists regularly met to exchange information, plan missions and stash weapons. Historically, these public houses played a significant role in the political life of the city. Oral testimony from surviving IRA members, publicans and regulars who personally participated in or observed these manoeuvres in old pubs confirm their value to the Movement. Most such public houses were in the poor tenement neighbourhoods around the northside, Monto and Liberties. Among the lower classes there was much anti-British sentiment and support for the “cause”. Here, in the local pubs, IRA men felt safe in their dealings
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    Bosses were usually willing to financially support a loyal barman in buying his own pub. However, the publican expected him to first save up a hefty down payment on his own
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    It was common practice that barmen started out at small “backstreet” pubs in working-class neighbourhoods and gradually worked their way up to the prestigious central city houses like Mooney’s or Madigan’s.
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    Barmen needed to possess most of the same skills and social traits as a publican
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    Fifty years ago the trade was dominated by publicans from Counties Tipperary, Cavan and Limerick. “Tipperary men were probably 50 per cent of the Dublin trade at that time”, speculates Michael Gill, 66, “and Cavan was next.” Apprentices tended to be relatives or sons of friends who showed a strong country work ethic and were regarded as honest and friendly. Typically 14 or 15 years of age, they were put on a bus or train by their parents and sent off to Dublin for the first time in their lives to begin their apprenticeship
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    Tom Bourke, at age 86 the oldest publican in Dublin still behind the bar, began his apprenticeship at 14 in a pub in Parnell Street back in the 1920s, “my wages . . . I had nothing at all the first year! Only my food. But I was glad to have the job”
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    Real regulars develop a daily visitation pattern that is like a sacred ritual. “You’d know they’d be in at a certain time”, avers publican Liam Hynes, 47, “and you could nearly put their drink on the counter.”
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    Tony Morris, 52, over thirty years at O’Dowd’s pub in Stoneybatter, typifies the habitual regular:

    “I come in normally twice a day, fourteen times a week. It would be fair to say that I spend a good portion of my life here. Some days there could be fifteen of us together. We discuss our problems
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    There develops a kind of social “chemistry” among regulars in which they can share all life’s issues. They get to know one another’s good and bad qualities, habits, moods, quirks. A man becomes accepted for his weaknesses as well as his strengths. A “support group” environment is created in which they openly discuss problems relating to domestic life, job, health, finances and phobias. Over time there develops a strong interdependence and mutual trust
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    Old neighbourhood pubs around the Liberties, Smithfield, Ringsend and Stoneybatter have the highest percentages of regulars. As publican O’Dowd proudly pronounces: “Regulars here would be as high as 85 per cent. We get three generations of customers in here . . . possibly four.” In such traditional pubs it has been customary that when a lad comes of age his father will bring him in for his first pint. It is a rite of passage into manhood, often as memorable as one’s first holy communion. Of course, every person is entitled to eventually choose their own local. Pub selection is determined by such factors as family tradition, character of the staff, hospitality of regular customers, quality of drink, and general ambience. As John-Joe Kennedy, 75, of the Liberties avows, once a man decided upon his local he was loyal for life. “You made one pub your local and you were part of the furniture then, you stuck to your local.” Some discriminating Dubliners, like Tom Corkery, are very specific in identifying criteria which constitute their “ideal” local pub.
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    Many become entitled to their own seat and it is reverentially given over to them when they enter—without a word being spoken.
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    Wielding this ultimate power, a publican may be “as choosy and selective as he wishes”.16 Acting as judge and jury, he alone determines the sentence for violations. A man may be barred temporarily or for life. For a man to be barred from his local pub is a disgrace which can also carry the social stigma of pariah. Therefore, the decision to bar a man is never lightly made. In practical financial terms the publican also realises that by barring one individual he might also lose the business of his family and friends.
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    The decision to bar a man for life is so serious that it has been the custom in Dublin for a new publican to honour the word of his predecessor. This decree can be transferred verbally or in the form of a written statement left to the new owner.
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    The most coveted social niche in the life of many Dubliners is their status as a “regular” in their local pub. It is a position gained by trial and time. Pub regulars can be very clannish and do not casually admit newcomers
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    The concept that the public house is entitled to the same respect and control as one’s private home is the basis of the Licensing Law of 1872 which gives the publican the absolute right to refuse service to any customer and bar him at will without having to cite any reason. Wielding this ultimate power, a publican may be “as choosy and selective as he wishes
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    historically the “status of publicans has always been very high in working-class areas of Dublin, always great respect for publicans”. Lar Redmond divulges that “in the social hierarchy of the Liberties the publicans were at the top”, followed by shopkeepers, tradesmen, bakers, carpenters and bricklayers
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    As a powerful patriarchal figure in the daily lives of the poor and working classes, the publican’s status was often at a level with the parish priest, or slightly below it. Sometimes, blurts publican Jack Cusack, he was held on an even higher level—“Oh, those old publicans, they were the captains of us all . . . a publican years ago was Jesus Christ!”
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    every pub possesses its unique “cultural character” which has evolved over time and from its own distinctive history of multigenerational publicans, barmen, regulars, renowned characters, codes of conduct, entertainment types, dramatic or humorous incidents and famous episodes of drinking and brawling. All combine over time to create a pub’s particular cultural heritage. In pubs where the oral tradition has survived, local folklore has been passed down from generation to generation and thus preserved. Publican John O’Dwyer who worked in many pubs in his time vouches that every one had a “culture in its own right”. It is precisely this social and cultural variety that makes the Dublin pub scene so fascinating and exhilarating
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