Obituary: Eugene Kavanagh
Eamon Delaney recalls the teetotaller publican and race-horse owner who ran a famous north Dublin landmark
Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30
At a time when authentic old Irish boozers have become a rarity, John Kavanagh's pub next to Glasnevin cemetery on Dublin's north side is the real deal.
Better still the owner, Eugene, who has passed away aged 74, was behind its counter for years, moving along the dimly-lit, low-ceiling bar, chatting to customers and keeping a close eye on his lovely time-warp alehouse. He was the sixth generation in his family to run the pub and protected its 19th-century character by banning TV, radio and piped music. "We would get successful millionaires in here sitting chatting with people who'd barely have the price of a pint," the renowned landlord once said. "And that's what it should be all about."
Famously nicknamed 'The Gravediggers', the pub is right next to the old gate of the cemetery, on the tiny Prospect Square, which looks like a film set, with the small terraced houses around a green and the cemetery's Daniel O'Connell crypt Tower overheard. The pub's nickname came from its role in slaking the thirst of gravediggers who could make their beverage requests by making specific knocks on the pub's back door.
Little wonder the pub appeared in the 1970 Hollywood movie Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, starring Gene Wilder, with many scenes filmed in the pub's cosy wooden interior. In the movie, Wilder plays an Irish student, and manure collector, who falls in love with an American exchange student, played by Superman actress Margot Kidder.
The pub featured in many other films and TV programmes down the years. Author Frank McCourt filmed an episode there for his American PBS TV documentary The Great Pubs of Dublin. Eugene told him the story - possibly apocryphal - about how the term 'jar' came from people not having glass during the war and taking jam jars into the pub to be filled.
Opened in 1833, Kavanagh's was described by the Lonely Planet guidebook as one of Europe's top 50 secret spots for travellers and today the excellent Dublin Ghost Bus tour makes a pit stop there. In front of the old graveyard gate, guides regale tourists with stories of 'body snatchers' and other ghoulish tales of Dublin's past - and follow with well-earned refreshments inside.
As well as running his famous pub, Eugene, a non-drinker, was also a racehorse owner, with horses such as War Room, Roryslittlesister, House Limits and Love Rory.
He was also an accomplished marathon runner, and apparently completed the Dublin marathon in four hours, did the Boston marathon in three hours and 15 seconds and even ran a marathon through Mount Everest when he was in his 50s!
Eugene was connected with the Clonliffe Harriers and for years he sponsored the Clonliffe 2, Ireland's oldest road race. At his funeral at St Columba's Church in Glasnevin, the same church in which he was baptised and married, Eugene was recalled as a "racehorse owner who didn't gamble, a publican who didn't drink and a marathon runner who would light up a cigarette just before the start of the race".
Eugene said he had been offered millions to sell the Gravediggers during the boom years, but was not interested. "Why would I sell history, my heritage, and all that I've known since I was a boy?" he said. "Respect everybody and never forget where you came from." This was his motto and his secret for running a popular and distinguished pub.
He is survived by his wife Kathleen, daughters Anne and Sinead, sons Anthony, Eoin, Ciaran and Niall, eight grandchildren, sisters Kathleen and Phyllis, relatives and friends.
During a moving funeral tribute, his son Anthony recalled how the "best thing that ever happened to Dad was meeting a beautiful Yorkshire lass, Kathleen. He was proud of how Kathleen had reared our family," said Anthony proudly. "That's my dad, and now his race is run."
Eugene Kavanagh was buried, of course, in the aforementioned Glasnevin cemetery, next to which he worked for so long, and his memory will be toasted by drinkers far and wide, and by all those proud of our city's living heritage.