Sunday 25 February 2018

Pints with style: cheers to Dublin's pub-life

The capital's 16 Victorian pubs and many more are celebrated in a new ­exhibition.

Passed through the generations: Sean and Ronan Lynch at the Swan bar on Aungier Street
Passed through the generations: Sean and Ronan Lynch at the Swan bar on Aungier Street
Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern in Fagan's, Drumcondra in 2000
The Irish House, which stood on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay in the heart of Dublin between 1870 and 1968.
John Meagher

John Meagher

For almost a century, it was one of the most celebrated pubs in Dublin. Its striking exterior boasted six miniature monastic round towers that jutted into the sky and its façade had elaborate stucco work featuring such homegrown heroes as Daniel O'Connell and Henry Grattan.

For almost a century, it was one of the most celebrated pubs in Dublin. Its striking exterior boasted six miniature monastic round towers that jutted into the sky and its façade had elaborate stucco work featuring such homegrown heroes as Daniel O'Connell and Henry Grattan.

It was O'Meara's - but better known as The Irish House - and it stood on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay in the heart of Dublin between 1870 and 1968.

Today, it's no more than a memory to an older generation of Dubliners - the city's Civic Council buildings stand here now - but its legacy lives on in a new exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin, St Stephen's Green.

Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern in Fagan's, Drumcondra in 2000
Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern in Fagan's, Drumcondra in 2000

Curated by the museum's Jesse Carley, the exhibition seeks to celebrate this special feature of Dublin - and Irish - life. "We take them for granted," Carley says, "but they've been an essential part of the life of the city for hundreds of years, and once you delve into the subject it's endlessly fascinating.

"You learn about how pubs evolved, how they got their names and what impact the temperance movement had on them. You see which of them featured in films and literature, and the ones that have had a part in politics, too."

It's an exhibition to excite the social history buff and those that love a jar or two. And several of Dublin's most famous pubs are featured, including Doheny & Nesbitt's, Kavanagh's (aka the Gravediggers) and The Swan.

It was in the latter watering hole that Simon O'Connor of the museum started to think it was high time that they put on an exhibition in celebration of the Dublin pub. "The Swan is a fantastic pub, with so much history and tradition."

Its location on Aungier Street in the south-inner city gave it a window to one of the seismic events of the 1916 Rising: the capture by Thomas McDonagh's rebels of the sprawling Jacob's biscuit factory across the road. The site is now the location of DIT Aungier Street.

The exhibition, which is held in conjunction with the Irish Vintners Association - 200 years old this year - and sponsored by Guinness, starts with a look at The Swan and its owners, the Lynch family who have run it for generations. A vintage Ireland rugby jersey is proudly displayed - it's that of Sean Lynch, father of present owner Ronan, who was an Ireland international and toured New Zealand with the Lions in 1971. To this day, the pub is still regarded as a place for oval ball lovers to watch the game. Walk through the exhibition and it becomes clear quickly how certain pubs are associated with people, movements or politics. Fagan's in Drumcondra pre-dated Bertie Ahern by decades, but it will be forever linked with the controversial ex-Taoiseach. They have his favourite tipple, Bass, on draught and it was here that he took Bill Clinton on a state visit in 2000. The very glasses the men drank from - a half-pint glass, in the case of the former US President - are exhibited.

The Irish House, which stood on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay in the heart of Dublin between 1870 and 1968.
The Irish House, which stood on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay in the heart of Dublin between 1870 and 1968.

"There's probably no pub in the country more associated with politics than Doheny & Nesbitt's," O'Connor says. "Its proximity to Government Buildings has helped ensure its popularity with politicians, and world leaders have been entertained there for years."

It's just one of several great Dublin pubs to be found on Baggot Street. Acclaimed filmmaker Sergio Leone was so taken with Toners, that he filmed A Fistful of Dynamite, starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger, there in 1971. And the pub was also a favourite of Peter O'Toole - there's a fine photo of the Lawrence of Arabia star outside the pub in the late 1970s.

The aforementioned Irish House featured prominently in Joseph Strick's film version Ulysses, made just a year before the pub was levelled, and the much-loved Gravediggers near Glasnevin Cemetery played a significant part in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, the Dublin-set film starring the late Gene Wilder. It was the one he made immediately before taking on the role of Willy Wonka.

Other pubs became synonymous with the so-called 'Baggotonia' writers with McDaids, the Bailey and Davy Byrne's popular with Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Anthony Cronin. The latter pub is most famously associated with James Joyce - Leopold Bloom, Ulysses' hero, had a Gorgonzola sandwich there. "One of Joyce's great sayings is, 'A good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub'," Simon O'Connor says, "and, finally, a couple of years ago, someone worked out exactly how to do it." A map showing the route in question is pinned to the wall.

"There's intriguing history about how Dublin pubs got their names," Jesse Carley adds. "Until 1872, you had pubs with names like The Wandering Jew and The Sots Hole, but that year a new law came in which made it obligatory for the proprietor's name to be positioned above the door." Many of these names survive today, despite the establishments in question changing hands.

Social historian Kevin Martin, author of a whimsical history of Irish pubs, Have Ye No Homes To Go To?, is intrigued by the idea of 'the Third Space' and how pubs fulfil that role for the Irish."If the First Space is our home and our Second Space is our work or office, the Third Space, by and large, is the pub. It's the place where we meet friends, socialise, celebrate prominent events, come together." Martin got engaged in the Long Hall on George's Street and it's among the reasons why he cites this great Victorian pub as his favourite in Dublin. "Of all the Victorian pubs that were built, only 16 survive in Dublin today," he says, "but some of them have become emblematic of what a great Dublin pub should be." Three of those - Ryan's of Parkgate Street, Kehoe's of South Anne Street and The Stag's Head of Dame Lane - don't need an introduction to the pub connoisseur.

While alcohol consumption per capita has fallen since a high of 2001, certain pubs might feel under threat. And the rise of cafe culture in urban Ireland has ensured that there's competition for that Third Space. But Martin believes the best ones will survive if they continue to do what they've long excelled at.

"The conviviality of the Dublin pub can't be underestimated," he says. "Other countries might try to replicate that experience, but it's very hard to do - and a lot of that is down to the publican and their staff and they way they interact with their customers.

"Even with the new pubs that appear, the ones that are likely to be around the longest are those where you feel welcomed. It's a simple thing, but it means so much - and it's a reason why Irish pubs still have such renown around the world."

A Little History of the Dublin Pub is at the ­Little ­Museum of Dublin, St Stephen's Green, until ­September 24.

@johnmeaghermuso

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