Eulogy to an Irish Pub

Donal Fallon

Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin. His work has appeared in History Ireland, Spiked, Jacobin and other outlets. He is editor of the Dublin history blog Come Here To Me (www.comeheretome.com).

D uring the destruction of the Wood Quay area in the late 1970s for the Civic Offices, campaigners were mainly concerned for the early built heritage of the capital, and the Viking town that lay below the city.

In June 1979, prominent Dubliners from academia and the arts occupied the site of the the Dublin Corporation development. The writer James Plunkett told journalists that “in destroying Wood Quay we are making a disgrace of ourselves and our city in front of the world”.

A public house on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay may not rank among the greatest losses of the district, yet O’Meara’s Irish House wasn’t your normal Dublin pub.

Beautifully decorated, the pub opened in 1870 and was a distinctive landmark along the quays, its stucco work depicting famous Irish figures from history. Many of its figures survived, rescued for posterity by the museum of the Guinness brewery, before being given to the Dublin Civic Trust.

When the Irish House opened its doors, architectural journal The Irish Builder was none too impressed by its facade depicting round towers, Irish wolfhounds, patriots and whatever else.

They ironically decried “the genius who designed the unsightly structure now in process of erection at the corner of Winetavern Street”, which included “six ludicrous imitations of round towers perched upon its parapet”.

Yet when the Gaelic Revival arrived, the building was very much in fashion architecturally, and became a loved feature of Dublin’s built landscape.

The politics of the facade of the Irish House pub were resolutely constitutional nationalist. While figures like the revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone were absent, the stucco work instead depicted parliamentary leaders like Daniel O’Connell and Henry Grattan.

O’Connell clasped in his hand an Act branded “REPEAL”, representing his lifelong (and unachieved) aspiration of repealing the Act of Union between Ireland and Britain. Ireland herself was depicted too, weeping over a stringless harp.

Today, Dublin boasts 16 surviving Victorian-era public houses, including institutions like the Swan Bar on Aungier Street and Ryan’s of Parkgate Street. What defines these pubs is not only their longevity, but their remarkable interiors.

Indeed, when the closure of the Irish House was imminent, one journalist lamented how “the rich, dull shine of the Victorian brass taps and counter pumps will never be seen again – unless it is in some pub museum”.

Like Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street or the Long Hall of George’s Street, the pub’s wooden interior was the product of great Dublin craftsmanship, though saving all of it was considered an impossibility.

By the late 1960s, officials at Dublin Corporation were keen to clear the few remaining businesses from the Wood Quay and Winetavern Street area, a process necessary to allow construction of the Civic Offices site to begin.

When a compulsory purchase order was used against the Irish House, the question of what would happen to its stucco figures emerged, and thankfully the intervention of Lord Moyne, then vice-chairman of the Guinness brewery, meant the historic figures were saved.

They were acquired for the collection of the nearby Guinness museum, a considerably more humble endeavour than today’s Guinness Storehouse. In 2003, Diageo handed the Irish House stucco pieces to the Dublin Civic Trust, which displayed them for many years in their Castle Street headquarters, not far from where the Irish House stood.

While demolished, the magic of the Irish House was thankfully captured for posterity, appearing in tourist-focused videos of the Irish capital, and playing an important role in American film director Joseph Strick’s ambitious 1967 adaption of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.

In the film, which was banned in Ireland from 1967 until 2000, we see Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom confronted in the pub by the narrow-minded nationalist “The Citizen”, who questions a Jew’s entitlement to a sense of Irish nationality.

Against the backdrop of a pub row, Bloom departs frantically down the quays, giving us fine shots of the pub’s exterior.

The Irish House was not the only pub lost in the name of progress in twentieth century Dublin, and other examples raise the possibility that perhaps more than her stucco figures could have been saved.

When Jury’s Hotel on Dame Street was removed to make way for the Central Bank, many wondered what would become of its beautiful antique bar. There was due to be an auction on 6 March 1973 that would have seen the contents of the bar sold off piece by piece, but a group of businessmen from Zurich purchased the bar for a five-figure sum in advance of this.

The bar was shipped to Zurich in its entirety, containing, among other features “a marble-top counter, brass footrails, decorative wall panels and lead light windows”. Today, it trades under the name the James Joyce Bar.

Joyce himself, much like the pub, had to go to Zurich to survive when he felt Dublin turned its back on him.

For many, Wood Quay remains a tragic defeat in the long battle between developers and those who wish to preserve Dublin’s historic landscape. The enormous march to save the Wood Quay site has rightly been recalled as an “extraordinary show of public sentiment that is still firmly lodged in the collective memory today”.

The pub is remembered in its own way too, thanks to the Dublin Civic Trust, which rightly saw the importance of its stucco figures.

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