Turtle Bunbury

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A Pint-Sized History of the Irish Pub

This article was published in Failte magazine in April 2007.

The inhabitants of Ireland have been guzzling beer ever since the biblical Great Flood swept this earth. Indeed, the monks who wrote the 12th century Book of Leinster insisted that practically the first feet to walk this land after the waters subsided were those of a brewer and an innkeeper. But that's monks for you. Starved of other entertainments, they were wont to write lengthy odes to beer. Saints were no better. St Bridget had a neat trick of turning leper's bathwater into ale and St Columbanus's marvellous last request was "to die in the brew-house [with] ale placed in my mouth when I am expiring".

Whilst certain houses have undoubtedly been serving beer and mead to passers by since ancient times, the first Irish public houses as we would know them were the off-licences, or store-houses, where vintners (meaning wine merchants) kept the stock of wine with which they supplied the cellars of the Norman castles in Leinster and the Pale. The taverns where wine was sold soon became popular places for conversation, political debate and business transactions. As the popularity of pilgrimages and general day-to-day travel rose in medieval times, so more inns began to spring up, offering accommodation as well as food, wine and cider. The rest, of course, is history.

The Battle for the Oldest Pub in Ireland

On New Years Eve 1993, I had the great privilege of attending the wake of Big Bertha at the Blackwater Tavern in County Kerry. This majestic lady, a Dremon cow, had died that same morning, just three months short of her 49th birthday. Fourteen years later, she still boasts two entries in the 2007 Guinness Book of Records. She is the oldest known cow ever recorded and, as mother to 39 calves, she holds the record for lifetime breeding. Now, in this shook up world of ours, there are undoubtedly large numbers of Afghani yak-handlers, Texan cowboys and Hal Al machete-wielders who would dispute Bertha's claims. Such is the way with most record claimants.

One of the most keenly fought slots in the Guinness Book of Records is that of 'Oldest Pub'. It is, of course, a concept muddied by the possibilities. Does that mean the oldest building that is now a pub? Or the oldest that has continuously been a pub? And what about buildings that were pubs ages ago but are now something else? Then there's the fact that many a so-called "historic" Irish pub has been revamped in the past twenty years to such an extent that their only valid claims for antiquity are based on their location and perhaps a piece of architectural salvage incorporated into the interior.

In Ireland, the main contenders for oldest pub have long been Sean's Bar in Athlone, Co. Westmeath and The Brazen Head in Dublin City. Grace O'Neill's in Donaghadee, Co. Down, gallantly bowed out of the contest some years ago, content with the title of "oldest licensed pub", having received their licence in 1611. But the other two pubs became the subject of national debate when Gerry Ryan invited their owners onto his radio show to consider the evidence.

The Brazen Head gave an impassioned account of its history going back a whopping eight centuries to 1198 when Norman mercenaries and Viking merchants gathered here on the Liffey's banks to swap slaves and ladies of the night. The pub, it was explained, took its name from the burning buckets (or braziers) over which guards warmed their hands on those cold dark nights. Such claims seemed to be backed by the ghosts of Michael Collins, Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Brendan Behan - all frequenters in times past.

Sean's Bar duly fought back by unveiling the wattle and wicker walls of the original 'Luain's Inn' on which it was sited. These walls had been carbon-dated by archaeologists from the National Museum and dated to the early 10th century. Historical records from this time were also produced to show that a pub stood here at the original crossing point of the Shannon, on the road to the pilgrimage site of Clonmacnois.

At length, the Guinness Book inspectors arrived to examine the evidence first-hand. They ambitiously declared that Seans' Bar was not only the oldest pub in Ireland, but also the British Isles. And if that is true, Sean's is almost certainly the oldest pub in the world. Reeling in shock, The Brazen Head had to settle for 'Oldest Pub in Dublin'. The Brazen Head also took some consolation when a signature etched into one of the pub's windowpanes in 1726 was officially declared the oldest piece of graffiti in Ireland.

When all's said and done, a pub does not need age to make it a good place to gather. As Samuel Johnson said, 'there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn'. But there is nonetheless something romantic about drinking in the same room where revolutionaries, playwrights, mercenaries and warriors have drunk in generations past. Perhaps this will become even more poignant with the growing pressures on the rural Irish pubs and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Super-Pub where a thousand punters can be accommodated at one time. Indeed, with the successful exportation of the 'Irish pub concept' to nearly every city in the world, it might not be long before the world's oldest 'Irish Pub' is no longer in Ireland.

Other Titleholders

Oldest Coaching Inn

The status of the pub in Irish society changed again with the arrival of the stage-coach service in the 18th century. Many pubs now became coaching inns, offering accommodation for travellers and stables for horses. Boasting over forty bedrooms as long ago as 1688, The Brazen Head can rest assured that it is Ireland's oldest coaching inn. Byrne's Irish House in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow had a purpose-built platform attached to the front of the pub allowing stage-coach passengers to alight without muddying their feet in the road. An external staircase provided access to a dining room on the first floor.

Oldest Canalside Pub

Opened in 1796 on the Royal Canal at Kilcock, Co. Kildare, Thomas O'Keefe's was one pub that benefited from Guinness's innovative practice of transporting stout across the country by canal. The pub also supplied Guinness to all other pubs in the district.

Oldest Shebeens

It is reckoned that more than half of the whiskey sold in Ireland between 1780 and 1820 was illegally distilled poteen. Although not strictly shebeens, O'Sullivan's in Lisselton, Co. Kerry and Harkin's in Brockagh, Co. Donegal, were both founded by former poteen makers. Indeed, the stonemasons who built Harkins were reputedly paid in poteen.

Random Facts

1. Beer-drinking as we know it was invented some 12,000 years ago in the "Fertile Crescent" between Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

2. The Roman physician Dioscorides noted how the Irish avoided wine in favour of 'a liquor called curmi made of barley'.

3. In a classic case of drink driving, the ancient charioteers of Ulster became so intoxicated during a raid on Tara that they awoke stranded in a prison on the south coast of Kerry.

4. The essence of Celtic hospitality included providing meals free of charge to travellers who called at their door, a custom that continued into the 20th century.

5. A law of 1256, for instance, dictated that any alehouse keeper found overcharging his customers was to be sentenced to a stint on the ducking stool. And rightly so too.

6. The monks cherished beer for its B Vitamins and amino acids.

7. At Jerpoint Abbey in Kilkenny, monks had an allowance of a gallon of beer a day.

8. A law of 1256 dictated that any alehouse keeper found overcharging his customers was to be sentenced to a stint on the ducking stool.

9. The Bushmills distillery in Co. Antrim acquired its first seven-day licence in 1608.

10. In 1610 Barnaby Rich: 'It is as rare a thing to find a house in Dublin without a tavern as it is to find a tavern without a strumpet'.

11. Pubs in Ireland were first formally licensed in 1635 when 1180 public houses were listed as catering to the 4000 families living in Dublin.

12. Cromwell was the son of a publican and funded his campaign with the first direct beer tax. That beer duty has been with us ever since.

13. Dublin brewer Joseph Leeson became the first of his profession to be elevated to the peerage as Earl of Milltown in 1750 and built his grand stately home at Russborough in Co. Wicklow.

14. William 'Speaker' Conolly, the wealthiest man of his generation, was the son of a Donegal publican who made his fortune serving food and wine to English and Scottish planters.

15. Porter is named for the porters in London's markets who were said to have been particularly keen on this blend of ales.

16. William of Orange introduced the legal requirement that all pint vessels bear an assay mark, certifying that they hold a full pint measure.

17. The oldest statute still in effect that applies to the licensed trade in Ireland is the Drink on Credit to Servants Act of 1735 which states that a licensee who sells drink on credit to "Servants, Labourers and other Persons who usually work on ply for Hire or Wages" has no right in law for recovery of the debt.

18. In 1753, it become illegal to be married in a pub, hitherto a popular place for ultimately doomed nuptials.

19. In 1759, Arthur Guinness took a 9000 year lease on a disused brewery at St. James's Gate in Dublin for an annual rent of £45.

20. Guinness secured dominance in the home market, boosted by innovations such as transporting Guinness by canals and railways.

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