The ‘start’ and the finished : The pub and Irish emigrants to Britain

Here is a small extract on a topic of interest to many. It is taken from Chapter 8 of my book Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The history of the Irish pub. This is just a small section of the chapter.

The ‘start’ and the finished: The Irish pub and the emigrant Britain

As far back as 1817 the Select Committee on the Police of the Metropolis debated the issue of the Irish and alcohol in London. An unnamed witness provided his opinion: ‘The effects of liquor upon the Irish in every scene of depredation and murder needs only to be adverted to. It is certain that the abuse of this destructive stimulus foments and keeps alive the most atrocious and appalling crimes.’ It was widely believed alcohol affected the Irish differently than the natives and their predilection for whiskey made them more dangerous again. A Manchester Magistrate spoke on the issue in 1834 to the House of Commons: ‘If there be a company of English men drinking in a beer shop, they are very good friends if they get drunk together, and they can go home with each other and behave with the utmost kindness; but if it be a party of Irish drinking whiskey or spirits, they will quarrel or fight before they get home.’ In the same report a Manchester clergy man referred to this bias and damned the Irish with faint praise. ‘The Irish’, he said, ‘have more a reputation for drunkenness than they deserve because they are so noisy and brawling…they give money to one another when in distress and sickness, and send money to their poor relations in Ireland.’ Similar to Ireland the living conditions of most of these early immigrants were poor. In 1849 the Chief Constable of Wolverhampton commented on the issue: ‘Many are tempted to spend their time and money in these places from the total want of comfort at their own houses; indeed, many of them have told me, after having been turned out of the public house, that the place in which they lived was in such a miserable state that they would rather remain out in the open air if the weather was not so severe.’ According to the report, some migrants brought alcohol with them from Ireland and sold it in lodging houses. The police referred to such places as ‘wabble shops’ and despaired of counteracting the problem because of warning systems in place.
John Healy wrote Death of an Irish Town—later published as No one shouted stop!—about the decline of his native Charlestown in County Mayo. Ireland was in an economic morass and England wanted all types of workers: ‘England, hated England, now waved its trident engraved fresh green money under the noses of all the Charlestowns of the West of Ireland, and from those huge overstocked rich spawning streams…the young and the lusty and the eager turned like strong fingerlings and headed downstream and out to sea for the rich feeding grounds of wartime Britain.’ He described the pain felt by the families left behind and the wonder of the young emigrants. His memories as a child are of the returning crowds at holiday periods. The buses heading to the north and west of Mayo passed through Charlestown. As soon as the buses pulled up, he remembered, the men would come lurching out and into the bars on ‘The Square’. Their wallets were full and they wanted drink and ‘they drank until the buses pulled out again and went on to Swinford where they stopped again and drank again.’ They would repeat it again in Foxford and Ballina. They drank their way home, ‘those two hundred miles across the face of Ireland.’ They were a different people to when they had left. Now they could drink in the Hotel with the best: ‘they could buy drinks with the best in the best lounge bars in town. Their money and their earning power was as great, if not greater, than the social hierarchy of the town. They made more than the schoolteachers who could not afford to buy a round of drinks for the house…Drink up, mate-there is plenty where this came from…Come on, mate!- Put them up again, Tom, fill them up: let the last day be the best.’ Healy pondered the reasons why so many of these emigrants developed problems with alcohol. He acknowledged they were lonely and living in an alien environment but these were ‘stock’ answers. Money was an issue; ‘the unfamiliarity with money, the handling of money’: ‘Young men who lived in and about our town were lucky to have the handling of a pound note in the week; more likely it was ten shillings which kept them in the threepenny packet of Woodbines, gave them half a crown for a Sunday night dance, nine pence for the Thursday night picture and left something for the odd bottle of stout…The social historian will do well to ponder what happened when, overnight, such a young man found himself in Mac Alpines Fusiliers (in the employ of Mac Alpines building company) with as many pounds in his pocket as he had shillings before.’
In The men who built Britain Ultan Cowley provides a history of the life of Irish labourers or ‘Navvies’. The term ‘navvy’ came to be used as a catch all for any labouring job, particularly in relation to construction but its origins were more specific. The commercial canal system laid out in the British Isles in the nineteenth century was known as the Inland Navigation System. The diggers of these canals became known colloquially as navigators which became shortened to ‘navvy.’ Cowley quotes from a book by David Fitzpatrick published by the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland entitled Irish Emigration 1801- 1921 which described the tensions sometimes created when groups of Irish labourers came to small villages:
They lived for the present; they cared not for any past; they were indifferent to the future. Their pay nights were a Saturnalia of riot and disorder, dreaded by the villagers along the line of works. The irruption of such men into the quiet hamlet of Kilsby… produced a very startling effect on the reclusive inhabitants of the place…the navvies were little better than heathens…..For their lodgings, a hut of turf would content them; and in their hours of leisure, the meanest public house would serve for their parlour. Unburdened as they usually were, by domestic ties, softened by family affection, and without much moral or religious training, the navvies came to be distinguished by a sort of savage manners, which contrasted strangely with those of the surrounding population.
The pub was often the first port of call. In England you could get ‘the start’ in a pub frequented by the Irish. ‘In every urban centre there were Irish pubs, albeit perhaps called The George, The Crown or The King’s Head’ as Crowley wrote. Here they could network, meet old friends, get news from home, establish locate contacts, find lodgings or be given a job. Loneliness and culture shock drove men to the pub. They desperately sought a sense of community and it was in the pub they often found it.
Kevin Casey was interviewed by Catherine Dunne’s in her book An unconsidered people, the story of some Irish emigrants in London. He had an unusual job for an Irishman, working as a valet for a Lord Beatty near Banbury. He recalled his visit to a local pub: ‘I remember going to a pub one night in King’s Sutton and it was full of people. In the crowd was this chap wearing a little shamrock badge. It was what was known as an Aer Lingus badge. I went over to him and asked him if he was Irish. ‘I am’ he said ‘from Tipperary’. He was a groom from one of the other estates, and we became great pals. It’s not that the people weren’t sociable-they were and they made us very welcome. But there’s something about looking for your own identity, your own language, your own accent. It’s something to home in on, something familiar.’
Drinking numbed the pain of loneliness, acting as an anaesthetic for many. Another man described the lack of a home life as the reason he gravitated to the pub: ‘When you come over here you have no home, you pay for your week’s lodgings, get a bed, your meals maybe…you don’t fit in, your culture is different, you go out at night and spend your money in the pub because there’s nowhere else much to go to, because there’s camaraderie there, and there’s people, it’s a social kind of life.’
In his research Cowley received a letter from a man called ‘Callahan’ who told him the Irish were not wanted by the landladies and were forced into the pub by loneliness, lack of identity and culture shock. Bill Brennan who lived in Arlington House, an iconic homeless hostel in Camden Town, London, recalled a typical day ‘jumpin’ out of a van in the evenin’, soakin’ wet, into the pub-no such thing as goin’ home to change and the rain soakin’ into you…that’s why you see all the old men goin’ around with sticks and crutches, When you were young it didn’t seem to affect you, but now it’s got into their bones, dried into them.’ One traffic Island in Camden town, close to a popular pub, was known as Penguin Island. So many Irish men gathered there waiting for the pub to open on a Sunday morning dressed in black suits and white shirts they looked like a group of penguins. Dancehalls were the place to go after the pubs. They were alcohol free which often led to binge drinking in the pubs beforehand. Bill Brennan elaborated on the theme:
I needed the alcohol to be able to ask a woman to dance….I had to have a massive amount of alcohol drunk over there in The Good Mixer pub before crossing the road to the Buffalo… I was goin’ across and no one would dance with me, because I was mad drunk, and I was saying ‘What the fuck is wrong with me?’ I’m young and I’ve a three piece suit on, and I’ve got a few bob in my pocket- what the fuck’s goin on?’ And, of course the answer was I was totally drunk…..I’d come away totally frustrated. I wasn’t socially able to make any of these moves towards a normal life, which a normal human being should have without alcohol.
Phyllis Izzard was the first person interviewed in Catherine Dunne’s book. She confirmed Bill’s account; ‘some of the dancehalls could be rough, and these fellas would be well inebriated. They wouldn’t come into the dancehall until late in the night; all of us girls would have been sitting around the wall all evening like wallflowers, and then they’d come in, last knockin’s.’
Ultan Cowley sought information from women of their experience of the construction industry in Britain and how it affected relationships with men. In a public appeal he received only four replies, two of them from the same person. This correspondence is from a lady identified as ‘K. Hamilton’:
I have a limited recollection of my father’s life as a navvy. I remember he would get a draw [an advance] on his wages early in the week- having spent a great portion of his pay check the previous weekend in the pubs…..I’m afraid my father wasn’t very articulate on his return home at the end of the day. After his meal he fell asleep. However had I been able to follow him after work to ‘Ward’s House’, ‘The Queen’s Elm’, or ‘The Lord Packenham’ I’m convinced I would have found out a lot more about his day on the job….by today’s standard mine and many other Irish families in England would be classified as dysfunctional- so be it.
He received an embittered letter from a woman who wished to remain unidentified: ‘The Irish men, young and old were drunken thugs who disgraced themselves in every city they worked in. They had no respect for their women at home or on the streets…Paddy would not marry, he carried the status of a hard case. He made dirt of his own women in a foreign country…The Irish girls coming from Ireland- most didn’t drink, smoke or dope. They worked to get a bit to eat and clothes on their back.’


Irish Coffee

The story of the invention of the iconic alcoholic drink Irish coffee -a mixture of hot coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar and unwhipped cream -is an interesting one. It was apparently invented by Joe Sheridan in Foynes, County Limerick (which was a port at the time) in the 1940’s when he  provided it to a group of American tourists on a cold winter evening. It was brought to San Francisco in 1952 by travel writer Stephen Delapane after he tasted it at the nearby Shannon airport.  The classical recipe is simple. Black coffee is poured into the mug after which whiskeyirish-coffee

and at least one level teaspoon of sugar – preferably brown –  is stirred in until fully dissolved. The sugar is essential for floating liquid cream on top. Thick cream is carefully poured over the back of a spoon initially held just above the surface of the coffee and gradually raised a little. The layer of cream will float on the coffee without mixing. The coffee is drunk through the layer of cream. What could be more Irish than that?

Arthur’s Day



Kevin Martin

Author of Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The history of the Irish pub


Arthur’s Day was established – some would say invented – in 2009 by Diageo to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the founding of Guinness brewing company. From the start there were rumblings of discontent with the concept, many viewing it as no more than a slick marketing move by Diageo, the now owners of Guinness. Despite endorsements from high profile celebrities like humanitarian and musician Bob Geldof, film director Guy Richie and former England footballer Peter Crouch others such as singers Christy Moore and Mike Scott of The Waterboys and film director Lenny Abrahamson criticised this new venture. The US based Huffington Post dubbed it ‘Diageo Day’ and called for a boycott. Critics pointed to the holding of the event on Thursday night – the traditional student drinking night in the cities – as opportunist. Diageo did not help their case when they kept it on Thursday night each subsequent year thus rendering it an inaccurate celebration of an anniversary.

The Irish Times newspaper termed it ‘a master class in how to fabricate a national holiday’ and referred to its ‘a la carte attitude to traditional holidays’. It noted the countdown as a mimicking of the traditional welcome to the New Year and the ‘faux patriotism that comes with the celebration of a ‘national’ drink’ ‘ and what they called the ‘hagiographic treatment’ of Arthur Guinness as a type of secular saint. It warned its readers: ‘If Saint Patrick’s Day, Christmas and Halloween are festivals that offer an excuse for drink, Diageo has flipped the concept on its head and made the drink an excuse for a festival.’

The mechanics of the day was straightforward. At 17.59 the brewing company asked drinkers to raise a toast to Arthur to celebrate the anniversary. There were various musical, social and cultural events run on the day. Over the years the line ups were stellar and the day was celebrated in Dublin, Belfast, Lagos, Kuala Lumpar in 2009. Jakarta, Indonesia joined the list of participating cities in 2010. It continued on in spite of substantial criticism. In 2012 there was widespread discontent when the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland reported a 30 percent surge in ambulance call outs on each successive Arthur’s Day since its inception.

Finally things reached a head – pun intended – in 2013. In September a social media campaign called ‘Boycott Arthur’s Day’ came to national and international attention. Irish and international musicians lent their support to the cause. On 24 September a live debate was held on the current affairs television programme Prime Time on the national channel RTE1. It included the Guinness executive Peter O’ Brien defending the celebration. The singer Christy Moore, a long time critic of the celebration and a recovering alcoholic, had released a single to mark the occasion which he sung live on the programme. After years of increasing discomfort among the public the celebration came to an end in 2013 and was replaced in 2014 by a programme to support emerging artists in Ireland called Guinness Amplify.

It may have been officially abandoned but occasional reports still come through about the continued celebration of the event. In September 2015 MSN news reported that a bar in Jundai, Brazil celebrated the occasion while nearer to the origin of the event they reported that Spell’s Bar in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon celebrated ‘The Day Formerly Known As Arthur’s Day’.


The Palace Bar, Fleet Street, Dublin – my favourite bar.



 The Palace Bar, Fleet Street, Dublin

Kevin Martin

Author of Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish pub.

 ‘The most wonderful temple of art’

Patrick Kavanagh


The Palace Bar on Fleet Street, dating from 1883, is one of the best preserved Victorian pubs in Dublin and has a remarkably impressive literary pedigree. The four bronze plaques outside the pub in memory of Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O’ Brien and Con Houlihan alert passersby to the literary significance of the famous hostelry while a few minutes inside should confirm its enduring attractions. Kavanagh, the ‘peasant poet’ from the ’stony grey soil’ of County Monaghan, and Behan, the boisterous alcoholic playwright and memoirist from inner city Dublin, were the best of enemies and generally tried to avoid each other, yet neither could resist the attractions of this beautiful pub in the heart of the capital city. O’ Brien – his real name was Brian O’ Nolan but he was also known under his pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen – was part of the journalistic fraternity who drank here. Houlihan was a hugely esteemed sports journalist with the Irish Press group for almost three decades.

At the start of the twentieth century when many premises across the city were stripping out their antique interiors in an attempt at modernisation the owners of The Palace and Ryan’s of Parkgate Street met to discuss the future: they agreed to leave their pubs unchanged in all their Victorian splendour. The result of their pact meant two of the most beautiful pubs in the city remained unsullied by crass modernism. The back bar of the Palace is arguably the most stunning space in a Dublin pub. The comfortable rectangular space is a counterpoint to the narrow front bar.

With a beautiful high vaulted ceiling supported by Romanesque arches it is best seen in the day time to appreciate the intricacy of the craftsmanship. This high Victoriana is also to be seen in the typically high bar. Sitting in one of the burgundy leather bucket seats with one of the best pints of Guinness in the country is a true pleasure on a bright day.

Honor Tracy, author of Mind you, I’ve said nothing; Forays in the Irish Republic came to Dublin with her partner in the 1950s to seek out ‘Dublin intellectuals’. They went to The Palace Bar and were joined by ‘one of Dublin’s major poets, with a thirsty look on his face.’ It was most likely to have been Patrick Kavanagh. He was glad to depend on their kindness that evening, she wrote, because ‘the confidence he felt in certain racehorses turned out to have been misplaced.’

Until 2006 The Irish Times newspaper was printed on Fleet Street and The Palace Bar was a traditional gathering place for staffers. R.M. (Bertie) Smylie, long time editor of the paper, directed proceedings in a corner of the back bar termed ‘the intensive care unit.’ Most of the writers and artiste were impoverished souls and Smylie was a meal ticket for many of them. He was the de facto chief.


There’s a large reproduction drawing by Alan Reeves titled Dublin Culture- the original hangs in the National Gallery – of a group of literary figures at a Christmas party in the back bar. Among the participants are Kavanagh, poet Austin Clarke and renowned satirist Flann O’ Brien. O’ Brien was a serial prankster and the Palace was the scene of one of his best known stunts. He famously parked an engineless car outside the pub and sat in it. When challenged by a police officer he claimed he couldn’t be prosecuted for propelling a mechanical vehicle because it had no engine. On another occasion he was supposed to have been found hiding in a telephone box to avoid the clutches of the police who had raided the pub having a suspicion that an after hour drinking session was afoot. They were right and O’ Brien’s hiding place was easily found. It is not recorded what action the police took but it is most likely they were only turfed out on the street and warned about their future conduct. Being ‘found on’ is the phrase used to describe those who stay on in pubs after the official closing time. This can only be done with the collusion of the owner or bar staff and the penalties are more severe on them. O’ Brien didn’t find all the pubs as attractive as The Palace: ‘No Irishman could feel at home in a pub unless he was sitting in a deep gloom on a hard seat with a very sad expression listening to the drone of bluebottle squadrons carrying out a raid on the yellow sandwich cheese.’ It did not stop O’ Brien from occupying many a bar stool and he struggled badly with his alcoholism. On the only occasion he was filmed for television his replies to the interviewer were virtually incoherent. Ostensibly his day job was in the Department of Local Government but showed little interest in it. When once asked about his ideal system of Government he replied, ‘two clerical officers in Whitehall’. H was not a fan of the Irish political system and his default option was invariably cynicism.

Artists including Sean O’Sullivan, Patrick O’Connor and Harry Kernoff also frequented the bar. Kernoff sold his pictures from the wall. While he also exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy he sold dozens of his works in the pub according to owner Liam Ahearne. An underappreciated artist during his lifetime and many of his works sold for tiny amounts. In the back bar Kernoff’s work can be assessed at leisure. There are two signed woodcut prints high on the right hand side wall, both portraying pub scenes. One details a man playing an accordion like instrument and the other is of three patrons of the bar. On the opposite wall, there are two colourful portraits of women in headscarves and a pastel drawing of Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan from 1944. A good account of Kernoff’s social life, including his regular evenings in the Palace, can be accessed by reading his diaries which are housed in the National Library. He befriended many of the resident writers and even had the dubious pleasure of going on holiday with his fellow Palace afficionada Patrick Kavanagh. Where they found the money is unrecorded. Both were frequently broke and, according to Ahearne, there’s a bounced cheque of Kavanagh’s for £1 and 10 shillings in the basement of the pub. The owner has a captioned black and white photograph of his father with Kernoff. It reads ‘Bill Aherne toasts the sale of a Harry Kernoff painting with two gentlemen in the Palace Bar, early 1950s.’ Close observation of the photo shows a painting on the wall in the photograph called ‘A Bird Never Flew on One Wing’. The well known picture was sold in the Palace at some point during the 1950s and eventually ended up in O’ Brien’s pub in Leeson Street where it languished for over thirty years until it was sold in 2008 for €180,000.

In more recent times it was a favoured haunt of the now deceased Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney when he was in Dublin.

There’s a small snug at the front which, unusually, can be booked in advance. Jonathan Goodall of The Telegraph newspaper reviewed it: ‘On the right as you enter the Palace is the snuggest snug bar in Dublin – just big enough for a tiny round table with barely room for benches. With its wooden frame and ornate frosted glass windows it resembles the Tardis though it contrives to be smaller on the inside. Apparently, this was where the ‘shawlies’ met – single women, often widows, out for a nip and a natter. Forget the gossip columns in Smylie’s paper, these ladies would have told you stories to make your ears burn.’

The Palace Bar was originally built in 1823 and shortly afterwards it was bought by a family named Hall. In the early 1900’s it was taken over by the Ryan family from Tipperary and stayed in their possession until sold by the ‘widow Ryan’ in 1946 for £27,000 – an eye opening sum at the time. It was bought by Bill Aherne – the ‘mountainy man’ from Rearcross, County Tipperary and is now run by his son Liam and grandson William. The Ahernes are whiskey connoisseurs and there are over one hundred and twenty to choose from – including their own Palace Bar Irish Whiskey – in the beautiful upstairs bar renamed the Whiskey Palace. Willie Aherne hand-picked the particular nine year old single cask single malt through a panel of tasters comprising  customers with an interest in whiskies. The cask of single malt containing forty four crates of whiskey is now supplied with this via bottles of 46 per cent cask-strength whiskey by Cooley distillery. The bottle’s label depicts the exterior of The Palace and pays homage to its great literary past. Their ‘Fourth Estate’ single malt has a picture of R.M. Smylie, former editor of The Irish Times on the label. It’s in keeping with the pub motto – ‘internationally famous for our intellectual refreshment’. Despite being on the edge of Temple Bar this is a great and civilised place with an exceptional pint of Guinness and a soothing conversational hub. Among the whisky bottles in the downstairs bar there’s a sign which reads ‘a bird is known by its song, a man by his conversation’. With no television the ebb and flow of conversation wafts continually through the pub. It is a national treasure. Long may it prosper.


What not to order in an Irish pub

The wildly politically incorrectly named Irish Car Bomb is an American cocktail made with Irish stout, Irish cream liqueur and Irish whiskey and was invented in 1979 by owner Charles Oat at Wilson’s Saloon in Norwich, Connecticut. The double entendre is as subtle as the drink itself. It is a ‘bomb shot’ and an obvious reference to the car bombs synonymous with the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is not advisable to go into any Irish pub in Ireland and ask for one. The inclusion of the term in the promotional material of an English bar in 2014 drew complaints and caused public outrage, resulting in a withdrawal of the offending promotional flyers and a public apology by the bar manager. To make the drink, whiskey (Jameson preferably) is floated on top of Irish cream liqueur (Baileys if you have it) in a shot glass, and the shot glass is then dropped into the stout (inevitably Guinness). Once mixed, it must be consumed quickly or…

It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘getting bombed’.