The Palace Bar, Fleet Street, Dublin
Author of Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish pub.
‘The most wonderful temple of art’
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.