Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A country pub in the city

Sometimes you walk into a Dublin pub and step back in time. You have in fact entered an old-fashioned, homely hostelry at a remote country crossroads.

After your fellow time-travellers have taken this in, they might describe such a laidback place as "frozen in time", "the pub that time forgot", or "like somebody's front parlour". Whatever the description, all will agree that it is "a country pub in the city", and that it does a grand / decent / fine pint (of stout).
Such places can be off the beaten track - or occasionally the very opposite: bang in the middle of the city centre, the kind of oasis where all classes of people (though often mostly male persons) rub shoulders, exchange banter and down their pints and their balls of malt in a leisurely fashion.

And, of course, such places have plenty of potential for fiction, particularly fiction of the crime variety...

1. The Royal Oak, Kilmainham

One such institution is the Royal Oak. It's on a quiet, gently sloping lane in the backwaters of Kilmainham, less than a hundred yards from the nearby garda station and roughly halfway down Kilmainham Lane. Besides the main road, though, you can also arrive from another direction - by foot or bike, but not by car.

Hence the dramatic possibilities.

You see, a stepped passageway between houses and apartments begins at Rowerstown Lane down by the River Camac - one of Dublin's largest rivers yet much of it tucked away - and leads up to a set of far steeper, narrower and more mysterious steps (see top picture) by the pub's outdoor smoking area.

The River Camac by Rowerstown Lane.

The stepped passageway up to the pub

Outside, the pub has grey pebbledash on its first-floor facade, though what catches the eye is the ground floor's old-fashioned stone cladding, like crazy paving as big as boulders.

Each of the ground floor's three main windows has a dozen square panes of glass; yet they are surprisingly dark, with no hint during the day of life inside. The front also has several signs, one in Ye Olde Typeface, the other a more 20th-century sans serif design: "ROYAL OAK - FOR BEST DRINKS".

The Royal Oak and (below) its rather sparse outdoor smoking area, mostly open to the elements.

Inside, the bar has county GAA flags on the ceiling, and bunting, pictures, portraits of Arthur Guinness, plenty of dark varnished wood, a snug-type back room and a corner that at any moment might be commandeered for a traditional music session.

At one time the wall behind the bar was plastered with foreign banknotes and knick-knacks, very much in the "Derragarra" style of festoonery made famous by a certain hostelry in Butlersbridge in County Cavan (before it became a bistro and the thatched roof caught fire). Today that wall behind the bar is relatively tidy, subdued even, with just a few jugs, pictures and pipes (clay smoking pipes!) and snuff (snuff!) for sale.

So that's the Royal Oak. The perfect place, in other words, for a secret rendezvous in Book #4 of the "Moss Reid" series. And it does a good pint.

2. Hartigan's, Lower Leeson Street

Another "small bit of country" in the city - though much more of the city-centre variety - is Hartigan's pub. Near the Stephen's Green end of Leeson Street, it has a fine old exterior of stained glass windows and ornate wrought-iron outer gates.

Inside, the décor is - to put it kindly - rough-and-ready: bare furniture, good solid wooden tables sprinkled with beer mats, a couple of long leather couch-benches, rickety metal bar-stools, walls with paintings and photos and rugby pictures, and lino floor. For some reason it makes me think of Lino Ritchie.

Lino Ritchie

A brief digression. Some people think Lino Ritchie is (just) an urban myth. Like, say, the rumours that pharma companies spread head lice in schools to boost the sales of lice treatment, or that a garda has to supply his hat to a pregnant women if she needs an urgent pee.

But Lino Ricthie is not a slice of arms-length gossip. Lino is real. He has a real-life carpet, flooring and vinyl business in Finglas, just one of dozens of puntastic shops and businesses scattered across Ireland - from the Chipsy Kings in Cork to Blazing Salads in Drury Street and Knobs and Knockers in Nassau Street in Dublin.

OK, back to Hartigan's. The pub's layout zig-zags like the pantry or back rooms of a larger establishment that has evolved and mutated over the decades. Apparently Harto's is as old as the early 1720s. Since then it has passed through many families; the last owners, Alfie and Evelyn (or Eileen) Mulligan, bought it in 1974.

And apparently Alfie was an uncle of Néillidh Mulligan - a famous piper who was heir to Séamus Ennis's Brogan set of uilleann pipes - and his brother Tom - the flute player and current owner of the Cobblestone in Smithfield.

Originally from Leitrim, Alfie too was a mean whistle and flute player. He died in 2012, but sons Enda and Rafe had already taken the reins by then, with Mrs (always known as "Ma") Mulligan lending the occasional hand.

The brothers dragged the pub kicking and screaming from the 1940s into the early 1970s, and nowadays it even has two colour TVs, and packets of scampi fries behind the bar. The "beer garden" or "smoking area" (if you don't count the busy street just outside the front door) consists of a cement yard and steel chairs and tables. What more do ye want?

The Flann O'Brien connection

Today's clientele in Harto's ranges from students and arty types to after-office suits and (less so nowadays) ties. Among its claims to fame, so I'm told, Hartigan's featured in Flann O'Brien's masterpiece At Swim Two Birds. (I can only remember Grogan's and the Red Swan.)

Oh, and there's another O'Brien connection of sorts - from the Moriarty Tribunal. The billionaire businessman Denis O'Brien used to be a regular, and on 17 September 1995 he had a drink with the politician Michael Lowry.

And, of course, this was no tête-à-tête between a budding young entrepreneur and the then Minister for Communications. Far from it. It was just a casual post-match drink after the All-Ireland final, with obviously absolutely definitely no way that the two men could have been discussing the imminent award of a lucrative mobile phone licence by the State to Mr O'Brien's Esat consortium.

No doubt they would have been chatting about a controversy of a very different variety: of how Dublin's Charlie Redmond - the only goal scorer in the final - had refused to leave the pitch for a good minute after he was shown the red card (not once but twice), and then how Tyrone was denied a replay when Sean McLaughlin's last-minute point was disallowed.