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The History Fangirl Podcast

Feb 12, 2018

I recently got to take an amazing trip to Dublin, Ireland, working with the Irish tourism board. And one of the amazing things about working with a tourism board is that you get to see things that you might not normally see, or at least see them in a new light. That was the case for me with the Literary Pub Crawl of Dublin. It was a four-day excursion, and we got to see how the city’s pub culture fostered a literary and drama culture (and, we got to drink some great beer). My guest today is Colm Quilligan, the owner of the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, and we talk about how pub culture gave us everyone from James Joyce to Samuel Beckett, along with some great beer.

How pub culture started in Dublin

We often think of pubs or taverns as respites from our busy lives, but as Colm told me, pubs—or public houses—were the center of Dubliners’ busy lives since the Middle Ages. They started as public houses because water quality was often poor, so a woman who was brewing at home would open her house to the public to serve, and eventually charge for, drinks. And then the authorities began licensing and taxing them as businesses, and they became centers of communities. People would often go there after work, sometimes they would even be paid for their day’s labors at the pub. So it was a center of culture and of commerce.

The oldest pubs in Dublin

As Colm tells me, the oldest pub in Dublin is supposed to be The Brazen Head, which was positioned right at the main crossing of the old Viking city. When Dublin was an Anglo city, its city walls were often closed at night to keep the Irish out, and so you had pubs and inns popping up around the city, to host travelers waiting to get in. And the Brazen Head still stands more or less where it stood in the 12th century, right where the gates to the city would have been. But Colm’s interest really lies in the famed writers’ pubs of Dublin.

The political culture of Dublin

In 1929, the Irish government passed a censorship act, at which point the pubs of Dublin really became a central point for the city’s literary and journalism cultures. Three newspapers had offices within a quarter-mile of each other, and journalists would often adjourn to the pubs nearby after work. So you had those writers and editors there, but then also other writers who frequented the pubs to network and curry favor with those editors. And those pubs had the most Irish names imaginable, like The Bailey, the Bachelor, McDaids and Mulligans. Those places are still standing as-is today. And I asked Colm what it would have been like in the 1920s to go into one of those pubs, and he summed it up in one word, “smelly.” But pubs also played a key role in Irish independence, as Colm tells me in fascinating detail in this week’s episode.

Literary pub culture of Dublin

As Colm says, Ireland’s greatest literary export may have been James Joyce. The famous novelist set many of his scenes in Ulysses in Irish pubs. Samuel Beckett is of course another titan of Irish culture, though he said pubs were centers of “paralysis, indiscretion and broken glass.” And then Flann O’Brien was, as Colm says, “very much a pub writer.” O’Brien was strongly associated with one pub in particular, called The Palace. What’s amazing about this chat with Colm, and his tour, is that for him, for Ireland, and for lovers of literature the world over, the pubs of Ireland bring the country’s cultural history to life. You need to check out the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, it’s like a pub crawl crossed with Shakespeare in the Park, and it’s a must-do in Dublin.

Outline of This Episode

  • [3:33] Colm’s book
  • [5:48] How pub culture started in Dublin
  • [8:49] The oldest pubs in Dublin
  • [13:38] Do Dubliners drink Guinness?
  • [17:32] Pubs and the Irish independence
  • [20:06] A brief history of Irish independence
  • [23:43] What authors thrived in pubs?
  • [30:58] What would the writers think of Dublin today?
  • [37:06] What happens on the Literary Pub Crawl

Resources Mentioned

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Featuring the song “Places Unseen” by Lee Rosevere.

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