Recently, in thinking about what I was going to write about Gill’s pub on Russell Street, I had been conjuring up verses and choruses from The Rare Auld Times. Though Pete Saint John’s anthemic lament for old Dublin makes no mention of car rental offices, builders providers and decent Italian restaurants, you could argue that the sentiment of the song is one that very much applies to Russell Street in Dublin’s North inner city. Famously home to the Behan family before they made the leap out to Crumlin, or Siberia as Brendan would quip, Russel Street – by all accounts – was typical of the sort of street that the rare old times bemoans the demise of – tenement lined, industry adjacent, bustling and rebellious.
There are, however, still some tenuous remnants of the past to be found on this street. Croke Park, though a different beast these days, remains, as does the canal. A Celtic Tiger era block of apartments bears the name ‘Behan Square’. Arguably though, the strongest remaining tie to Russell Street of days gone by is the public house which sits on the easternmost side of its junction with the North Circular Road – James Gill’s.
Obviously, this piece is going to contain a lot of Behan references – and nobody needs me to tell them that there are a great many Brendan Behan quotes on the subject of drinking and drunkenness – but there’s one that I believe is most appropriate here. This is the one where Brendan remarked that “drunkenness was not regarded as a social disgrace”, in the Dublin of his time and how “To get enough to eat was regarded as an achievement.” and “To get drunk was a victory.” And the reason I deem this one to be so appropriate is that when I finally managed to raise a glass to my lips within the walls of Gill’s, it did feel like a bit of a Victory.
Opening on a strict schedule of big match days, concert days and whenever the owner feels like it, James Gill’s public house is one that can be difficult to arrange around a busy drinking schedule. Hence the sentiment of victory! Yours truly managed to successfully board the bandwagon and get in for a pint on the occasion of the aftermath of a draw tie between Dublin and Kerry in the first of the two 2019 all Ireland finals.
Having found myself, initially, in the main bar, I was happy enough with the décor. Brendan Behan ephemera abounds. A considerable portrait of the man is painted to the wall on the Russell Street side of the pub, under this sits a physical bibliography of his works – each encased in its own frame. The rest of the featured imagery and trinketry is remembered as being fairly standard, as compared to temporary pubs. Though I should emphasize that my visit to Gill’s was at the tail end of a day which saw my thirst adequately quenched for quite some time.
With that said, I should move on and mention the pint, insofar as much as I can. I took no notes on price, and the fact that I don’t remember it as being in any way awful must mean that it was ok. If that makes sense. I did find myself surprised to receive a glass, glass and not plastic on the occasion though.
A raised section sits to the rear of the bar. Walking into it on my last visit, I found it to be harshly lit and resemblant of a comic book store – its walls being lined with hundreds, if not thousands of, colourful magazines which turned out to be various match day programmes from nearby Croker. The toilet is situated out beyond this back section of the pub and has the distinction of being one of the only pub toilets in Dublin where the sight of something shrouded in tinfoil is not to be automatically construed with illicit recreational opiates. Yes, should you find yourself the discoverer of tinfoil in a toilet cubicle in this pub, just as I once did, be assured that this, more than likely, is only indicative of a countryman who defied the best wishes of his mother and opted, instead, to obey the long-respected creed of ‘Eating is Cheating’, leaving poor Mammy’s hang sangwiches in the lurch.
I don’t think any Brendan Behan admirer, such as myself, would ever come to rate this pub too harshly. It’s infrequent opening hours are certainly a pain, but to finally get in and enjoy a pint is a real treat. The appearance of the pub doesn’t really seem too dissimilar from the way it appears in the excellent Brendan Behan’s Dublin, which is up on youtube. And in amongst all the mayhem of sweaty GAA jerseys, there are one or two locals to be found who will give you a story or two about the area. And what’s not to like there.