Kenny’s Pub and why Ireland’s First Taoiseach Probably Liked Elvis

Standing and sitting all around him, they gaze ahead, unemotionally, and in glib expectation of a continuance of the mediocrity that has so far graced the stage on this cold winter’s night. He has no light show, no backing band, and no bejewelled jumpsuit for to dazzle them with – he’s garbed in a nondescript t-shirt and the pair of brown cords that we always slag him about wearing. He’s singing into a budget microphone, over a synthesizer-heavy, cheap-sounding backing track. Though it’s all eyes rolling and lips pursing as they recognise his song choice, his timely deployment of a few hip swivels and arm rotations has them softened before the first chorus comes in.

Kenny's (James' St.)

By the time he’s dropped to his knees for the middle-eighth and pleaded with the nearest pensioner to “wipe the tears from your eyes” and “not let a good thing die”, he has them fully onside for the home stretch. Finishing the song, he takes his applause and joins us where we’d been laughing at him in the crowd, throughout. After enquiring with us as to where he’d left his pint, we all returned to our seats in the bar and rejoined the remainder of our friends and the prostitute who had since joined us at the table.

Numerous people within the population may disagree with sex work and more again may be anti-karaoke. But one could only surmise that only the smallest of subsets of even those people would argue that neither karaoke nor sex workers are entirely out of place in a public house. But what if we told you that this is no ordinary public house?

When those shots, arguably the most impactful ever fired in Irish history, had long finished echoing through the Cork countryside and Michael Collins had been put in the ground in Glasnevin; the task of governing the Free State was placed upon the head of a Mr William Thomas Cosgrave. Known to most of us as WT Cosgrave, he was obviously a man who didn’t fancy much of a commute to his work given that when he fought in the Rising under Eamonn Ceannt – he did so in the South Dublin Union – a then-workhouse, which now forms part of the St. James Hospital complex. And handily enough for WT – the South Dublin Union happened to be across the road from Burke’s pub – where he was born, lived, and also put the odd shift in. This pub, as observers of the plaque outside it will know – is now Kenny’s.

The reason we felt it important to emphasize, as we did above, about this being no ordinary pub is that our own impression of it was just that. There’s a relatively narrow bar on the left side of the building and, at the time we visited, the pub was ticking over with customers who all seemed to be local enough and enjoying themselves. Kenny’s is a good-looking traditional pub. One where the pint is fairly priced (€5 as of late 2022) and is well crafted by the bartenders who, on our collective visit, are full of chat and banter as they go about their duties.

Other than that inconspicuous plaque, there’s no blatant or obvious reason for someone who wanders into this pub from the street outside to know that it’s the birthplace of the State’s first de facto Taoiseach. Who, himself, fathered another Taoiseach. There’s no indication in the place that it was once raided during the Civil War and that the uncle of the State’s first de facto Taoiseach was shot and killed here. Passing from the bar of the pub into its expansive lounge and sitting amongst all the spectators of the karaoke, therein, you could never imagine that this building did bear witness to such historical events.

The funny thing is though, that places of such historical significance tend to be more solemn and reflective places. You’d hardly have your Aunty Margret up doing her best Proud Mary down at Arbor Hill, or Uncle Tommy giving My Way a good blast in the yard in Kilmainham Jail, now, would you? So, with that in mind, you can’t help but question the appropriateness of Pintman №3 crooning out his best Suspicious Minds in here, though, can you?

WT Cosgrave Plaque

But, rest assured, the more and more we’ve thought about it, the more suitable we’ve come to believe that it is. What you need to do to achieve such a state is to look at the lyrics of the song – not from the perspective of a paranoid lover – but from that of a combatant in a civil war. Cosgrave is the man who had to make the big decisions to steer Ireland out of the Civil War, post-Collins. It could be argued that it is he who is the quintessential civil war figure in Irish history. And given the alternatives available to him at the time, you could say that he was caught in a trap.

When you consider the threat of awful and terrible violence from the British war machine that hung like a Damocles sword over the head of the State’s first government, were they to not have settled the civil war, you come to realise that Cosgrave could not walk out during that violent time in Irish history where most of the cabinet and their families barely ever left government buildings for fear of execution. And all this because he loved you (i.e. the path to achieving a real republic) too much baby.

Cosgrave Shot

So, to us, there’s no reason why the performing of Elvis can be considered as a disrespectful act, on such sacred turf. It is also worth noting that, though they seem worlds apart, Cosgrave didn’t die until 1965 – at which point Elvis was already established as a global superstar. And who’s to say that the founder of Cumann na nGaedheal, anti-royalist as he was, didn’t have a soft spot for this particular King, were he to be played on Radio Éireann back when rock and roll was taking over the world?

As for the woman who had joined us, that – to us – was an unusual encounter in a Dublin pub. We had clocked her mostly-unreciprocated overfamiliarity with all of the men who were arriving into the pub as we were there, and we’d privately made a few guesses as to her profession being that which ranked as the oldest in the world on this basis.

When she did join us for a drink, and confirm our guesses to be correct, she didn’t opt to stay around for long when it was established that we were not prospective customers.

We definitely do stand over the case we’ve made for WT being likely to let a bit of Elvis slide on such hallowed, historical ground, but we can’t say with any degree of certainty that, given his endorsement of the closure of Dublin’s notorious red-light district: The Monto, the case can be made for Mr Cosgrave looking so fondly upon the solicitation of sex on the premises.

So, if you’re a blueshirt, a karaoke fan, a member of the vice squad, or all of the above – or if you’re just looking for a few decent pints, get yourself down to Kenny’s of James’ Street for one of the best nights you could hope for.

Epilogue: We do just want to make sure it’s clear that we are not suggesting that the management/proprietors/operators of this pub are involved in the provision of sex for sale. The sex worker we met in this pub was not affiliated with it or its staff. As alluded to above, this was a fairly unusual encounter – not only in Kenny’s (which we’ve separately and collectively been to a handful of times and not experienced) but in Dublin pubs in general.

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