Sitting in the middle of the Caribbean Sea there lies a small city on the northern coast of Panama with a population of five thousand people. This city boasts a tropical maritime climate and a quick search online shows me that it’s currently bathing in a sunshine which has brought a temperature in the region of the high twenties. This is in stark contrast to the current Irish weather conditions which have, in the last few days, began to exude that icy November chill that has you finally digging out your biggest coat from the back of the wardrobe. Thankfully I’m sheltered from said iciness, but less thankfully is the fact that I’m in work – in a drab office block, and aside from writing this, I’m also neglecting my professional duties by perusing a collection of images of this little city mentioned above. It’s a picturesque place – dense forest-like growth buffers between land and sky on all inland horizons while horizons off into the Caribbean look just as exotic as you might expect The Caribbean would.
I’m sure some of you might be starting to wonder where I’m going with this. Well, the reason why I’m harping on about such a far-flung place is namely down to the fact that in the last few weeks – we happened to have a pint in an area of Dublin which not only is a namesake of this Caribbean town, but happens to have actually been named after it. The area we refer to is Portobello.
So as it would turn out, this fair little canal-side district was so named, not after a type of mushroom, as yours truly had thought, but instead from the occasion of some aul colonial English prick getting one over on some aul colonial Spanish bollox. This delightful little bloodbath, which happened in 1739 is now referred to as The War of Jenkins’ Ear. But enough about that.
J O’Connell’s, from what we can tell, is an old boozer. Our limited research skills haven’t managed to date it, but a record in ‘Thom’s Almanac and Official Directory for the Year 1862’ lists a Mr Walter Furlong – a grocer and spirit dealer, as it’s occupant. A further record from an electoral register dated between 1908 and 1915 describes the building as being a ‘Licensed House’. What’s nice though about this pub, though, is the fact that none of that is rammed down your throat. Nowadays we live in such a marketing-centric time, and it’s of particular annoyance to us when a pub which is barely opened a wet day bombards its patrons and potential patrons with a PR-spun, contrived ‘back-story’, which takes more than enough of its fair share of artistic license when deciding on how liberal to be with the truth. In J O’Connell’s this is no concern.
What you do get here is an authentic Dublin boozer. The colour scheme is one that I can’t come to describe without mention of the word – festive. Glossy reds and greens cast a warming glow on the pub which is of a medium size overall. High seating is available at the bar only and a traditional combination of pub couches and low stools make up the rest. The walls display a good mix of the usual fare – horses, GAA, local history and some nice portraits of Brendan Behan & Co. Mix nicely along with the whiskey and beer trinkets about the place. Pintman Nº2 was taken with the arrangement of the shelving behind the bar and I noticed the barrel end of a few casks which sat into the bar, as they would have in the era before mainstream bottling. I wondered if they were an original feature at the time, I’m less uncertain now having discovered the age of the place.
The vibe when we visited was quite a chilled one – a mix of young and old locals sat ensconced into various corners engrossed in quiet conversation. The radio was kept low enough and was playing Billie Holiday, or Billy Holiday-esque sort of tunes – we all agreed it an unusual set of tunes in the context of Dublin pubs en-masse, but too agreed that they suited the mood perfectly. The staff were excellent, the barman was on the ball with service and barely allowed us to leave our seats to obtain a jar. The pint was a bargain at €4.80 and was as satisfying on the palate as it was on the pocket.
J O’Connell’s is one of the true undiscovered gems in Dublin’s landscape of pubs. And yes, the Panama Canal may be more impressive than The Grand, and there’s little doubt that the weather in the Carribean is nicer than ours. But who wants to be drinking rum in a wicker hut with sand down your trousers when you could instead be cuddled into a couch with a pint of plain in Portobello. I know which one I fancy more.
What do Robbie Keane, Bill Clinton and Daniel O Donnell have in common? Now there’s a question you never thought you’d ever hear, and a question we never thought we’d ever ask. It’s not that Bill had sweet first touch when he played five-a-side on the lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave – no, no. And we’re pretty certain that you won’t find Keano in any brass section warming up to the dulcet tones of Baker St. Nor will you find Bill Clinton going out of his way to attract older wom….. actually, never mind.
Well if any of you out there thought that Cassidy’s of Camden Street was the particular commonality between the three distinguished figures aforementioned, you would be right because this pub happens to be one which at one time or another purveyed a pint to each of the three lads.
The perfect example of a deceivingly large boozer, this one has to be up there with one of the longest pubs in the city. The pub is popular with Donegal natives and we have it on good authority that it’s managed by wee Daniel’s brother too. Exuding a comfortable vibe that must be difficult to maintain in such an expansive space – Cassidy’s is a Victorian pub which characterised with all the usual features one would expect of a place described as such. Dark wood and brass fittings serve as a welcome aesthetic in the midst of part of town that seems to become trendier by the day.
The pint, we usually find as being up to scratch here and we’ve certainly no recollections of a bad one ever being put on front of us on any visit. Upon our last visit we were charged an even fiver for the dark and creamy pleasure, but use that as a rough guide only – we’re fast approaching the year anniversary of that visit at this rate.
Regrettably we don’t haven’t spent half as much time as we’d have liked to in this pub over the years. We’ll definitely be making sure to remedy that in the near future.
There’s an old proverb that I’ve adopted into my lexicon over the years which states that what is seldom is wonderful. Granted that this is an adage that I doubt too many persons involved in the task of tracking asteroids would be partial to, it’s one that I find can ring true from time to time, one such time happened a few weeks ago.
It was late enough of a Saturday evening when a text came through from Pintman Nº2; yours truly was hauled up on the wagon recovering from the physical and financial perils of a recent jaunt around Toronto where he’d tried to do a Behan and “Drink Canada Dry”. The text message, as it would transpire, was to inform me that Pintman Nº3 was home for the grand duration of one and a half days and that a hurriedly planned session had entered the tendering stage. Remembering the aforementioned wonder of infrequency I decided I’d borrow a few quid and postpone my recovery for another weekend.
The next afternoon, the full DublinByPub contingent set out on a crawl around a few beloved boozers in town. After hitting two or three pubs we decided to make our way to The Long Hall – as we did so Pintman Nº2 and I brought Pintman Nº3 up to speed on what he’d been missing – telling him that one headline that he had missed out on was that about The Chancery Inn having been put up for sale for €1.7M. As I asked the two lads whether they reckoned we should pool our resources and put in a bid, Pintman Nº3 was quick to put any potential venture to bed by remarking how the proposition had been made by someone who “had to borrow fifty quid to come out for a few pints today”. This interaction, as luck would have it – is a fine segue into what we have to say about what would befall us as we came to the next junction.
Now, it’s fair to say that we pick up a good amount of information as we journey around the boozers of the city – anecdotes and facts relating to music, history, architecture and politics are all pretty commonplace. But one thing we don’t tend to gather on our wanderings, and this may be solely down to our poor acumen in matters related to finance or commerce, is worthwhile business advice – we simply don’t encounter it. But on this particular afternoon, as we strode toward JJ Smyth’s and the crowd of snap-happy passers-by gathered outside, we happened to come up with DublinByPub’s first (potentially) worthy piece of business advice, and it can be surmised in one single word – Murals!
As can be seen in the image attached, a bare gable end is nothing if not a good spot to get creative. JJ’s were obviously using their heads when they allowed the astoundingly talented Subset Dublin to ‘Paint It Black’ (sorry) and throw up a portrait of everyone’s favourite pensioners – The Rolling Stones. There have been two other phenomena over the last year which have had a similar buzz about them whereby they became plastered all over social media – namely the awesome Bordalo II work on the side of The Workshop and Irishtown Brewing’s fantastic mural which covered The Hairy Lemon’s façade for a while last year. So if you’re looking to get your boozer onto the screens of people’s phones and you have a spare bare wall, you know what you need to do.
I suppose we better get on to saying something about JJs at this stage, this boozer wasn’t actually on our itinerary on this particular afternoon, but we can’t resist a cheeky detour now and again, so in we went. The pub, which is well known for the Jazz Club which was housed in its upstairs bar up until recently, wasn’t all that busy when we arrived during the middle of the afternoon. There was one or two locals at the bar, one of whom looked like he was ‘waiting on a friend’ (sorry) – the radio was playing a playlist of Led Zeppelin tunes which we all agreed was in keeping with the new rock-and-roll aesthetic set by the mural. We were greeted gregariously by a woman behind the bar who was as friendly as she was energetic – she promptly sorted us out with a few pints as we settled in before proudly telling us of her love for her job and how she was ‘born to be behind that bar’. Enamoured by her passion, we enquired as to how long she’d been in JJs – ‘about two weeks’ said she
Appearance-wise the pub is pretty traditional, which was a welcome sight to us – scarlet coloured walls and carpet couple well with the couch seating which is a sort of faded shade of pine, this runs the full length of the left side of the bar with several octagonal tables sitting at intervals along the run. Pintman Nº3 was quick to prove that he hadn’t lost his keen eye over on the continent by quickly noticing the old disused call bells which sat recessed into the wall behind the couches – a nice touch, we all agreed. The bar itself sat about two-thirds of the way toward the end of the pub and was of a medium size and constructed with dark wood.
The pint came in at €5.20 and received a chorus of approval from all around the table as they finished a first sup in unison. Pintman Nº3 enjoyed his with a toastie which he critiqued by exclaiming “Grogan’s is safe anyway”. When we finished up, the woman behind the bar turned on a bit of a persuasive charm and tempted us to have one for the road, and although she nearly swayed us we ultimately opted to continue on crawling having given her our assurance that we’d be back another day, a statement we definitely meant.
I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself, at some stage in your life, completely contradicting values that you hold dear for no other good reason than gut reaction? This happened to us a number of weeks ago when we wandered into the newly refurbished and newly managed Devitt’s of Camden St which has instiled in us a sense of ambivalence that no other pub ever has.
Devitt’s, as we knew it, was a family run GAA pub which offered the normality of a local atmosphere amidst the madness of an ever trendier Camden St. Aesthetically traditional, it was just another decent Dublin boozer – wooden flooring and carpet sectionalised areas for high and low seating while dividers aplenty broke up the bar and created nooks and crannies. It was a pub that was aging nicely and the pick of Camden St. in our humble opinion.
During 2017 we heard through various channels that the pub had been sold to a group and that the new owners were quick to put their money where their mouth is, deciding to finance a full refurbishment – news which we had received with much trepidation. Now this is where the contradictions start, so please bear with us. The new fit out is fine – The exterior is immaculate; it would be easily argued that the façade of Devitt’s is the now finest pub frontage from The Grand Canal to Dame St. The interior is, for all intents and purposes, also fine– dark wood, wooden floor, drinking paraphernalia along the walls, it’s everything we look for and if it were a brand new pub that had been installed into a bare shell it would be fine. But it just didn’t sit right with us.
We’ve been pondering this for the last few weeks and our reasoning for not taking to this particular renovation is loosely described in the following sentiment. Essentially Devitts’ new proprietors have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, they’ve literally taken an actual real life old Irish pub and replaced it with a fit out that’s designed to look like an actual real life old Irish pub. They’ve gutted authentic worn in fixtures and fittings and replaced them with faux, pre-worn flatpack versions of themselves. It’s simply an act that we can neither abide nor understand. Imagine if The Stags Head or The Long Hall went for a psychedelic vibe in the 1960s, or went all disco ball in the 70s. What a disaster that would have been.
But what’s done is done and when we arrived we had to reluctantly admit that the new owner’s investment was evidently paying off. An ironic version of a Ronan Keating tune was being blasted out by an energetic duo to a willing crowd which was comprised of a younger demographic than one would have associated with Devitt’s previously. G&T bowls aplenty glistened in the shimmer of Christmas lighting and the overall atmosphere in the pub sounded akin to that one would hear upon passing a temple bar pub on a Saturday afternoon. This wasn’t exactly to our taste.
Determined to not be the grumpy aul bastards in the corner we did decide to focus on the positives. First of all the pint – well poured and very well priced given the location, we couldn’t fault Devitt’s one iota here and can only urge they keep up the good work in this regard. Secondly we had to commend the inclusion of the pub’s GAA heritage within the décor, in particular the maintaining of the beloved porcelain GAA player figurines that any former patrons of Devitt’s will likely remember with much fondness.
In our departure from the pub we couldn’t help but ponder the future for the humble family run Dublin boozer. With way that economics seem to work in Ireland, the sad likelihood is that more and more cherished family run pubs will fall afoul of wealthy groups and chains. We’d like to take this opportunity to issue a warning to these buyers. Pubs are our culture! Sterilising and homogenising them, depending on the flavour of the moment, for the purpose of profit will only ultimately run them into the ground. Then they will render no use – economically or culturally. Look at the most popular of the pubs in Dublin. All of them are dozens or even decades old with only minor aesthetic change throughout the years.
So if you do buy an aging pub, hold off on that big refurbishment, a return on investment is only a century or two away.
It was one of them poxy November evenings where the depression onset from daylight savings’ early darkness had begun to set in. The rain was pissing out of the heavens and train was rammed. A pint was in order. As I drew closer to town I fumbled amongst the crush to retrieve my phone and made a call to Pintman №2, inquiring after the progress he himself was making into town. “Still in poxy work!” says he. “Bollix to that” says I.” Grab a spot somewhere and I’ll follow ya in sure” says he. “Grand” says I.
So after disembarking I wander up Westland Row and head toward the Grafton St. area. A quick bit of sustenance and I’m on the look out for a pub only to make the unfortunate realisation that everywhere is jammed with the only thing worse than the Christmas party crowd: The early Christmas party crowd. All of them carefully gowned in their illuminated woolly jumpers and fluffy red hats.
In the midst of my frantic dash around the South City Centre trying to find any boozer with a spare spot and a lingering degree of cosiness, I find myself pushing ever so further out of the city. And then as I wander around by the back of the College of Surgeons, it comes to me. The Swan! Of course! Up to the swan I hastily traipse to find the place reasonable populated and with enough spare seats to lighten my mood. No sooner have I placed my sopping coat on a high stool do I have a good pint of plain in my hand and all is okay once again.
The Swan as it turned out was the best possible pub to arrive into from a rainy November night. Another Victorian gem with all the furniture and fixings one should expect from a Victorian spot. A marble bar runs the length and is nicely complimented by the mosaic tiling on the floor. Another essential visit for seekers of authentic historic Dublin Pubs.
Content again I make another phonecall to Pintman №2 who is less than impressed having found himself on a stationary train. “Why is it stuck?” says I. “There’s a swan on the tracks at Landsdowne” says he. “Jaysis” says I. “Where did ye settle in the end” says he. “The Swan” says I. “Fuck off” says he.