An Irishman’s Diary about literature and whiskey
‘The Palace Bar remains much as it was then, at least physically. But whiskey consumption patterns have changed greatly, as has Dublin literary life. Today, contrary to lingering perception, even newspaper columnists are, in general, much more sober than they used to be.’
I had to speak recently at a book launch in the back room of the Palace Bar in Dublin. And a little unnervingly, the event took place directly underneath a famous framed cartoon by Alan Reeve, depicting that same room on an evening in 1940.
That was an era when the pub witnessed nightly consumption of alcohol on an epic scale. In his memoir, Remembering How We Stood, John Ryan resorted to almost militaristic terms to describe it. “Heavier or more sustained drinking may never have occurred before, or will again,” he said.
Much of that drinking, as he recorded, was by literary men. And that’s the theme of Reeve’s cartoon too. It portrays a typical gathering in the Palace’s back room: all male, as was then the norm, with the eccentric Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie at the centre and an assortment of poets, writers, and journalists arranged around him.
Among the mostly-seated assembly is Brian O’Nolan (aka Myles na gCopaleen), Austin Clarke, Brinsley MacNamara, and Cully Tynan O’Mahony (another Irish Times man, who was a Dublin celebrity in his own right then, but became better known later as the father of comedian Dave Allen).
Patrick Kavanagh, by contrast, is drawn in a standing position, hand outstretched: apparently leaving the group and resisting invitations to stay. In its own poignant way, this helps to date the cartoon: to Kavanagh’s earliest years in Dublin, when he was still fairly abstemious.
The others depicted are more than compensating for his restraint, confirming another published account of the period. In his biography of O’Nolan, Anthony Cronin says of the early 1940s Palace that “whiskey was in unlimited supply and was copiously consumed until the very last months of the war when stocks began to run a bit low”.
The pub remains much as it was then, at least physically. But whiskey consumption patterns have changed greatly, as has Dublin literary life. Today, contrary to lingering perception, even newspaper columnists are, in general, much more sober than they used to be.
So when the Palace introduced an own-brand whiskey last month, called “Fourth Estate” and complete with Reeve’s cartoon on the label, I presume it was more in homage to history than a direct pitch to that section of the market. In fact, I hope so, if only for the pub’s sake.
The Fourth Estate was Edmund Burke’s grandiose description of the press, when he was claiming it to be more powerful than the first, second, and third estates combined. But in these much-reduced times for newspapers, modesty forbids us using the term, except in irony.
Whereas I note that (a) the new media are now often collectively called the “Fifth Estate”; and (b), that at last week’s Web Summit in Dublin, one of the keynote events was a “mass pub-crawl”. So maybe if the current, limited edition (1,000 bottles) of the Palace’s Fourth Estate ever runs out, they should renumber the sequel with a view to greater sales.
In the meantime, I’d like to report what the whiskey actually tastes like. But I can’t, because (Editor, please note) I had a deadline to go back to that day, so I stuck to water. Yes, I felt like a wimp, what with the framed cartoon looking down at me and, later, the brass likenesses of Kavanagh, Myles, Brendan Behan and Con Houlihan looking up, from their plaques in the footpath outside the front door.
The book I helped launch, by the way, is called Making the Skeletons Dance, by Jack Byrne. And actually it’s two books: between them comprising an extraordinary, sprawling work of historical fiction: starting in 1720s Dublin and ending – unusually for history – in the future.
Byrne is probably better known as a community radio campaigner who, among many other things, founded the Dublin station Near FM. His belated debut as a novelist was, he claims, not entirely voluntary. The novel’s central conceit is that events are being narrated by the ghosts of various Dublin writers – Jonathan Swift, in particular – all dead now but trapped in a story-telling purgatory.
It goes further than a conceit, however. According to Byrne, the story really was dictated to him in waking dreams. He just listened to the voices in his head and wrote the words down afterwards. I’m not completely sure I believe him about this. But if it’s true, the book (available from skeletonsdance.com and certain bookshops) is a doubly-exciting development, being the first new work from Swift in more than 275 years.