Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street: home of the alternative smart set
Declan Dunne felt one of Dublin’s most famous pubs was not celebrated properly as a heritage site as it was too much ‘of the street’ so he wrote a book about it
Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street, Dublin in March 1953. Photograph: The Irish Times
William “Spud” Murphy, barman Christy Hynes, Sam O’Connor and Richard Whyte in Mulligan’s bar. Photograph: Cathy Dunne/Jill Kenny
Mulligan’s barman Noel Hawkins. In the 1990s, a group of US visitors came into Mulligan’s and ordered several Irish coffees. As the high-maintenance beverages were being prepared, one of the group, in an attempt to make conversation, said: “We came in here in 1980”, to which Noel replied: “I’m serving as fast as I can.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“You are stupid”.
What a thing to say to anyone. When I was a young boy, a teacher told my mother that I was stupid. I did not hear about this until years later when the only thought in my head was my mother’s anger. Afterwards, the teacher’s observation meant nothing to me. It became just a rather empty anecdote in my life.
I told this story to a friend of mine in Mulligan’s one night and she expressed her admiration of the teacher for so accurately assessing me in childhood. Of course, she was joking. It was Mulligan’s, after all. At least, I hope she was joking!
However, I have often wondered what effect this observation would have had on me had the teacher imparted her view to me at the time. I did not write the book on Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street to prove that I am not stupid. I never thought I was. However, I did come across people who thought they were but who are anything but. In fact, that’s why I decided to write the book.
The phrase has become a recurring signpost in my life. I worked in the Tuam Herald many years ago under the expert tutelage of Jarlath and his son David Burke. When I returned to Co Galway years later, a friend of mine there explained to me proudly that her son was teaching English as a foreign language in the Far East. Then, she became angry and said to me that a teacher had told her son while he was attending primary school that he was stupid. I could not understand this. I had known her son when he was a boy and he had always appeared to me to be the most clever little fellow.
There appears to me to be a snobbish, cruel or nasty hierarchy that raises itself in life from time to time. Let’s take tourism. Mulligan’s has credentials for being a noted tourist site. James Joyce drank in it and wrote about it. John F Kennedy and Judy Garland visited it. Journalists interviewed Hollywood stars, singers and writers in it. Indeed, Mulligan’s was the unofficial “local” for patrons and performers of the Theatre Royal. However, the powers-that-be have not raised Mulligan’s status to that of other tourist attractions they advertise. In my opinion, these powers-that-be are creatures of convention; only great, old edifices or plush drawing-rooms can make page three of their glossy magazines. Mulligan’s and other relics of Dublinia are too, shall we say, of the street. In other words, they look upon Mulligan’s in a sense as “stupid”; not what they consider tourist sites should be.
Of course, I always knew that Mulligan’s didn’t care what anyone thought of it. I just wanted to take out some red ink and underline how I felt. It was a rather crazy crusade. However, I did wonder about my motivation for doing this.
My first and previous book, Peter’s Key – Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence, should have been closer to my heart. The subject of the book was my grandfather. I found myself recording his life unemotionally. I never met him. And so, I asked myself, what did Mulligan’s, the book, have that pulled at my very soul?
Mid-way through doing research for the book on Mulligan’s, I recalled a conversation in the pub many years ago. A regular told me that when he was a boy, a teacher had ordered one of his class-mates (a member of the Travelling community) to stand up. This teacher then adopted the persona of a ham Shakespearean actor to declare to the child in front of everyone: “You do not count. You are nothing. You are stupid.”
Here it was again, this unwelcome pop-up phrase. There is a sequel. The same teacher arrived years later in Mulligan’s with others in celebratory mood. The regular I mentioned, recognised him, sent down a tray of drinks and inveigled his way into their company. After some time, he was asked who he was. He not only identified himself, he told them who the teacher – now retired and in their company – was and how this same teacher had belittled the traveller boy. The regular then left the company saying: “Welcome to Mulligan’s”. They didn’t stay for another drink.
I have to say at this point that my criticisms are not directed at teachers, most of whom are greatest of souls. However, I’m afraid, I have to mention another bad teacher, this time one who taught a barman in Mulligan’s, Noel Hawkins. I asked Noel could I write about this and he said: “Of course, if it helps someone”.
Noel has dyslexia. When he was a boy a teacher told him – you guessed it – he was stupid. And so, I must explain something of Noel Hawkins.
Many years ago, it was the custom in Mulligan’s before opening time to have the floors cleaned and to dry them by having the entrance doors of the bar and lounge areas open. One morning, Noel was instructed by one of the owners, Con Cusack, to shut the doors. Noel did as he was told and Con went off. Soon after, Con’s brother, Tommie, arrived and told Noel to open the doors. He did as he was told again, only to be chastised by Con later, who ordered him to close the doors again. Noel addressed his employers: “For f**k’s sake boys, would ye ever make up your minds.” It was not the first time Noel had found himself in the midst of the door controversy, but it was the last.
In the 1990s, a group of visitors from the United States came into Mulligan’s and ordered several Irish coffees. As the high maintenance beverages were being prepared, one of the group, in an attempt to make conversation, said: “We came in here in 1980”, to which Noel replied: “I’m serving as fast as I can.”
In two random anecdotes about Noel, there is evidence of his great wit, strength of character, dedication to work and fun. He is one of the rainbow of colours that graces the Mulligan’s mist. There is nothing stupid about him. I don’t believe there ever was. He’s learning to cope with reading now and I know he will succeed. He might have done this earlier but for the verbal bullet that pierced his confidence in boyhood.
He is representative of Mulligan’s in that he is very much an individual, his own man, well able to counter unfair comments and equally talented in making strangers cry with laughter.
All those years ago, someone said he was stupid. Another teacher told him he was not. How right this last teacher was. I now feel my mother’s outrage but for others.
I just wanted to set down this as one of the reasons why I chose to write about Mulligan’s. It’s a place where “stupidity” is remembered but where it is not tolerated – a great motivation and subject for any book.