After writing about famous clocks of Dublin – including the landmark Guinness one on Maye’s pub in Dorset Street – recently (Diary January 24th), I received a fascinating letter from Skerries reader Hugh Ryan.
As I could nearly have guessed from the surname, his family has a background in the Dublin bar trade, including a former iteration of Maye’s.
In the late 19th century, grandfather Paddy Ryan and two brothers came from Tipperary to the capital and together set up three pubs, all on the Dorset Street-Drumcondra axis.
As well as the aforementioned, there was one that became known as “the Clock Ryan’s” (later Quinn’s, Hugh thinks), while the third was the current Fagan’s: “a strategic base for people going to Croke Park”.
Strategic is right. This mini-empire was a shrewd investment in the future of the GAA. To paraphrase the catchphrase of a former RTÉ radio programme, the Ryan Line was open, all the way to Croker.
Alas, the story took a sad turn. Paddy died in his early thirties, after falling from a ladder. His wife soon followed, “of a broken heart”. They left three orphaned infants, to be raised by the Holy Faith nuns, in Glasnevin. And their pub was sold to pay for their upbringing.
Hugh’s solitary inheritance from all this, he laments, was a “half-pint tumbler, inscribed P & D Ryan” and a “fear of ladders”.
But if it’s any consolation, his grandfather’s death was an impeccably literary one; a similar fate having inspired a famous drinking ballad and through it, James Joyce’s reflection on the fall and rise of mankind: Finnegans Wake.
Hugh’s letter has also set me wondering about a lesser mystery: why so many Tipperary people own (or used to) pubs in Dublin. They were the dominant part of a triumvirate that also included Limerick and Cavan.
But why those three counties should have established such public house pre-eminence is unclear.
Maybe somebody from the cartel can let us in on their secret.
Sometime the 20th century, the title “Clock Ryan’s” seems to have crossed the Liffey, no doubt thanks to yet another Tipperary publican of the surname.
By the 1950s, a premises of that description featured frequently in the columns of Myles na gCopaleen. And although the Dorset-Drumcondra axis would have been a convenient stop-off on the way to his fictional mansion, Santry Hall, he specifies that this “Clock Ryan’s” was in Thomas Street.
He even claimed to have offices above it and, in 1951, made it the location of one of his glamourous (but fictional) Christmas parties, when the mansion was undergoing renovation. As usual, he published the guest list, which that year – for reasons we’ll come back to – was headed by the US Secretary of State.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But Myles had by then become obsessed with another Dublin clock: the permanently stopped one over the coal business of a Fianna Fáil politician, Andy Clarkin.
It was a microcosm, he thought, of everything wrong with Irish public life. And the obsession eventually cost the real Myles (Brian O’Nolan) his job as a civil servant. In the meantime, after devoting several columns to it, he sublimated his campaign into an ingenious acronym, ACCISS.
This was (1) short for “Andy Clarkin’s Clock is Still stopped; (2) a play on the politician’s habit of mispronouncing the word “ask”; and (3), a reference to Mrs Clarkin, known as “Cis”, whose opinion he often consulted with the line: “I’ll have to axe Cis.”
Mostly, Myles used the acronym in isolation. But he was a man who left no pun unturned. And in 1951, as it happened, the US secretary of state was one Dean Acheson. Or “Dean Accisson”, to give him the spelling by which he officially attended the soirée in the Clock Ryan’s.
While searching for “Clock Ryan’s” in the archive, I chanced upon the report of an extraordinary boxing match from 1880. “Terrible Prize Fight in America” ran the headline, with awed admiration for an epic bout in which a Paddy Ryan from Tipperary fought Joe Goss for “87 rounds”.
Of course the whole thing was illegal and held on the run from police, first in Canada, where it was originally scheduled to happen, and finally West Virginia, where it did. And there were no pubs involved.
It’s just that the subterfuge required rapid travel to the venue at short notice.
Hence the line “at ten minutes after four o’clock, Ryan followed”, which caught the search engine’s eye.
Mind you, where I grew up, the meanings of “clock” included a verb meaning to “hit”.
In that sense, Ryan the boxer must have been more clocked that the Clock Ryan ever was. Afterwards, one of his eyes was reportedly “closing”, an ear “twice its natural size”, his lips “terribly cut”, and his head “badly swollen”. And he, by the way, was the winner.