Mad Cow Roundabout – Frank McNally on the rise and fall of the Dublin Cattle Run

At its 1957 height, the Dublin Cattle Market was Europe’s biggest

The death of a Dubliner named Paddy Gernon earlier this week breaks one of the last links with an extraordinary era in the life of the city that itself ended just over 50 years ago.

On May 9th, 1973, Gernon led the last cattle run from the old markets at Grangegorman, via Phibsborough, to Dublin Port. For almost a century until then, buses, trams, and cars on the North Circular Road and its environs had to contend with regular parades of four-legged traffic bound for Britain.

At its 1957 height, the Dublin Cattle Market was Europe’s biggest, with almost 700,000 animals a year passing through. But the rise of regional marts drove it into decline. After its 1973 closure, the streets of the city’s northside finally became the exclusive preserve of vehicular traffic, bicycles, and the odd horse.

Des Gunning, expert on all things Phibsborough, tells me he first met Paddy after making a short film on the 40th anniversary of the last cattle drive. Sadly, the veteran drover was unable to attend the 50th, marked as part of Phizzfest, the community and arts festival, earlier this year.


He earned a little piece of immortality some years ago, however, thanks to RTÉ and an advertisement for bread. Des explains: “The last cattle run was captured by RTÉ as it passed Dunphy’s – sorry Doyle’s – Corner and that gave Paddy a very small part in a TV ad for Johnston Mooney & O’Brien.”

Versions of the ad (including a 90-second “director’s cut”) are still available on YouTube. Paddy is a fleeting sight. But as Des advises: “If you look past the JMB hardcart in the foreground, you’ll see him in classic drover’s trenchcoat, running ahead of the No. 10 bus”.


The cattle drive didn’t just slow traffic, it occasionally created chaos and newspaper headlines, when one of the livestock made a break for freedom. Not untypical of this phenomenon was a headline in the Weekly Irish Times of April 1904: “Mad Cow Shot at Cabra Road.”

A story almost worthy of the Wild West, it began as follows: “On Thursday evening a man named William Howley, in the employment of Mr Malone, of Stormanstown, in endeavouring to save two children from the onslaught of a cow, of which he was in charge at Cabra Road, was knocked down and sustained injuries for which he was subsequently treated at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. Afterwards the cow got over a fence into a field at the end of Cabra Road, and the police at Mountjoy Station were communicated with. Sergeant Breen 28D procured a revolver, but on arrival at the field found that the animal had already been shot by Mr Henry Burton ...”

As with many minor events of 1904, that one may have ended up in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which has characters stopping at a newspaper hoarding outside Harcourt Street station to read headlines including “Death of a Well-known Solicitor”, “Nationalist Meeting at Ballinrobe”, and “Mad Cow at Cabra.”

But the cattle market is a running theme (excuse the pun) of Joyce’s book, featuring even in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, because her husband Leopold worked there for a time and they lived then in the City Arms Hotel, with which the market was long synonymous.

The cattle drive also interrupts the funeral cortege of Paddy Dignam, inspiring Bloom to suggest there should be a dedicated tramline to carry livestock to the ports. His idea is humorously embellished in the question-and-answer “Ithaca” chapter, with a level of detail worthy of a formal planning application.


By a curious coincidence (is there any other kind?), I found myself the City Arms pub for the first time only last month, when dropping in on an annual ritual involving two friends of mine, Des and Conor.

Starting 15 years ago, when Conor was recovering from a serious illness and needed cheering up, they have taken it in turns to organise an annual, pre-Christmas pub crawl on a mystery theme that the other person must guess in the fewest possible bars.

Previous themes had included early houses, snugs, location in suburbs beginning with “R”, 1916, and proximity to Georgian squares. This year’s, Des had hinted, was inspired by a column I had once written, although on joining the route mid-way, it took me a while to rumble it.

The City Arms was a wild card, it turned out, added for literary interest. After Joyce was eliminated from inquiries, I guessed that this year’s theme was named Dublin corners: the select handful of junctions that immortalise sometimes long-gone shops or pubs.

Hence Harte’s, Hanlon’s, Kelly’s, Leonard’s, and of course Doyle’s, although the history of that last one suggests this form of immortality has limits.

As the other Des hinted earlier, Doyle’s Corner used to be Dunphy’s. That establishment was long associated with the last major turn on the route of funerals heading to Glasnevin cemetery.

So much so that, once, the concept of “rounding Dunphy’s Corner” was a Dublin euphemism for death itself.