Courting Controversy – Frank McNally on literary laundering, political beachball, and the history of an infamous street

An Irishman’s Diary

The Palace Bar in Fleet Street has seen the funny side of things. Since reopening for takeaways, the premises is disguised as a laundry.

The Palace Bar in Fleet Street has seen the funny side of things. Since reopening for takeaways, the premises is disguised as a laundry.

 

Long before its current notoriety as pandemic party central, Dublin’s South William Street was a place where people went to be judged.

There was no social media to do the job back then. Hearings instead took place at the well-named City Assembly Rooms: located where the crowds now also assemble, at the junction with Coppinger Row.

This used to be the home of something called the “Court of Conscience”, a left-over from medieval times. Despite the grandiose name, it dealt with minor offences, including drunkenness and petty theft. There was a Lord Mayor’s Court there too, for settling trade disputes.

And on a loftier level, the last years of both also coincided with sittings of the short-lived Republican Supreme Court, established under the first Dáil.

As is the way with law, the small claims dealt with sometimes involved big titles. The surrounding area used to be synonymous with Dublin’s rag trade, for example, so that thefts of clothing often featured.

Except it wasn’t called that in police reports.

By the same rule that still turns a row outside a pub into an “altercation in the vicinity of a licensed premises”, clothes were never just clothes when the law was involved.

Had the emperor from the fairy story been arrested in South William Street then, he would instead have been charged with having no “items of wearing apparel”.  

***

I wasn’t entirely surprised by the latest festival of outrage to result from the weekend scenes there. Even in adjoining Wicklow Street on Saturday, where people don’t tend to congregate, the crowd was so dense it looked as if the road was pedestrianised. It wasn’t: hence the sight of two slightly embarrassed ladies driving very slowly through the throng in a Range Rover, presumably bound for the infamously rough terrain of Brown Thomas Carpark.

Even at the neighbourhood’s quieter end – Exchequer Street – there was an outbreak of street football as I passed, except it involved one of those new giant rubber beachballs, which was ricocheting off walls, windows, and the occasional car. Last time I saw a ball being kicked across a busy street, it was in Paris and there were several thousand Irish football fans in town. 

Here, somebody had decided the good weather and phased return to normal life was excuse enough for a party. I doubt the game was still in progress several hours later when a certain influential person drove down the same street and then tweeted his shock at the spectacle. Still, I wasn’t surprised that the whole thing had turned into a political beachball by Sunday.

***

Amid the general frustration of publicans over the long closure, meanwhile, the Palace Bar in Fleet Street had seen the funny side of things. Since reopening for takeaways, the premises is disguised as a laundry, 1920s speakeasy-style, with a sign saying “No Booze Sold Here”. Meanwhile, pints of a beer-like substance were being passed out through the front doorway, over a counter comprising washing machines. To paraphrase a famous former customer of the pub: “When life looks black as the hour of night, a wash and drain is your only man”.

That was one of Flann O’Brien’s rare forays into poetry – deliberately bad poetry in that case. Less well known, although of higher literary standard and included in his “Best of Myles” collection, is another comic masterpiece he once wrote, gently lampooning three of the leading scholars of his day: “Binchy, Bergin, and Best”.

Their field was Early Irish, a subject that had previously attracted some notable German academics, including Kuno Meyer and Heinrich Zimmer, also namechecked. Hence the Teutonic tone of what might be the poem’s wittiest couplet: “They rose in their night-shift/To write for the Zeitschrift/Binchy and Bergin and Best.”

But I was surprised, while trawling our archives recently, to find a 1974 letter from a more conventional poet, Roibeard Ó Fearacháin, in which he claimed to be the original author of those lines. He wasn’t complaining, he said, merely explaining the poem’s origins, viz: “Myles appropriated three lines of mine, which I quoted to him in the Palace Bar years ago”. There were minor differences: his version read “They riz in their night-shift”, for example. But it was the germ of the finished work, which Myles stretched to 50 lines.

The even funnier thing about this is that for some years now, Flann/Myles has been the victim of a widely published photograph, taken in the 1940s Palace, of a man claimed in the caption to be him. The picture is actually of Ó Fearacháin. Perhaps this is some kind of karmic punishment of Myles for stealing his night-shift, or as they would have called in South William Street, an item of wearing apparel.

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