Through a Glass, Darkly – Frank McNally on the mythology of Dublin pubs

“Just as the display of holy pictures in a house does not guarantee the inmates are leading lives of piety, so the display of literary iconography in bars does not imply a devotion to actual reading.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Among the latest non-events in this year of things that didn’t happen was Mylesday at Dublin’s Palace bar. An annual feature since 2011, it commemorates the death (and life) of that great joker Myles na gCopaleen, aka Flann O’Brien. It would usually have packed the back room of the pub on the afternoon of April Fools’ Day. Not this year, alas.

But perhaps the ghost of Myles was marking the date appropriately somewhere else. Maybe in Grogan’s, another fine Dublin bar, on nearby South William Street.

I mention that establishment because, as was brought to my attention only recently, its website, under the heading of "pub history", includes the following extraordinary claim: "It was in 1972 that Grogan's became a favoured meeting place for cutting-edge Irish writers of the time. Renowned barman Paddy O'Brien, formally of McDaid's pub, began working in Grogan's bringing with him regular customers of McDaid's including the likes of poet Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien [and others], cementing Grogan's popularity among the city's artistic avant-garde."

Plausible enough to the casual reader, no doubt. The problem, as literary anoraks will have spotted, is that by 1972, both Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien had been off the drink for several years and could not possibly have been seen in any pub.

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We can state this with complete confidence because they were also dead – since 1967 in Kavanagh’s case and a year longer in that of Myles, who had retained his comic timing to the last, expiring on April 1st, 1966, hence the annual commemoration.

While they may have visited in spirit, therefore, I fear neither man ever darkened the door of Grogan’s in its 1970s avant-garde phase.

But what then of this apparently supporting evidence, also quoted by the website, from O’Brien’s debut novel At Swim-two-Birds (1939): “That same afternoon I was sitting on a barstool in an intoxicated condition in Grogan’s licensed premises”?

Well, unfortunately, that was a different Grogan's, on Lower Leeson Street, where O'Brien used to drink in his UCD student days. Not only was that the Grogan's featured in ASTB, but according to biographer Anthony Cronin, it was also the main setting for an earlier, abandoned (and now lost) O'Brien novel, written in Irish.

Pub history is an interesting subject, especially in Ireland. It is arguably a microcosm of our history in general, except that the reliable, recorded part doesn't stretch back much further that the 1980s or so. Before that, you're into the realms of prehistory, things Ronnie Drew may or may have done one night when on the tear with Paddy Kavanagh, and outright mythology.

There’s another prize example on this oral tradition on the website of Mulligan’s, that illustrious bar in Poolbeg Street which, for its literary credibility, trades on a connection with an even bigger name than Myles.

Here’s what the site says: “Outside the pub door you will see a constantly maintained montage […] celebrating Bloomsday 1904, the day that is the setting for James Joyce’s Ulysses. How much of the classic he wrote at the counter of the premises while he sipped his Guinness is controversial […], scholars tell us.”

Controversial is putting it mildly.

Scholars also tell us that the exiled Joyce visited Dublin for the last time in 1912, never to return. And according to my (heavily thumbed) copy, he wrote Ulysses from "1914-1921" in "Trieste, Zurich, Paris". No mention of the counter of Mulligan's anywhere.

The place he did mention Mulligan’s was in one of his Dubliners stories, Counterparts, a tale that might inspire you to give up drink. That was controversial too once. Joyce’s publishers worried the proprietors would sue.

Associations with literature, however vague, are important to Dublin pubs. Hence their habit of displaying writers’ portraits everywhere, like holy pictures. But just as the display of holy pictures in a house does not guarantee the inmates are leading lives of piety, so the display of literary iconography in bars does not imply a devotion to actual reading.

I suspect that central to their appeal is the implication that, masterpieces having been conceived on the premises, customers can now inhale the wit and wisdom of the finished works passively, just by sitting there in alcohol-induced euphoria, while reflecting on the pictures.

Reading, by contrast, is hard work. It requires time and patience, which many don’t have. Witness the popular social media phenomenon whereby people scan the headline of an article, guess the content, and then cut straight to the comments section to join the debate. Dublin literary pubs may be catering to something similar – a deep-seated human need for pretending to read more than we do.