Kevin C. Kearns. Dublin Pub Life and Lore: An Oral History. Dublin, Ireland: Gill & Macmillan, 1996. 288 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57098-164-7.
Reviewed by Scott Haine (University of California Santa Cruz and Holy Names College)
Published on H-Urban (March, 1999)
This is a vivid oral history of one of the great urban public drinking establishment cultures of the world, the Dublin pub. Kevin C. Kearns, professor of cultural geography and social history at the University of North Colorado at Greeley, is eminently qualified to undertake this study. Already notable for his oral histories of Dublin street and tenement life, he now turns his sights on the next logical urban space: the pub. To place his oral history of the past eighty years in context, he provides much important historical information on the evolution of pubs over the past four centuries. While Frank McCourt's recent Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela's Ashes provides a harrowing account of the damage drink and pub life can create, Kearns balances that account with his essentially positive view of pub life.
At the heart of the book are the oral histories he conducted. Over the course of three summers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kearns tracked down more than fifty old-time publicans, many just a few months before their death. He has also discussed pub life with a large number of "regulars," the executive director of the Dublin Licensed Vintner's Association, and a few women (who had not been regulars) as well. In this book he has included interviews with twenty-one publicans--whose ages ranged between 86 and 45 (six in their 80s, seven in their 70s, five in their 60s, two in their 50s, and one a mere 45). The richly detailed reminiscences of these participants in and around the pub reveal the centrality of pubs to urban history.
Kearns amply documents the rich popular culture and folklore that Irish pubs have generated. As he notes, Irish writers from Sean O'Casey to James Joyce to Brendhan Behan have drawn heavily on pub life as inspiration for their literature. (An excellent supplementary text to consult is the recent Bottle, Draught & Keg, An Irish Drinking Anthology, edited by Laurence Flanagan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd., 1995.) Kearns's book will be essential for all historians and sociologists interested in urban sociability and social interaction.
The book, however ambitious, does have weaknesses. Although the introduction and first chapter provide a good historical background, they are sketchy and repetitive. Kearns begins his history in 1600 without providing an explanation for this point of departure rather than an earlier one. His overview of the evolution of the numbers of Dublin pubs is excellent. In 1650 Dublin had 4,000 families and 1,180 pubs, a much higher density than was found in later centuries, apparently (no data are given for later centuries). By 1750 the term "public house" had become common and was subsequently shortened to "pub." It would have been interesting to know the history of the term "local," another common term for the pub.) By 1760, the number of pubs had reached 2,300. In 1791, with the creation of spirit grocers, the numbers of drinking places increased further, and these places, because they also sold food, provided a socially acceptable place for women to drink. The number of spirit grocers swelled throughout the nineteenth century until by 1877 Dublin supported 310 of the 641 in the entire country.
By 1800 the number of pubs had grown to 3,000 and a nascent temperance movement had emerged in Dublin, growing in influence until the potato famine in the 1840s diverted attention to sheer survival. Nevertheless, the influence of temperance may well have persuaded the Recorder of Dublin in the 1850s that the city had a sufficient number of pubs and that in the future a new pub could open only when an existing pub closed. The resulting stabilization in the number of Dublin pubs greatly increased their monetary value: 500 percent jump between 1858 and 1878. The Recorder's policy became law when the liquor licensing laws of 1872 and 1902 not only capped the number of pubs but also required good moral character.
As the value of pubs rose, so did the stature of the publicans. Often their male children became priests or doctors. In the 1890s, twenty of Dublin's sixty alderman had served behind the bar and some of them later were elected to parliament. Kearns provides valuable evidence from parliamentary and police inquiries into pubs. In the late nineteenth century, during a controversy over Sunday closings, the police watched 210 pubs and found that 46,257 patrons (overwhelmingly working class) entered between 2:00 and 8:30 p.m. A Select Committte of the House of Lords on Intermperance in 1876, although it found a strong connection between poverty and pub attendance, nevertheless leaned sympathetically towards the pub as one of the few means of "escape" available to the poor and decided that this "safety valve" made their lives much less barren.
Only at the end of Kearns's second chapter do we learn that today Dublin has only 775 pubs. Information on the shifting number of pubs between the 1850s and the 1980s--data admittedly difficult to ferret out--would be valuable here. His historical chapter could also have been strengthened by exploring accounts in Dublin newspapers, diaries, and notorial and court records.
Kearns's superb chapter on pub culture and social life provides a masterful introduction for the subsequent two chapters of oral history. Allow me to provide here a brief overview of the main points of both his analysis and the interviews. The staff of the pub usually comprised a porter, an apprentice, and a barman. Apprentices, who generally became publicans themselves, came from the country counties of Tipperary, Cavan, and Limerick. Starting at the age of fourteen or fifteen, they lived upstairs above the pub with the publican's family, working ten or more hours a day with little pay and few holidays. They graduated to barmen as they displaying their "art" at drawing a pint and chatting with customers. Porters worked in the basement, washing bottles, hauling kegs, and bottling beer. Despite the hope of eventual social mobility, barmen frequently went on strike. After failing in the 1919, 1922, and 1927 strikes, the barmen finally won concessions in 1955 by forcing Guinness, the major brewer, to intercede for them with the publicans. (Porters, lacking the identity and solidarity of the barmen, apparently never had any luck with strikes.)
Kearns delineates well the various types of pubs (both legal and illegal) that flourished between the late nineteenth century and the 1940s. The lowest illegal type of pub was the shebeen, basically a room in a tenement with some marker, such as an oil lamp, to indicate its existence. Shebeens made much of their money on Sunday mornings when pubs were closed for church. Speakeasies were pubs or shebeens that stayed open after hours. An alternative to speakeasies were the pubs reserved for travelers, known as bonafides, on the outskirts of Dublin, often patronized by Dubliners themselves late on Saturday night. Shebeens often posted scouts at street corners to give warning of any police in the neighborhood. Kip houses were combination pubs and brothels. Other pubs specialized in such illegal activities as gambling or betting on horses. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Dublin also became famous for its singing pubs and some literary pubs.
The heart of the book is the masterful delineation of pub culture and social life. Kearns describes the publican's role in all its facets: the providing of drink, the sociability, the moral and even financial support for such rites of passage as births, christenings, first communions, weddings, wakes, and burials. He also persuasively shows the strong similarity between the role of the publican and that of the priest. Indeed, as one publican notes, "a publican years ago was Jesus Christ." Kearns is equally detailed and evocative on the connection between drink and work among dockers, street merchants, and artisans. Pubs were centers of strikes and political activity, especially the activity of the IRA. He shows how public drinking and sociability could turn these public spaces into intimate private places and how the regulars often became a "family" in which it was impossible to hide secrets from one another. Indeed, the publican seldom needed the police the pub for rowdy behavior because the regulars would not allow any disturbance in their "house." Kearns is also superb on the gender restrictions, reporting that the only women allowed to violate this male preserve were grandmothers (who were considered "beyond sin" due to their age) and street vendors who could swear and drink on a par with the men. He concludes by pointing out that equality and democracy were at the basis of pub sociability. In these spaces ordinary people had a freedom of speech and behavior that they felt in virtually no other spaces in society.
After World War II many of these colorful institutions declined or were abolished. Shebeens were essentially wiped out when urban renewal removed many of the tenement complexes. Bonafides were abolished in 1960, and the singing and literary pubs succumbed, due in part to the influence of television. In addition, many pubs ripped out their Victorian or Edwardian interiors in favor of a "modern" decor. One publican interviewed dubs this period of the 1950s and 1960s as "the age of formica"; another laments that pubs have become "factories for drinking." (Ironic in view of Le Corbusier's definition of the modern home as a "machine for living.") One of the few positive changes that Kearns finds in this post-1945 era is that pubs now allow women as regulars. No longer are Dublin pubs a male "utopia." Kearns provides valuable testimony from wives who had to wait for their husbands at home or outside the pub before these places became integrated by gender. Nevertheless, the Dublin pub clearly remains a vital social institution (indeed, perhaps, more so than its counterparts in London or Paris). In fact, Kearns cites statistic showing that 94 percent of the beer consumed in Ireland today is consumed in pubs; in America, 80 percent is consumed in the home. Despite the few shortcomings I have noted Dublin Pub Life and Lore is one of the best recent contributions to the growing number of books on drinking establishments around the world. I can only hope that it inspires many researchers to head out into this still largely uncharted terrain of urban sociability and vitality.
. See Kearns' works Dublin Street Life and Lore: An Oral History (Dublin: Glendale Press, 1991), Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 1994), and Stoneybatter: Dublin's Inner-Urban Village (Dublin: Glendale Press, 1989).
. Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
. See for example Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day (New York: Paragon House, 1989 and New York: Marlowe and Company, 1997), an innovative sociological perspective on the function of cafes, pubs, and bars. Harold B. Segel, ed., trans., and intro. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits 1890-1938(West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1993, and 1995 paperback) is an excellent collection of literary work about cafe life. Also see Madelon Powers, Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) for a superb new historical study of American pubs; and W. Scott Haine The World of the Parisian Cafe: Sociability Among the Working Class (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 and 1998 paperback) for my own contribution. Also see Perry Duis, The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983) for an intriguing comparison and contrast with Powers.
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