Michael Collins laid plans at the Palace Bar in Dublin, and Mary Robinson launched her bid for the presidency in the snug. Tom Atkin just went for a drink
You’ll never come across a stag night or a hen party in The Palace Bar. Like jukeboxes and slot machines, such things are banned from this famous Dublin haunt. ‘This is a conversation pub,’ says its friendly, broad-faced owner Liam Aherne. Even the dark wooden bar is divided, confessional style, into three stalls to encourage friendship and casual acquaintance. Music detracts from conversation, so it stays out in the street. ‘I might allow a fiddle in on St Patrick’s Day, but that’s it as far as entertainment is concerned,’ adds Aherne. Well, almost. On the night I visited, a boisterous brass band from Dax had set up stall on the eve of the Five Nations rugby international between France and Ireland. ‘What can you do?’ asked Aherne, with an indulgent smile. ‘I’m a great sports fan. In fact, I’ve just put a bet on Ireland to win the Grand Slam at 50-1. We’ve got to start winning some time, haven’t we?’ The Palace Bar is a friendly place. ‘If I go down the road for a pint,’ Palace Bar regular Niall Quinlan told me, ‘I’ll be drinking it on my own. Here I know I’ll strike up a conversation with three or four people. It’s like being in a country pub. You won’t sit alone in the corner.’ Even if you do, you’re surrounded by memorabilia: photos and drawings of Irish politicians, writers and sportsmen; Flann O’Brien’s typewriter, and a hurling stick signed by the Tipperary team which won the All Ireland Championship in 1989. The Palace Bar attracts an unusual crowd. As well as bus drivers from the nearby CIE terminal, you’re likely to find yourself sharing a table with tourists on the heritage trail, academics and students from nearby Trinity College, bankers, accountants, nurses, counsellors and, most famously, journalists. Situated in Fleet Street, it’s no surprise that The Palace Bar has always been a hacks’ hangout. The offices of the Irish Times, the country’s best paper, are just across the street. One famous editor, RM Smyllie, used to hold editorial meetings in the back bar. The pub is not the oldest in Dublin, but it’s been here a long time. It was converted from a corset factory in 1828 and has been in business ever since. The Palace Bar is now a listed building. ‘I’m not allowed to change anything,’ says Aherne, whose family bought the pub in 1946. ‘Everything is original except the ladies’ lavatory that we added 25 years ago. I can only change the colour.’ Who would want to? The high cream and blood red ceilings, enormous windows and stained glass skylight are all part of the pub’s appeal, but its most celebrated original feature is the snug, a tiny panelled room not much bigger than a bath tub. So popular is this bar within a bar that people call to reserve it in advance. It’s an ideal place for a private conversation - or a spot of intrigue perhaps. Michael Collins is said to have planned some of his manoeuvres in here, and Mary Robinson’s bid for the presidency was launched from this room. A signed thank-you letter hangs on the wall to prove it. The pub’s most celebrated regular was not a politician, but a poet, however. Patrick Kavanagh drank here (even if he didn’t always pay) for years. ‘We’ve got a bounced cheque from your man Kavanagh for one pound ten shillings in the archives,’ says Aherne. ‘We’d put it on the wall, but he’s got a brother in England who goes round destroying monuments to him.’ Food is not particularly important at The Palace Bar, although sandwiches are available during the day. Stout, especially Guinness, Irish whiskey and, of course, conversation are the things which attract people to this wonderful Fleet Street institution. ‘We come here for the atmosphere, the décor, the friendly bar staff and the good Guinness,’ say female regulars Catriona McDonald and Túna Cassidy. Whiskey drinkers come out at lunchtime, apparently. ‘There’s a Jameson crowd which comes in regularly,’ says Aherne. Whiskey has always been a popular drink at The Palace Bar. When workmen were doing some renovation work, an old bottle fell out of the wall. ‘Old Liqueur Whiskey,’ it reads. ‘The Palace Brand. 1910. Guaranteed and bottled by George Ryan, The Palace Bar, Fleet Street.’ Another item of memorabilia for The Palace Bar - and another conversation piece.
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