The Palace Bar

The Palace in Fleet Street is a genuine old style pub dating from 1823. The first proprietor was named Hall. The Ryan family from Tipperary took over in the first half of the twentieth century. The license passed to Bill Aherne in 1946, then to his son Liam and today the pub is run by his son William. It stands on the doorstep of Temple Bar, where the word genuine is oft traduced. I’m not curmudgeonly about it, I delight in most manifestations of the Bacchanalian muse, but the Palace truly remains uniquely oldschool; a place where the discerning soul can commute with the timeless spirit of the capital city.

Back in the day, Temple Bar was a bus queue, waiting for a station, doomed to demolition. Early examples of those things dear to the urban hippy: free love and free trade, were thinly spread on a faded streetscape. These days the whole place is hopping from lunchtime to the wee small hours. The Palace remains unchanged. Always something of an oasis, it rejoices in a literary theme, celebrating Patrick Kavanagh, Brian O’Nolan, Brendan Behan and Sean O’Casey. Patrick Kavanagh described the Palace as “the most wonderful temple of art”. Amongst the artistic regulars were Sean O’Sullivan, Patrick O’Connor and Harry Kernoff. 

Kernoff became renowned for his paintings of Dublin streetlife and pub culture. The Palace was both a local and a gallery for Kernoff. He sold his paintings off the wall here through the thirties, forties and fifties. Renown at last recognised him in later years, and he died in 1974. Amongst his most famous pub paintings is A Bird Never Flew on one Wing. This was sold off the Palace wall for a tenner or so in the fifties and found its home in another famed hostelry, O’Briens of Leeson Street. There it hung for decades and I remember admiring it over many’s the liquid lunch back in my ad agency days in the eighties. It was sold to a private buyer for a hundred and eighty grand early this century. 

Over the years the Palace has also become closely associated with the newspaper trade, the Irish Times in particular, with their premises just a short block away. Editor RM (Bertie) Smylie would repair here of an evening with a coterie of journalists, in that bygone era when journalism was the thirsty profession. 

This acrylic is a snapshot of a sunny afternoon spent amongst friends. A brief lull in the conversation allows me to throw my eyes around the bar. I recognise a few of the faces, though things are getting a bit blurred around the edges; but pleasantly so. Perhaps I’ll have another.

The Dart Player of Temple Bar

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Dublin’s Temple Bar is a small enclave bordered by the Liffey, Westmoreland Street and Dame Street. The main drag is a cramped, erratic thoroughfare beginning at Fleet Street in the east, on into Temple Bar and finally as  Essex Street meeting Parliament Street at the western extreme.

Fleet Street, when I first knew it in the sixties, was where you got the bus. It was crammed with waiting busses and passengers, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke, steam rising from raincoats as the sun split the louring clouds. Too narrow and decrepit for its purpose, growing even more narrow as busses shimmied westward through Temple Bar, it was earmarked for development. A great bus terminal would arise to serve the metropolis, and this windy, cobbled backwater would be swallowed in the smog of time. 

Dublin was old and grey, even on a summer day and, like every generation before and since, it was my generation would blow the cobwebs away. Flower power was planted and the Dandelion sprouted by Stephen’s Green. The bees swarming into the hollowed core of the city causing such hives of activity as the Project Arts Centre. I snuck off school many’s the afternoon for the smell of patchouli oil and other exotic substances and a stroll around the Project gallery to gaze in awe at the creations of Fitzpatrick and Ballagh and others. 

The Project would migrate to the neglected quarter of Temple Bar in the early seventies. The Granary, just around the corner, was the early flowering of the Health Food Shop. Not far away was the Alchemist’s Head, a shop for all the comic book guys. In seventies Ireland, such flowers were weeds, but weeds will always proliferate. I used wander the cobbled streets, linger in the music shops, antique shops, the stamp collectors place on Fownes Street, in the shadow of the emerging hulk of Stephenson’s Central Bank, haunt the Project for plays by Sheridan and late night gigs.  

But Temple Bar was doomed, the spaceships of seventies commerce circling ominously. And then it all changed, changed utterly. The growing community of hippies and ne’er-do-wells somehow convinced our esteemed leader, Charles J Haughey, that there was merit in the madness of the crumbling slum. Thoughts of WAAMA no doubt, Flann O’Brien’s Writers, Artists, Actors and Musicians Association, might fit with the denizens, and Charlie was after all a patron of the arts. Thus, reprieve, and the Great Bus Station in the sky went off to orbit another planet. 

Temple Bar has been proposed as many things, principally as Dublin’s cultural quarter, its Left Bank. It is also the night life focus, the funzone for wining, dining and dancing till dawn. And it even has residents to participate or complain about the whole damned thing. Overpriced, overcrowded, noisy and hokey it might be, but it is also real, full of all the variety, quirk and charm you need in a city centre. 

I pass through when I can, hopefully stopping at a watering hole en route. The Palace at Fleet Street is my favourite. A rael olde Dublin pub, narrow, high ceilinged with darkened wood interior and a well established literary theme. It plays host to the Flann O’Brien festival on the first of April. Flann the Man, who also gave us Bloomsday.

Further in, there’s plenty of boozers and eateries. Take your pick. In this painting, I’ve chosen the Hard Rock Cafe, a good joint for burgers and beer, with a good rock soundtrack to boot, as you would expect. In this painting, I’ve paused between courses, or pints, to gaze out onto Fleet Street. There’s a tattoo parlour across the street, and the tattooist, between customers, is practicing his skills on a dart board. There’s something quite still and serene about that, I think, all going unnoticed in the midst of the madding crowd. I was thinking of calling it The Dart Player.

Dublin’s Temple Bar

View from Liffey Street

View from Liffey Street

Temple Bar lies to the east of the medieval walled city of Dublin, bounded by the South Quays, Westmoreland Street and Dame Street to the south. Temple Bar itself is a short segment midway along the Fleet Street/Essex Street thoroughfare. The name may have originated in imitation of the area in London which similarly lies just outside the city gates. Or it may be named after William Temple, Provost of Trinity College in the early seventeenth century. Trinity had been established by Queen Elizabeth in 1592. Temple and his descendents had property here, so the name probably recognises both facts.

When I was young this was a dilapidated and largely deserted part of Dublin. A place of well worn cobblestones and crumbling warehouses, the odd quirky shop or hostelry looming out of the smog. You might be picking up a Dickensian atmosphere here, but I’m not that old. The city planners in the 1970s had earmarked Temple Bar for development as a major bus station. As it was, Fleet Street was then choked with busses bound for Crumlin, Walkinstown and beyond. This was where we’d gather to imbibe the petrol fumes mingling with the smell of fish and chips, rain falling, steam rising from damp coats.

Heading towards Merchant's Arch

Heading towards Merchant’s Arch

The alternative society was sussing it out in the seventies. The Granary at Essex Street was a wholefood shop, branching out into a cafe and meeting place. Next door, the Project Arts Centre moved here from King Street by Saint Stephen’s Green, bringing alternative theatre, modern art and underground music. The Alchemist’s Head, making Ireland safe for science fiction, was just across the road. My work in the P&T as then was, Eircom now, also brought me to Crown Alley, an attractive turn of the century redbrick on Fleet Street. A hub of the telephone network, the 1916 rebels had it earmarked for takeover but feared, wrongly, that the British army was in possession. Their failure here and at Dublin Castle were major opportunities missed.

The bus station never flew. The low rents prior to development attracted a creative and bohemian bunch. Representations were made to the powers that be. It was Charlie Haughey, cultured rogue that he was, who saw the light. Temple Bar properties was established to oversee development, the aim to create a cultural quarter for the capital. More famously, it has become a major social hotspot, transforming the narrow, once empty streets, into a day long conga line of partying visitors and locals.

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Some of my old watering haunts remain. Whenever possible I return to The Palace Bar which proclaims its literary and journalistic connections at the eastern end of Fleet Street. Almost two hundred years old, it retains its original old style dark wood bar and furnishing style. High ceilinged with stained glass and a grand glass frontage, all the light pouring in is trapped in this veritable drinking palace. Such pubs are the salt of Dublin’s earthy drinks culture. Our old city haunt, The Crane at Crane Lane is gone. Here we could rub shoulders with Special Branch men from the Castle and seek out ladies from our own suburbs. It happened to be the nearest city pub to our bus terminus. There are many more additions than subtractions. No shortage of watering holes. Temple Bar may have been where the Danes dropped anchor in the ninth century, but you can still pay Copenhagen prices for your Carlsberg here. The Temple Bar pub charges near seven euro a pint, but still the place is hopping by midday. The market here is not price sensitive.

The Central Bank at Dame Street

The Central Bank at Dame Street

From nineteen seventy three, the Central Bank has towered over the area like a modern Bastille. Though I’m sure it’s much more pleasant to work there. Sam Stephenson’s monsterpiece was controversial in many ways. Built from the sky down, as it were, the completed floors hung by visible cables from central support towers. The method itself alluded to a certain exalted origin and function. Getting even bigger for its boots, it was alleged to be taller than Liberty Hall, Ireland’s awe inspiring seventeen story skyscraper of the sixties and trade union home. Labour’s Minister for Local Government, James Tully, stepped in and ordered the completed building to be taken down a peg. In truth, its height was in contravention of the planning permission. But that’s another storey.

Being a tall building, something which the Irish feel should be confined to round towers and spires, objectors considered it an affront, a Tower of Babel. Advocates insisted it would stand the test of time. I sneered then but I’d concede that it has lasted well, unlike Stephenson’s notorious Bunkers at the Dublin Corporation buildings by Christchurch. Passing beneath the Central Bank, it does seem to float in the air, and to form a fine gateway for entering Temple Bar.

Throngs of people now float on down from Dame Street towards Merchant’s Arch. This is the main north south axis of Temple Bar. A perpetual beat on the street has replaced the isolated clack of heels on deserted cobbles. Under Merchant’s Arch you emerge blinking into the common daytime whirr of traffic, the south quays taking westbound traffic, the north quays taking it east. The elegant Halfpenny Bridge arches over the Liffey. It takes its name from the toll charged at its inception two hundred years ago, compensation to the ferryman who previously carried people over. Yeats once championed a Municipal Art Gallery purpose built on a covered bridge here. But the iron structure survives, one of Dublin’s most iconic images.

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The river bank in medieval days would have been close to Fleet Street. As the city spilled outside the walls, houses built along the shore faced away from the river. It was after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, that the Royalist Lord Deputy of Ireland, James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, decreed that buildings face the river, with a roadway to form the quayside. This innovation, which Ormonde had observed whilst in exile in Europe during the Cromwellian years, transformed the character of Dublin, establishing the river as the defining character in its layout and aesthetic. The Wide Streets Commission, almost a century later, further moulded the city along neo-classical lines. The extent of Temple Bar was defined by the new thoroughfares, Parliament Street and Westmoreland Street, the widened Dame Street and College Green.

Since the eighties, multitudes have come to this cramped box of little lanes, the discrete vestige of medeval Dublin without the walls. We come here to play, to plunge into the past, to live in the moment, maybe set the course of our future. But mainly to play. There is nothing ostensibly pretty about Temple Bar, it is defined more by function than finesse, a jumble of back street businesses, a mercantile slum. But cities and towns are as much about their people as their built fabric. There’s enough human life here to illuminate the city should the electricity ever be cut off. It shines, night and day.

Westmoreland Strret

Dublin City Walls

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Entering Crampton Court

Entering Crampton Court

I’ve been spending my money in the Old Town,
It’s not the same, Honey, since you’re not around.

Dublin’s Old Town was delineated by its walls. Mostly vanished now, some fragments remain, and vestiges of the ancient street plan allow us to follow an imaginary walk around the ancient city. The Dane’s settled here in the ninth century, dropping anchor at a tidal pool just off the Liffey, fed by the River Poddle. Their settlement was known by its Gaelic designation, Dubh Linn, meaning Dark Pool. The Poddle, now just a stream, flows underground, while the footprint of the pool remains as an ornamental garden, along the southern walls of Dublin Castle.
At the Lower Castle Yard, you can see that the ground is low enough to accommodate a natural moat. To head downstream towards the Liffey, leave the Yard and cross Dame Street. A narrow covered laneway passes to the side of Brogan’s Bar, leading into Crampton Court, to the rear of the Olympia Theatre. Dilapidated now, and a bit dodgy, this was a bustling centre of commerce in Early Modern days. Dublin’s first coffee houses sprang up here, popular meeting houses for traders and merchants before the building of the Royal Exchange.

Leaving the Court, a narrow covered alley leads out to Essex Street, by the Dublin Theatre Festival Office. The old Custom House once stood opposite, before Gandon’s Georgian masterpiece was built further east around 1800. The site is now occupied by U2’s Clarence Hotel. After the eerie silence of Crampton Court, it’s into the rattle and hum of Temple Bar. Close by to the right, the Project Arts Centre was an early manifestation of arts and entertainment a decade before the Temple Bar scene bloomed. Here in the Seventies, prog rock and punk jostled for attention with art and drama. Jim Sheridan cut his teeth here with the likes of the prescient Inner City Outer Space.

Parliament Street

Parliament Street

Heading west, Parliament Street marks the extremity of Temple Bar. Standing here one night recently, waiting for a friend, I experienced the tangible beat surging through the district. Back to the river, I took in that iconic Dublin view of the City Hall, even more dramatic when illuminated at night. One of the finest Georgian buildings in the city, it was originally the Royal Exchange. We had a drink and Fish n Chips in the Porterhouse. This was the first branch of the pub chain beyond its Bray home, now Porterhouses can be found in London and New York. Some things change, while others remain the same. Read’s Cutlers is Dubli’s oldest shop, dating back three hundred years. The Turks Head Chop House across the street harks back to ancient times, the Czech Inn, more recent.
That night, we headed towards Vicar Street for the Waterboys gig. Retracing old and ancient footsteps. This was often our route home after a gig at the Project or Zeros. Those days it was deserted around here, now nightlife and daylife are colonising the area too. We pass Cow Lane with it’s restaurants rising in terraces up towards Lord Edward Street. We join Fishamble Street as it curves uphill. This was Dublin’s original fish market, as the name suggests. This was also where Handel’s Messiah first rang out. At the Great Music Hall in 1743, seven hundred people enjoyed the first performance. Anticipating the large crowd, men were requested not to wear swords, women to refrain from wearing hoops.
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Christchurch Cathedral occupies the highest ground of the Old Town. Just below the cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, are the Civic Offices. Sam Stephenson’s ‘bunkers‘ at Wood Quay, site of the original Viking town, excited great opposition. Twenty thousand marched through Dublin in 1978, but ultimately the campaign failed to halt them. Screened by more postmodern structures now, the four brutalist towers are less ominous than they originally appeared. Winetavern Street appears to pass through the heart of Christchurch. An elegant Neo-Gothic bridge spans the road to join the cathedral with the former Synod Hall which now houses Dublinia, an extensive exhibition of Viking and Medieval Dublin.

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St Audeon’s Gate  on Cook St.

 

Further west, along Cook Street, is the only good segment of wall remaining. Well restored, it gives some idea of what it would be like approaching Dublin in medieval times. The segment incorporates Saint Audeon’s gate, the only remaining city gate. St. Audeon’s Church is just above the gate, a modest structure established in early Norman times, it has witnessed great urban expansion over the centuries. Bridge Street descends to the Liffey, for a long time this spot was Dublin’s main fording point. In the twelfth century, a tavern was established here and the Brazen Head lays claim to being Ireland’s oldest public house. Dean Swift is said to have lowered a few here, probably en route to or from Celbridge and his trysts with Vanessa. Across the road, O’Shea’s is one of Dublin’s most renowned trad and ballad boozers.

Back to the top of the ridge, there are actually two St Audeon’s churches. The Catholic church is housed in a more imposing neo-classical structure. It is the designated church for Dublin’s Polish community. Passing outside both is Cornmarket, though there is nothing bucolic about it these days. The over-widened thoroughfare sends a constant stream of traffic west towards Thomas Street. Crossing the street, shades of Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger, Lamb Alley has a small fragment of wall. We are near the westernmost point of the walled town. From here, the walls sloped downward and eastward, cutting across Patrick Street where the Iveagh Trust Buildings now stand.

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Iveagh Buildings on Patrick St.

 

 

These were built in 1904, a housing development for the poor of the Liberties. The surrounding area had become a slum by the nineteenth century. The first Lord Iveagh, Edward Guinness, great grandson of Arthur, had established the Trust to provide housing in Dublin and London. The massive five storey blocks stretch all down Patrick’s Street to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In red brick with mansard roofs and gabled fronts, they are a distinctive and unified feature of Dublin’s streetscape. The complex also included public baths and a men’s hostel. On Bull Alley Street a ‘People’s Palace’ was built in a more ornate, grander style. This provided recreational and canteen facilities for the young of the area. It came to be known as The Bayno, an essential part of growing up in the Liberties. Closed in the 70s, it is now the Liberties College. Iveagh also developed the park opposite, it offers a great view of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the largest church in Ireland. Swift, Dean of the cathedral in the eighteenth century, was himself a passionate advocate for the poor of Dublin. Drapier’s Letters, A Modest Proposal and, arguably, Gulliver’s Travels, cocked a snook at English colonial misrule.
At Werburgh Street we are nearing the precincts of the Castle again. St Werburgh’s Church once had a soaring spire, but unfortunately it overlooked the Castle yard and was soon demolished. Nearby is Leo Burdock’s fish and chipper, Dublin’s most famous. Local resident Leo established it in 1913. Derby Square was also nearby. This obscure enclave features in Phil Lynott’s evocative ballad ‘Dublin’.

At sea with flowing hair I’d think of Dublin,
Of Grafton Street and Derby Square and those for whom I really care,
And you, in Dublin.

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Ship St

Ship Street seems far inland for such a name. But it leads down to the location of the original Dark Pool. This is now an ornamental garden along the south wall of the Castle. The Chester Beatty Library was moved here at the Millenium. The American mining magnate had established an unrivalled collection of oriental arts and crafts. There is a good cafe in the entrance atrium. Gaze up at the Castle from the grassy surface of the old pool. It has taken a thousand years to get here, the walk itself took just over half an hour.
Follow the course of the ancient river back to where we began. The circle is closed, twelve centuries spanned. Cobbled streets are peopled by ghosts, of Viking, Norman, English and Gael, the ghosts of merchants, vicars, peelers and poets, where musicians have played and sang through time. Philo’s words come back to haunt me…

I’ve been spending my time in the Old Town,
I sure miss you, Honey, now you’re not around,
You’re not around this Old Town.
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