Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date

Published Works


The Irish Pub, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2008)



5. A Potted History of the Irish Pub

It Started in Iraq

Beer-drinking as we know it was invented some 12,000 years ago in the "Fertile Crescent" between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. They deftly mastered the art of malting and fermentation and gradually, by trial and error, produced a nutritious beverage that was going down a terrific wow with the Sumerian warriors of Babylon (aka western Iraq) by 4000BC. They got around the problems of foam by guzzling directly through a straw. The Neolithic farmers who settled in Ireland at about this same time almost certainly came with brewing skills under their belt. Fast forward to the time of Jesus and we find a Roman physician named Dioscorides noting how the Irish avoided wine in favour of 'a liquor called curmi made of barley'. Starved of other entertainments, the Irish monks became exceptionally fond of beer and began writing lengthy odes to the stuff. In the 12th century Annals of Leinster, for instance, it is claimed that a brewer and an innkeeper were the first to set foot on Ireland in the wake of the Great Flood of the Bible. A brewer was also to the fore in the Milesian invasion. In a classic case of drink driving, the charioteers of Ulster became so intoxicated on the eve of a raid on Tara that they woke up stranded in a prison on the south coast of Kerry. The Saints loved beer too. St Bridget had a neat trick of turning leper's bathwater into ale. St Columbanus's last words were: 'It is my design to die in the brew-house; let ale be placed in my mouth when I am expiring, so that when the choir of angels come they may say, 'Be God propitious to this drinker'.

Celtic Hospitality

Celtic pubs served beer, wine (principally from Bordeaux; see Turtle's article on Ireland's Winegeese from Cara, 2007) and mead (a fermented mixture of honey and water). Beer was a drink of social importance, although always secondary to mead. As Samuel Johnson said, 'there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn'. But the role of hospitaller (briugu) was sometimes a costly one. Whilst it entitled them to one of the higher ranks in Celtic society (as well as providing a get out clause from military service), the briugu had to ensure 'a never-dry cauldron, a dwelling on a public road and a welcome to every face'. The essence of hospitality included providing meals free of charge to travellers who called at their door, a custom that continued into the last century.

Monastic Origins

When the wine-loving Normans came they inevitably applied their bureaucratic craftiness to the native Irish briugu. Ireland's first pubs were established as 'off-licences'. Their purpose was simply to ensure that the cellars of the Norman castles in Leinster and the Pale were fully stocked with wine at all times. To have a tavern, you need a vintners (meaning 'wine merchant') licence. To get a licence, you had to kow-tow to the Norman line. As merchant guilds gained economic and political power, they instigated a policy of seizing licences from those deemed unworthy. A law of 1256, for instance, dictated that any alehouse keeper found overcharging his customers was to be sentenced to a stint on the ducking stool. And rightly so too. In the early days, beer was home-brew affair and rarely featured in pubs. The abbeys and monasteries were particularly adept at brewing, cherishing beer for its B Vitamins and amino acids. At Jerpoint Abbey in Kilkenny, monks had an allowance of a gallon of beer a day. With the rise in pilgrimages and general day-to-day travel across Ireland, so inns began to spring up and offer accommodation as well as food, wine and cider. Likewise, the taverns where wine was sold soon became popular places for conversation, political debate and business transactions. By 1300, monks were also noting that the distilled medicine known as uisce beatha, or water of life, was really rather a fine drink. By the 16th century, whiskey was all the rage across Ireland. The Bushmill's Distillery in Co. Antrim acquired its first seven-day licence in 1608. This development coincided with the closure of the monasteries and consequently that entire way of life came to an end. As English intrigues in Ireland deepened under the Tudors, so innkeepers became targets for interrogation.


The quality of Irish beer remained open to question in the 17th century - Barnaby Rich called it 'hogges-washe' - and the mugs it came in were made of wood. The effects of war and rebellion undoubtedly sent Ireland into complete disarray in these years but it didn't stop anyone drinking. As Barnaby Rich wrote in 1610: 'It is as rare a thing to find a house in Dublin without a tavern as it is to find a tavern without a strumpet'. Pubs in Ireland were first formally licensed in 1635 when 1180 public houses were listed as catering to the 4000 families living in Dublin. In the subsequent 350 years, the trade has been subjected to over 200 Acts of Parliament as the powers attempted to control drunken behaviour and maintain the sanctity of Sundays and such like.

A Good Brew

However, discerning drinkers tasted a much more palatable brew with the emergence of glass bottles and pewter tankards, not to mention the addition of the all-important hops. Using gutter-water for the brewing process was curtailed in 1714. Brewing was quickly becoming a commercial business, in direct competition with both the coffee and tea houses emerging in the towns and with the homemade whiskey and poteen shebeens of the rural poor. By 1672 there were 91 commercial breweries in Dublin. Within quarter of a century, the brewers had sufficient clout to demand representation on the common council of Dublin's Guilds. The Dublin brewer Joseph Leeson became the first of his profession to be elevated to the peerage as Earl of Milltown in 1750 and built his grand stately home at Russborough in Co. Wicklow. His contemporary William 'Speaker' Conolly, the wealthiest man of his generation, was the son of a Donegal publican who made his fortune serving food and wine to the thousands of English soldiers who flocked to north west Ireland to take up land-holdings in the wake of the Cromwellian and Williamite land settlements. Cromwell was also the son of a publican and actually funded his campaign with the first direct beer tax. That beer duty has been with us ever since.

A Family Affair

In the late 1600s, Irish pubs began to adopt English names like The Bear & Ragged Staff and The Mitre. It was only a phase and by the late 19th century, most Irish pubs were named for the current licensee of for the family name of the pub's founder. The vast majority of Ireland's pubs are family-owned - 88% in the Republic and 94% in the North in 2002. In Cian Molloy's study of family-owned Irish pubs, he claimed only 200 pubs had been with the same family for over 100 years. Only four of these were in the North and only one - John Kavanagh's of Glasnevin - was in Dublin.

Licensing Laws

By the 18th century, beer was a commodity well used to taxation, duties and legal pressures. One now had to have a licence to serve beer at public fairs, race meetings or markets. William of Orange introduced the legal requirement that all pint vessels bear an assay mark, certifying that they hold a full pint measure. [William of Orange also banned all French imports and introduced gin to devastating effect as the British Isles became swamped with gin hags]. One of the biggest developments for the Irish pub in the 18th century was 'The Wet War' which began in 1732 when a law was passed banning the import of hops into Ireland from anywhere other than England. The consequent rise in the price of hops ruined many Irish breweries and allowed English brewers to corner the market. The oldest statute still in effect that applies to the licensed trade in Ireland is the Drink on Credit to Servants Act of 1735 which states that a licensee who sells drink on credit to "Servants, Labourers and other Persons who usually work on ply for Hire or Wages" has no right in law for recovery of the debt. In 1753, it become illegal to be married in a pub, hitherto a popular place for ultimately doomed nuptials. In 1874 it became illegal to sell any alcohol at all without a licence.

Coachmen & Porters

The status of the pub in Irish society changed again with the arrival of the stage-coach service in the 18th century. Many pubs now became coaching inns, offering accommodation for travellers and stables for horses. The taste for porter was also on the rise and in 1759, Arthur Guinness took a 9000 year lease on a disused brewery at St. James's Gate in Dublin for an annual rent of £45. Over the ensuing centuries, Guinness secured dominance in the home market, boosted by innovations such as transporting Guinness by canals and railways. Porter is named for the porters in London's markets who were said to have been particularly keen on this blend of ales.

The Battle for the Oldest Pub in Ireland

On New Years Eve 1993, I had the great privilege of attending the wake of Big Bertha at the Blackwater Tavern in County Kerry. This majestic lady, a Dremon cow, had died that same morning, just three months short of her 49th birthday. Fourteen years later, she still boasts two entries in the 2007 Guinness Book of Records. She is the oldest known cow ever recorded and, as mother to 39 calves, she holds the record for lifetime breeding. Now, in this shook up world of ours, there are undoubtedly large numbers of Afghani yak-handlers, Texan cowboys and Hal Al machete-wielders who would dispute Bertha's claims. Such is the way with most record claimants.

One of the most keenly fought slots in the Guinness Book of Records is that of 'Oldest Pub'. It is, of course, a concept muddied by the possibilities. Does that mean the oldest building that is now a pub? Or the oldest that has continuously been a pub? And what about buildings that were pubs ages ago but are now something else? Then there's the fact that many a so-called "historic" Irish pub has been revamped in the past twenty years to such an extent that their only valid claims for antiquity are based on their location and perhaps a piece of architectural salvage incorporated into the interior.

In Ireland, the main contenders for oldest pub have long been Sean's Bar in Athlone, Co. Westmeath and The Brazen Head in Dublin City. Grace O'Neill's in Donaghadee, Co. Down, gallantly bowed out of the contest some years ago, content with the title of "oldest licensed pub", having received their licence in 1611. But the other two pubs became the subject of national debate when Gerry Ryan invited their owners onto his radio show to consider the evidence.

The Brazen Head gave an impassioned account of its history going back a whopping eight centuries to 1198 when Norman mercenaries and Viking merchants gathered here on the Liffey's banks to swap slaves and ladies of the night. The pub, it was explained, took its name from the burning buckets (or braziers) over which guards warmed their hands on those cold dark nights. Such claims seemed to be backed by the ghosts of Michael Collins, Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Brendan Behan - all frequenters in times past.

Sean's Bar duly fought back by unveiling the wattle and wicker walls of the original 'Luain's Inn' on which it was sited. These walls had been carbon-dated by archaeologists from the National Museum and dated to the early 10th century. Historical records from this time were also produced to show that a pub stood here at the original crossing point of the Shannon, on the road to the pilgrimage site of Clonmacnois.

At length, the Guinness Book inspectors arrived to examine the evidence first-hand. They ambitiously declared that Seans' Bar was not only the oldest pub in Ireland, but also the British Isles. And if that is true, Sean's is almost certainly the oldest pub in the world. Reeling in shock, The Brazen Head had to settle for 'Oldest Pub in Dublin'. The Brazen Head also took some consolation when a signature etched into one of the pub's windowpanes in 1726 was officially declared the oldest piece of graffiti in Ireland.

When all's said and done, a pub does not need age to make it a good place to gather. But there is nonetheless something romantic about drinking in the same room where revolutionaries, playwrights, mercenaries and warriors have drunk in generations past. Perhaps this will become even more poignant with the growing pressures on the rural Irish pubs and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Super-Pub where a thousand punters can be accommodated at one time. Indeed, with the successful exportation of the 'Irish pub concept' to nearly every city in the world, it might not be long before the world's oldest 'Irish Pub' is no longer in Ireland.


Up arrowOther Titles