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The Stag’s Head – Dame Court, Dublin City

Although some say it looks more like a moose, this fine stag’s head is said to have grazed upon the grasses of Alaska until dispatched in Alaska in 1901. The cornice above is richly panelled and moulded. Photo: James Fennell.

Extracted from ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008)



I don’t think it looks like a stag’, confesses bar manager John O’Toole. ‘But he must have been a powerful big brute whatever he was’.

The giant 14-pointer overlooking the bar sure has a longer snout than your average stag. There are rumours that it was in fact a moose dispatched in Alaska in 1901 but nobody’s about to rename the place The Moose’s Head. Tourists seem partial to the story that it was simply a runaway stag, destined for a dinner table in Dublin Castle, captured when it ran its head right into the original hostelry that stood here way back in the 1770s.

For some, the first indication that they are within range of the Stag’s Head comes while strolling along the south side of Dame Street, away from Trinity College. A singular mosaic tile on the pavement depicts the noble head of a stag and points down a small alleyway, past the red and white pole of a barber’s shop, to the aforesaid establishment.

The present building was opened in October 1895, shortly after Dublin’s wittiest playwright Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour on a charge of sodomy. It was the brainchild of businessman George Tyson who planned a pub that might bear ‘favourable comparison with the best establishments of its kind either in London or in any other part of England’. Indeed, it was to be the first pub in Ireland to be electrified, controlled by a switchboard from behind the bar.

A terrazzo floor, oak partitions, vaulted mirrors and red granite tabletops give The Stag’s Head a learned ambience.Three large dark oak casks are recessed into the back wall, harmonizing well with the surrounding dark wood – the larger one is for Tyson’s 10 Year Old Powers, the other two for Jameson Liquor Whiskey. Photo: James Fennell.

Designed by architect A.J. McLoughlin, the three-storey pub was built of County Dublin redbrick, with a front of chiselled limestone, relieved by polished granite columns, sills and plinths. A polished granite frieze bears the pub’s name in distinctive gold letters. Heavily moulded jambs and red granite pillars frame the main entrance, set beneath a canopy and an Oriel window of Victorian bottle glass. A stag’s head with gilded antlers hangs above the entrance, beneath a clock on which Tyson’s name is emblazoned. His initials echo along the wrought iron railing beneath the pale green bay windows of the upper floors. Colourful flowers baskets billow out of troughs and baskets along the wall.

The principal drinking area consists of a long, spacious room with a bar of polished mahogany, walnut and ebony running along the right hand side. Dark oak whiskey casks are recessed into walls, complementing the richly panelled Renaissance style ceiling above. The eponymous stag springs everywhere – from mantle-shields, from the gable, from another mosaic at the back entrance and, above all, in the shape looming over the bar itself. While the original beer engines and nickel fittings have been replaced by a more contemporary bank of taps, the bowed counter is the same polished red Aberdeen granite installed by Tyson. The counter curls into a snug, known as the Smoke Room, which occupies a one storey return at the eastern end. Light floods in through six circular headed windows and is reflected throughout by bevelled mirrors deftly worked into the panelling.

For a pub to run smoothly, one needs unflappable bar staff and manager who could double as a circus ringmaster. In that manner, The Stag’s Head is amply served. For John, the importance of service was drummed into him at an early age. His priorities are to keep the place as clean as possible and to ensure the beer that flows is of the highest quality. Guinness is their best-seller ‘by a country mile’, accounting for half of all pints sold.

Wine is also on the increase. ‘A few years ago a man wouldn’t dare order a glass of wine in a pub’, says John, ‘but these days they’re all at it.’ The laws hampering country pubs don’t strictly apply to the city centre – few would drink and drive from the Stag’s Head and there has actually been a dramatic increase in women customers since the smoking ban. On the flip-side, they’ve lost the beer-swilling businessmen who would slip in at lunchtime for four or five pints. ‘The smokers don’t want to be seen standing outside’, explains John.

Although some say it looks more like a moose, this fine stag’s head is said to have grazed upon the grasses of Alaska until dispatched in Alaska in 1901. The cornice above is richly panelled and moulded. Photo: James Fennell.

The Stag’s Head is a landmark in Dublin. Students from nearby Trinity College make up a sizeable portion of its customer base, while barristers, journalists and tourists are also wont to frequent. The who’s who of past drinkers includes James Joyce, Michael Collins and Quentin Tarantino. It also featured in the Wildean film, ‘A Man of No Importance’, starring Albert Finney, Brenda Dricker, Rufus Sewell and Tara Fitzgerald.

In 1978, The Stag’s Head was purchased by the Shaffrey brothers of Bailieboro in Cavan. Peter Shaffrey was known to work 60-hour weeks and would not get home until 3:30am. He did not feel such an exhausting fate should befall the next generation.

In July 2005, the Shaffreys sold the pub to the Louis Fitzgerald Group, which owns a number of pubs in Dublin including Kehoe’s on South Anne Street, Bruxelles on Harry Street and The Quays in Galway.

The Stag’s Head came in at number 8 on a list of the most popular pubs in Dublin city published by Tripadvisor in February 2022.