10 Irish Pubs With Incredible (& Gruesome) Histories

famous-irish-pubs-history (Image: William Murphy, cc-sa-4.0)

Ireland is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps it’s most famous of all for its pub culture. Irish pubs are more than just a place, they’re a way of life – buildings with a soul, with history, mythology and folklore. With Saint Patrick’s Day once again upon us, let’s step inside these storied watering holes and experience the centuries of history behind their pub doors.

10. The King’s Head, County Galway

The King’s Head pub, located in the heart of Galway, has been around for more than 800 years. The building has been there since the 13th century, but the story of how the pub got its name is as gory a history as a pub can have.

king's-head-pub-galway-ireland (Image: Dan Merino, cc-nd-4.0)

When it came time for the execution of King Charles I, the Executioner for the City of London, Richard Brandon, refused to be the one swinging the blade. Finding a replacement was a challenge, the emissaries sent all throughout Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The story goes that they found their executioner in an Irish man named Richard Gunning, and he was given the building that’s now the aptly named King’s Head pub as payment for the execution.

There’s a little bit more to the story, though. In 1649 (just after the king met his end), Cromwell’s army laid siege to Galway, and at the head of that army was a man named Peter Stubbers. Stubbers eventually replaced the standing mayor of the town, and rumor has it that he was actually the masked executioner. Supporting the theory seems to be a 1660 declaration by Charles II that cleared all the people that had been conspiring against his father, with the exception of Stubbers.

As if that wasn’t suspicious enough, a hand-written letter from Charles II describes Stubbers as an active participant in his father’s execution; regardless of just who swung the axe, the King’s Head – still run by a member of the Gunning family – has occasionally even reenacted the famous execution that is so completely rooted in the life and history of the pub.

9. O’Neill’s, County Dublin

The pub has only been around for three centuries or so, but the land that it stands on was once the center of Viking life and culture in Dublin. The area was once the center of Norse political power, and the pub itself sits on land that was once home to the Thingmote, or the Viking version of Parliament. A thousand years ago, a massive mound would have been constructed on the site, where Viking leaders would gather to pass laws and judgments.

o'neills-pub-suffolk-street-dublin-ireland (Image: Paul Arps, cc-4.0)

In 1172, another, different sort of structure was built there – a temporary palace, constructed at the behest of Henry II. It was there that he met with Irish chieftains from across the country, receiving petitions and entertaining the military. Throughout the Middle Ages, it became a place for entertainment and executions, which, because people haven’t changed all that much over the centuries, were pretty much the same thing. By 1681, though, the entire area became subject to flooding and was ultimately demolished.

As it stands today, the building that now houses O’Neill’s is about 300 years old. Once known as an establishment that was a great supporter of the United Irishmen, and it’s seen the coming and going of hotels, banks and restaurants.

8. Kyteler’s Inn, County Kilkenny

Kyteler’s Inn is another Irish pub whose history goes back hundreds and hundreds – and still more hundreds – of years, to its first owner at the turn of the 14th century.

kytelers-inn-kilkenny-ireland (Image: Stephen Hanafin, cc-sa-4.0)

Originally owned and run by Dame Alice de Kyteler, the inn was once at the center of a battle between the worldly and the otherworldly – or so the story goes. Alice, married four times to wealthy men who died untimely deaths, was known around town as the Merry Widow. Along with the deaths of four husbands and the strange, prolonged illness of landowner Sir John de Poer (who had, not long before taking ill, changed his will to benefit Alice and her son, William), locals believed they had enough evidence against her to charge her with witchcraft.

A group of knights and noblemen testified in court that they had overheard or witnessed her cavorting with a demon named Artissen; what followed was an incredibly long legal battle during which Alice fled to England. Her son, who stayed behind, was convicted of being in league with his mother and the devil. He received the rather light sentence, required to attend three Masses every day, and to give charity to the poor.

Alice’s maid, Petronella, had also stayed in Ireland and had also been put on trial. Her sentence was much, much stricter – she was whipped and burned at the stake for her heresy.

Alice dropped off the face of the earth, but according to the popular story, her spirit still lives in the inn that still bears her name.

7. The Cock, County Meath

There’s a couple of different pubs that lay claim to the title of Ireland’s oldest, including The Cock. Located in Gormanston in County Meath, the history of the pub dates back to 1390, when it was a favorite watering hole – and constantly supplied by a series of underground tunnels – for all the locals. Oliver Cromwell once stayed there for a bit, and it’s long been one of the staging points for carriages and coaches.

the-cock-tavern-gormanston-county-meath-ireland (Image: Jonathan Billinger, cc-sa-4.0)

It’s most famous, though, for being the favorite haunt of the highwayman Michael Collier, who was captured there in 1807.

Collier had long claimed to have fallen into a life of crime over a woman. He was approached by a young lady who had begged him to help her father and her brother – all horse thieves – escape from prison by passing them files. He did, and it started him on his life of crime. Turning to the life of a highwayman, Collier spent years dodging the law, in and our of jail, and, in between, robbing mail coaches, market carts, and farmers returning home after selling their wares and their livestock.

It was little less than an expedition that was required to finally arrest him, at The Cock. Collier had been living there when he made what would be his final theft before his arrest, stealing a man’s watch nearby. Collier was arrested and sent to Australia, although he was eventually released, making his way back to Ireland and dying in a cholera epidemic after spending a few quiet years as a publican.

6. The Dropping Well, County Dublin

The Dropping Well isn’t nearly as old as some of the other pubs in the country, but its history is no less dark. As the Great Famine was ravaging the countryside, the residents of Milltown were being presented with a whole new set of problems. People in the city were dying at an unbelievable rate, of typhus and dysentery, of fever…. of illnesses and sicknesses that were made even worse as they spread through the contaminated water of the Dodder River.

the-dropping-well-pub-dublin-ireland (Image: DroppingWell.com)

By 1847, the riverside was where people who had nowhere else to go would gather, and many would die. John Howe knew that something needed to be done, and asked for permission to open a Community Morgue in the building that’s now The Dropping Well. He was granted a liquor license, too, and permission to do anything he could to identify the bodies that would otherwise be buried in a mass grave.

After going out of his way to identify the dead and help the living, Howe, too, contracted a deadly disease and passed away only three years later. His wife continued their work for another five years before the property was given to one of her relatives. As the famine passed, so did the need for the morgue – but the memory still remains.

5. Davy Byrnes, County Dublin

One of Dublin’s many pubs, Davy Byrnes bears the name of its incredibly determined founder. In the 1870s, the real Davy Byrne left the Wicklow Mountains and headed north into Dublin to make his way in the city. He got a job at a pub, and spent the next 16 years learning the ins and outs of the trade and working his way up to buying his own building.

davy-byrnes-pub-dublin-ireland (Image: DavyByrnes.com)

He bought the building in 1889, and over the next two and a half decades, it would flourish not only as a pub, but as a literary pub. It would be at the heart of a national re-awakening, and it was a movement that was driven in no small part by the literary giants of the day. It was a favorite place for Brendan Behan, Liam O’Flaherty, and James Stephens.

Perhaps most famously, though, the pub is forever linked to James Joyce. Ironically, the nearby lodging rooms were once owned by another man named James Joyce, but the writer’s connection to the pub is absolutely undeniable. He refers to it at length in Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom stops for a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of wine. The passage is as cryptic and unwieldy as Joyce always is, but his comments about the bar are unmistakeable. He says, simply, “Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter.”

That idea of national awakening continued, when the pub was the center of activities during the War of Independence. The upper rooms were once reserved for the meetings of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Provisional Cabinet of the State, and one of the familiar faces around the bar and at the meetings was Michael Collins.

4. The Bulman, County Cork

Sitting on the shores of Kinsale in County Cork, The Bulman was once named Barry’s; it was renamed in 1969 for a buoy that marks safe entrance to Kinsale’s harbour (which is, in turn, named for a merchant ship that was destroyed on the rocks, its entire crew killed).

the-bulman-pub-county-cork (Image: Google Street View)

The harbour was the site of a major turning point in Irish history. In 1601, Spanish troops planned to land in Ulster, join up with Irish forces, and send the English occupiers from the country for good. They landed in Kinsale, though, and were besieged by the English troops there. On Christmas Eve, there was an attempt to break the siege, but it ended with the English victorious, and the Spanish and Irish troops bloodied and broken.

When the Spanish landed, they were given shelter by a man named Barry Og. Og disappeared after the battle and his castle was destroyed to make room for Charles Fort, but it was his descendent, Catherine Barry, that first established the pub in 1820. At the time, it was hugely popular with the sailors and soldiers, all fresh from the Napoleonic Wars, all who would have had to enter the harbour and pass the intimidating shadow of the fort and all who would have found themselves in range of the guns.

Far from an intimidating presence for the pub, most of their early customers were soldiers that were stations there; the upper floors were even reserved for the higher-ranking officers. Then, it was known as The Thatch, becoming Barry’s when Catherine’s son took over the family business. As Barry’s, it was the celebrated establishment for members of the Rocket Team Coastguards, and it also oversaw the launching of rescue parties going in search of the survivors of the RMS Lusitania.

The pub has passed through a few more family members, and finally into the hands of a series of owners who have been careful to treat the pub right. It’s gotten a remodel, but not before everything was photographed in place so all the photos and memorabilia could be returned to where they’d sat for so long already.

3. The Church, County Dublin

There’s something incredibly appropriate about the idea that the church in which Arthur Guinness was officially married in is now a pub.

the-church-bar-club-county-dublin-ireland (Image: Peter Blumer, cc-nc-4.0)

Originally St. Mary’s Church of Ireland, the building was constructed at turn of the 18th century, and stepping inside, it truly still looks like a church. And as a church, its walls have seen some pretty amazing things. Arthur Guinness was married there in 1761, and Jonathan Swift was among the countless parishioners who attended services there. In 1742, George Frederic Handel performed his epic Messiah in public for the first time on Fishamble Street, but, before that, he used to practice on the organ in the church.

The church itself only closed in 1964, and for almost three decades, it sat abandoned and empty. It was only in 1997 that the church changed hands, and when it did, it needed an almost decade-long period of renovation to get it back into the condition that it’s in now – and it’s an incredible sight. More than just a small, dark, private pub, it’s a beer garden, restaurant and nightclub that hosts whiskey tastings, live music, and events of all sorts – all while still retaining its incredibly regal, dignified feel.

2. Tigh Neachtain, County Galway

Run by the Neachtain family since 1894, the pub sits on the corner of a busy Galway street, its bright blue facade unmistakable. At one time, Tigh Neachtain pub and its sign was perhaps too unmistakable, and with the family name proudly written on the side of the building in Irish, it was targeted with machine gun fire from the Black and Tans during the War of Independence.

Tigh-Neachtain-Galway (Image: Tigh Neachtain)

Not all the history around the pub is dark, though, and it was once the home of a man who changed the lives of countless Irish creatures, all for the better. In the mid-1700s, it was the home of the Galway MP, Richard Martin. Although he had been raised as an English Protestant, he fiercely campaigned for the liberation of Catholics and for something that was pretty unheard of at the time – animal rights.

His work is memorialized on a plaque outside the pub, that pays homage to its one-time resident whose work ultimately led to the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Martin – who earned the nickname ‘Humanity Dick’ from King George IV – wasn’t content just to campaign for animal rights, he did something about it, too. He became quite well-known for his skills in dueling, once fighting a duel with a Mayo landlord after the landlord had shot the dog of one of his friends. Both he and his uncle became known by another nickname, too – ‘Trigger Dick’.

At the time, animals were lower-class citizens, if they were thought of at all. In spite of mocking cartoons and not a few mocking voices, he firmly stated that since an ox cannot hold a pistol to defend itself, it was our duty to defend them – and defend them, he did. An SPCA donation box still sits on the counter of the pub in his memory.

1. Grace Neill’s Bar, County Down

Originally The King’s Arms when it opened in 1611, Grace Neill’s has a pretty wild history – and today, they still have some rather non-traditional guests, if you believe the stories told over pints and across the bar.

grace-neills-bar-county-down (Image: Rossographer, cc-sa-4.0)

The Grace Neill that gave the pub her name owned and ran it beginning in 1842, when it was given to her as a wedding present. She was at the helm until 1916, when the infinitely warm and welcoming hostess died at 98 years old. Even in her twilight years, she continued to run the pub – as the story goes, with the help of her grandson, Thomas, whose constant doting upon his grandmother was rather irksome to his young wife.

Her longevity might have something to do with her insistence that she only drank water from the Holy Well, sitting behind a nearby Roman Catholic Church. According to Grace, the well (which was also known as the Dree Well, the Keydees or the Caddys Well), wasn’t just the place that St. Patrick had baptized his converts, but also it had been a sacred place for the druids before him.

Some of the guests that have sat in the snugs and on the stools include Daniel Defoe, John Keats and Franz Liszt, and it was even visited by Russia’s Peter the Great. There were also a seemingly never-ending stream of pirates and smugglers and soldiers, fishermen and less-than-honorable men that have also stopped in for a pint; according to locals, some of them have never left.

Grace herself is said to haunt the bar, and more than a few people claim to have seen ghostly lights and heard footsteps when no one else is around. Others claim to have seen glasses move on their own, as if someone, still there, isn’t ready for last call just yet.

Keep Reading – 10 Historic Pubs with Disturbing Histories


About the author: Debra Kelly




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