What links Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, Brendan Behan, Green Day and early morning techno gigs? One address – 1 George’s Quay, Dublin 2.
On the southside of the city between the new Rosie Hackett Bridge and Butt Bridge, this well-known and loved early-house pub closed in July of this year and re-opened a month later as a Starbucks.
The pub was situated on the corner of George’s Quay and Corn Exchange Place (formerly White’s Lane). Its address was 1 George’s Quay but the location was often mixed up for Burgh Quay.
As The White Horse, it was a popular haunt from the 1950s to the 1970s for the city’s journalist and literary set due mainly to its close proximity to the Irish Press building. In the 1980s and 1990s, its upstairs ‘Attic’ venue played an important role in Dublin’s rock and alternative music scenes. A relatively unknown Californian punk band called Green Day played there to less than 40 people in December 1991 at a gig organised by the pioneering Hope Collective.
Most people would probably say that the pub lost its true charm after a massive refurbishment job in 1998. However, up until recently as The Dark Horse, it played host to an array of techno, reggae and other ‘underground’ gigs. Its closure sees the city’s number of early houses drop to eleven.
19th century history:
Captain William Bligh, who was in command of the infamous HMS Bounty in 1789 when its crew famously rebelled, arrived in Dublin in September 1800 and stayed for about a year. A number of accounts have him staying in lodgings above the tavern at 1 George’s Quay. During his time here, he conducted a survey of Dublin Bay and recommended the construction of the Bull Wall. There was apparently a plaque outside the pub confirming the validity of this historical claim but it has long since disappeared.
In this wonderful scene from 1820, you can clearly make out 1 George’s Quay. It is the brown building in the mid right of the engraving with a prominent chimney. The neo-classical Custom House (opened 1791) is on the left and the Corn Exchange (opened 1816) with its distinct granite facade is on the right.
In this version of the above drawing, published on the National Library of Ireland website, it is possible to zoom in and make out that the name above the building is ‘White’s Spirits Stores’:
This corresponds with William Phipps’ book The Vintner’s Guide (1825) which lists a Philip White at 1 George’s Quay:
In a 1846 commercial directory, a vintner Eliza Fagan had taken over the business. In Thom’s Dublin Street Directory (1862), the premises was owned by a “wine & spirit dealer” by the name of William Bergin. Denis Bergin, presumably his son, sold the pub in 1880.
An Irish Times article (29 June 1880) described the premises as an “old – established wine and spirit concern” situated in this “great leading thoroughfare and commercial district, close by Corn Exchange, and the immediate shipping traffic, which … always leaves it one of the most desirable houses of its kind in the city”.
The public house had “recently undergone a complete change, having been taken down and rebuilt in its present modern form at an outlay of several thousand pounds.”
No detail was left out in the newspaper sale advertisement:
The exterior has a most substantial and appropriate appearance. The shop has three entrances, with folding doors to each, panelled with diamond-cut glass. There are six large-sized plate glass windows, with zinc blinds and bronze gas bars to each.
The interior is fitted up to modern style and in keeping with mercantile utility ; range of bar fixture the entire length of shop, in architectural form, with massive column supporters, surmounted by deep, concise,elaborately carved and finished, with eight-day clock in centre ; presses and lockers under for bottled wines, malt drinks and mineral waters : range of counters with return ends and four-fly partitions panelled to match doors and in keeping with the wainscoting round the shop : five large-sized oval spirit casks, in oak and gold : several five-light gasoliers in bronze, a very superior six-pull porter machine …
The upper portion of the house forms a most comfortable residence, 5 sitting and bedrooms, kitchen, 2 pantries, lavatory …
20th century history:
The 1901 census shows that James Ennis (50), a “Tea and Spirit Merchant” from County Meath, lived in the building with his sister Ellen (35). They employed two commercial assistants – William Byrne (30) and John Byrne (23). Both from County Carlow and possibly brothers. A servant Mary Monaghan (50) from Meath also worked for the Ennis siblings. All five individuals in the house were Roman Catholic and unmarried.
James Ennis died in 1905 and the pub was taken over by businessman John McGrath.
In the 1911 census, John McGrath (33), a Licensed Vintner from County Monaghan was living there with his wife Mary (23), from Dunishal, County Wicklow, and their two Dublin-born daughters Lizzie (3) and Mary (11 months). They employed two shop/pub assistants James Fitzpatrick (18), from Ferns, County Wexford, and Robert Leggett (21), from Dublin. A domestic servant Kate Kavanagh (17), from Thurles, County Tipperary, also worked in the house.
As this wonderful photograph from May 1915 shows, the pub was only separated from the Tivoli cinema by a small laneway. The title ‘J. McGrath’ is clear above the door and on the top storey.
After the Easter 1916 Rising, John McGrath made two successful claims to the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee (PLIC). This body was established in June 1916 to assess claims for damages to buildings and property as a result of the destruction caused by the Rising.
McGrath’s first claim was for £7 11s 7d of stock including sugar, biscuits and cigarettes taken by Crown forces at his pub. A payment of £6 6s 7d was recommended by the Committee. The second was for £3 1s for damages to the building including broken bedroom windows. Full payment was recommended by the Committee.
John McGrath emigrated to the Bronx, New York with his family in the late 1920s and died there in 1937.
The Irish Press connection:
The Tivoli cinema building beside the pub was originally known as The Conciliation Hall and was built as a meeting place for Daniel O’Connell’s ‘Loyal National Repeal Association’ in 1841. After his death six years laters, the building was used a grain store before re-opening as the Grand Lyric Hall in 1897. After a period of staging variety shows, it was relaunched in 1901 as the Tivoli cinema.
Closing in 1928, the imposing building was bought by the Irish Press and converted into the newspaper’s headquarters.
The White Horse’s heyday:
The pub was known as Galvin’s for a period in the 1930s before its owner Jerry Galvin died in June 1935.
It was bought by James P. Candon from Boyle, County Roscommon and J. Kerley and re-opened as The White Horse on Friday 26th September 1941.
A large advertisement published in the Irish Press on the day before its opening offered potential customers “the best drinks in town .. sandwiches and snacks … first-class service, civility and attention”.
At “Dublin’s newest and cosiest bar”, the owners were clear from the outset that men were welcome but the rule was – “ladies not served”.
The ‘Ladies Not Served’ line really jumps out for the younger reader and while there’s no doubt that most pubs were men-only at this time, very few advertised to this degree. Judging by the newspaper archives anyway. An interesting Irishman’s Diary (20 July 1935) published six years before the above advertisement noted that the slogan was popularly used in the late 1920s and early 1930s but times were a-changing (albeit very slowly).
Back to The White Horse and later in the 1940s, the windows of the bar along with a number of nearby businesses were broken by a unemployed 21 year-old from Kerry called Denis Flanagan.
In June 1948, James P. Candon sold his stake in The White Horse. A strong union man, he later went onto become president and then secretary of the Irish National Union of Vintners and Allied Trade Assistants. He passed away in 1969 at the age of 51.
Candon sold the pub for £15,000 to Michael ‘Mick’ O’Connell (c. 1901-1970) a farmer turned publican from Croom in County Limerick. At the time, O’Connell lived at Ashbourne House in Howth.
It was during O’Connell’s stewardship that The White Horse became the favoured watering hole for journalists, authors and those working in the newspaper trade. He was known fondly as the “Boss O’Connell”.
It was related by Bill Kelly in his book ‘Me Darlin’ Dublin’s Dead and Gone‘ that writer Benedict Kiely often told the story about the time that fourteen different people invited him for a drink as he walked between O’Connell Bridge and the White Horse bar, a distance of less than 75 yards.
Brendan Behan was a regular during the 1950s and 1960s in the White Horse along with The Pearl, The Palace and other nearby spots. As was Brian O’Nolan (‘Flann O’Brien/ aka Myles na gCopaleen), Seamus de Faoite and many others.
While Behan’s drinking days have become more and more celebrated as time passes, it was often a very depressing affair. As illustrated by Tim Pat Coogan in his 2008 memoir in which he writes about his last time drinking in Behan’s company:
(It was) about a year before his death in 1964 … in the White Horse beside the Press building. I was acting as Terry O’Sullivan’s stand-in on ‘Dublin’s Diary’, and intended procuring a few Behanisms to enliven the column.
Instead I found myself consoling Beatrice, his wife, as she gazed miserably but helplessly at Brendan standing at the bar with two well-known Dublin soaks. Every so often he would tell the barman to give him a ten-shilling note from the till. Then he would roll up the note, suck it for a while like a lollipop, and then spit it out. There was a ring of ten-shilling notes around the trio’s feet.
I offered to get the barman to stop but Beatrice told me it was useless. All he would do was go to another pub and indulge in some similar caper, accompanied by the soaks, and probably there’d by more like them at the next venue.
Another regular patron was the late, great sports journalist, Con Houlihan. In conversation with Keith Duggan in The Irish Times (25 Oct 2003) he spoke about the importance of The White Horse and the surrounding area:
… geographically, Burgh Quay was the focal point of Dublin. It was an intimate community with certain pubs for certain people
I suppose the Dublin I knew was bound by Mulligan’s pub and you had perhaps 10 more around it. All great meeting places.
First and foremost, you had The White Horse, it would open around half six in the morning if you wanted an early drink. It was unique in that (Brendan) Behan could drink there as long as he stayed in a certain corner and not go around bothering people too much. And you found all kinds of humanity there. Bowes on Fleet Street was another.
The Swan on Burgh Quay, or the Mucky Duck as we called it, was a journalists’ pub but the Butterlys sold the licence after the Stardust Fire in 1981. And The Pearl Bar was frequented by a coterie from The Irish Times, all good people but a niche group. You had Kennedys, a very respectable pub. It was like a village and I loved it. You felt safe at night. Change can come like a dam and in Dublin it burst overnight. And there is a great sense of loss about that now.”
A barman’s job was sometimes dangerous, especially if you were dealing with unruly youths who thought they were Dublin’s answer to The Beatles, as this 1966 story demonstrates:
Owner Michael O’Connell, then living at 68 Offington Park in Sutton, passed away at the age of 69 in March 1970.
After his death GAA correspondent Pádraig Puirséal wrote about him affectionately in the Irish Press on 13 March 1970:
The “Boss” O’Connell, God rest him, was a big, patient, understanding man, who could cope with any emergency in the White Horse from an unexpected newspaper strike to Brendan Behan (and God rest him too) suddenly deciding to burst into “ar thaobh na greine Sliabh na mBan”, or especially if there happened to be a few G.A.A. characters in the neighborhood, the “Lament for Johnny Thompson”…
It was in a way, odd that Mick O’Connell with the massive frame from the limestone county of Limerick, should have been so much identified with so many sidelights of literary Dublin … for to me he always seemed a man of the open air as, on the too few occasions we had time for private chatter, he talked of his youthful days around Croom, of horse and points-to-points, of running dogs and hurling men.
Mick O’Connell’s son William (aka Bill) took over the reins of the Dark Horse after his death.
In the 1970s, the bar was a meeting spot for an array of organisations including the Irish Boxers’ Mutual Benefit Society. A newspaper advertisement in the Irish Press (29 October 1970) looking for a new barman specified that the individual must be a “union member”. Different times.
Former Irish Press journalist Hugh McFadden in an email to the author (9 August 2016) recalled his memories of the White Horse:
As far as I remember the O’Connell family still owned the ‘Horse’ in the early-to-mid 1970s. It was an ‘early house’, of course, meaning that it opened about 7.30 am in the morning, as it had a special licence to serve the dockers and shift workers on the quays.
The shift workers included staff of the adjacent Irish Press, especially those who worked on the Evening Press whose shifts started around 7.30 am. The downstairs bar would usually be quite busy around 8am-9am in the morning. There were very very few women to be seen in the downstairs bar at any time, just the occasional older woman (‘Dicey Riley’ type). The upstairs lounge was not busy during the day, although it had its own customers in the evening and later became a venue for music sessions.
The pub did have its literary associations, not alone the connection with the Press (the novelist and broadcaster Ben Kiely was one of the Press journalists who drank there, and so did the Kerry short-story writer Seamus de Faoite, among others. The novelists and Irish Times columnist Brian O’Nolan (‘Flann O’Brien/ aka Myles na gCopaleen) often drank there in the 1950s and 1960s. He also drank in the Scotch House. Several of the Irish Times Cruiskeen Lawn columns are set in the White Horse, especially ones about the early opening hours. It was a favourite watering hole for many of the Irish Press printers, as well as some of the journalists.
My late friend Shay McGonagle, the Press journalist and cartoonist, drank there frequently. See my chapter (‘Boogie on Burgh Quay’) in the book The Press Gang, edited by Dave Kenny (New Island Books) in which there is a photograph of Shay McGonagle and myself taken in the upstairs lounge of the White Horse around 1976.
Des Derwin remembers that The Socialist Workers Movement and New Liberty, a rank and file group in the ITGWU, met in the top room of the pub for a while around 1981.
Frank Hopkins has commented saying that he used to play Chess upstairs on a Monday night while Alan MacSimon also has informed us that the bar staff kept a set of dominos as well for anyone who wanted to play.
After the H-Blocks riot on Merrion Street on 18th July 1981, MacSimon calls to mind that:
Groups of Gardai had chased protesters back to the city centre and were using their batons on anyone they thought might have been the march earlier. A few fleeing protesters arrived into the bar and told their, possibly exaggerated, stories. Staff decided to lock the doors. A few minutes later Gardai turned up, demanding to be let in. But the doors stayed closed for about an hour, until the Gardai had moved on.
In March 1984, the bar was put up for sale but the offer was withdrawn after receiving no bids.
Allen Family and The Attic:
The pub was eventually sold in July 1987 to husband and wife team Len and Ger Allen.
[As a brief side note, an Irish bar manager Noel Grehan (35) from Ballinameen, near Boyle County Roscommon died of a heart attack in London in June 1989 less than 24 hours after he was beaten up by intruders. Grehan had worked for ten years at the White Horse in Dublin. He was found dead by staff at the Three Compasses pub in Queen Street, North London only hours after he had been beaten by two men and robbed of £400 as he was closing after Sunday night trading.]
From the late 1980s, the upstairs part of the bar became a gig spot known as The Attic. Music promoter Andrew Bass was brought in to book bands.
Robbie Foy later took over. He had previously managed Dublin group Light A Big Fire who were tipped for big things.
Stephen Rennicks in an article about 1980s Dublin band The Idiots described The Attic as a:
cheap to rent and very small venue (that) was an incredibly important place for certain bands of this generation to come together and share their music …
The Idiots were practically the house band at this time. They had a rehearsal room upstairs, drank and socialized downstairs and played live often at this midpoint between these two worlds. Their manager, Sinead, was also the house sound person for all the bands who played there as well.
Many people recall the floorboards that felt like they were going to give way at any second.
In an email to the author (10 August 2016), Niall McGuirk of the Hope Collective recalled:
Andrew Bass asked if I was interested in getting bands to play in the Attic (upstairs in the White Horse Inn). For £30 we’d get the room and a sound engineer. It sounded interesting to me but I didn’t want to become a local promoter. It has always puzzled me as to why music is so inaccessible to people who aren’t old enough to drink in pubs. Most folk start off in bands when they are under 18 but there is nowhere for them, legally, to play.
Back in the late 80s, Ireland’s bar owners had a strange interpretation of the licensing laws. They would allow “Minors” (Under 18’s) on their premises until 6.30 but only if accompanied by a legal guardian and, obviously, without serving them alcohol. The police drew a blind eye if minors were on the premises before that time. That “law” has since been rubbished but in 1990 the only way to have no age restrictions at a gig was to play it in the afternoon. So I asked if it could happen! The Attic’s manager, Lenny, agreed to try out Sunday gigs with no age restrictions, starting at 4pm. Again, licensing laws meant people weren’t legally allowed on the premises (even to set-up equipment) between 2.30 and 4 p.m. so sound checks had to be completed by 2.30. In response to Andrew’s suggestion to me, I thought the best thing to do was to have a series of afternoon benefit gigs leading up to Christmas.
On a “wintry Sunday afternoon” in December 1991, an up-and-coming American punk band Green Day played in The Attic to about 40 people. Support came from Dog Day. Cover charge was £2 and the organisers lost £50 on the night.
Niall recalls in Please Feed Me: A Punk Vegan Cookbook (2004) that singer Billy Joe Armstrong and the rest of the band didn’t hang around in Dublin that evening:
Dublin wasn’t really the party city and Green Day left for Belfast straight after the gig, but not before getting some directions and food. They had enjoyed themselves so much in Belfast the previous night that they wanted to get back as quickly as possible.
One lucky gig goer was Pete Murphy who recalled in a 2015 article in State Magazine:
I was in town doing some last minute Christmas shopping. I knew Niall was organising an afternoon gig for this band on Lookout Records, called Green Day. I knew their first couple of records, and I’d always support the Hope gigs when I could, so I took some time out to pop in and catch the show. Armed as ever with my trusty walkman recorder I headed in and, along with, I guess, 25 other people, caught a great gig. I still have that tape somewhere.
Thankfully those recordings eventually made it online to Youtube. As you can hear here, their setlist that day included an early version of crowd-favourite Welcome To Paradise.
As well as The Attic, The Hope Collective were also using Dublin venues like JJ Smyth’s on Aungier Street, the Underground on Dame Street (now Club Lapello strip club) McGonagles on South Anne Street (demolished) the New Inn on New Street, Charlie’s on Aungier Street (merged into Capitol Lounge) Fox & Pheasant on Capel Street (demolished) and Barnstormers on Capel Street (now The Black Sheep). A complete gig list is available here.
Around the same time, The Attic gig booker Robbie Foy was organising inventive Acid House nights around the city:
Football and redevelopment:
The White Horse was a popular pub for football fans during this time as well. An array of soccer scarves from around the world was displayed in the bar downstairs. Shay Ryan, drummer with mid 1980s Dublin soul legends The Commotion, remembers the great atmosphere in the pub watching the Euro 1988 championship especially the England game.
Booker Robbie Foy was a diehard Shamrock Rovers fan as was owner Len Allen and barman Buzz O’Neill. Allen had played junior football as a goalkeeper for Baldoyle United and Oulton. As such it became a favoured spot for Rovers fans during this period particularly when the club played at the RDS from 1990 to 1996.
Jason Byrne and John Henderson organised the ‘Murphy’s Corduroy Comedy’ Club’ in the upstairs bar every Thursday night around 1997.
Stompin’ George, Dublin Rockabilly DJ institution, has informed me that:
Len and his wife moved to Wexford during the 90’s and took over a pub on the quays which he renamed ” An Capall Ban” beside the Talbot Hotel. It too became a great watering hole for both locals and us so called ” blow ins”.
Sadly signalling the end of an era, the Irish Press closed its doors in May 1995 with a loss of over 600 jobs.
The White Horse in its current incarnation soon followed.
No doubt spurred on by the growth of the so-called Celtic Tiger and the popularity of ‘modernizing’ pubs, it was announced in the Irish Independent (7 May 1997) that the Allen family had lodged planning permission to “demolish and rebuild the well known early house and traditional music venue” . This refurbishment to the The White Horse cost well over £600,000. The plans were to reconstruct the premises to include a pub at ground floor level and apartments overhead. The author of that article noted that the knocking down of the 250 year-old building marks the loss “of yet another olde worde pub in the capital”.
The pub reopened around 1998 as a sleek, new modern bar and it was certainly noticed.
An unnamed journalist in The Irish Independent (27 April 1999) didn’t hold back on his opinions of the redeveloped pub:
Has any pub in history ever undergone a complete as transformation as the White Horse? It’s doubtful.
Short of turning into some sort of Episcopalian church it is hard to see how it could have moved further from what it used to be.
The old White Horse was described in terms such as, er, basic while the new version looks like it has sprung from the pages of a Habitat brochure.
(It used to be) dank and dingy, full of bibulous hacks from the doomed Irish Press – many of whom took advantage of the fact that it was an early house and started boozing at 7am – and housed upstairs a creaking venue for rock bands who couldn’t get a gig anywhere else.
The new incarnation is completely unrecognisable. It’s spacious and airy, full of immaculately polished wooden tables and shiny metal trimmings ; above all, it’s suffused with light, pouring through from every angle of its largely glazed exterior.
Back then, the White Horse had atmosphere. Can you say the same for the new place? The jury is out.
New decor, new clientele. Gone are the old men, the plastered journalists and the spotty, long-haired teenagers. In their place are smart folk , dressed in suits and designer leather jackets. Yuppies, though not of the strident variety.
It changed hands briefly in the early 2000s and was known as P. McCormack & Sons for a time. But the Allen family took back control and renamed it The Dark Horse around 2011. Len and Ger’s son Con Allen, a DJ, and daughter Lyn Allen, a fashion designer, put their own mark on the pub. Len Allen sadly passed away from cancer in 2007 with the band Therapy? leading the tributes.
The Dark Horse was one of the very rare early-houses that encouraged partying and DJs. Promoter Bernard Kennedy started running early-morning dance gigs there around 2004.
From 2011 to 2015, Con Allen took up the mantle and ran an early-morning techno and house club called the Breakfast Club every Saturday. Doors would open at 7am and a mix of all-night ravers and early risers would come to dance to talented local and international DJs. Entrance was €10 and two bouncers on the door prevented any trouble. All the windows were covered with black curtains to provide punters with an artificial feeling that it was still Friday night. Sweaty clubbers were kicked out into the disconcerting sunshine and reality at 2pm. Some went home while the more wired would go around the corner to Ned Scanlon’s on Townsend Street.
From September 2011 to August 2012, our friend Freda at Poster Fish Promotions ran the Saturday night slot at the Dark Horse Inn. Some of the most memorable nights included DJ Mek of legendary Irish late 90’s Hip-Hop, Captain Moonlight, Irish Jungle DJ Welfare and reggae MC Cian Finn.
This period saw one of my favourite DJ gigs ever featuring one TD, two councillors and a host of great comrades and friends:
The Dark Horse’s last post on their Facebook page was in March 2016 and the pub closed its doors in July.
It has re-opened in the last few weeks as a Starbucks coffee shop.
There are now forty plus Starbucks in Dublin with more than twenty in the city centre alone. They only make up a tiny percentage of the company’s 23,768 stores (2016 estimate) worldwide but twenty is a lot for a central part of the city which only stretches in each direction for a couple of kilometres. Is there really a need for two opposite each other on Westmoreland Street?
Starbucks has moved into an array of premises including the the old Bewley’s café on Westmoreland Street, the clothing shop Counter Propaganda on Liffey Street, Sawers fish mongers (estd. 1959) on Chatham Row off Grafton Street, the clothing store and coffee shop Raglan on Drury Street, Marco Pierre’s White Steakhouse and Grill on Dawson Street, Coopers Restaurant on Leeson Street and the Bia Cafe on O’Connell Street.
It would be disingenuous to simply portray this as a big, bad American multi-national ripping apart a historic pub and putting in a cloned version of their coffee shop. The historic heart of the White Horse was almost totally torn out during the demolition and expansion work in the late 1990s.
But I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels unsettled by the sheer amount of chain coffee shops, souvenir shops, clothing stores and fast food restaurants that are proliferating in the city often at the expense of independent establishments.
Especially if it means another space like the Dark Horse is taken out of circulation that was available for people who wanted to put on a reggae dub night or tech-house morning session. Something a bit out of the ordinary.
Dublin is fighting a uphill battle to preserve its independence and identity. Temple Bar, once known as an independent area with cheap rents in the 1980s and then a tourist magnet from the 1990s, seems to have completely lost that battle. It now has a McDonalds, a Starbucks and a Costa Coffee while its arts space Exchange Dublin, the bike shop Square Wheel Cycleworks and record shops like Borderline and Cosmic have closed their doors in the last few years.
Promoting progress while safeguarding heritage is a complex responsibility. You have to tread carefully. Nobody wants to sound like a cliched Sean Dempsey in the song ‘Dublin In The Rare Old Times‘ (1979) who I’m guessing would be that loud old drunk man who likes to remind people how Parnell Street and Moore Street are unrecognisable from his youth. But I also think it’s perfectly fine to be alarmed by the rapid spread of a coffeehouse chain like Starbucks in our city who are regularly criticised for violating labour laws, opening stores without planning permission and tax avoidance.
So goodbye to the White Horse and to the Dark Horse. Thanks for the memories.
[Thanks to the following people for help with this article : Eanna Brophy, Hugh McFadden, Dunster, Freda Hughes, Fearghal Whelan, Niall McGuirk, Alan MacSimon, Des Derwin, Stompin’ George, and Shay Ryan]