Tuesday, 23 February 2021

What's in a Name? Irish Pub Signage and that 1872 Licensing Legislation...

The internet is for sure a wonderful resource for writers and researchers - it's full of books, articles and news that can be accessed at the click of a few keys. It's quite easy to lose yourself in an archive or scroll almost endlessly through social media posts relevant to your interests and hobbies, but it can also make the perpetuation of the most infamous of news - fake news - easier, quicker and more easily believed, as a so-called 'fact' can work it's way around the world at lightening speed, growing exponentially with each retweet or share.

This effect also causes issues in the world-within-a-world of beer, public house and brewing history, where a erroneous story published in one article or book gets repeated to the point where it becomes ingrained in the folklore of beer history - and we all know examples of this kind of  problem, as many have been well documented and exposed by others.

As an example of this issue from closer to home I'd like to delve into some comments I've spotted recently regarding as to how almost all Irish pubs came to have a family name emblazoned in big letters along their frontage. Here are some examples from books, articles and social media, which are often accompanied by questioning titles such as 'Why Irish pubs have family names over the doors?'

"I know the act of 1872 meant that pubs were forced to use their family names..."

"In 1872 it became a legal requirement to display the proprietor's name over the front door of the premises. The legacy of this is that often a pub today operates under a long-obsolete family name."

"... pub names in Ireland tend to bear the name of the proprietor, [...] a result of the requirement to do so  [in] the Licensing Act of 1872."

"Legislation passed in 1872 meant that it was a legal requirement for the owner of the premises to have their name over the front door. The legacy of this law has forward-rolled into something of a tradition, and a unique feature for Irish pubs around the world."

These examples could be read in different ways of course, but taken as a whole and within the context of where they appear, and combined with the images of pub fronts that accompany some of the articles it is quite easy to infer that they mean that Irish publicans after 1872 had to put their names big and bold on the front of their buildings because of this legislation, regardless of whether this was the implication of the wording of the writer in some cases.

This all seems to stem from Kevin Martin's excellent and must-read book 'Have ye no Homes to go to? - The History of the Irish Pub' where he states the following:

It became a legal requirement to display the proprietor’s name over the front door of the premises after legislation passed in 1872. The legacy of this law is often cited as one of the unique features of the Irish pub. Often, a public house operates under a long-obsolete family name – a signature feature in the boom of “Irish pubs” outside Ireland. This change in legislation limited the previous inventive array of names: in Dublin, The Sots Hole in Essex Street, The Wandering Jew in Castle Street, Three Candlesticks in King Street, House of Blazes in Aston Quay, The Blue Leg in High Street, The Holy Lamb in Cornmarket and The Golden Sugar Loaf in Abbey Street are all long since defunct. Some pubs, such as The Bleeding Horse and The Brazen Head, kept both a family name and original title.

It seems to be that this has been pulled out of context (in some cases repeated-but-twisted almost word for word) to stretch the author's meaning to fit a simplified narrative as to how we came to have pubs called McDaid's, Tully's, Kehoe's or whatever, when in fact it appears to just mean the smaller signs that you can see directly over doors (or windows as in the example at the top of this piece) and that you still occasionally see on older pubs, such as the example here below.

This image combined with the actual wording of the legislation here I think you can see what was actually meant, as compared to what is often touted as the reason for those bigger signs.

 Names of licensed persons to be affixed to premises.

11. Every licensed person shall cause to be painted or fixed, and shall keep painted or fixed on the premises in respect of which his license is granted, in a conspicuous place and in such form and manner as the [licensing justices] may from time to time direct, his name, with the addition after the name of the word “licensed,” and of words sufficient, in the opinion of the said [justices] to express the business for which his license has been granted, and in particular of words expressing whether the license authorises the sale of intoxicating liquor to be consumed on or off the premises only, as the case may be; and no person shall have any words or letters on his premises importing that he is authorised as a licensed person to sell any intoxicating liquor which he is not in fact duly authorised to sell. Every person who acts in contravention of the provisions of this section shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding for the first offence ten pounds, and not exceeding for the second and any subsequent offence twenty pounds.

Another error sometimes repeated is that this was just an piece of Irish legislation. It wasn't, the same passages is still in the British records, although the words 'Commissioners of Inland Revenue' was changed to 'Justices' in Ireland at a later date - 1874 I believe. We don't see the same 'forced' name changes over there when they had the same law, so I think there were other more complex reasons for the appearance of these name signs and I believe that this 'Irish Pub Look' comes about because of a number of factors.

Firstly, the older names such as 'The Yellow Dragon' and 'King's Arms' were predominately used for the coaching inns in this country, especially in the smaller towns that were dotted along the coach roads between major cities. Many of these names died out with the coming of the railroads which caused many inns to close or become repurposed, as can be witnessed in my home town - and I'd imagine many others too. That is probably why we see more of these types of names, versus surnamed properties, even to this day in the larger, busier towns and cities where these businesses survived, or on old rural established properties that operated as inns for longer than those in towns and that date back centuries.

Secondly, because of this change, what remained of course, along with public houses, were the spirit grocers. These were effectively food provision shops that also sold alcohol - or perhaps vice-versa - which was supposedly for drinking off of the premises, although this wasn't strictly enforced from what I've read! These businesses by and large didn't have these older names and signage and instead relied upon the the name of the proprietor when being discussed or mentioned, and it is these establishments that eventually and effectively morphed into many of the well-known the pubs we know today - so they simply never had other inn-like names to begin with.

Another reason for change probaly came because of pride, with the new owners of businesses wanting to put their names over their doors. In Britain many of the pubs were brewery owned - something that was quite limited in Ireland - so therefore the landlord or landlady could not - or would not - do the same, which might also go a certain way towards explaining the divergence in naming rituals.

Of course it is also more than possible that either the proprietors or those in charge of the enforcement misunderstood the legislation and believed that the bigger signs were needed, as per the line in the wording that says, ' ...such form and manner as the [licensing justices] may from time to time direct ...' and if one establishment did it then there may have been a copycat approach throughout an area. This is borne out in an write-up in the Ballinrobe Chronicle and Mayo Advertiser of the 19th of February 1876, where the licencing justices issued their own further directions and clarification to public houses of the, albeit with equally vague wording, where they direct that:

... the full name of every person person licenced to sell wine, spirits, beer, ale, or cider by retail, to be drunk or consumed on the I premises where sold, within the said County and Division, which is required by the said provisions to be painted or fixed on the premises in respect of which his license is granted: and also the following words to express the business for which his license has been granted - namely, "Licensed for the sale of wine, spirits and Beer for Consumption on the Premises," shall be in Roman Capital letters, or other distinct form of letters, not less than one inch in height and three quarters of an inch in breadth, In a back ground so different in colour as to be easily read by persons passing by, and be on the front over and close to the top of the principal door or entrance to his said premises, and as as to be distinctly seen by a person entering the said door or entrance.

The more you read the more that certain phrasing comes down to interpretation to a huge degree, perhaps giving a little credence to the belief that the name needed to be bigger than the licensing wording...

Lastly there was probably a degree of 'Anti-English' bias towards certain names with a strong royal or British connection that some of the more independence-minded owners didn't want associated with their businesses. So a simple way of showing their allegiance was ditching a name like 'The Red Duke' and calling the pub 'James P. Murphy' for example.

So that's my take on it - I believe that these reasons are why we ended up with surnamed pubs in Ireland, not one cause but a multitude. Perhaps - and probably - the legislation acted as a catalyst for change but only in that nameboards suddenly appeared on liquor sellers' storefronts, as they could  then achieve two things - advertise their business and be in line with that legislation in one fell swoop.

But they could also - and did in some cases - keep their old tavern or inn name and just put the required sign up over the door in small writing, there wasn't a need for this sudden change that appears to be implied by the above mentioned headlines and comments. Real proof that it wasn't 'forced' is how many pubs to this day still carry an old non-personal name not a family name, although in fairness in some cases they carry both.

Personally I'm a little sad we have lost this older way of naming pubs, which was based on a sign that those who could not read could identify. It gives me an unexplainable sense of nostalgia to be drinking in such places. In my home town we lost names like The Sheaf of Wheat, The Green Dragon, The Yellow Lion, The Harp, The Beehive and many more - although I can still drink in The Plough which is as far as I know the last of the drinking and sleeping establishments to still carry its pre-twentieth century name ... and its hanging sign.


1) I haven't chased up when this law was changed or removed, I don't think it ever was and I think is just ignored now and replaced with other checks and records.

2) I may have missed further legislation 'forcing' the use of surnames, I did put out a call on Twitter but didn't receive any additional information - yet!

(All written content, images and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its source and a link back to this post. Images via Dublin City Library's Digital Repository)

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