Tuesday 24 October 2023

Opinion: On Pubs & Provenance

My local town has history.

It has a castle that dates to the early 13th century, which probably replaced a structure from before that period. The town sprang up just east of the castle on a piece of high ground that rose above the boggy land by the river that separated it from the fortress on its hill that gave the town its name. A community grew and developed around the intersection of two roads, that eventually turned into busy streets as it became a prosperous place, and a stopping place for travellers heading west and south from Dublin and back again. It was once protected by walls and guarded gates that have long since disappeared leaving no trace apart from some lines in recorded history and perhaps the occasional unearthed foundation stones.  

The land for miles around the town is littered with megalithic structures dating back to a time before we as a people could record anything in any real or modern sense of the term. The pre-history of this area was most likely passed on orally from generation to generation until that too was lost, misunderstood or mistranslated, and the meanings and true purpose of the dolmens, raths and standing stones that erupt from the earth was corrupted and changed over time into places where the fairies, magic - and sometimes evil - dwelt. That invented history remained for centuries around these sites and became actual history in the mouths of the storytellers and the ears of those who listened - and then repeated it.

These days we know better, and archaeology, research and rationality have replaced folklore, fear and myth for the majority of our people. Although we do still have a love for a good story, as do the visitors who travel to this island, to our towns, streets and buildings, and many – just like those who live here – are particularly drawn to public houses and the tales that are stored in their walls and floors, having seeped in over lots of years of telling and retelling by many generations.


A part of me has always wanted to own an old pub. Not the clever part, not the financially astute part, not the curmudgeonly introvert part - but another part that every so often rises up in a fit of manic enthusiasm while I preach my own tales of pub and brewing history from the altar of cool marble that doubles as a bar countertop. I have written about my perfect pub* before. but this would be somewhat different as this would be a place I would own and run, not just visit to sate an appetite for company or reclusiveness depending on my mood, safely ensconced on the right side of that counter.

And it would need to function as a living entity in order to be a viable business.

True public houses really do live in the truest meaning of the term, although we function within them in a symbiotic relationship of a sort and give them that life. We receive sustenance, plus succour and fulfilment and in return the public house can grow and change and be gainful, an evolving being that functions as part of our interdependency. These places are as real as those stone and earth structures from our prehistory that had purpose because of us, because of people. We cause these things to exist, not the stones, bricks, and timber of which they are composed.

So then why do we judge these component parts to be important? Why is the date of an old brick significant? Why if a carved name on a timber windowsill the reason for a place being worthy? Why would a supposed ancient section ceiling and a few found old coins mean that one public house is superior to another?

In truth these features matter little, as a public house's history can be invented, skewed and moulded into a marketable commodity where that history – whether true or false - is sold as the living thing, not the place itself. That ‘thing’ grows as more myths and legends are stuck upon the body until it becomes a hideous monstrosity that just serves its own purpose and has become detached from the actual place in history where its real story began, to the point where the myth is the thing that lives and grows - and exists. 

It is a curious thing to me that in a country with such deep and interesting real history that businesses feel the need to create or embellish a heritage of mistruths – crafting fakelore from folklore. Why do they feel the need to do so? Perhaps it is because of a love for that existing rich history, much of which is lost and needs 'finding' in one way or another? Therefore our love of myths and legends allows and encourages us to do so?

Or perhaps, as the more cynical among us might assume, it is for more mercenary reasons …


But back to the imaginary pub I’d like to own, and what if I wanted to create a history to wrap around it? How could I do so if I was so inclined?

It’s quite easy really …

There is a pub in my town whose foundations literally sit on the ashes of a previous public house, a place that was called the Red Cow Inn. That establishment faced on to two right-angled streets and is recorded on street maps in the late 17th and very early 18th century right down its exact frontage length on both of those streets, and the document even records who owned the inn in this period. There also exists a merchant token of the kind issued by many businesses in the 17th century, and said token is dated 1657 and reconfirms the name of the inn’s owner as John Masters. Some of the buildings on the street burned down on a couple of occasions after this time so the existing public house structure probably dates to the 19th century - as do the huge amount of Irish public houses - but its rough frontage on one street corresponds to the older inn so therefore we can surely say that a public house has sat on this site to the mid-1600s. Right?

Estd. 1657, huh?

But we can go back even further …

Mentions in local historical publications can push an inn here into the 1500s – so we are now back 500 years which is a good age for any public house, providing we don’t need to look at the actual footprint or any of the extant building …

But what if we want more?

What if there is a charred piece of timber joist embedded in a wall, found in some rubble on site and used to shore up some subsidence after one of the fires that consumed one of the iterations of a building? Dendrochronology is relatively accurate although it can give varying eras for any given piece of timber. So, if the boffins came back and said the timber was from either 1560-1610 or 1160-1180 then one of those has to be right, and it was found ‘in situ’ so therefore my pub dates from 1160 now, doesn’t it? 

Estd. 1160 AD, imagine that!

(We shall of course discount the known (and actual) fact that timbers were scavenged from the 12th century castle at one time when it fallen into ruin and used in a building right beside our site and these may be the wood that was discovered and dated. Shhhh....)

Is that far enough? No?

We can go further.

There is a lost early Christian monastic community that was known to be in the environs of the town, and if one looked at the lie of the land then it would have been on a place that was unlikely to flood - being close to two rivers - but close enough for those rivers to be useful. Our pub site sits on the high ground and would have overlooked both rivers at that time, not forgetting its proximity to two ancient roads that – probably – led to river crossings, so it was surely here was where this community was built? This site was founded in 634 AD according to one source, and would have provided rest, and indeed drink to weary travellers. It was a place where travellers drank alcoholic beverages (as the monks definitely brewed there) or an inn, or public house by any other name surely?

Est. 634 AD …

This establishment is now the oldest public house in Ireland, or at least can claim to be.


It isn’t of course, as I’ve just fused some real facts and some conjecture into a story that appears to be believable, although all except the actual act of finding that wooden beam and doing the dendrochronology is based on reports, chronicles and actual history that I've forced into a mythical history, although as you can see it required a fair degree of lubrication.

But this might not be enough for me because having the words ‘Est. 634 AD’ might not hold sway with tourists and the general public unless I plaster the walls with old pictures and memorabilia and cart in a few old columns, wonky chairs, an ancient looking hearth and a battered countertop - and let’s not forget a few holy relics and church pews as a nod to its ecclesiastical past – plus that old charred and precious 12th century beam.

For food we’ll serve Olde Worlde Monk’s Oyster Chowder, then porter and mutton stew with rustic-style bread with bog butter, followed by a seaweed dessert with a shot of sweetened mead.

We shall buy a red nitro ale from a local brewery and sell it as ‘Monks’ Red Ale’ or ‘Curim Naofa’ – plus we need a dark beer so a rebadged nitro stout will be served called ‘John Master’s Black Porter,’ and a whiskey from a ‘found recipe’ distilled to Mr. Masters exacting standards called ‘Ye Red Cow Inne Uisce Beatha,’ which will be recommended to all the tourist who flock here.

As you can see I could turn that pub into a huge marketing-driven, tourist-focussed enterprise that told a skewed and embellished version of the truth that suited the story … but what have we created?

In truth we have just assembled a pub, one that doesn’t live. It would exist for sure but that is not the same thing. It wouldn’t have a life blood, only the transient infusions that tourists would bring, and success based on a history that was stretched so thin that it resembled the wraiths that reportedly lived among the dolmens and standing stones of our long-lost past.


Fakelore is unfortunately a huge part of our commercial lives, be it Irish pubs or even breweries and it is an ongoing issue, even amongst our newest suppliers and providers of beer. If you tell a story often enough it will spread and take over everything it touches, and you can never take it back. That mistruth, that lie, that embellishment, will always be there sliding into people’s minds and thoughts being constantly repeated, written, rewritten and recorded until the author too believes what they have perpetuated.  Perhaps this is worse than that oral tradition of chronicling the past that came before the written word, as it has a permanence that will never really be rectified by those who rail against it.

We shouldn’t create beer and brewing related history, we should just record facts as best we can at any given time.

And by the way, I’ll never own a pub ...

Liam K

(I wrote this piece in a fit of annoyance and anger a few months back and I was inspired to tidy and publish it after reading James Wright's excellent recent post here.)

* My perfect pub.

Please note, all written content 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 sources, and a link back to this post. The attached image is the adapted from an image of the actual John Masters Red Cow token from British Museum website.

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