Celebrating a great Dublin landmark
The Duke, which takes its name from the little street named after the 2nd Duke of Grafton, is the second oldest surviving licence in this area. This is no mean achievement when you consider that this little thoroughfare once accommodated seven licences, including those of two hotels. A Dublin map of 1685 describes what is now Duke Street as “a piece of marshy land without even a lane crossing it”. But by May, 1822 publican Thomas Carroll had acquired a vintners licence here at what was then known as No.8 Duke Street. Thomas was a close friend of publican, William Fitzpatrick, across the way at no.21 (Davy Byrne’s), and fellow activist in the newly formed Licensed Vintners Association.
Within twelve years establishing his business Thomas Carroll found a new competitor, Samuel Jones, pitching for the same market at No.6. Worse was to follow within four years as two more publicans arrived in the street. John Bailey opened a Shellfish Tavern at No.2 and the Red Bank Oyster commenced trading at No.17 Duke Street. Though the status and popularity for this little thoroughfare was definitely in the ascendancy, Thomas Carroll knew that it was time to move on and in 1838 sold the premises to Patrick Cullen.
Patrick remained at this location for seven years and in the famine of 1845 disposed of the premises to William Robinson who had more enterprising ideas to further develop the business. Mr Robinson was attracted to this pub because of the presence of Fishbourne & Bianconi across the way at No.16. This was the coach office business Charles Bianconi who had the exclusive rights on all coach business for every town south of Carlow. This brought a lot of rural business to Duke Street, many of whom were obliged to sojourn overnight in the area before travelling south by Bianconi’s coaches. William Robinson upgraded his tavern and convinced a gentleman named Patrick Behan, with whom he worked hand in hand, to open a boarding house next door at No.10. This was very successful partnership and one which earned William Robinson the highest pub rateable valuation on the street at 30 guineas.
But Robinson was more of a business person than one committed to the publican’s vocation; which induced him to let the premises go to public auction in 1852, where it was purchased by Bernard O’Donohoe, the fourth proprietor to pull the pints in this historic old tavern. Now Mr O’Donohoe wasn’t prepared to stay very long either and in 1858 sold the premises to James Holland. During his short tenure, however, Bernard O’Donohoe achieved one remarkable feat in that he upgraded the premises, yet again, to that of a small family hotel which entered the licensed records as the National Hotel and Tavern. The responsibility for the letting and maintenance of the rooms was provided by Patrick Behan next door, as the two premises, Nos. 9 & 10, now operated as one.
This was the era of the Tavern Token by which small family hotels and city taverns provided small coin tokens for their customers who availed of their bagatelle or billiard facilities. Such games in this age were played for drink, never for money. The tokens or ‘scrips’ were then exchanged for drink whenever the customers wished to cash in on their winnings. The National Hotel and Tavern at No.9 Duke Street then displayed a very distinctive token featuring shamrocks on an inner circle. This practice attracted much new business to the premises, a pattern that was continued by James Holland who remained at the Duke until 1871 when he was relieved by S.L. Olvany, who himself introduced his own distinctive token.
S.L. Olvany was another in the line of Dublin publicans who served a short tenure at this address. He was succeeded here by John Magee in the Victorian Dublin of 1879. In this era the street was famous for its Oyster Tavern business, the majority of which was conducted at the Bailey and at the Red Bank Oyster Tavern across the way at No.17.
In 1886 one of Dublin’s most respected licensed families, the brothers John & Patrick Kennedy, purchased this pub and commissioned a splendid Victorian renovation, the exterior which has been preserved to the present day. Unlike their predecessors, the Kennedy brothers were progressive, committed, traditional publicans who were here for the long haul. They abandoned the principle of tavern tokens, relying instead on attracting a strong Victorian drinking clientele, and developing their business by hard work and service rather than gimmicks. Their efforts paid immediate dividends as the upmarket clientele who dined upstairs in the Bailey Fish Restaurant and the Red Bank Oyster Restaurant heavily relied on this premises for social drinking. Charles Stuart Parnell, who always resided at Morrisson’s Hotel in Dawson Street when in Dublin, was a regular patron of the Bailey, but many of his entourage and many members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Land League activists, who lacking Parnell’s refined dining habits, were quite happy to use J. & P. Kennedy’s pub as their popular drinking tavern.
However, though one of the Kennedy brothers was always present, the family had more than one iron in the fire, they also owned No.69 Rathmines Road (The Station) and No.1 Merrion Row(now Foleys of Merrion Row). Encouraged by the success derived from the local restaurant trade, the Kennedy’s in 1895 assisted Mrs. Mary Doyle to set up a restaurant next door in the basement of No.8. This premises, which grew to fame as The Dive Oyster Restauraunt, was taken over in 1904 by Mrs. Kernan, whose family from Granard, Co. Longford, would later become very closely associated with Michael Collins. Around this time also, the premises was regularly frequented by the young James Joyce and a host of literary figures, including James Stephens. But the Kernan family were firmly established in the Longford Hotel industry when Michael Collins and his close associates from the ‘Squad’ began using this house during the War of Independence.
Irish freedom had been obtained and the futile bloodletting of the Civil War was in full flow when J.J.Leahy acquired this pub from the Kennedy Brothers in 1923. Helen McGovern was now the proprietor of the Dive Oyster Restaurant next door, a name which apparently did not arouse the connotations that it would today. J.J Leahy continued the Kennedy tradition of the efficient but conservative Victorian pub until 1940 when the winds of change and war in Europe threatened the very future of democracy, let alone the Irish Licensed Trade. He was succeeded here by E.A. Ryan who remained at the helm of this oasis of longevity until he was relieved by Larry Tobin in 1953. Over the next 35 years Larry ran a traditional but strict family pub, overseeing the literary age of Behan, Kavanagh and Myles na gCopaleen. He also witnessed the advent of a new liberal drinking age in the late 60s when ‘Mná na hEireann’ (Women of Ireland) took their place in “lounge bar society” .
It was Dublin’s millennium year (1988) when current host, and Longford-born publican, Tom Gilligan, became the 12th owner of The Duke. Tom has extended this little bar over the years and it now occupies 8&9 Duke Street with a very spacious upstairs lounge. He has made The Duke a very popular pub in the Grafton St area, through great service, knowledgeable and friendly staff, the Duke has a great mix of clientèle, they range from office workers, city shoppers and tourists to good conversationalists of all ages. There is a great session on a Sunday evening at 9pm, with world class Irish musicians playing for the Grá (love) of the music.
After 20 years in business Tom decided to proudly put his name above no.9 where all his predecessors had displayed there’s. But don’t go asking people where ‘Gilligans’ is because they won’t know. The Duke is what this pub is known as, so spread the word about this gem of place just off Grafton St.