It’s a hectic part of the city where you might well need quick refuge.
The tourist might head there to gawk at the GPO, the Spire or join the masses for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. For Dubliners, on any given day it could where evangelists offer pamphlets or preach microphoned messages of salvation. It’s where young men and women in brightly coloured jackets might hover to talk direct debits for charities or tourist information. Hoards of Mediterranean children, briefly in Ireland to learn English, walk en masse, making straight perambulation tricky. Someone to your left is having a robust argument with an acquaintance or even themselves.
For that quick escape, situated near the corner of O’Connell Street and Middle Abbey Street, is The Oval Bar. An elegant façade of columns, square windows quadranted by metallic lines and beautiful, walnut coloured frames, the pub is recognisable by the two lamps etched with its name. The somewhat chaotic look to the covered seating area outside betrays the fine exterior, as the garish red walls inside do the elegant wooden panelling and tiled flooring.
Since 1822 the pub has stood here, witnessing political upheavals, changes in neighbours and drinking culture. Both the 1916 Rising (which started round the corner) and the Civil War forced it to close its doors. The old cadre of journalists who worked down the road and drank here during or after shifts for over a century are long gone — retired or dead — as are their mores.
But the pub has survived, endured seven handovers of keys to the front door. There’s something of its transient past about the atmosphere, however, as though any of those congregated are only staying for the one drink or a meal, then heading into the night. Perhaps it’s inevitable being located in an area of few residents.
‘Do you’ve Beamish?’ I ask the barman.
The barman with black shirt and tie shakes his head. ‘Sorry, only the real stuff here.’
The real stuff is good stuff, as is the food. The pub prides itself justifiably on its traditional Irish stew. Its owner is passionate about sport. If you’re in this part of the city and searching for a pub to catch a match or race, though you may not be assured of a seat, chances are the TV will have what you want.
Framed prints of the pub’s history document its place in an evolving social and political environment. Go back 145 years and you’ll have found it losing some trade to the Gin Palace down the road. Victorians shared our current obsession with gin.
Reach back to the pub’s formative days and you’ll find the beginning of the Temperance Movement, a social movement against consumption of alcohol, borne of religious roots. The movement extended into the chartist temperance movement, which linked the abstinence campaign with that of extending the right to vote to all working men (later women). The idea was to persuade Westminster that working class people were responsible enough to vote.
The current owner of The Oval Bar was at the vanguard of those seeking to normalise pub trade on Good Fridays. On Good Friday 2010, he opened his chain of pubs for a day of serving food, sport on TV and non-alcoholic drinks. The Temperance Movement might once have been pleased by his innovativeness.
This year, the owner’s campaign will bear full fruit. With the ban on selling alcohol on Good Friday lifted this year (100 years after some women were given the right to vote), his doors will open on Good Friday for a Friday like any other.
With ordinary men and women having persuaded the powers that be that they should be allowed vote, or buy a drink on Good Friday, it’s unlikely the tooth paste will be put back in the tube. Yet 145 years on, those in Dublin 1 looking to start the Easter weekend with a nice G&T might still be tempted to wander down the road.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Prices (08 March 2018)
Pint of Guinness: €5.00
Pint of lager: €5.60
330ml bottle of lager: €5.20
Measure of whiskey: €4.40
Soft drink: €2.80