If you grew up as a Catholic do you remember doing your Confession as a kid? Entering the dark, wooden box; hearing the priest speak in low, solemn tones to the confessor on the other side; the conclusive tone of the other confession giving way to silence; then the waiting as the faceless priest lifted the slider to begin your session. ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been six weeks since my last confession…’ Above and beyond the intimacy of revealing one’s secrets, there was the irreverent challenge of trying to hear the words of the sinner on the other side.
The Confession Box makes hearing others’ sins inevitable. I enter it mid-Monday and the tiny pub is rammed. There’s an occasional inner-city accent but most faces and sounds are foreign. A non-Monday reverie fills the air. Those gathered are not the first of the influx for Paddy’s Day, just some of the many tourists who’ve followed the scent of its reputation. You can almost imagine people climbing through the windows to get in on the upcoming bank holiday Monday.
The name originates from its proximity to the Pro-Cathedral, just up the road, though the pub’s folklore focuses on confessions of the proclaimed. Some of those involved in the War of Independence, including Michael Collins, were excommunicated for their actions. It was here that sympathetic priests from the Pro-Cathedral discreetly gave them Communion and Confession. The Big Fella is plastered across the merchandise the pub displays on its walls, glass cabinets and behind the bar: t-shirts, hats, shot glasses etc. I get why pubs do it, but it gives them the feel of a shop.
Downstairs wedged, I climb to the first floor of mint green walls and upholstery and pale wooden flooring. This room is even smaller. My choice of view is either the barman moving directly below me or of the three lads sitting by the window, some five meters away. They talk at a normal level though it feels like we’re all in the same confession box. I earwig on the guy telling his two friends about all the texts, calls and emails he got from one girl whilst starting out with another. ‘I’m not bragging,’ he says with a north of England drawl, sighing as he conveys his difficulties in moving past the former. I sensed neither is now on the scene. ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been a busy few months since my last confession…’
An intimate conversation in this pub I’d like to have listened in on is not this one, nor the confessions of the rebels (though they would be interesting) but one from early 1960. The pub was O’Flanagan’s then, owned by renowned sports player Mick O’Flanagan. He was one of the only pair of brothers to have played for Ireland in both rugby and soccer. He was a member of the Grand Slam winning team of 1948. After the untimely death an Irish Press sports editor and football writer in the 1950s a group of soccer reporters formed an impromptu committee to organise a charity fundraiser for his widow and family. In the following years, those involved wanted to formalise the committee. Soccer journalists felt they needed a collective voice to lobby the Football Association of Ireland and deal with clubs about facilities and match accreditation.
It was in this pub, undoubtedly over a few pints (perhaps mid-Monday – it was acceptable for reporters back then), that they discussed their dream and brought it alive through the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland. I can imagine the passion that fuelled their discussion, someone scribbling with a bookie’s pencil into a reporter’s notebook as they agreed their aims and rules. In the 1980s, my father used bring me to UCD soccer matches when there were more men on the pitch than dotted around it. At half-time, fans, the ref, linesmen, the club’s board (nearly half of those around the pitch) and journalists all huddled in the portacabin for a cup of tea and biscuits. The reporters then returned to their cold, enclosed box beside the subs’ benches where they took notes and filed copy with their newspapers or gave an update to RTÉ’s Sunday Sport through whatever technology they had. I’m sure those reporters had times when they were glad they had the association to make the case for better conditions for their guild. Some seventy years on, you’ll hear the association’s name when media report Ireland’s annual soccer awards.
Reputation looks favourably on The Confession Box’s pint of plain and its trad sessions. I can only confirm its intimacy. Tight spaces make for intimate, (somewhat) truthful confessions. Here there’s little penance.
Prices (25 February 2019)
Pint of Guinness: €5.00
Pint of lager: €5.60
Pint of ale: €5.00
Pint of cider: €5.70
330ml bottle of lager: €5.30
Measure of whiskey (Power’s/Paddy/Jameson): €5.00
Soft drink: €3.00