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Bringing Ireland’s 19th Century Pubs under Police Control

No other business in Ireland has been as legislated against or litigated on as the common pub. However, in the 19 th Century the legal status of public houses, as well as public drunkenness, was not a fixed issue. Indeed, the presence of shebeens made the policing of drinking establishments an incredibly difficult task. Kevin Martin discusses these early developments in an extract from his new book Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish Pub.

In 1685, the Lord’s Day Act allowed policemen to enter pubs for the first time, and from then on licences were supposed to be renewed annually. The Act also prohibited Sunday trading during the hours of worship, a perennial subject of debate in the British Houses of Parliament over the next 250 years.

Around 1850, the number of public houses in Dublin started to level off. Frederick Shaw, the Recorder with the power to bequeath licences, refused to issue any new ones, and the value of a licence increased by 500 per cent over the next twenty years. Many publicans became more prosperous and climbed the social ladder. It was now prohibitively expensive to enter the trade and it became the preserve of the more well-to- do.

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.

The 1872 Act made it illegal ‘to knowingly permit . . . a premises to be the habitual resort of, or place of meeting of, reputed prostitutes’, and from this time on it was judged a crime to be drunk in public. The Act distinguished ‘simple drunkenness’ from ‘aggravated drunkenness’: being drunk on any highway or in any other public place, on a licensed premises or at a sporting event were categorised as offences of ‘simple drunkenness’, while refusing to leave a licensed premises when requested and being drunk when minding a child under seven or possessing a loaded firearm were considered ‘aggravated drunkenness’.

The 1872 Act further tightened the standards required to obtain a new public house licence. One would only be approved if the applicant could produce a certificate awarded by the Recorder or local Magistrate attesting to his good character. Before the certificate was granted, six householders had to vouch for the applicant. Licences were renewed annually and most publicans, aware that they possessed a valuable asset, toed the line.

In 1876, Richard Dowse spoke with characteristic directness in the House of Commons. It was once said to him that ‘the best cure for Ireland would be to put it at the bottom of the sea for a short time’, but if the assembled gentlemen could see their way to close the pubs on Sunday, the situation would greatly improve. He proceeded to lay petitions on his desk signed by 230,000  people asking for the public houses to be closed on Sunday. He told the House that the executive committee of the Irish Sunday Closing Association had organised a poll in the six principal towns and cities of Ireland: Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Belfast, Waterford and Londonderry.

The results were decisive; in Dublin, there were 25,077 in favour of the measure and 3,104 against it; in Belfast, 23,277 for and 2,809 against; in Cork, 9,172 for and 1,499 against; in Limerick, 5,292 for and 632 against; in Londonderry, 3,082 for and 649 against; in Waterford, 3,425 for and 195 against. The aggregate vote of the licensed traders in all these towns was 830 for and 735 against. The Irish authorities had become so concerned, he said, they observed public houses on Sundays to see if there was as much drinking as reported, and they were shocked to see more people go into the pubs in one town than there were adults in the local population. Dowse said he knew the opposition would say the same people were counted a number of times, but was adamant that was not the case.

He gave an example from the recent assizes at Londonderry to highlight the possible dangers. There, three young men were convicted of a ‘shocking outrage’ upon a young woman on a Sunday evening. They had spent the Sunday afternoon drinking in several public houses. One of the young men was the son of a respectable widow. He was not ‘a habitual drunkard, but he fell into the temptation of the Sunday tavern’, and he and his companions were sentenced by Judge Keogh to fifteen years’ penal servitude. ‘Is it for the accommodation of young men of this stamp that we are asked to keep the public houses open on Sunday afternoons?’ Dowse thundered. The majority of parents of young families wished to see the pubs closed on Sunday, he argued, and if the vote was given to those over sixteen years of age, he thought the young people would, too. Shebeens would not be a problem, he contended. If the police had been able to count the number of people entering public houses on Sunday, then they would easily be able to ‘sniff out’ any illegal drinking dens.

He was aware of deputations sent by distillers and others to political representatives, but questioned their validity. He claimed certain individuals believed those behind the movement to close the public houses on Sunday were all teetotallers and ‘do-gooders’, but stated that was not so; in fact, not all non-drinkers were in agreement. Some of the ‘good Templars and Rechabites’ refused to sign the canvassing paper in favour of Sunday closing, because they regarded the demand as too small. They were ‘willing to spill all the drink and swill the streets with it’, but they did not see their way to join in an effort merely to limit its use. The ‘Rechabites’ referred to were the members of the Independent Order of Rechabites – a temperance organisation also known as the Sons and Daughters of Rechab – established in Salford, Manchester, in 1835. The ‘Templars’ were members of the Freemasons’ group the Knight Templars who were granted properties in Ireland during the reign of Henry II.

According to Richard Smith MP, the Chief Secretary had said there would be riots in all the large towns if the pubs were closed on Sunday, but he had still something to learn of Ireland and Irishmen: ‘An Irishman is always ready for a riot when he has got drink, but no man ever saw an Irishman creating a riot in order to get it.’ He finished by asking the English representatives to put aside their own self-interests and do what was best for Ireland: ‘It is seldom Ireland asks a favour from the House,’ he said, but if they could see their way to override any vested interests, it would be a ‘great measure of Justice to Ireland and her people.’ English MP Sir Walter Young expressed sympathy for young men who, he had heard, left Cork city for the day to venture out to Queenstown (today’s Cobh) for the good of their constitution, and were ‘surely deserving of refreshment’.

He believed there was no more legitimate demand than that of the ‘excursionist’, and some provision should be made to supply it. There were many places where excursionists went on Sunday, he said, and if pubs ‘were closed altogether, a great hardship would be inflicted on the respectable tradesman who went on an excursion with his wife and children, carrying his dinner with him, and who would naturally want to get a glass of beer’. He was also concerned about those who came in to berth in fishing ports on Sunday, as he believed they might be ‘a class who would resent more strongly and vehemently than any other the closing of public houses against them on Sundays’.

Major Purcell O’Gorman of Waterford city was the last to speak, and wished to put across the view of the type of common man he knew best – the farmer: ‘There is a large number of respectable farmers in Ireland who every Sunday of their lives, after they have performed their religious duties, sit down in the public houses with their friends to have a glass of beer, or whatever it may be, and to talk about the occurrences of the week or month, and compare notes about stock, the price of corn, and one thing and another. They go to the public house, take a small quantity of liquor, and after staying an hour or two, they go home to their families and sit down with them at their meal. Now, Sir, what will the closing of public houses on Sundays do to such a man?  The men I speak of are respectable farmers, responsible men, men who love their landlords, and whom their landlords love – men who have been 50 or 60 years upon their farms, against whom no complaint has ever been brought, and whose lives might have been written by Plutarch.’

If this motion was passed it would cause undue hardship for these men, O’Gorman believed. They might be tempted to go to one of the local illegal drinking dens, and get in trouble with the law. They could be imprisoned for a month, with terrible consequences: ‘When a man who has been so sentenced goes back to his farm, what does he find? That his horse instead of being fat is lean. We say in Ireland, “It is the master’s eye that fattens the horse,” and that is perfectly true. The firkins in his dairy should be full, but they are empty. What becomes of that man? Why, he abandons himself to despair. He says, “I will go into the town. I will pay my landlord no more rent, and I will spend all my money in drink”.’ His speech may have influenced the house. The motion was defeated once again and the pubs were allowed to stay open on Sunday.

In reality, the Irish people could get drink whenever they wanted to, in shebeens. In 1877, a Dublin Metropolitan Police officer described the situation in the tenements to the House of Commons:

‘In the low squalid districts are miles of filthy streets with lanes off them where there are houses known to the police carrying on illicit trade where crowds of people congregated and got drunk – but there was no getting legal evidence of this fact. As many as 50 or 60 people, labourers, common people, upon a Sunday morning would be seen going along whistling and chatting in groups and gradually disappear into a house. But by signals and otherwise communicating rapidly from one end of the street to another it was utterly impossible for the police to reach that house in time to get evidence.’

On one Sunday morning, this officer and his partner had observed 168 people entering an illicit drinking establishment, but were powerless to do anything because of the warning system used by the punters. Even when caught, the fines were disproportionate to the profits made. Police corruption was also rampant.

In 1883, a cap on the number of licences was removed, but a new public house could only be opened if the applicant and premises were deemed suitable and there was a recognised shortage of public houses in the geographical area. According to the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Laws, there were a staggering 21,000 pubs in Ireland in 1888 – almost three times the number today. Despite this, the calling had become nobler, particularly in urban areas. Many publicans had become wealthy and politically active.

By 1890, twenty of the sixty aldermen and councillors on Dublin Corporation were publicans, and it was common for the sons of publicans to enter the priesthood or the medical profession. The Irish Licensing Act 1902 aimed to reduce significantly the number of licences granted, and prevent any further abuses of the system. From this time onwards, pub licences acquired even greater value and could be used as collateral in business transactions.

The twentieth century in Ireland would bring a constant barrage of alcohol legislation. As J. V. Woods notes in Liquor Licensing Laws of Ireland, ‘the history of the licensed trade is one of almost continual conflict between legislators and licence holders with the result there is probably no other business which has been so much legislated for or litigated on as that of the Publican’. These complex and lengthy legal provisions bear testimony to the centrality of the pub in Irish society.



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