Brushing Up: The Story of the Palace Bar's Back Room

The Palace Bar is famous for being the former haunt of several prominent literary figures. But it was also a favourite spot for painters, particularly Harry Kernoff, who sold his work from its walls.

It was from the 1930s to the 1960s that some of Ireland’s most talented writers, poets and journalists were regulars. They drank at the Palace largely because Robert M. Smyllie drank there.

Smyllie was editor of the Irish Times from 1934 to 1954, and the newspaper’s offices were located just a moment away. So he stopped in often, and the city’s literary talent followed, hoping to get a piece commissioned.

This legacy is evident before you even step inside.

Four bronze plaques set in stone on the path outside depict legendary regulars: Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Con Houlihan. Samuel Beckett and, more recently, Seamus Heaney are also known to have stopped in regularly.

Kavanagh is quoted in his biography as saying, “When I first came to Dublin in 1939, I thought the Palace the most wonderful temple of art.”

In addition to the writers and poets, the pub was also frequented by painters. Sean O’Sullivan, Patrick O’Connor – and Harry Kernoff.


Born in London in 1900, Kernoff moved to Dublin with his family when he was a teen, and it was here that he began to study art – at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.

In 1926, he began exhibiting his work in the Royal Hibernian Academy, and he did so almost every year until he died. But when it wasn’t there, it was exhibited and sold from the walls of the Palace’s back room.

Liam Aherne, who took over the pub from his father and now runs it with his son William, can remember Kernoff putting up his pieces. His studio was off the South Circular Road, says Aherne, on Stamer Street.

Kernoff’s work was underappreciated until his later years, says Aherne. But over the decades, dozens of his paintings were sold in the Palace, usually for £10 to £20, he says.

The Palace’s decor is the same today as it was when it first opened 193 years ago, says Aherne.

Past the snug is the mahogany bar. Past the bar is the high-ceilinged back room. Above, sun surges in from a skylight and the colours of the Harry-Clarke-designed stained-glass windows dance.

It’s easy to picture some of Dublin’s best writers and artists gathered on the burgundy leather chairs, at dark wooden tables. With Kernoff’s work on display on the walls.

Kernoff passed away in 1974, but a handful of his pieces still hang on the back room’s walls.


Above the high wooden paneling on the walls, there are curios laid out as if in a museum display. On the right, among framed newspaper clippings and photographs, are two woodcut prints signed by Kernoff.

In black-and-white, they portray pub scenes. One shows a man playing an accordion-like instrument, and another, three patrons.

On the opposite wall, there are two colourful portraits of women in headscarves, and a pastel drawing of Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan, dated 1944.

Aherne thought about getting in touch with Mia Farrow the last time she was in Dublin to tell her about her mother’s portrait in the Palace. He says he regrets not having done so. “Next time,” he says.

Kernoff is remembered for painting landscapes of Dublin and portraits of its people. The National Library has a collection of his work in its archive, but the Palace is one of the few places where you can still see it on display.


Kernoff’s works depict Dublin’s landmarks, streets and coastline. He also painted and printed scenes from the city’s pubs, including the Bailey, McDaid’s, the Oval, Davy Byrne’s and, of course, the Palace.

All these pubs featured in Kernoff’s social life, according to his diaries, which are kept in the National Library. In the Palace, he made friends with some literary legends, notably the poet Patrick Kavanagh. The pair even went on holidays together.

In Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography by Antoinette Quinn, the poet is quoted as praising Kernoff for being “a vital painter who takes everyday things like Dublin houses and parks for subjects”.

“He was well-known among the personalities of the 30s, 40s and 50s,” says Aherne.”They often got him to paint them.”

Among the writers he painted were Behan, Kavanagh and F.R. Higgins.

Aherne doubts he ever got paid for this work, because the writers were usually broke. There’s still a bounced cheque of Patrick Kavanagh’s in the basement, for £1 and 10 shillings, he says.

Kernoff wasn’t much better off. “He was often financially embarrassed,” says Aherne. Toward the end of his life that changed a bit, as his work became more popular, Aherne says.

He points to an old black-and-white photo of his father with the caption: “Bill Aherne toasts the sale of a Harry Kernoff painting with two gentlemen in the Palace Bar, early 1950s.”

He draws my attention to the background. On the wall behind his father is one of Kernoff’s most famous paintings, “A Bird Never Flew on One Wing”.

He has a print of this painting in black and white behind the bar, and points out the Palace’s name melding with the names of other Dublin pubs to form the background.

“It was probably sold here for a tenner in the 50s,” he says.

After sitting in O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street for more than 30 years, in 2008 it sold for €180,000. Some even believe it may have inspired Star Trek‘s Mr Spock character.

So what about the few artworks that are left on the walls today? Are they still for sale?

No, they’re there to stay, says Aherne. As is the collection of old photos, newspaper clippings, cartoons and paintings by other artists.

Filed under:

Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

Alfreda
at 9 March 2016 at 13:03

That’s wonderful. Liam Ahearne and family are great custodians, great to have the background on one of my favourite Dublin Bars.

Understand your city

We do in-depth, shoe-leather reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.