From Cromwell to Covid, a Walking Tour Journeys Through the History of Ringsend’s Pubs

On 15 August 1649, Oliver Cromwell and a fleet of 35 ships docked in Ringsend.

The journey took him and his troops two days, and by its end, the Irish Sea had left the commander of the New Model Army feeling a tad delicate.

According to Hugh Peters, his army chaplain, he was “as sea-sick as ever I saw any man in my life.”

After the recently appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was received by an elated crowd, he stepped into one of the village’s pubs, says local historian Eddie Bohan. “I assume he didn’t pay for anything.”

Seated before a pint of lager in John Clarke and Sons pub at the western edge of Ringsend, Bohan nods out the front window to a sun-stricken Bridge Street.

“It would have been along this route here,” he says, speculating that this calm spot by the Dodder River was where the puritanical Cromwell imbibed a few sub-pure beverages.

Cromwell didn’t reminisce about this momentary lapse prior to his advance on Drogheda that September.

But Bohan found reference to the commander’s invasion via a local tavern while reading through journals from the day in the Chester Beatty library, he says.

It was a peculiar detail, one anathema to the legacy of this figure.

Naturally, it became the starting point of Bohan’s latest walking tour, which journeys through the history of the pubs of Ringsend from Cromwell to Covid.

Tours are set to run from 13 to 21 August, beginning on the 373rd anniversary of the day Cromwell set sail for Ireland.

Pirates and Pubs

Eddie Bohan has one strict rule he sticks to.

“Never shit on your own doorstep,” the historian says in a low but assured voice as three middle-aged men enter the pub to escape the weather, scraping some stools up to the counter.

Bohan grew up in Ringsend. But his first drink was in Doheny and Nesbitt, across the Dodder on Baggot Street.

He spent much of his life in the bar trade, first as a lounge boy, then as a bartender and a publican, he says.

But he always ensured there was a decent enough distance between his workplace and his home. He managed establishments like The Seabank House in East Wall, Eccles Townhouse on Dorset Street and The Stag’s Head on Dame Court.

Each one was in compliance with his rule. “Never shit on your own doorstep,” he says again, this time with a grin.

Telling the history of Ringsend’s pubs is as far as he is willing to go over the line.

For years, Bohan’s chief historical interest was Irish broadcasting – radio, in particular, and especially pirate stations.

He has lectured and produced documentaries about Irish pirate radio, from the use of the airwaves in the 1916 Rising to sectarian stations in Belfast during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 2019, he collaborated with Dublin City University to launch the online Irish Pirate Radio Audio Archive.

His idea for a walking pub tour of Ringsend emerged, though, from his parallel work as a tour guide.

In 2011, Bohan founded the 1916 Easter Rising Coach Tour, to give audio-visual guided tours of the battle sites of the rebellion around the city.

After partnering with the National Heritage Week to commemorate the Rising’s centenary, his career as a pubs historian snowballed, he says.

Bohan would research and write up histories of the pubs that he had worked in, he says. In 2019, he wrote a book on The Stag’s Head to celebrate the Victorian-era pub’s 250th anniversary.

In 2021, he explored the role of the public house in the Irish fight for independence in another book, Thirst for Freedom.

That same year, while preparing a tour of the pubs in neighbouring Sandymount, he found himself with enough material to develop a guide to Ringsend too.

Old Haunts

When Cromwell arrived, Ringsend was not a sizeable village, Bohan says, as he picks at a packet of dry roasted peanuts.

“It was only a small peninsula jutting out into the sea,” he says. “A short strip of land.”

In 1650, Dublin had roughly 1,500 taverns and alehouses. Ringsend, he says, only had about three.

Two hundred years later, there were 12 – for approximately 2,500 people, he says, smiling. “Every second door was basically a pub.”

When Bohan was growing up in the 1970s, the figure was down to five. That fell to four in the 1990s, he says.

Today, there are just three. On Bridge Street, they are Clarke’s and The Oarsman, the latter referred to in Joyce’s Ulysses as Tunneys, and on the nearby Thorncastle Street sits the Yacht Tavern.

To assemble his portrait of Ringsend through the ages, Bohan immersed himself in old books, newspapers, military archives, and Thom’s Official Irish Almanac and Official Directory.

The Ringsend he unlocked had public houses woven tightly into the fabric of its history.

He tilts his head in the direction of Ringsend Bridge, towards a Domino’s three doors up the gently sloping street.

That used to be FitzHarris’ Bar, he says. It opened during the latter half of the 18th century and, Bohan says, one of its owners, John Howard, was a British informant during the 1803 Rebellion.

Meanwhile, he says, the barmen in Tunneys fought in both the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.

The Shipwright, on Thorncastle Street, saw one of the bleaker deaths during the Rising when its licensee, Robert Woodcock, was captured by rebels. He contracted pneumonia in St Stephen’s Green, reported the Evening Herald on 16 May 1916

Says Bohan: “They left him to freeze to death when they forgot he was tied to a tree.”

Lost and Found

The village of two centuries ago looks drastically different to today, Bohan says, so he has to be careful with research.

“When houses were built, numbers changed,” he says. “Number two on one street suddenly became number 1o.”

From the mid-1850s onward, the 12 pubs were whittled down to three as the owner of one pub bought up another and expanded, he says. “One pub used to be two. Licences contracted.”

Of the pubs still standing, he says, the owners have changed many times and their names many more still.

Clarke’s, Bohan says, has had more names than he has had hot dinners. “It was The Ray Town Inn. It was Simpsons, the Hobblers Rest.”

Taverns such as The Sign of the Good Woman exist only as obscure references in impenetrable places like Finnegan’s Wake.

To illustrate how much it has changed, Bohan points to the Thorncastle Street flats, designed by architect Herbert Simms and opened in 1936.

The original Yacht bar was located there, he says, on the corner of a laneway named Whiskey Row.

The flats also replaced the shipbuilding yards, he says.

“The shipbuilding owners all bought pubs, and the men got paid in the pubs. So where did they spend the money? In the pubs. They got the money back.”

Bohan never frames these changes in a negative light.

The constant evolution of Ringsend is what engages him. After all, his tour travels from Cromwellian times to the outbreak of Covid-19.

The impact of Covid on the pub trade was enormous, Bohan says. “Nobody in living memory could ever remember the pubs being closed for so long.”

In Ringsend, Irishtown and Sandymount, it was a blessing that no pubs had to close permanently, he says. “They reinvented themselves.”

He gestures through the front window of Clarke’s one more time, to highlight the punters drinking at a set of tables outside the nearby Yacht Tavern.

“Outdoor drinking,” he says. “They adapted.”

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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, and the Business Post.

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