Charles Duff and the 1950s Irish pub

Charles Duff was an Irish writer of the mid-20th century. While largely forgotten today, the Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque recently in honour of his work, as detailed 10 months ago in the Belfast Telegraph.

The article states:

Mr Duff, described by the Ulster History Circle as a “largely forgotten son of Enniskillen”, died in 1966.

Its chairman Chris Spurr said: “Charles Duff has a different and distinctive profile as an author, to two other Irish writers already commemorated by blue plaques in Enniskillen, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett.

Duff shared with Wilde and Beckett a Protestant background, each “Anglo-Irish” unless I mistake the terminology. That said, he had a deep interest in Ireland both north and south, and wrote a travel book in 1953, Ireland and the Irish.

He wrote a similar one about England, and in further writing covered an eclectic range of topics. It took in language instruction (he was multilingual, six or seven tongues), capital punishment (he was against), Spain under Franco, the role of social satire, and more.

His career path might also be described as eclectic, if not wayward. After a limited education he entered the merchant marine, was a soldier in France (Great War) and gassed. Before finally turning to writing he had careers in the Foreign Office and the Bar – he qualified as a barrister on the way.


In the Ireland book he devotes good thinking to the pub, one of the few reflective treatments in the period versus, say, the more casual (yet still pertinent) observations of American journalism (see last post).

I canvassed a half-dozen or so histories, or other modern treatments, of the Irish pub, some academic, and none cites Duff, yet I for one found his observations of good interest.

He considered the pub an important social centre, on both sides of the partition line. Northern and Southern pubs shared many traits, he wrote, except that Ulster pubs resembled English ones more.

Further, the Republic’s pubs could show unique traits: no brewery tie, low prices, and selling groceries along with alcohol. This so-called “spirit-grocery”, which beer guru Michael Jackson noted carefully with illustrations in his 1977 The World Guide to Beer, was common in Ireland especially outside cities.

Duff stressed that the pub of the Irish everyman expressed its most typical character whereas pubs of more prosperous classes were less exuberant.

He considered that pubs in the Republic were becoming less interesting in design. In the book he cites the Davy Byrnes pub as an object lesson. He was especially against excessive use of chrome in decor and fittings, and felt a 1940s renovation at Davy Byrnes resembled a hygienic American film set.

He preferred the simple wood tables and chairs of James Joyce’s Dubliners. He did not confine this decline to Dublin, as he felt similar “improvements” occurred in places such as Cork. In general, he viewed Dublin as a more coldly efficient place than Ulster by the early 1950s.

Duff knew how to write so I’ll let him state things his way (via HathiTrust).


Note re images: the images above are drawn from the links identified and stated in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




1 thought on “Charles Duff and the 1950s Irish pub”

  1. This is a page from Davy Byrnes current website. You can see even in the small photos shown the pub circa 1900, as preferred by Duff, vs. the 1940s renovation, which is still in place today. The style selected for the update was art deco, a prevalent 1930s ethic. Today, given the two generations that have passed, the interior looks charming and even enticing, but one can see how Duff was taken aback by the difference. In his discussion of the pub, see pp. 164-165 in the book (linked in the text), he states that he also preferred the older version because drinkers had a higher regard for each other than by the 1940s. This statement is somewhat obscure; perhaps he meant that the clientele gentrified and was more competitive and superficial by the war years.

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