Charles Duff on the Circa-1950s Irish pub

Charles Duff was an Irish writer of the mid-20th century. While largely forgotten today, an attempt has been made to revive interest in his work. The Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque this year to honour his achievements, as explained 10 months ago in the Belfast Telegraph.

The article notes:

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, and may be described with them as Anglo-Irish unless this foreign observer mistakes the terminology. That being said, Duff had a deep interest in all corners of Ireland, north and south, and authored a travel book in 1953 called Ireland and the Irish.

He wrote a similar book about England, and also covered what can only be described as an eclectic range of subjects. This took in language instruction (he was multilingual, having mastered six or seven tongues), capital punishment (he campaigned against it), Spain under Franco, social satire, and much else.

His career path can be described as wayward: after a limited education he entered the merchant marine, was a soldier in France (WW I) and gassed for his trouble, and, before turning to writing, ended his conventional careers in the Foreign Office and the Bar – he qualified as a barrister, I mean.

This diverse background seems to have opened his mind to many interests and influences; or perhaps it was the reverse that was true. In his Ireland book he devotes some good thinking to the pub, which I’ll turn to in a moment. It is noteworthy as one of the few reflective considerations on the subject to be made, seemingly, in the mid-1900s, versus the journalistic notations from the American press I discussed in my last post.

I’ve looked at a half-dozen histories or accounts of the Irish pub, some academic, and none cite Duff. I’d think this is down to his obscurity today, but perhaps too his Ulster background?

Duff was not a trained scholar, and was autodidact in many fields. Hence, his work retains a popular feel. For lack of a better term, it “relates” to actual social life more palpably than much scholarly writing, which typically serves different, certainly valid, goals.

I can summarize his views in this fashion: the pub was an important social centre in Irish life on both sides of the partition line. Northern and Southern pubs shared many traits except that Ulster pubs tended more to resemble English ones.

The Republic’s pubs, in contrast, could show unique features such as absence of the pub tie, cheaper prices, and sharing the business of selling drink with grocery and other functions. The so-called “spirit-grocery”, which seminal beer author Michael Jackson had noted carefully and illustrated with photographs in his 1977 The World Guide to Beer, was a common feature especially in rural areas. Perhaps it still is today – others can testify more accurately to this.

Duff stresses as well that the pub of the Irish everyman expressed its most authentic character. Pubs frequented by the more prosperous classes were more restrained in character, more inhibited we would say today.

In this respect, unlike the Irish observer of some 20 years later who found pub denizens rather dull (see my last post), Duff found them “interesting” and “congenial”.

Both in this book and other writings, Duff made it clear he sympathized with Irish independence, not perhaps extending to island unification, but in regard to the 1922 treaty with Britain and membership in the Commonwealth. He recognized the deformations in the Irish economy and psyche that English diktat had entailed for so long.

He was no socialist, but seemed a liberal democrat who realized that British empire had reached its terminal point by the early 20th-century. He saw it was futile to resist the impulse of subject lands to self-government, and deprecated in particular British handling of the Easter Rebellion.

At the same time, while he puts it diplomatically, he thought it best that for the time being and barring an unusual event, Ireland should stay divided.

Duff puts great emphasis on the deterioration in his view of the design ethic of pubs in the Republic. Elsewhere in the book he cites the Davy Byrnes pub as an object lesson. He was particularly against the excessive use of chrome for decor and fittings, and said the pub’s 1940s renovation evoked a hygienic American film set.

He preferred the simple wood tables and chairs of Joyce’s Dubliners era. Again diplomatically, he states that Ulster pubs resisted the worst effects of this trend. Nor did he confine the decline to Dublin, as he makes clear similar “improvements” existed in places like Cork. In general he regarded Dublin as more coldly efficient than Ulster even in the early 1950s, which strikes one as counter-intuitive today.

Perhaps everyone regards the physical structures familiar in their youth as inherently superior to today’s architectural fashions. I still like the concrete bunker or “Brutalist” design of many public and private buildings in the 1970s. Was that better than today’s, er, polished metal and glossy glass? Not really, but it’s what I remember in a formative time of my life.

Young people discovering bars and pubs in 1953 Ireland were probably less enamoured of the dusky wood and brass of c.1900 Dublin than Duff, almost 60 by then. After all, the Edwardian period was their dad’s or gran-dad’s era.

Anyway, Duff knew how to write, so I’ll let him argue the matter in his way (pages 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 on the Circa-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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