Davy Byrne's

Davy Byrne's

In Brief

A Dublin institution to this day, in part because the fictional Leopold Bloom eats lunch there in Lestrygonians, "Davy Byrne's" is a public house on Duke Street in the prosperous southeastern part of the central city. Bloom thinks of it as a "Moral pub," because of the character of the eponymous proprietor and the benign environment he has created. Joyce may possibly have intended a polemical edge to this phrase, since there is evidence that Byrne was gay and that his pub may have served as a hangout for gay men during his lifetime.

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Coming to Dublin in 1873 as a 12-year-old boy from County Wicklow, Byrne served as an apprentice in one pub before working his way up to part-ownership in another and then, in 1889, purchasing a run-down tavern at 21 Duke Street which he reopened under his own name. His life-story thus confirms what Bloom thinks in Calypso about publicans: "Coming up redheaded curates from the county Leitrim, rinsing empties and old man in the cellar. Then, lo and behold, they blossom out as Adam Findlaters or Dan Tallons."

Vivien Igoe observes that Byrne "was a good listener and had a way of winning friendships and retaining them. His pub became the haunt of poets, artists, writers, scholars and politicians. These included James Joyce, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, F. R. Higgins, Pádraic Ó Conaire, Tom Kettle, Liam O'Flaherty and William Orpen, who was one of Byrne's greatest friends." A longer list would include Oliver St. John Gogarty and James Stephens, and later writers like Patrick Kavanagh, Brian O'Nolan (Myles na gCopaleen, Flann O'Brien), Brendan Behan, and Anthony Cronin. Actors (including the famous gay couple Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir), actresses, and dancers also frequented the pub, attracted by the artistic flair of its interior. Byrne died in 1938.

When Bloom reflects that Byrne's is a "moral" place, several things jump to his mind: "He doesn't chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once." As the narrative of Lestrygonians continues, other indications of sound character appear. Byrne doesn't bet on the horses: "— I wouldn't do anything at all in that line, Davy Byrne said. It ruined many a man the same horses." He notices when people are in mourning and tactfully respects their privacy: "— I never broach the subject, Davy Byrne said humanely, if I see a gentleman is in trouble that way. It only brings it up fresh in their minds." And he recognizes Bloom's uncommon qualities: "Decent quiet man he is. I often saw him in here and I never once saw him, you know, over the line. . . .  He's a safe man, I'd say." Like his silent assessment of the butcher's Jewishness in Calypso, then, Bloom's quiet appreciation of Byrne's moral qualities seems to reflect an awareness of shared values. They are birds of a feather.

In a personal communication from Dublin, Senan Molony adds another sympathetic detail to Byrne's biography: in an intolerant time and place he seems to have been monogamously devoted to a male partner. Census records of 1901 and 1911 retrieved by Molony show that Byrne was (respectively) "not married" and "single." Far more remarkably, a tombstone in the Glasnevin cemetery stands atop two graves and preserves the memory of two men: "of David Byrne, who died on the 10th September 1938, and of his friend Thomas Campbell, who died on the 10th March 1927." Such an inscription, in the repressively moralistic atmosphere of Ireland in the 1930s, should probably be seen as a bold defiance of conventional sexual mores.

(Another Thomas Campbell, a Romantic-era Scottish poet, surfaces twice in Hades—once anonymously when Bloom recalls a line from one of his poems, and again by name when he wonders about the authorship of a different poem. These references are quite definitive, and since the Dublin Campbell died in 1927 there would be no particular reason to allude to him in the cemetery chapter. Still, given Joyce's fondness for name coincidences, it is not inconceivable that he knew of Byrne's friend and obliquely acknowledged him by bringing in the poet.)

If indeed Joyce had reason to think that Byrne was homosexual, that purely natural inclination would not by itself justify calling the man and his establishment "moral." But in a time when morality was widely invoked to demean non-standard sexual orientations, not to mention unacceptably frank works of literature (Ulysses shows heteronormative desire to be riven with channels like voyeurism, adultery, masochism, and anal eroticism that render it very non-normative), Joyce's use of the word to characterize an all-but-out gay man may mask a cutting edge. What would seem an "immoral" pub to many people becomes a moral one with the stroke of a pen, suggesting that Joyce's celebration of human happiness over social conformity extended into his assessment of same-sex love.

Evidence that Davy Byrne's pub was "moral" in the sense of tolerating queerness can be found later in the 20th century. For most of that century Dublin was a very lonely place for gay men. A 2013 blog by Sam McGrath on the Come Here to Me! website cites one man's recollections from the 1970s, recorded in Coming Out: Irish Gay Experiences (2003): "There weren’t many opportunities to meet gay people, unless you knew of the one bar—two bars, actually, in Dublin at that time, Bartley Dunne’s and Rice’s … They were the two pubs and if you hadn’t met gay people, you wouldn’t have known about these pubs; there was no advertising in those days, and it was all through word-of-mouth." The same two bars are mentioned by another gay man, George Fullerton, who is quoted from Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (2009) as saying that in the 1960s "I never experienced discrimination as such, probably because we were largely invisible."

These two bars near the Gaiety Theatre and St. Stephen's Green became known as gay-friendly starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, along with King's, another pub in the same area that is mentioned less often. But there were two more in Duke Street: The Bailey and Davy Byrne's. The 1971 edition of Fielding's Travel Guide to Europe noted that "On our latest visit, scads of hippie-types and Gay Boys were in evidence" in the Bailey, and it suggested that both that bar and Davy Byrne's, across the street, were not "recommended for the 'straight' traveller" (779). It seems likely that the welcoming atmosphere in Davy Byrne's may have dated back to its original proprietor. Proof of this is hard to come by, but there are tantalizing bits of evidence that may be featured in a later version of this note.

Mentally calculating his day's expenses in Sirens, Bloom thinks back on the 7d. he spent on a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy in Davy Byrne's. In Circe the publican himself returns, reliving the bored yawn that he gave in reply to Nosey Flynn's ramblings about the Freemasons in Lestrygonians: "— O, it’s a fine order, Nosey Flynn said. They stick to you when you’re down. I know a fellow was trying to get into it. But they’re as close as damn it. By God they did right to keep the women out of it. / Davy Byrne smiledyawnednodded all in one: / — Iiiiiichaaaaaaach!" Ithaca mentions the pub yet once more, with a misremembered address: "David Byrne's licensed premises, 14 Duke Street."

JH 2020
  2011 photograph by Andrew Becraft of the Davy Byrnes pub (the signs have no apostrophe) on Duke Street. Source: www.flickr.com.