Stranger's Guide reveals the intricacies of places across the globe through thoughtfully curated stories, events and objects. Our work won the 2021 National Magazine Awards for photography and general excellence.
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Portrait of a Pub
Progress and procrastination at Dublin's infamous Grogan’s Castle Lounge
photography by Dara Gannon
Grogan’s is a public house on South William Street in Dublin. Centrally located, it would not stand out from other bars in the city if not for one thing: the people who work and drink there, known as the Groganites. In the early ’70s, when Paddy Kennedy and Tommy Smith bought the premises, Dublin City Centre was a ghost town, especially in the evenings. The owner of any business sets the tone of that business; their philosophy and who they hire are a direct extension of them and how they think. These two men—and it was unusual for a bar to be owned by two people—set the tone for the next 46 years.
In the 1970s, Dublin was poor but culturally rich. The Troubles in the North of the Island made for a politically charged atmosphere in Dublin. Many regulars in Grogan’s were “Irregulars” in their spare time. But Grogan’s was also a place where men who wouldn’t be given the time of day elsewhere were given a place to visit where they could become part of the fabric of the bar. Ambi Collins and Gifty were some of the first men I heard of as “Groganites,” Dublin characters who were not wealthy or well in society but had their role in the Grogan’s Milieu. My aunts drank in Grogan’s back then, which was a feat in itself in Dublin at that time. Women had been relegated to drinking in Snugs, away from the eyes of society. In the changing world of the ’60s and ’70s, many lounge bars sprung up and accepted women with the conditions that they had a male chaperone and only drink non-alchoholic beverages, such as Babycham. Grogan’s was different; it would serve unaccompanied women. It was a small step, but it was a big change in a city where, until the 1990s, certain bars would still not serve women pints.
Grogan’s was a microcosm in these years. Nothing much changed; same people floated in and out. The artists and poets were always there, but in the ’80s, art began to appear on the walls, and the bar itself evolved. A younger group of people became regulars; they dominated and then adapted. The regulars grumbled and then adapted. On the walls are Catherine Lamb’s brilliant stained glass light boxes depicting the Grogan’s regulars. Anyone can drink in Grogan’s, the Groganites are the ones who add to the special atmosphere. Bars need two things: staff and customers. They are the ones who breathe life and brio, interest and fun, into what is otherwise just a shell of a building. Staff have their rosters, and regulars have their times and habits. Regularity bestows some benefits on a Groganite: quicker attention on a busy evening, a friendly chat with staff members and the feeling of belonging. People really want to belong to Grogan’s, it is palpable even to tourists who visit. They feel invested in the ephemeral thing that is this institution.
During the boom of the 1990s, many older bars in Dublin sacked staff and hired cheaper, non-bar-trained people. They removed decades of decorations and refurbished, leaving many older pubs and Dublin’s cultural heritage the less for it. Without staff who have seen it all and heard all the stories, and regulars who tell the stories, our culture is lessened. Grogan’s still has staff who have worked the bar for nearly 50 years and regulars who have been on the other side of the bar for just as long. It is a time that is passing, though. Age has diminished and thinned out the regulars, another economic boom and tourism have changed the numbers visiting this special venue, and in some ways, its cultural value will be diminished. As artists, poets and regulars can no longer live in the city, it will become a shell—just a building with tour groups standing around photographing things they don’t understand or contribute to. Go to Grogan’s, sit down beside someone and have a conversation about something—anything—just remember, it’s up to you to be interesting. Share a table, talk to someone who looks like they might murder you—what could go wrong? Remember the souls of the Groganites who have gone before, who no longer have the entrance fee or the energy to visit.
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