A Mulligans barman was pulling pints in the lounge when a mature mid-west American man came in. ‘Excuse me sir where is your bathroom?’ Directions were given. Off the American went. Then he was back. ‘Excuse me sir there is no lock on the door.’
The barman was finishing a pint of Guinness. His mind was on the job so, without looking at the American, he said, ‘As long as I’ve been here, no one ever tried to rob a shite.’
Stories like these are the stuff of legend about this public house a few minutes walk from the river Liffey in the heart of Dublin city. For Gary Cusack, who owns and runs the pub with his brother Gerry, the real stuff of legend in Mulligans is the pint of Guinness.
‘You get people coming in, and they go, you’re in Mulligans now, you’ll have to have a Guinness. Guinness is our bread and butter, so you have to have it right. We are firm believers in letting Guinness settle. When it gets to Mulligans it goes into the front cellar, sits there for a day or two, goes into the cold room, it’s there for another two or three days, it would be a week before we use it. It is coming in fresh anyway so you don’t mind it being a little bit more mature, and it seems to work.’
Gary has long wondered why Mulligans became so famous. People say, ‘what’s special about Mulligans?’ The question becomes a quest. There’s the Guinness, the barstaff, the craic, the Old Dublin feel and much more besides. ‘You have to be here a while, to appreciate the customers, the barstaff, you have to blend in. Then you realise it’s not the first pint or the second pint [laughs], it takes about eight pints to enjoy the place, to get a feel of the place.’
Mulligans is not a flashing, bleeping, singing, dancing, happening sort of place. There’s banter, craic, conversation and drink. ‘What you see is what you get. Mulligans is a little rough around the edges,’ says Gary, knowing that is the way he and his regular customers like it.
It’s the morning of an All-Ireland Senior Football quarter-final. Barmen Damien and Jeff are moving tables, chairs and stools out of the pub into the store room. Gary and Gerry know from experience that it will be standing room only. For decades, for the supporters of Cork and Kerry, Galway and Wexford, Mayo and Clare, and especially Cavan and Dublin, Mulligans is home from home – a country pub in the city. ‘If the weather is good,’ says Gary, ‘you’ll have a crowd outside but that’s changing, the guards are clamping down. Our days of having crowds outside are numbered.’
That would be a big change of tradition. On a day like this many years ago a seemingly serendipitous event took place. All of Cavan was in Dublin on August 20, 1944. For the 13th time in 14 years, since 1931, Cavan were in the semi-final of the All Ireland Football Championship. Their opponents were Roscommon, who had cruelly denied them a third title the previous year, winning a replay that had stretched the resources of the Cavan and Roscommon people, almost 120,000 attending the two games.
Among the Cavan supporters was 14-year-old Tommy Cusack – father of Gary and Gerry. Tommy’s uncle Mick Smith bossed the house. Smith was the connection to the last John Mulligan, who passed away in 1928.
‘There was a big matchday,’ says Gary, ‘and my grandfather was outside having a drink and he said to the brother-in-law, “this young lad wants a start”. The brother said, “Ah yeah, bring him in now,” and he went in behind the counter and he was there ever since.”
A few years later Tommy was joined in Mulligans by his brother Con. ‘For my Da it was a job,’ says Gary. ‘He came up, got a job and that was it.’
Tommy and Con Cusack lived on the premises in a room at the top of the house. Mick Smith, even though he owned the place, slept in the smallest room on the top floor. A quarter of a century later the Cusacks took it over, after Smith passed, buying it with head barman Paddy Flynn in 1970.
Being Cavanmen, Tommy and Con each had a sharp wit. Colloquially closer to Belfast than Dublin, their wit cut deep into the sensibilities of the sensitive. Once they got to know their regular customers and more importantly once the regulars got to know them, their acerbic observations became the stuff of Mulligans legend. They were followed by Tommy McDonald and Mick McGovern from the same part of the country, though McGovern, who was born on the Cavan-Longford border, would get mad if he was called a Cavanman. The two Tommys, Con and Mick became the benchmarks of Mulligans’ standards.
It wasn’t for nothing that even the hardened hacks from the building next door that once housed the Irish Press newspapers called Mulligans the pub where it’s ‘the barstaff that insult the customers’ and not the other way round. The Cusacks and their barmen never suffered fools gladly. Their house was a drinking establishment and as long as you kept your head when the drink was flowing, everyone got along fine. Their regulars were painted onto the barstools.
‘A lot of people in those days thought they were being insulted,’ says Gary, ‘because the barmen were grumpy. There was a breed of barman that was either mad or had a way about them. It’s changed since,’ he adds with a knowing smile.
Mulligans has remained a country pub in the heart of the city but it has changed over the years, more than many would admit. Con Houlihan, who once wrote a legendary column for the Evening Press, was known to pen it occasionally in Mulligans while sipping brandy and milk. ‘He’d cash his cheque,’ says Gary, ‘and leave it behind the bar, then he’d ring up and say, “I’ll take fifty today”.’
‘That was a facility that was available to a lot of people. There was always a slate and if somebody came in and said, “any chance of a few quid” it was available. The cheques had to be cashed here because they had to clear their slates. It was, “Tommy whatever I owe you take it out of that”. That’s the way it was done in those days, now it’s cash customers only.’
‘I said that to John Kelly [a former Irish Press journalist] in front of Da. Kelly says, “what are you going to do with yourselves now that the Irish Press is going?” and I says, “ah sure it’s cash customers only now, John,” and Da laughed. John Kelly didn’t look happy.’
Those days have gone and for a while after the Irish Press closed in the mid-1990s, Gary was worried about Mulligans’ future. Tommy told him not to, reminded him that it hadn’t been so good in the 1950s and 1960s when the only customers they got were dockers and printers.
‘Da will tell you, it was hard work and he put a lot of hours in, himself and Con. They spent their lives in here. I remember Da telling me [when the Press went], he said there’s always something to replace it. There was the docks closing, then the Theatre Royal and the Irish Press and there was a bit of a lull for a while, but the civil servants kept us going and now there are office blocks everywhere. There’s always something to replace what has passed on. We just have to keep ourselves the same.’
This, Gary believes, is one of the reasons why Mulligans has endured. “People have come up to me,” he says, “and say they knew Tommy and Con from 20, 30 years ago. People like that, they like that there was no change as such.”
Guinness, says Gary, is also aware what rustic pubs like Mulligans do for the stout business. ‘Guinness’s over the last ten years have more control over the product than they ever did. They have dropped the temperature. When I started here [in 1988] Guinness was officially between eight and ten degrees. It had a thicker, creamier head. Now it is six to eight degrees and the head is a little whiter.’
The end product became a science for Guinness, but for Mulligans it was something they had always done, the way they cleaned the glasses, the shortness of the draw between the keg and the tap – with never more than two pints in the line. Nowadays Guinness go to see how pubs store and wash their glasses.
‘There’s a little water test,’ says Gary. ‘You fill the glass with a pint of water and you pour it out. If there’s any sort of water hanging around the top it means the glass is contaminated. If grease is on the glass [from a pub that does food] and the glass goes into the glasswasher, the machine gets contaminated, so every glass that goes in afterwards gets contaminated. [Guinness] have spent so much money you should not get a bad pint in this town, everywhere should be pretty much the same.’
Yet Mulligans is known as ‘the home of the pint’ in Dublin and not just by the Cusack brothers. As well as being a haunt for the workers of the area, it is also a landmark pub. ‘Because Mulligans is a touristy pub, a famous pub, you get journalists from other parts of the world that want to find out what is going on in Dublin.’
It was the persistence of one customer, a Dub called Joyce, against all good literary advice, that has led tourists to Mulligans. The specific mention in his books of Dublin establishments and personalities, like Mulligans and its regulars – namely O’Halloran, Leonard and Farrington, turned James Joyce into a literary icon. Gary admits the tourists come to Mulligans to soak up the flavour of Joycean Dublin.
‘Tourists who come down here, they’ve come out of their way to find Mulligans – the best pint of Guinness in Dublin, the usual spiel we get off them. We’re off the beaten track, which is a good thing. We’re not mainstream, yet we are famous. You get people coming from all over the world saying Mulligans this, Mulligans that. They come down, take in the place and some of them don’t know how to handle Mulligans, asking what’s so special about it.’
If he knew that he could bottle and sell it!
First published in 2005