THE BRAZEN HEAD – A SECRET HISTORY
It is the oldest Tavern in Ireland and maybe Europe. And here’s what you need to know about it.
The Brazen Head on Dublin’s Bridge Street is a well-known landmark on Dublin’s tourist trail; it has been serving locals since 1613. It is widely known as the oldest tavern in Ireland and perhaps even in Europe – the sign over the door maintains that it was founded in 1198. But few people know how it got its famous name. Apparently during the Siege of Limerick a cannon ball was fired by the Williamite army and ‘removed the head of a well-known red-haired girl of ill-repute.’ This happened while she was watching the battle against Sarsfield and his men from the window of the brothel. When a new tavern was built on the site of the house in 1794 it was called ‘The Sign of the Brazen Head’.
The first record of ownership of the Brazen Head is made in a court claim against Richard Fagan and his wife Eleanor in 1613. It is in relation to a fine levied on ‘one messuage and garden called the Brazen Head in Bridge Street in the City of Dublin’. The Fagans were landed gentry who owned considerable tracts of land in Dublin, Meath, Sligo and Munster. In 1703, however, the tavern was granted to a James King, who had made a claim against the fortified estates of Richard Fagan. Fagan had resigned his commission in King James’s army and surrendered to King William of Orange after the Battle of the Boyne. Bridge Street at that time was a residential area for wealthy merchants and the gentry and the court papers record that James King was granted ‘all that large timber house called the Brazen Head containing 35 feet 6 inches in front, 49 feet in rear and 168 feet in depth with all outhouses, stables, yards etc.’ In 1704, despite objections by local traders, King was granted permission by the City Assembly to expand the inn with the lease of a tower and part of the city wall at the back of the Brazen Head. Shortly afterwards it was reported in the newspapers that the Brazen Head had been robbed of goods worth £60.
In 1710 James King was replaced by Robert King as the owner and in 1765 an advertisement in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal records that a new tenant was being sought for the inn. The tenancy of the thirty-room tavern was granted to Robert Autchinson of Mabbot Street. Denis Mitchell took over the Brazen Head in 1783 and ran it for thirty-nine years. During his tenure, the name of Oliver Bond – who lived on Bridge Street – and other leaders of the United Irishmen became forever associated with the pub, where they used to hold their meetings. It was in the Brazen Head that Bond outlined his plans for the capture of Dublin and later Robert Emmet reputedly hid out after the rising of 1803. His desk was preserved in the house and one of the rooms is named after him. In later centuries the insurrectionists of 1916 and the leaders of the War of Independence, including Michael Collins, gathered there for meetings to plan revolution. The Brazen Head was a favourite haunt of Flann O’Brien (Myles na gCopaleen) and Brendan Behan, famous Irish authors. And James Joyce mentions it in Ulysses, when the vagrant Corley tells Stephen Dedalus and Bloom that one can get ‘a decent enough do for a bob’ there. It’s no longer a hotel offering lodgings, and there’s nowhere nowadays to keep your horse, but the Brazen Head is still serving good food and drink to Dubliners and tourists alike.
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