This pub is one of Dublin's hidden gems, located on a quiet square by a now little-used gate into Glasnevin cemetery.
The pub's first licensee was John O'Neill, who was owner of the Prince of Wales Hotel on the North Wall and who originally used the premises on Prospect Square as his family residency.
However, he converted part of his home into a pub in 1833, a year after Glasnevin cemetery opened its gates to receive the dead for the first time.
Daniel O'Connell is said to have played a major role in securing the pub's good fortunes in its earliest years, because he campaigned for a new road to what was then the cemetery's main gates, so that funeral processions would not have to pas via a tollgate. The pub returned the favour by mainly stocking O'Connell's Ale.
John O'Neill was licensee for almost a year when he handed over the business to his son-in-law John Kavanagh in 1835 after he had married Suzanne O'Neill. Remarkably, John and Suzanne had 25 children. Three of their sons served in the Union Army in the American Civil War, with all three being mentioned for bravery after the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1867, one of the three war heroes, Joseph Kavanagh, briefly returned to Ireland, but was forced to return to America, where he spent another 10 years, after being targeted by Dublin Castle as a Fenian activist.
When Joseph returned again in 1877, he was no longer regarded as suspect and was free to become the pub's new licensee. Shortly after he took over, the business suffered a loss in trade when the original cemetery gates were closed and new gates were opened on the Finglas Road. Ever after, the main funeral business went to Hedigan's on Prospect Road, a pub that features in James Joyce's Ulysses and which has been in the same family since 1904. In a bid to attract customers, Joseph added a shooting range and a skittle alley to the premises, but these were not long-term successes.
In 1907, the licence passed to Joseph's son John H. Kavanagh, but he died at a relatively young age in 1920 and the licence passed on to his wife Josie. During her tenure, the bar was known as either ‘Josie's' or ‘The Widows', tow nicknames that remained current until the 1950s.
In 1943, the licence passed to Josie's son John M. Kavanagh, who ran the business with his brother Fintan. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the pub included a grocery counter, which remained in operation until the 1950s. Today, behind the bar you can still see the drawers where tea, snuff, tobacco and spices were stored.
The current licensee is Eugene Kavanagh, a stepson and nephew of John M. Kavanagh. Eugene was eight years old when his father, Michael Kavanagh, died and he spent two and a half years in an orphanage until his mother, Ellen (Nellie) Edgeworth, married her dead husband's brother.
During the 1950s and the 1960s, the pub suffered trading difficulties, because of the general economic situation in Ireland and the pub's out of the way location. ‘ We were not the only pub to suffer,' says Eugene. ‘One of the reasons that there are so few old family pubs in Dublin is that a lot of publicans could no longer afford to pay their staff. Running a pub became too much hard work.'
As John M. Kavanagh grew older, the workload started to become too much for him and the pub's opening hours were reduced to evenings only. His sons took their turns helping him when the bar was open, but they were limited in the assistance they could give because each of them had their own full-time jobs. In 1973, Eugene quit his job in Guinness's and bought the pub from his family to try and make a go of it himself.
‘Luckily, my father's lack of business enthusiasm meant that the pub wasn't gutted during the formica and plastic era in the 1960s,' he says. It is still a lovely old pub in its original condition.' While the grocery counter is gone, most of the interior décor is original, including the bar counter and a partition that once separated the drinking area from the grocery.
Gradually, the pub began to be rediscovered and as the local economy improved so did business, with Eugene adding a lounge, which is twice the size of the bar, in 1980.
Today, the pub is known widely as ‘The Gravediggers', a nickname that Eugene says was coined by workers at the newly guilt Glasnevin Industrial Estate in the 1970s. ‘Lately, semi-yuppies have taken to calling it ‘the Diggers', he adds. ‘I have never used either of these names to promote the pub. Indeed, I have never promoted the pub; my policy is to serve quality drink at a reasonable price and hope that word-of-mouth will bring more customers here.
‘If the pub was used by gravediggers, there are not many of them about now. When the cemetery first opened, it had nine acres and 60 gravediggers; today it is 79 acres and a dozen gravediggers with a JCB. We now get customers from all over; at the weekend, over 50 per cent of our customers are women.'
Looking to the future, Eugene hopes that one of his six children will take the licence on after him. He says: ‘If it doesn't stay in the family, it will never be sold. I will set up a trust to run the pub, if I have to. I can understand why my sons and daughters wouldn't want to take it on, as the work is hard and long. My main aim every night is to get to bed before daybreak, but you cannot sell heritage.'
Extracts from 'The Story of the Irish Pub' by Cian Molloy, supplied with permission of the Liffey Press. For more information on the book check the Liffey Press website.