The following obituary written by Kieran Fagan first appeared in the Irish Times on April 21st 2012, and appears on this website with the kind permission of the writer.
Publican extraordinaire who made Harto’s a home from home
THERE ARE Irish pubs and there are Dublin pubs, and there’s Hartigans of Lower Leeson Street. Home from home for thousands of students at University College Dublin, place of celebration, sanctuary and consolation, and purveyor of that very special product, the best pint of Guinness in the very city which gave the world that famous stout.
And behind the bar, Alfie Mulligan, the publican who enjoyed a well-poured pint of Guinness, and who died in his sleep last month aged 90. From farming stock in Co Leitrim, educated in Cork, he served his apprenticeship as a barman in Glasgow, and returned to Ireland, managing Mooney’s pub in Phibsboro, in Dublin.
One day he suffered a burst ulcer and found himself in St Vincent’s hospital, then in St Stephen’s Green. Wanting to tell his wife Evelyn where he was, he found a payphone in a public house on Leeson Street. They took possession of Harto’s within a year, and in 1974 set about turning it into “a country pub in Dublin”, according to one customer.
Even though UCD had begun to move from Earlsfort Terrace to Belfield near Donnybrook, and St Vincent’s hospital to Elm Park, Harto’s retained the core faculties of medicine, law and rugby for decades to come. It is is not an elegant or imposing premises. Even aficionados have been known to deplore its rugged interior. But that ignores the central reality of a place where people feel comfortable.
For Alfie and Evelyn Mulligan, when she could spare time from her own growing family of eight reared “above the shop”, customers were family too. When students celebrated exam successes, “Ma” – as Evelyn was called – looked out for the quiet one who had failed. Before the dread word “counselling” became ubiquitous, she listened and wiped away tears. One customer boasted that he had studied for his repeat Leaving Certificate in Harto’s, and qualified in law at Harto’s, whereupon Alfie told him it was time he got a job and paid off the money he owed to Harto’s.
Though Hartigan’s features in At Swim Two Birds, Davy Byrne’s “moral pub” on Duke Street, on the other side of St Stephen’s Green, is better known, as it is mentioned in Ulysses. However it was a Harto’s old boy, entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, who celebrated his 50th birthday by building a marquee replica of his favourite watering hole at Wanderers’ rugby ground, as the original was too small for 700 guests.
The Mulligans were invited, but Alfie was not in on the secret. He demanded to know who owned this place and how long it had been there, before the penny dropped. By this time he had acquired the adjoining public house, best known as O’Dwyers of Leeson Street.
And it was in Harto’s in September 1995 that a little piece of history was made when O’Brien famously had a drink with minister for communications Michael Lowry but did not discuss the imminent award of a mobile phone licence, according to evidence given to the Moriarty tribunal.
Few pubs can boast a “past pupils’ union” but Harto’s has the “Sotrah (Harto’s backwards) club”, a devoted group of 1970s alumni whose most recent meeting was in Hartigan’s to mark Alfie’s 90th birthday, just two weeks before he died. The fellowship of the pub is a special one. Some customers value being recognised and part of the in-crowd. Others – the “flotsam and gentlemen” of the drinking fraternity – slip quietly from public house to house, pausing for a glass and the sports pages, before going on through the shadows.
A man might frequent a bar during half a lifetime and his name remain unknown to the publican. If they met on the street, the publican would wait for the customer to greet him, as to take the initiative might break the confidentiality of their bond. Alfie had the measure of his customers, and respected them all.
All is changing, in a world where thunderous sports bars abound and seating is removed before big matches so more punters can be crammed in. The improving world could learn much from Alfie Mulligan, publican extraordinaire. He is survived by his wife Evelyn, their seven children, and his twin Gerard. His son Thomas predeceased him.
Alphonsus (Alfie) Mulligan, publican, born February 19th, 1922, died March 30th, 2012.