The international taxonomy of bars features many generic or placeholder names – metasyntactic variables, if you like, and who wouldn’t – I have visited No-Name Bars and Bars with No Name, Dew Drop Inns and Welcome Inns. Once on a dreary bus trip to Derry in more Troubled times, a sign appeared in the murk advertising the Wel-Kum Inn; I took their word for it. I’m sure that, somewhere, someone technically-minded has opened a FooBar. Then there are numerous Holes in Walls, which in Ireland alone can be found in Galway, Armagh, and Kilkenny.
The Hole in the Wall – “the Holer” to its friends – on Blackhorse Avenue is not the cozy little nook its name suggests; it is a whole row of cozy little nooks, stretched out to fill an immensely long building nestled up against the Phoenix Park. An outdoor smoking area and some bench seating stretch in the other direction. The bar counter continues through all the pub’s subdivisions and is said to be the longest in Ireland. It’s a wet but mild Wednesday, in November, when I arrive and the blaze of light is welcoming. Inside, fires are burning, it is warm-hot, even – and convivially crowded. The kitchen is doing a brisk trade despite the relative lateness of the hour.
I’m joined by some friends who live locally and come by here occasionally. We agree that we’ve never been in a pub that was simultaneously hosting a wine-tasting class and showing Fair City, but here we are. Later, the wine-tasting room is revealed to be a full wine shop with a wide selection of bottles and various wine fridges and equipment. Beyond that room there is a restaurant area, currently closed. The Hole in the Wall keeps yielding more holes. As the busy bar is divided into different segments, it can sometimes be hard to locate service in any one of them, but we have no real complaint. The booze selection is nothing out of the ordinary, and our pints are perfectly good. The only non-standard beer is a white-labeled pale ale produced by BRÚ.
My impression of any pub with a twee name like this is that there’s going to be a touch of forced quirkiness, and indeed every surface is packed with kitschy bits and pub paraphernalia. As Christmas is beginning to loom, the seasonal decorations have just gone up – the place is famous for them – and there are giant snowflakes and nutcrackers throughout.
A tavern operated here at the sign of the black horse from the 1650s, and the building’s aspect and location are still those of an old roadside inn. Travellers would have broken the long journey to Dublin at the Blackhorse Tavern for centuries. There are hitching-posts with horse-heads on them outside the door, and the road itself is now called Blackhorse Avenue, so it seems to be a shame that the McCaffrey family abandoned that venerable name in favour of its current one in 1970.
A commonly-held story has it that the pub used to serve pints through an actual hole in the wall to soldiers stationed in the Park, but it is not clear when, or how, this would have been. The pedestrian gate into the Park is more commonly held to be the eponymous hole in the wall, and tradition has it that Douglas Hyde and later Seán T Ó Ceallaigh would come in here for a pint. Our barkeep says that the Áras’s current occupant, though teetotal, has visited for a cappuccino with some human guests but sadly without Bród, Síoda, or Fred the Labrador. There is a “Presidents’ Snug” with drawings of every holder of the office to celebrate these connections. I look for a mention of the Invincibles and Skin-the-Goat but a diplomatic sense of tact seems to prevail. Perhaps after Brexit.
The space of a few pints passes pleasantly. Wine tasters and diners leave, but other punters arrive, and while the place is never rammed it remains busier than many city-centre bars would be at this time. A band sets up around a table by the front door, which seems miles away, playing a bit of dad-rock – Cat Stevens and The Eagles. They’re taking it handy and seemingly just playing because it’s something they enjoy doing, which, is fair enough.
The décor and all these activities give the sense of The Hole in the Wall as a place where there’s a lot going on, but it’s also a perfectly serviceable place for a quietish pint. It’s well-regarded by parents I know as a place for sustenance after a tough day wrangling children through the zoo. I’d certainly visit on a peaceable Sunday afternoon if I found myself in the area, and it’s a good option to have in reserve when I need something a bit out of the normal run. Handy to have the Hole in the back pocket.
Words: Ben Walsh
Photo: Killian Broderick
345-347 Blackhorse Ave