A pub with debate, discussion and ghost stories

Jim, a Fine Gael figure formerly of the Department of Justice, is discussing politics with the barman. The thrust and parry of their conversation is momentarily interrupted by the arrival of a group of tourists from the Ghostbus – which explores haunted Dublin. The men at the bar give the ghost-bussers a sceptical glance before returning to the more pressing matters of the day.

The bright summer evening with its still-roasting sun makes a hard sell out of what should be the perfect location for ghost stories.

Ciaran, the seventh generation of Kavanaghs, has little time to talk of ghosts as he is busy rustling up delicious, good value tapas, in the modern side of John Kavanagh’s bar – which is known to all as The Gravediggers.

The nicknaming of a Dublin Institution

The pub got its nickname because it’s built into the wall of Glasnevin Cemetery and gravediggers used to come in for a few scoops after a hard night’s digging; Dublin.ie is told the occasional gravedigger still frequents the bar.

Situated in the picturesque Prospect Square at the original entrance to the graveyard, The Gravediggers looks pretty much the same as when the first Kavanagh opened it in 1833. It has that warm, conversation-enhancing feel that solid wood, brass and centuries of nicotine bring to the table.

On the big screen and in little books

The fact that modernity appears to have been left outside the door accounts for the fact that The Gravediggers pub is a much sought-after location for movies and commercials. Gene Wilder’s Quackser Fortune has a cousin in the Bronx and Liam Neeson’s Michael Collins are just two of the films that were shot here.

Ciaran readily admits that the movie side of things helps: not alone do you get paid, but it enhances the reputation of the bar. The fact that it is situated slightly off the beaten track also boosts that ‘hidden treasure’ feel.

Ciaran Kavanagh – image courtesy of Dave Dowling

I certainly recall the first time I went there some 25 years ago. It was one of those misty autumnal evenings when the scent of decaying leaves merges with firework sulphur. You turn off the busy main road and find yourself in that charming, quiet square. And there on the opposite side, by the cemetery gate, lit-up and beckoning, was The Gravediggers.

“This is pure James Joyce,” I thought at the time. And that’s not just Irish sentimentality. A few years ago, The Lonely Planet Guidebook featured The Gravediggers in its 50 hidden treasures of Europe list. “That’s been quite a boost for business,” Ciaran says.

No radio, no singing – no exceptions!

People come alright. “Why? This is a proper old Irish pub where conversation is primary,” Ciaran says. “No television, no radio, no singing,” he adds. This is a policy that is strictly enforced – even when it hurts. And in one memorable case, when Ciaran was a young teenager washing glasses, it really did hurt.

“Yeah. The infamous Luke Kelly funeral. I was an impressionable young lad and they all came in: Ronnie Drew, U2, the rest of The Dubliners, The Chieftains – everybody who was anybody!” Ciaran says with a wistful look. “They had a few drinks. Then out came the instruments and they started to tune up. It would have been something special,” he says.

This is a proper old Irish pub where conversation is primary.

“My Da went over and said ‘Sorry boys, no singing. If I let you sing, then the locals there without a note in their head will want to sing. And I have kids upstairs,’” Ciaran recalls.

So they packed up their instruments and left. “It would have been the best session ever and, especially in the pub that didn’t have any music, it would have gone down in legend. But that was the rule – it’s a place to just drink. It’s always been about the drinking,” Ciaran says.

“You can’t have one rule for the locals and one for the rock ‘n’ rollers, but as a young lad it hurt to see the world of rock ‘n’ roll get up and walk out of my life,” he adds.

The Gravediggers is a family affair

Ciaran compensated for his loss by taking off on his travels a few years later and didn’t return home for 15 years. He worked as a chef for Club Med in a host of exotic places. “Yeah that was a little rock ‘n’ roll,” he says with a glint in his eye. He worked in Switzerland and Italy, then he worked for the BBC in its canteen.

When Ciaran returned to Ireland about 15 years ago, he opened up the food side of the business bringing his own unique take on pub grub to Dublin’s food and drink scene. “Good quality food at decent prices,” he says. “People come in and have some food and then they buy a drink.”

We are all caretakers of the one business. We are all aware of each other’s role

Ciaran acknowledges that the business is still very much a family affair. He, along with three of his seventh generation siblings – Anne, Anthony and Niall – and their mother Kathleen manage the business.

You read the occasional horror story about families being in business together. So what’s it like for the Kavanaghs? “We all grew up in it and dipped in and out. And we are all caretakers of the one business. We are all aware of each other’s role. If everyone accepts their role and respects the role of others, then things work out fine.”

Given the fact The Gravediggers has been going successfully since 1833 and there’s no visible sign of business slacking off, the Kavanagh family must have found a model that works. Be sure to pay them a visit. And remember, you’ll find it a lot more fun if you go before the hearse takes you there.

John Kavanagh aka The Gravediggers is located on Prospect Square, just off Prospect Avenue in Glasnevin. To find out more, check out its Facebook page.

Kevin Barrington is a poet, multimedia artist and a regular on the open mic scene around town. Kevin is also an award winning advertising copywriter and blogger. He gets his adrenalin from cycling around town or out to the 40ft for a swim.

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