200 years in the making

One of Dublin’s oldest landmarks, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street in Dublin city centre is steeped in history. Proprietor Willie Aherne, speaks to Fionnuala Carolan about growing up and working in one of Dublin’s most famous haunts and the pride he feels on its 200th anniversary  

The morning I met with Willie Aherne, the news broke that Wetherspoons were closing their regional pubs in Ireland. Aherne, a lover and protector of the traditional Irish pub was nonplussed by the news. “Wetherspoons is not what I look for in a pub,” he says. “They are lacking in soul.”

Soul is something The Palace Bar has in spades and if the walls could talk, it would reveal a lot about the Dublin of old and a broad history of thespians who regularly frequented it during the last century. 2023 sees it celebrating the extraordinary occasion of 200 years in existence and Aherne explains that his family have been at the helm for 75 of those.

“It probably dawned on me during the Covid years that we were 75 years as a family here and at the time we didn’t know how things were going from week to week and what the future held so the fact that we are open and operating a good business here in 2023 and The Palace is 200 years old, we needed to mark the occasion,” he says.

As part of the celebrations they launched an own-label whiskey in conjunction with Irish Distillers and Powers, and another one with Echlinville  Distillery in Northern Ireland and they have a special limited edition whiskey coming out before Christmas. “We’ve really put ourselves out there on the whiskey front since the early 2000s and we were the first pub to revive that tradition of having our own whiskey label again since the early 70s,” he explains.

They’ve released about 11 whiskeys since then. “I respect whiskey and I love a whiskey tasting evening,” he admits. “I find it very sociable to talk through 4/5 whiskeys  and have a pint or two as well”.

Having completed whiskey courses in Midleton he tasked himself with making The Palace Bar one of the premier Irish whiskey houses. “It was on our doorstep and we weren’t embracing Irish whiskey until the early 2000s,” he says.

The Palace bar holds around 350/400 whiskeys in stock

So what level of input does Aherne have on producing a bespoke whiskey for The Palace Bar? “We look at the age profile and what kind of cask we want to use. We get 3/5 samples whether we go to the distillery or we come here. I tend to always bring them home as your mood and your palate can be different in a relaxed setting and make your own decision over a period of a week. With the help of my right hand man Alan, we come to a decision,” he says.

Irish whiskey is riding the crest of the a wave at present. We’ve seen this for craft beer and gin and now a lot of focus and investment is on the Irish whiskey category. What whiskey would he offer to a tourist who wanted to taste a good Irish whiskey we wondered?

“If they wanted to  try something different that they wouldn’t get back home we encourage them to try one of our own whiskeys, Echlinville, Dingle or Fercullen maybe,” he suggests.

Growing up in the business

Willie Aherne, owner and operator of The Palace Bar

Growing up being part of an establishment such as this nurtured a real love of tradition and instilled the importance of social connection for Aherne and he recalls coming in “as a young fella washing bottles, cleaning the shelves, putting the beer mats out and wiping down tables.”

He also remembers ‘holy hour’ clean-up, which was when the bar used to close between 2pm-4pm every day and then it became just Sundays, with the hope that men would go home for their dinner.

After school Aherne did a marketing course in Business Studies in DIT and then went travelling for a year and a half. He says it was an easy choice to come on board here full time after that. Ahern’s grandfather Bill died in 1978 and his father and his sisters took over. His father Liam is still working – coming in 5/6 mornings a week. “He meets a few regulars, has his lunch. He’s immersed in the trade,” explains Aherne.

Rich history

Willie Aherne’s grandparents Bill and Bridie Aherne bought the Palace in 1946

The Palace Bar was originally a drapery owned by John Standford who ran it through the 1830s and 1840s. It evolved into a pub and Patrick Hall took over in 1878 and commissioned a renovation and from this renovation came a lot of the Victorian features that you still see today. Aherne explains how it came to be in his family. “The Ryan Family came in around 1912 and George Ryan died in the early 40’s and the Widow Ryan was running the show here and she sold it to my grandparents Bill and Bridie Aherne in 1946 just as WW2 came to an end. They paid a high price for the pub which was a remarkable achievement just after WW2, as money would have been tight and my grandfather was in his early 30s. He had come up from Tipperary along with his two brothers and they all got involved with the licenced trade and served their time and eventually got the deposit for a pub up in James Street and did very well there and then he went on to buy here.”

The Palace has long been known as a journalists hang out with The Irish Times and Irish Press offices situated just across the road on D’olier Street. The famous  Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie used to hold court in the back room, reveals Aherne.  “Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, the artist Harry Kernoff all came in here. It was one of the melting pots like The Duke, McDaids and The Waterloo. There was a bit of a bohemian thing going on during the 40s and 50s in Dublin.”

Change afoot

The beautiful Victorian features in The Palace Bar that Aherne’s grandfather refused to replace

Change was in the air in the 1960s and traditional Irish pubs began to modernise as they were encouraged to move with the times. “It was the swinging sixties and they were putting down carpet in pubs, formica counters, taking away snugs and gilded mirrors etc. They were all going in skips. My grandfather’s peers were saying, you have to move with the times or you’ll be left behind,” explains Aherne.

He recounts how his grandfather decided to stick with tradition after a conversation with another publican. “Bill went for a walk one day to Ryans of Parkgate Street and the boss man Bongo Ryan was there and they were having a drink and Bill asked him was he modernising and he said no and they both shook hands on it. The Palace and Ryans are still here today. I think in Dublin we are blessed because we have about 15 of that ilk like The Long Haul, The Stags Head, The Swan, Keoghs, McDaids etc and they are all doing well.”

So The Palace remained the same but in the 1970s inevitable change came as women started to frequent bars and the first ladies bathroom was installed in the late 70s. “Before that they used to have to let them upstairs to the family home,” laughs Aherne.

Loss of the afterwork drinks crowd

Covid changed things irretrievably for The Palace Bar having always been a great ‘teatime house’ which was busiest between 5pm-8pm but that trade is hit and miss now, says Aherne. “Our regulars are not in town as much or they might have moved down the country. We rely on tourism, events, corporate business and some regulars to make up for it.”

“People come to The Palace Bar to read the newspaper and have conversations,” says Aherne

Coivd was a harrowing time for Aherne as he describes the ‘not knowing what was going to happen’ as the worst part. When the ‘€9 meal’ rule came in where customers had to purchase food worth €9 with their drinks, they were quick to innovate by installing a pizza oven and joining forces with a restaurant across the road to offer four or five dishes. They had never served food bar a “good toastie” so this was a huge effort to organise. “It was good for our heads to be back working,” he says. “It covered its costs and the place was open which was important. There were no tourists around but the support we got from regulars was unbelievable. People were coming in during the day to support us and we got to know a lot of our regulars better during the period as we had to seat everybody and sign them in.”

After Covid they reverted to just doing toasted sandwiches again and Aherne said the furthest he would like to go is maybe creating a better sandwich but he doesn’t want the smell of food in the bar. “People come to The Palace Bar to read the newspaper and have conversations. They don’t want to see plates and cutlery and the smell of soup. A good sandwich, cheese and onion crips and a nice pint – perfect!”

The right staff

Getting the right staff is important for Aherne and he always looks for a nice manner and a good work ethic and makes sure they are a little bit streetwise. He sends his staff on regular whiskey training so make sure there is good knowledge across the board.

“Whiskey is a big feature of the house so knowledge is key. Some staff are good in some areas, and others are stronger in others so you need to play to their strengths.”

It’s no secret that a lot of staff left the industry during the Pandemic and Aherne can attest to this as he feels like a lot of older staff got out of this game and wanted to spend more time with families. “It is an industry of unsociable hours. All industries are looking for staff; guards, teachers, retail. You need a good package. A lot of pubs have gone to a four day working week to try to retain staff and keep costs down.”

 Handing on the reins

Liam and Willie Aherne, father and son, launching The Palace Bar whiskey

Aherne says it would be lovely if his kids, who are still very young, one day took over but he is adamant that they will have to find their own way and they certainly won’t be forced. “It would be lovely if it stayed in the Aherne family. I thank my mother and father for giving me a love for the business. I love old buildings, bars, architecture. He remembers trips down the country to see relations and stopping off in pubs like Mooney’s of Monasterevin and Morrissey’s of Abbeyleix along the way. “I love tradition. We were down in Dingle during the summer and the whole family was in the snug in Dick Macks for a drink and the kids for crisps and 7up. You don’t get that in the Canary Islands or Spain,” he states.

Aherne will be taking over from Laura Moriarty as chair of the Licensed Vintners Association next year and he’s looking forward to the challenge and following in the footsteps of many strong chairs. “We have a good man there in Donal O’Keefe to guide us. It’s an important role to speak for the trade and to build relationships with suppliers and I’ll aim for few improvements in the trade for our members. It’s amazing how liaising with your peers can solve a problem or you can ask advice and get moral support. It was a huge learning experience for me when I joined 12 years ago.” With two small children and a baby on the way, Aherne and his wife Miriam have plenty on their plate but you can be sure they will hand down the great love and respect they have for the history of one of Dublin’s oldest pubs to the next generation with the hope that the Palace Bar will still be standing in another 200 years’ time.


A music session taking place in The Palace Bar



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