200 Year Old Formula
A few plain facts point to the wonder of Toners pub of Baggot Street, Dublin 2. The pub is almost two hundred years in operation and yet it remains largely unaltered, working off the same successful formula it always has. Bearing in mind that it is within a stone’s throw of other truly great pubs, not least Doheny & Nesbitt and O’Donoghues, its longevity and simultaneous resistance to change are all the more impressive. Granted there have been a few additions over the years such as a beer garden out back and an upstairs function room, to cater for the larger, occasional crowds but the kernel of the pub is essentially unchanged, with a single television parked high in the corner, the only hint at modernity. What is it that keeps a pub going for near on two centuries, apparently effortlessly, whilst other establishments fritter with every imaginable fad in order to survive? We tried to answer this question in the case of Toners. Ultimately we concluded that it is often a secret ingredient or two that makes these great pubs ‘great’. We find it hard to describe the special feeling when you walk in to a genuinely old pub. Perhaps you are not meant to be able to describe this feeling but rather to experience it firsthand yourself; the special feeling that Toners, and likewise Thomas Connolly’s in Sligo, give you. It’s part of the magic. The worn walls and weathered floor in Toners whisper of bygone days and add to this indescribable feeling. Fleeting thoughts of how many feet have walked this floor take you back in time.
From Rogers to Toners
Toners was established in 1818, when the first license on the premises was acquired by Andrew Rogers, after whom Rogers Lane, bordering the side of Toners, is named in honour of to this day. William F. Drought then took charge in 1859, the first of many publicans to follow Rogers, officially in the capacity of ‘Grocer, Tea, Wine & Spirit Merchant’. John O’Neill (1883 – 1904) and James M. Grant (1904 – 1923) held reign until James Toner himself took over in 1923. James remained in situ right up until 1970. He was the fifth owner of the pub but notably for the longest tenure, and subsequent landlords have admirably saw fit to maintain the Toners name.
The first thing that hits you when you enter Toners, is the sheer antiquity of the place. Worn wooden partitions sit at various intervals across a dark, flagstone floor in what is essentially one large room. These partitions appear liable to collapse but will no doubt out-last the lot of us. Small shelves that look like little balconies are favourably appointed here and there to allow cold pints stay out of warm hands when not in use. Stock drawers situated behind the main bar hint at the pub’s former dual role as a grocery store. There is a museum-like feel to the place, which can be absorbed on a quieter midweek visit, as was the case for us. On a more rowdy weekend night or in the hours around a big rugby match at nearby Lansdowne Road, a magnetic buzz takes hold of the place, and all reverence this age-old establishment deserves is delightfully ignored.
The Perfect Snug & The Perfect Pint
On walking into Toners, like so many before us, we tried to make a beeline straight for its award-winning snug! It was occupied, needless to say, so we sat at one of the high tables across from the main bar counter. Worse still, when the old fella using it slipped away, another (slightly younger) old fella zipped in with his paper and his pint. There’s fierce competition in this snug-snatching business! On a busy night we may have asked to join him in there but on this more subdued week night, we opted to leave him well enough alone in his corner of peace and solitude. We weren’t to be outdone however. No sooner was he folding up his newspaper and donning his jacket to leave than we were waiting by the entrance to the elusive snug. It took a while, but we got there in the end.
We enjoyed our last couple of pints ensconced in this delightful corner. Snug aficionados among you will know that Toner’s snug is a special one. It can seat up to eight or nine people but even with just the two of us, it didn’t lose the coziness you want in a snug. It was voted Snug of the Year 2010 (i.e. best in the whole of Ireland) in a poll run by Power’s Whiskey. Between the simple privacy, the view to the street, the easy access to the bar, and the charming battered old character of the wooden panelling and pew, we were sorted. The snug in Dick Mack’s in Dingle or in the Palace Bar in Fleet Street, Dublin would give it a run for its money though. The Guinness was supreme, the barman was friendly and we sat chatting and admiring the artefacts on display in the glass cabinet beside us. A photo of the victorious 1958 Dublin All-Ireland Senior Football Champions hung overhead (Louth were champions in 1957, it’s also worth gratuitously mentioning! Go on the Wee County!).
Perhaps one of those secret ingredients that makes Toners such a special place – in addition to the snug, which is certainly a rare delight – is the knowledge that you are sitting where a very many great folk have sat and socialised before you. Like a number of the older pubs of Dublin City centre, Toners is noted as having been frequented in the past by many of Ireland’s literary greats, including Patrick Kavanagh and W.B. Yeats. Toners may have seemed quite unpretentious against the more refined sensibilities of the Victorian era, at a time when more ornate pubs such as The Long Hall and The Stag’s Head became the norm. That may have suited Kavanagh’s more earthly self image; “The gravel grind / Keeps humility in a writer’s mind.” It is rumoured that Toner’s was the only pub that Yeats would drink in around these parts. He was said to typically sip a sherry and leave. An action scene featuring James Coburn was filmed in the pub for Sergio Leone’s 1971 film ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’. Forty years later, the silver screen stardust was still in the air as Sean Penn became a regular in Toner’s during his time in Dublin shooting the 2011 film ‘This Must Be The Place’, about a retired rock star living off his royalties in Dublin. Toner’s is also around the corner from government buildings so it’s sure to have been the unofficial House of the Odd Policy Decision or Two, and there’s no shortage of odd decisions to speculate could have been made here. Speaking of speculation, back to Yeats…perhaps now and again he penned a line or two in Toner’s; ‘A Drinking Song’ perhaps? Now just the possibility of that, there’s a secret ingredient and a half…
“A Drinking Song”
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
Words: Angelika Appelqvist & Damien Smyth
Photos: Angelika Appelqvist (unless otherwise stated)
Name: James Toner’s Pub
Address: 139 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2 (Dublin City)
Proprietor: Frank & Michael Quinn
Visit because: Sit amid 200 years of antiquated pub heritage, where many a notable visitor has also visited, among them Patrick Kavanagh, W.B. Yeats, James Coburn, Sean Penn and Mumford & Sons. Toner’s snug has been voted the best in Ireland. It has also been voted as having the best pint of Guinness in Ireland (therefore the world!). It has a great beer garden. You need more reasons?!!!
Food served? (Yes/No): No
Tel.: +353 (0)1 6763090
Social links: Twitter – https://twitter.com/Tonerspub / @Tonerspub
Location / Map: