By Mike Faricy
No trip to Dublin would be complete without raising a pint at the Gravediggers. You’ll not find the Gravediggers in the phone book nor on any tourist brochures, although every taxi driver in Dublin knows how to get you there. The pub, located next to a gate for Glasnevin cemetery is officially known as John Kavanagh’s or simply Kavanagh’s and offers the visitor a fascinating look into the past. It’s worth the short taxi ride or the sixty minute walk from the city center.
The pub was set up in the vicinity of Prospect cemetery, in 1833 by one John O’Neill. The cemetery, established in 1832, with the help of Daniel O’Connell, was open to all regardless of national, religious, or political affiliation and has grown into what is now Glasnevin cemetery, the closest thing the Republic has to a national cemetery.
In 1835, two years after establishing his pub, John O’Neill turned it over to his son-in-law, John Kavanagh. Pubs then— and for the next 140 years until the 1970s—were run as a family business with the license passed down from one generation to the next. In the 1990s, a study commissioned by the Licensed Vintners Association established that all but 140 pubs in Dublin had changed hands within the past twenty years. It brought about the idea to commemorate, in the year 2000, The Century Club, a national listing of all the family run pubs that had been in existence for over 100 years. With almost 13,000 pubs in Ireland, there are less than 200 that qualify for the Century Club. John Kavanagh’s, a.k.a. The Gravediggers, is the only such Century Club pub in all of Dublin.
And remember John Kavanagh back in 1835? He and his wife Suzanne had 25 children. At least three of whom immigrated to the United States and fought with the Union Army at Gettysburg. That visit was enough of the US for one of the three lads, Joseph, and he returned to Ireland, fleeing back to the States under suspicion of Fenian activity by British Authorities. He eventually returned to Ireland in 1877, and ran the family pub passing it on to his son, who in turn passed it on to his son, etc. For over a century, the Kavanaghs left pints for the thirsty gravediggers in the adjacent cemetery, hence the nickname, payment in turn being left on a gravestone.
Today the pub is run by Eugene Kavanagh. It remains where it has always been, at the corner of Prospect Square and Teresa Road, on a lovely green beside a disused cemetery gate. John Kavanagh, father of twenty-five children, is buried just a few feet from the gate, no mention of Mrs. Kavanagh, mother of 25.
Despite the smoking ban of last year, the walls remain dinge stained from over a century of neighborhood use, providing the genuine feeling you’ve stepped back in time. The old grocery drawers remain behind the bar, a ring board hangs on the wall and there’s still a snook where women and children were once required to sit. If you’re fortunate enough to visit and it feels somehow familiar, the pub has been featured in the movies Michael Collins and The Treaty, as well as a number of Guinness ads. Today you can purchase souvenir T-shirts and coffee mugs.
For more information on Irish pubs see The Story of the Irish Pub, by Dublin author Cian Molloy. To get to John Kavanagh’s, just ask any Dublin taxi driver to bring you to The Gravediggers.