15 April 2019

It may be a long way to
Tipperary, but it’s even
further to find the truth

The Tipperary on Fleet Street, London … has it any links to the well-known song? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When I was posting on the buildings and monuments of Tipperary last week, and uploading photographs from the town on social media, it was inevitable that reactions would include comments such as ‘It’s a long way …’

Of course, it’s not all that long from here to Tipperary Town … it’s the next stop on the Waterford train after Limerick Junction. Indeed, Limerick Junction itself is not in Co Limerick, but in Co Tipperary.

Tipperary is a small town; it’s not even the country town of Tipperary – that role is shared between Nenagh, once the country town of Tipperary North Riding, and Clonmel, once the country town of Tipperary South Riding.

I had always thought, however – and repeated in at least one response – that the World War I song, ‘It’s long way to Tipperary,’ took its name not from Tipperary Town but from The Tipperary, an Irish pub on Fleet Street in London.

At a time when liquid lunches were popular among journalists and a time when many journalists still worked on Fleet Street, Private Eye developed the character of Lunchtime O’Booze as the archetypal drunken journalist.

During my visits to Fleet Street in the days when I was a working journalist, many London-based colleagues insisted on repeating the story that The Tipperary had given its name to the war song of soldiers pining to return not to provincial Ireland but to London, including Piccadilly, Leicester Square and the pubs frequented by the printers who worked on Fleet Street.

The Tipperary on Fleet Street … tall tales on the noticeboard beside the front door (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A colourful noticeboard at the entrance to this Irish-style pub continues to perpetuate many of the myths associated with this well-known and much-photographed pub. But, having repeated this myth in social media posts over the past few weeks, I felt a responsibility to check its veracity and to distinguish between myth and truth.

The Tipperary is slender and respectable and is often regarded as ‘the Grand Old Dame’ of Irish pubs in London. It is a late Victorian London pub with a strong Irish theme and many quaint features, including glass panels advertising Irish whiskeys and stout, dark panelling with carved insets and a stone mosaic floor embedded with shamrocks.

The noticeboard is littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes that should have been corrected by every Fleet Street sub-editor who passed through its doors on the way to a liquid lunch. Perhaps all this was in jest, as a challenge to the sobriety of journalists.

The Tipperary claims to be the first Irish pub outside Ireland and the first to sell Guinness in England. The sign claims it was built in 1605 with stones from the Whitefriars Monastery, and that these stones helped the pub to survive ‘unharmed in the raging inferno of the Great Fire of London.’

The pub sign also claims that at the end of World War I, Fleet Street printers returning from the war had the pub’s name changed to The Tipperary and that it has kept this name for 100 years since.

However, Martyn Cornell, whose ‘Zythophile’ blog looks at ‘bars, beer myths, beer nonsense, pub names, pubs [and] rants,’ has challenged ‘the reliability of the information on the sign at The Tipperary. He identifies at least a dozen errors in just 10 sentences, from the names of proprietors to details about the pub’s history, as well as stories about that war-time song.

He says it is nonsense to say that this was ‘the first Irish pub outside Ireland’ – it was not even the first Mooney’s Irish House outside Ireland. Nor, of course, was it the first pub outside Ireland to sell bottled or draught Guinness – Guinness was exporting to Bristol from at least 1825, in both cask and bottle.

Martyn Cornell notes that the owner’s name was JG Mooney & Co Ltd, not ‘SG Mooney & Son,’ that Mooneys were never brewers but pub and bar owners in Dublin, that the Boar’s Head was actually destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, that it dates back to at least 1443, not 1605, and that the site first belonged not to a monastery but to the Carmelite friars.

The house of the Whitefriars or Carmelites in Fleet Street was founded by Sir Richard Gray in 1241.

The Boar’s Head can be traced back ‘Le boreshede in Parish of St Dunstan in Fletestrete,’ mentioned in the same grant to the Carmelite friars in 1443 as the Bolt and Tun Inn that stood next door.

Behind the Boar’s Head, a rectangle of land bounded by the Thames, the walls of the Temple, Fleet Street and Water Lane or Whitefriars Street was known in the 17th century as Alsatia. It had retained some of the privileges of sanctuary dating from the privileges of the Carmelite friary, confirmed and enlarged by a royal charter issued by James I in 1608. Alsatia became a refuge for debtors, forgers, highwaymen and others who evaded the law until the privileges of the liberty of Whitefriars were abolished by William III in 1697.

The Boar’s Head was actually destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, along with 13,000 other buildings. But it was rebuilt and back in business by 1668.

The windows of the Boar’s Head were smashed by a Jacobite mob in the ‘Mug House’ riots in 1716. The mob’s real target was Mrs Read’s Coffee House in Salisbury Court, a next street away, but the leader of the rioters, Daniel Vaughan, was shot dead by the landlady’s husband, Robert Read. Later, five rioters were hanged in Fleet Street opposite Salisbury Court, and Read was cleared of Vaughan’s murder.

Sarah Fortescue, proprietor of the Boar’s Head in 1775, was accused of keeping her house open at unseasonable hours and of harbouring and entertaining ‘lewd women.’

The Boar’s Head was a ‘well-known and long-established’ public house in 1812. It originally faced onto Whitefriars Street, which was known until at least the 1830s as Water Lane. To the south was an inn called the Bolt-in-Tun, and both premises had back entrances onto Fleet Street at what later became No 64 and No 66.

The Bolt-in-Tun at 64 Fleet Street had become a booking office for the new railway companies by 1859. Most of the Bolt-in-Tun was demolished in 1882-1883, ending a story that stretched back almost 4½ centuries. In some histories, the story of the Bolt-in-Tun has been confused it with the Tipperary. But the Boar’s Head next door survived when the Bolt-in-Tun, was demolished.

The Tipperary on Fleet Street, London … acquired by JG Mooney of Dublin in 1895 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

JG Mooney acquired the lease of the Boar’s Head, its fourth London pub, in 1895. The company developed out of the bar business run by James G Mooney in Dublin from at least 1863. The company acquired its first pub in London, on the Strand, in 1889, its second on High Holborn in 1892 and then a third in Duke Street, on the south side of London Bridge.

The Boar’s Head became the fourth of the Mooney’s Irish House chain in London in 1895, four years after the death of JG Mooney, and was called ‘Mooney’s Irish House (late Boar’s Head)’ in 1895. The Mooneys commissioned the architect RL Cox to refurbish the pub, and the changes included the shamrock-embedded mosaic floor and a front step that still says ‘Mooney’s.’

The company continued to be run by his sons Gerald and John Joseph Mooney. Sir John Joseph Mooney (1874-1934) was the Home Rule MP for South Co Dublin (1900-1906) and Newry (1906-1918), John Redmond’s Parliamentary Private Secretary and Treasurer of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Mooney’s had at least 11 pubs in London by 1940, most of them known as ‘Mooney’s Irish House.’

The pub was called Mooney’s Irish House in Fleet Street into the 1950s, and the Irish House up to 1967.

The former Boar’s Head was sold ca 1966-1967, and in 1968 its name was changed from Mooney’s Irish House to The Tipperary. At the same time the name of the old Boar’s Head was revived and used for the upstairs dining room.

The pub closed for a few years for refurbishment in the early 1980s. It was a Greene King pub by 1986, but is now owned independently.

TP O’Connor’s bust at No 72-78 Fleet Street, a few paces east of The Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So, as The Tipperary only acquired its name half a century after World War I, I had to ask again whether the war-time song has any links with either Fleet Street or with Tipperary itself.

Of course, there are other, real, historical links between Ireland and Fleet Street. Among the many well-known Irish journalists who worked there was TP O’Connor (1848-1929) from Athlone, editor of the The Star (1888-1890) and MP for Galway (1880-1885) and Liverpool Scotland (1885-1929). His bust at Chronicle House, No 72-78 Fleet Street, a few paces east of The Tipperary, has an inscription: ‘His pen could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines.’

George Curnock, a Daily Mail reporter, first reported on the popularity of the song ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ with soldiers in France in August 1914. He cabled his news editor, Walter Fish, telling him the soldiers of the Connaught Rangers were singing the song as they marched from Boulogne to the front.

According to Fleet Street mythology, Fish imagined ‘Tipperary’ as a song to stimulate patriotist and a possible British equivalent to the Marseillaise. Lord Northcliffe, the proprietor of the Mail, was equally enthusiastic. The words and the music of the music hall song were secured and prominently displayed in the Mail.

The song was picked up by other regiments, and its popularity among the troops was secured after it was recorded that November by the Irish tenor John McCormack and became a best-selling hit before the end of the year.

‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was written in 1912 by Jack Judge (1872-1938) and Henry James (Harry) Williams, allegedly for a 5 shilling bet. The original title was ‘It’s a Long Way to Connemara,’ but Connemara became Tipperary by the time it was performed the next night at a music hall in Stalybridge, Cheshire.

Harry Williams’s parents were publicans at the Plough Inn – now The Tipperary Inn – in Balsall Common, half-way between Solihull and Coventry. Jack Judge’s parents father, Jack Judge senior, was born in Carrowbeg, near Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo; his mother, Mary Maguire, was born in Oldham to Irish parents, Thomas and Jane Maguire, who may – or may not – have been from Tipperary.

Which all goes to show that you should never believe anything told to you by a man in a pub – especially if he has been drinking at lunchtime. To paraphrase TP O’Connor, writers need constantly to use pens that ‘lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines.’

The stories about ‘Tipperary’ are lessons in why not to believe anything said by a man in a pub – especially if he has been drinking at lunchtime

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