Early Houses, specially licensed off-hours pubs, are there for your first—or last—meal of the day
In the early morning hours, the beloved pubs of Dublin are locked up tight, their shutters closed without a sign of life. Most of the 750 or so pubs can’t open and start serving drinks until 10:30 a.m., but as is common in Ireland, there’s an exception to every rule. If you know where to look, that exception can include a full Irish breakfast. I first encountered Early Houses—pubs with special licenses allowing them to start serving booze as early as 7 a.m.—when I lived in Dublin and walked to work in the city center each morning along Pearse Street.
Most pubs were dark and quiet, with one exception, the Padraig Pearse. Walk by this pub at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and it looks like Friday night inside, with men boisterously smoking cigarettes in the doorway and holding half-empty pints of Guinness. I started crossing the street to walk on the side of the Padraig Pearse each morning, catching a quick glimpse of what’s going on inside. Before I even knew the name for it, I was witnessing the tradition of Ireland’s Early Houses firsthand.
These special licenses date back to the 1920s, and were designed to serve overnight workers. Clustered around the north side of the River Liffey near the old markets and on the south side of the river near the docks, the Early Houses were originally for fishermen and dock workers. They served a distinct purpose: farmers and market workers, too, deserved the opportunity to sit down to a pint at the end of a day’s work, regardless of the time on the clock.
Since the 1960s, Early Houses have been a dying breed. No new pubs have been granted early licenses in over 50 years. There are fewer overnight workers, fewer markets. And yet, people still come. There are shift workers who keep unusual hours, like nurses. There are college students who party all night long. There are casino workers, post office employees, journalists, and hotel workers or police coming off the night shift. Occasionally, there’s an in-the-know traveler who after a redeye flight into Dublin airport—knowing that they likely can’t get into their hotel room until early afternoon—heads straight to the Early House for a full Irish breakfast and a Guinness.
This is no delicately plated morning meal: Two fried eggs served with rashers, carefully browned sausages, black pudding, grilled tomato, and sauteed mushrooms, served with slices of lightly toasted, white batch bread, crumbly brown bread, and a generous mound of Irish butter. Barely any plate shows through at all. It’s intensely satisfying, particularly as a counterpoint to a night out. Whether you’re awake because of jet lag or a lock-in that lasted all night, Slattery’s on Capel Street will serve you a full Irish breakfast alongside a pint at 7:30 a.m. In this classic pub, with its dark wood and leather, softly lit lamps and brass taps, your companions are likely to be men of a certain age, probably with a paunch in their belly, reading a newspaper at the bar.
Not all Early Houses are as pleasant as Slattery’s, and most serve only pints without an egg or rasher in sight. Some actually keep the doors locked until the regular opening time of 10:30 a.m. and use CCTV camera to decide if they want to let you in (a strategy for keeping away “undesirables”). At others, it’s simply the barman’s discretion whether or not to serve you.
For hair of the dog or the end to a long night out, the full Irish at Slattery’s satisfies for another reason: it is the type of meal that will send you straight to your bed, suitably prepared for the deepest and most restful of sleeps. After a decade of living in and spending significant time in Ireland, it is the single taste I have come to associate with fun. This is not a virtuous breakfast. It’s a hearty meal fit for counteracting some of the mischievousness that often accompanies the best Dublin nights.