Dublin: Irish Pubs

“WHEN you have everything, what do you want? What else will make you happy?” I’m in the Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street discussing the meaning of life, via football and young Russian oligarchs with enough money to buy English football teams. My philosophical companion, supping a lunchtime pint of Carling lager, possibly not his first nor even his third of the day, is a complete stranger and his thick Dublin accent means I understand only every other word. The Palace is a long, narrow but high-ceilinged room that opens into a larger, bright, glass-roofed space, filled with regulars who all give me a glance as I step in before going back to their pints. The only noise is a quiet hum of conversation and the clink of glasses.

The shelves behind the bar reach to the ceiling and are stacked with bottles of spirits, including the Palace’s own brand of whisky. Thought provoking quotations decorate the walls. This Victorian gin palace is a place for serious conversation and serious drinking, once frequented by local writers such as Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh, W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde and still popular with journalists from the nearby Irish Times. Singing is not allowed, unless it is a visiting Welsh Rugby choir. On the edge of Temple Bar, it seems a long way away from the self-consciously Irish pubs there packed with revelling visitors.

“We had a load of visitors in last Friday,” says the barman, “but it’s a different atmosphere when it’s all locals. The visitors take a pint or two, but the locals drink more steadily, if you know what I mean?” I suspect I do. I’m taking a pub crawl around Dublin in the quiet of the day, trying to pin down what it is that makes the Irish pub so special. From Austria to Zambia, you can find replicas in practically every major city, offering “Oirish” atmosphere and décor, an artful jumble of advertising signs and junk-shop bric a brac.

Beer giant Guinness even promotes a web site that will guide you through the whole process of starting one anywhere in the world. They offer styles that “vary from rustic, with whitewashed décor and stone floors, to Victorian, with lavish interiors of gilded mirrors, rich mosaics and polished timbers”. An “Irish Pub Food Manual” and music mix updated over the internet add to the charms. They claim a “99 percent success rate” for these new businesses but, if it is that easy, why do so many people come to Dublin to experience the real thing?

Dublin’s Lord Mayor Andrew Montague seems like a good person to ask. A website designer and veterinarian, he says: “There is something in the character of Irish people where we can chat to people and it comes out even more so in a pub. When you’re Irish, you take it for granted, this informality and eagerness to chat to whoever you’re sitting beside.”

Maybe it stems from the Irish feeling of being part of one big worldwide family. The Great Famine of the 1850s saw Ireland’s population drop from 8million to 4million when a million died and three million emigrated. Sadly, despite a brief reversal during the Celtic Tiger boom years of the 1990s, emigration remains the answer to the country’s economic woes and every family is affected by it. More than 70million people around the globe are now of Irish descent, from a homeland of only 6.5million people.

Moored in Dublin’s Docklands, an area undergoing a Euro-multimillion redevelopment that stalled when Ireland’s economy crashed in the 2008 world recession, is the Jeanie Johnston, the reconstruction of a sailing ship that carried more than 2,500 emigrants to North America on 16 voyages. Clambering down its narrow stairwells, trying not to bang my head on the low beams, I think it seems barely big enough to sail the River Liffey, never mind battle 3,000 miles of the storm-tossed Atlantic. Up to 300 passengers were crammed into her tiny cargo space for the seven-week crossing.

It must have been an awful passage but what they were escaping was even worse: the Great Hunger, as it was called in Ireland, saw a million people die of starvation or disease brought on by malnutrition. Life-sized models illustrate the living conditions on the ship and tell stories such as the baby born aboard whose great-great grandchildren still thrive in the USA. Almost 37million Americans, about 12 per cent of the total population, claim Irish ancestry including every president come election time.

Even US President Barack Obama, aka O’Bama, found a great-great-great-grandfather who left Moneygall in County Offaly in 1850 at the height of the Great Famine. It was this first great wave of Irish-Americans who introduced the Irish pub to America and Canada, the two countries that remain its most enthusiastic champion.


THREE of Ireland’s most famous symbols owe a great debt to America: St Patrick’s Day, which no one in Ireland celebrated in a big way even ten years ago; Irish dancing, which was re-invented for the world stage by American dancer Michael Flatley; and the Irish pub as a marketing concept, now being re-imported back into Ireland, with many Dublin pubs being refurbished into the “Oirish” style by companies who specialize in it.

Even pubs with a long tradition feel the American onslaught. In O’Donoghues on Merrion Row, the walls behind the bar are covered in dollar bills with scrawled names shouting out from Pittsburgh, Texas, Napa Valley, Boston, New Jersey and other far-flung corners of the Irish Empire. Posters of traditional musicians cover the back wall: The Fureys, The Dubliners, The Wolfe Tones.

This is the bar where The Dubliners were formed and it still rings to the sound of live Irish music every night. It is world famous, a fact belied by its dark decor, bare bulbs and cramped, unassuming exterior. From a corner table strewn with empty glasses, I hear an animated conversation in Afrikaans between four burly, red-faced South Africans.

“We want to know about people, where they came from, how they got here, why they came here, where they were last,” says Frank Magee, director of Dublin Tall Ships. “Because of our history of immigration, we know the pain of people leaving home, the loneliness that leaves in people’s lives and the joy of the welcome back. Over half of all visitors to Dublin come back. It’s the scale of the city. All the sights are accessible by foot in the city centre and, within 20 minutes of the centre, there’s the Dublin mountains, beaches, Sandycove, the setting of Ulysses for James Joyce, Howth by electric train, Dún Laoghaire… It’s a cosmopolitan city but it’s a small city. I love the view from the Dublin Mountains. Table Mountain, eat your heart out. The Bay of Naples, eat your heart out.”

The scale of Dublin certainly means you don’t have very far to go from one pub to another for a change of scenery. Almost opposite O’Donoghue’s is Doheny and Nesbitt, a much more spacious, Victorian-style pub with high, papier-mâché ceilings. Its ornate partitions still bear rough brass plates for striking matches on, dating back to the days when smoking created its own thick atmosphere. The brass and wood beer pump handles stand unused next to the usual modern garish stand of Guinness, Smithwick’s and, yes, Coors. Rugby shirts line the bar, reflected in mirrors advertising D’Arcy’s Irish Whiskey, Powers Whiskey and Bushmills Old Irish Whiskey. A few rays of sunlight struggle to make it into the dark interior, while tables of Spanish, Dutch and Swedish voices talk quietly to their own countryfolk.

Then a group of Irishmen come in and the atmosphere changes as they ask for a sandwich. “Ham and tomato? Ham and cheese or the special?” asks Gerry, the efficient white-haired barman. “What’s the special?” “Ham, tomato, cheese AND onion.” “Why not? Live a little, eh?” says one of the new arrivals. The self-effacing humor is infectious and the whole pub starts to warm up.

A short walk away is another Dublin institution, with its sign outside saying quietly: “Toner’s. A pub.” Another sign makes a bolder claim: “The best pint of Guinness in Dublin.” Poet W.B. Yeats is said to have visited here and, having sipped a sherry, declared: “I have seen a pub. Will you kindly take me home?” Inside is a tiny bar, whose dark wood is lit by a stream of dusty light from a frosted window.

Two Englishmen and three Englishwomen at adjoining tables, betrayed by their accents, ignore each other in the way of the English abroad. A Dubliner comes in. “How’s the man? A nice pint of Guinness, please.” The quiet ritual of the day unfolds. A pint is poured, settled, topped up, handed over. Time has stopped. The cares of the world outside seem very far away. Then his cell phone rings. “Jaysus! What were you doing there? The Guinness must have been rotten in Bologna.”

Colm Quilligan, who runs the highly entertaining Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, has seen the inside of more pubs than most. “The clientele makes it what it is,” he says. “Also the absence of music, the absence of television and then a good barman, a good publican who knows his trade and who can draw all the elements in.”

”It was always a public room for social intercourse and discussion and it should remain that way. The problem is it has been trashed by loud music, the wrong type of staff, and television. I have no problem with TV for big sporting occasions but they don’t ever turn it off. At least they haven’t introduced the one-armed bandits they have in English pubs. The advantage in the Irish pub is that it is still owner-occupied and not tied to breweries.”

He takes me through a social history of Dublin pubs but even he can’t explain why there were, and are, so many. Still, he is willing to have a go: “There was a profusion of breweries. Dublin did not have the intense industry that Belfast had, like the ship building of Harland and Wolff, but we had the selling and export of Irish whiskey and beer. There were lots of small breweries selling the alcohol but that all came together in larger more professional breweries and then Arthur Guinness mass produced it a bit like Henry Ford. He put a lot of other people out of business”.


JAMES JOYCE wrote in Ulysses that it was a puzzle to cross Dublin without passing a pub (a puzzle recently solved by a sophisticated computer model) although that does raise the question of why you might want to.

My pub quest, however, proves it may also be impossible to understand Dublin without setting foot in the Guinness Storehouse. Here, at its source near the famed St James’s Gate, legend has it you find the best pint of Guinness in the world and guide Michael Buckley claims: “If you don’t like Guinness here there is no hope for you.” It’s an important test, as I have never been a fan of the dark brew, one reason I have avoided visiting its showcase for many years, despite the fact it’s the city’s second most popular attraction after the medieval Book of Kells in Trinity College.

An impressive audio-visual tour, the obligatory shop and a great view of Dublin from the top of the building are all distractions from the main event. Here’s where I learn that drinking a pint of “the black stuff” is a lot more complicated than I ever thought, involving all the senses. Touch: it can be too cold, it should be 6 degrees. Sight: if you hold your pint up to the light you see it’s a dark ruby red, not black. Hearing: the soft fizz of nitrogen gas being released to give it a creamy head and its texture. If you can’t hear it, you have a flat pint. Smell: the head keeps the flavor in, so you need to swirl the glass around to release the smells.

The fifth stage, which turns out to be many people’s favorite, is taste. “Don’t sip,” says Michael. “If you do, you are sipping on the most bitter part where the hops concentrate and you are not breaking the seal. Take a small gulp. Aim to drink beyond the head. You know you’ve done it right if you have a small Guinness mustache.” I am then introduced to “retro nasal breathing” which is very like wine tasting “only you swallow Guinness, you don’t spit it out”. I take a gulp, swirl it around, take a deep breath in through my nose, swallow and then exhale through my nose. It actually tastes quite good. Why has no one ever told me?

Now enlightened, and clutching a certificate to prove I’m an expert at pouring a pint as well, I plunge back into the Dublin pub scene. A short walk away, near Christ Church Cathedral, is the city’s oldest pub, dating back to 1198 and still one of its most popular for traditional music. Hidden behind a rather odd stone frontage, The Brazen Head reveals itself as a maze of rooms, including a lovely book-lined study, all full of customers though in the afternoon it looks more like a theme restaurant than a pub. The barman asks me twice if I want food, while behind me a Spanish waitress serves a table of young Italian men.

Behind the bar, every spare surface is again covered with cloth badges: Cleveland Hts Police, County of Allegheny, California Highway Patrol, Prairie Village Police, Scott County Virginia Police. Did every Irishman who emigrated to America end up in the police force? This import of an American custom is touching but also raises the question if it does not risk changing what they all came to see.

Publican Tom Gilligan of The Duke, just off Grafton Street, has been in the trade for more than 40 years. He recognizes that change is inevitable but is driven by locals more than tourists. “If the customer wants it, you’d better do it, because that’s how you stay in business. When I started, it was pints of Guinness, bottles of Guinness, draft lager. You never had cider on draft. Now we have ten flavors of cider. People’s habits have changed, their disposable income has risen and fallen and the advent of home drinking has made a big change to the drinking scene.

“People used to go out and have a drink. Once, the only drink at home was water, milk or tea. The young gang are inclined to party a little bit before they go out. They’d tell you that’s to save money but when I went out I might have had six or eight beers and had a short then. We never had half a bottle of vodka before we left the house. You know what I’m saying?” Indeed I do.

In Café En Seine on Dawson Street, once one of Dublin’s trendiest new bars and still a riot of Art Noveau extravagance, cocktails are as popular as beer. A young woman brings back two mojitos to complain they are too sour. “Did you not put brown sugar in them?” “No,” says the very young cocktail maker, tasting them. “We use sugar syrup. I’ll make them again for you but there’s nothing wrong with these.” “Yes, there is,” says the customer, “I should know, I’ve been drinking them for years.” She looks barely 18, the legal drinking age in Ireland.

Tom Gilligan, though, is optimistic that the traditional pub will survive, despite the popularity of this new breed of bar and competition from restaurants, clubs and other venues. Not just because visitors come looking for them but also because locals cherish them too. He recognizes that the key is good staff.

The Guinness Irish Pub Concept is very clear on that point, too. “Although it is possible to recreate the feel of a true Irish pub without Irish staff,” it says, “we don’t recommend it. No Irish pub is complete without the friendly warmth, humor and advice of a true Irish bartender. To recreate the friendly service expected in Ireland, pub operators adhere to a simple rule: Know a customer’s name by his second visit and his drink by the third.”

The pub where everybody knows your name – where have I heard that before? Still, it sounds like a good path to happiness to me.



Published by Kieran

Travel writer

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