< back to writing

Chat Rooms

Dublin’s pubs offer camaraderie and community—even without a pint.

From Westways January/February 2011

From Westways January/February 2011

By Andrew McCarthy

The problem with a pub crawl in Dublin,” native son Conor Smyth laments, “is that instead of checking pubs off the list, the list just keeps getting longer.” Bellied up to the bar at Devitt’s Pub beside him, I consider this wisdom and nod my head vaguely. The weight of Conor’s realization settles heavily upon us. He drains his pint. I chug away on my Ballygowan sparkling water, and consider the daunting task I’ve set myself.

I’m deep into a grueling, self-imposed quest to find the best, most authentic, most truly “Irish” pub in Dublin. I’ve been at this thankless chore day after day, night after night, for nearly a fortnight, and the magnitude and complexity of my mission is beginning to truly register.

The fact that I don’t drink might, at first glance, appear to disqualify me for such reconnaissance. But I beg to differ. Sure, the pubs in Dublin serve booze—and plenty of it—but they’re also serving up something else, something that has made the Irish pub legendary, and much imitated, around the world.

The warm welcome, the sense of community, and camaraderie help to ensure that the vibrant oral history of a people is relived and renewed each night. It’s a history that gathers to create a unique culture centered around “the chat” and a common sensibility. And that’s what I’m after. With my clear head, I won’t quit until I find it— in its purest form.

I’ve deep roots in Ireland, with dear friends and family here. I come back often.When word of my mission spreads, I’ve no shortage of volunteers to join me in my quest. Make no mistake, this is no solitary Hero’s Journey; this is a social outing.

Colm Rice, one of Ireland’s finest potters, leads me to his “local,” Slattery’s, out near Ring’s End. “It’s always my first port of call,” he assures me as we settle into a corner banquette. “You get a good easy mix here.You got your pensioners nursing their pints; you got professionals and thugs sideby- side.You got football on the TV, you got people who know you.” He refers to the low lighting and candles: “And you got romance.What more could you want?”

Then Colm turns and points out the large window that overlooks the tables outside. “And on a winter’s evening, the sun sets directly down the center of that road and shines through this window right here,” he says. “And for exactly two minutes each day, it lights up this whole place in a golden glow like Stonehenge on the summer solstice.” (In case anyone was concerned, the blarney still runs thick in the Dublin pub.)

Later, joined by more friends who gather and then drift away, only to be met by others, I find myself in the city center, near Grafton Street, where so many of Dublin’s most famous, and finest, pubs are within stumbling distance of one another. The Edwardian pub Neary’s, on Chatham Street, has a rumpled, artsy elegance I find easy to fall into. The door to the alley behind it is open, and the music and thundering feet from Riverdance, playing at the Gaiety Theatre across the alley, provide a soundtrack. Around the corner, McDaids lures the literary crowd. Irish writer “Brendan Behan drank here,” I’m told. (I’m told this in nearly every pub I enter.)

Over on Merrion Row, the boys at O’Donoghue’s keep the traditional Irish music ripping every evening. “This would be the strongest Trad music in town,” local resident Peter O’Brien assures me between sets.Without doubt, the most photogenic pubs in Dublin are two Victorian gems—The Long Hall, on Great George’s Street, and Ryan’s of Parkgate, across the River Liffey. But it’s Kehoe’s— established in 1803—on South Anne Street that gets my attention among the city center pubs. A sagging Victorian charmer, it has a quirky, individual appeal, with a few “snugs” (partitioned areas originally built for privacy) and an inviting upstairs den. I find myself returning here again and again during the course of my research.

The thing about the Irish pub is that it takes on different personalities at different times of the day. I bring my kids over to The Stag’s Head, with its elegant stained glass and beveled mirrors, for a lunch of fish and chips. “They’re very welcome here,” the girl behind the bar assures me, and my 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter happily run riot between the tables and turn the coasters into flying projectiles. At night, this same pub overflows onto the street with university types explaining away the death of the Celtic Tiger.

Another evening, I’m on a narrow, winding lane leading high into the Dublin Mountains (but still technically a part of the city). I’m headed to The Blue Light Pub, a simple, whitewashed stone structure. It’s a rustic spot with a slate floor and an open hearth. The farmers and country folk who fill it remind me just how quickly the sophistication of the city is left behind in Ireland. A few women munch from a bag of chips and watch Fair City, the long-running Irish soap opera, on the television above the bar. Men share a smoke outside. Little happens at The Blue Light in terms of action. Louise Horgan, a Dublin native, explains, “It’s a ‘pint a Guinness pub,’ none of your messin’,” and it’s got an easy, uncomplicated feel. Later, a burly man with unruly white hair, who has been silent and nearly invisible all evening, begins to sing, unaccompanied, and without warning. In a tremulous tenor, he recounts a rambling lament of lost love and riches—

“She gave me her favors, and I gave her my word.

But, there’s gold in the valley, there’s gold in the sea . . . ”

He falls silent as abruptly as he began and disappears back behind his eyes. Suddenly the small man beside me breaks into “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” (It’s getting weirder by the minute.) As he finishes, all eyes turn my way. Apparently, I’m up. It’s the only moment of my extended pub-crawl when I wish I drank. In fact, I wish I were drunk. One halting verse of “Love Me Tender” later, I sheepishly slink to the door, but not before handshakes all around.

Back in the city and a world away, I take refuge in the smallest pub in Dublin. Down a flight of stairs, The Dawson Lounge, off St. Stephen’s Green, is an elegant wood-paneled den with just six cramped bar stools and three cocktail tables. You could disappear here.

But I’m on a mission.

And it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is a very subjective survey. Everyone I meet, everyone who accompanies me on this sojourn, has an opinion. There are as many favorites as folks. Clearly, there is no one most authentic Irish pub. As for myself, I’ve learned that the watering holes that capture my affection most are not the fancy or the famous, but the local spot, the corner pub, the place you could pass right by without a thought. It seems that what touches me is more a vibe than any specific place.

On the last night of my odyssey, I find myself far from the flashy “super-bars” that sprang up in the last decade, or the well-known pubs of Joycean Dublin. I’m at a local joint in Ranelagh—one of the many villages that comprise Dublin—at Birchalls Pub. It’s nothing fancy, just a Victorian local pub.

It’s raining. Friends begin to arrive. The pub begins to fill, and you can feel people settling in for an evening of fellowship and the chat. “The pub is shelter from the storm, always has been,” Karen Griffin, another Dubliner, explains. “You can feel it in here, the feeling of years of hospitality and warmth, the relief of arrival. You feel the history of Ireland in a pub like this.” More friends arrive. Tables are pushed together. More pints (and more sparkling water) are consumed. The room hums with the sound of voices and clinking glasses.The rain beats down outside. And there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.

back to top

JOIN ANDREW McCARTHY ON TOUR

Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Union Square In conversation with Gayle Forman 33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003 Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583 Thursday, March 30 at 7pm Books & Greetings 271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647 Saturday, April 1 Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX Sunday, April 2 Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX Monday, April 3 at 7pm Books, Inc Opera Plaza Not Your Mother’s Book Club 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107 Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm Book Passage 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925 Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm Live Talks LA In conversation with Pico Iyer Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404 Thursday, April 6 at 7pm Elliott Bay Books 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122 Friday, April 7 at 7pm Powell’s Books 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 Sunday, April 9 at 5pm Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 Monday, April 10 at 7pm Boswell Books 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211 Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm The Book Stall at Chestnut Court In conversation with Betsy Bird 811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093 Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm Talk of the Stacks Series Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central Library 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm Parnassus Books Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center 3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215 Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm Rainy Day Books At Woodneath Library 8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157 Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm St. Louis County Library With The Novel Neighbor 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131 Thursday, April 20 at 7pm Georgia Center for the Book With Little Shop of Stories Dekalb County Public Library 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030 Friday, April 21 at 7pm Books & Books 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134 Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540 Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 Monday, May 1 at 7pm Darien Library In conversation with Dani Shapiro 1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820

PRE-ORDER NOW