By Andrew McCarthy
“The problem with a pub crawl in Dublin,” native son, Conner Smith, 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 Connor’s realization settles heavy upon us. He drains his pint. I chug away on my Ballygowan sparking 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, 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, and with my clear head, I won’t quit till I find it—in its purest form.
The beauty of my quest is that I’m never short of people willing to undertake this expedition with me. Make no mistake, this is no solitary Hero’s Journey, this is a social outing from the get go. Colm Rice, one of Ireland’s finest potter’s, 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 pensioner’s nursing their pints; you got professionals and thugs side-by-side. You got football on the TV, you got people who know you,” he points out 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. 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-off, 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 is open and the music and thundering feet from Riverdance, playing at the Gaiety Theatre across the alley, provide a soundtrack. Around the corner, McDaid’s, 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’Brian, assures me between sets. And without doubt, the most photogenic pubs in Dublin are the two Victorian gems, The Long Haul on Georges Street, and Ryan’s of Southgate, across the Liffey. But it’s Kehoe’s—est. 1803—on South Anne Street that gets my attention among the city center pubs. A sagging Victorian charmer, it’s got a quirky, individual appeal. 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 Head, with its elegant stained glass and beveled mirrors, for a lunch of fish n’ chips. “They’re very welcome here,” the girl behind the bar assures me. 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 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. Eventually, a burley 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 Cho-Cho. (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 that I wish I drank. In fact, I wish I were drunk. One verse of Love Me Tender later, I sheepishly slink to the door, but not before hand shakes 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.
The more pubs I go to—and I’ve been to a lot—the more something becomes clear to me. Trying to pick a best pub is like trying to pick a best sunset. But the watering holes that capture my affection seem to be not the fancy or the famous, but the local spot, the corner pub, the place you could pass right by without a thought. 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 Joycian Dublin. I’m out 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 sparking water) are drunk. The room hums with the sound of voices and clinking glasses. The rain beats down outside. There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.