In Ireland for a week, and not looking for roots or relatives.
I’m here for the whiskey, and beer. I am, however, accompanied by an intellectually curious and well bred woman who is my wife—along with our college aged kids.
She’s a good sport and has put up with most of my bad habits for more than 20 years, but asking her to spend her only week in Ireland holed up in saloons is a bit much. And, she informed me, there are other things to do here besides drink in pubs.
Nevertheless, that’s why I am here. And so are lots of others who come to experience the legendary Irish libations, Guinness beer, Jameson whiskey, etc., on the native soil. Think France and it conjures up images of Paris and the Riviera, Italy, the Coliseum and Florence. But tell people you’re going to Ireland, an inevitable response is, “whoa those pubs.” This week, I was determined to become a pub crawling Irish bloke, er, laddie—with a spritz of culture along the way.
Pubs are integral to the history of Ireland. In rural areas particularly, pubs acted as community centers, post offices, gathering places. Pub is short for Public House.
But harsh drunk driving laws and a ban on smoking have hurt business. Many pubs, particularly in rural areas, have shut down The hard core smokers stay home, as do many who fear the arm of the law. And, a severe recession in the last decade didn’t help. Pubs are down, but not out.
“Pub culture will never die out because we Irish, can’t bloody plan anything with the Irish weather. Imagine trying to plan a family barbecue or any outdoor outing—and not having the luxury of four seasons but four in one day,” says Michael Frawley, owner of the White House Pub in the port city of Kinsale. “Even when our country was on its knees, be it occupation, oppression, famine or economic, we always find a way to enjoy ourselves and where better to do that than your local pub.”
It sure looks that way tonight in Dublin, the places are jumping. In summer, night does not fall till close 10:30 or 11—it seems like much of the city is on a never ending happy hour.
Irish tourism pros acknowledge the lure of its pub culture but say the country has lots more to offer than swilling spirits in marble topped bars.
“I do want to get away from the stereotype of Ireland as a bunch of drinking palaces,” says Dairine Nuttall, a guide with Collins tours. “I hear other tour guides promoting that and I cringe. There is so much else to see here.”
I suppose she’s right but hearing it is a bit of buzzkill, anyhow, we’ll get to the culture a bit later.
First stop on our pub tour was the popular Bank on College Green, a relatively new place, it has mile high ceilings, chandeliers, live piano music and an elegant bar. It was formerly a bank and is near Trinity College. Skylights keep the place bright and airy, it’s won best bar awards and such. The food (particularly the fish and chips) and the beer are great but it’s doesn’t have the feel of an Irish pub, too bright, too big, too renovated. You could find something like this at a mall atrium in Houston.
A pretty good contrast to it is the Ha Penny Inn, dark, a bit musty but warm and welcoming.
Ha Penny is in the appropriately named Temple Bar area—the hub of pub nightlife in Dublin. Walking thru its narrow streets recalls Bourbon St in New Orleans or Sixth St in Austin. Bars line the streets, doors wide open, patrons spilling out to the sidewalks, music blaring. The River Liffey divides Dublin. The Ha Penny, on the banks of the Liffey, is family owned, reasonably priced, delightfully not renovated, and a locals favorite. Those locals say the Ha Penny makes maybe the best toasties (a bar food staple in Ireland, toasties are toasted cheese sandwiches with other foods thrown in) in town. Across the way is Merchants Arch, another authentic pub with a great live band but, like so many pubs, overcrowded. Which is why we ended up at Old Storehouse Inn
The Old Storehouse is larger than most pubs and accommodates crowds better than most. The food was good. One note about the food—the Potato Famine—the event that originally drove people from Ireland is over--really, really over. Most fish dishes—wherever we went-- came resting on a bed of mashed potatoes with French fries (big fat ones) on the side.
Initially, we were a little put off upon entering the Old Storehouse. On stage was a duo doing a John Denver song. Listening to John Denver is never easy , but hearing a cover band wail “Country Roads” with an Irish brogue is enough to make you ditch the Guinness and run straight to the Jameson’s. Fortunately, an Irish folk duo soon replaced the John Denver wannabees and within minutes hands were clapping to robust Irish folk songs. After a few we headed back to our hotel. It was about 10:15, still light outside, bars were still jumping.
Ireland’s grand literary tradition is celebrated in pubs. We walked by Davy Byrnes pub, where James Joyce hung out apparently wrote part of Ulysses. I enjoy reading Joyce about as much as listening to John Denver, so we stayed away. I was sleepy enough and didn’t need Joyce to finish the job.
Upon reflection, the first day of the trip is actually a good time to bank some culture chits. Flights from the states are overnighters. You arrive in the morning bleary eyed and jet lagged so a pint or two would level you in pretty short order. Given that, when my wife suggested first visiting a couple of older churches, I quickly agreed.
Going to the churches was not a tough sell. While not Irish, I am Catholic and feel a kinship with this vastly Catholic nation because of our shared faith. I was one of the few kids in catechism class not named Sullivan, McCarthy or O’Conner . And there is a comfort level knowing that the guy sitting next to you may too have had his knuckles rapped by a nun for not properly memorizing the Act of Contrition.
We headed to Dublin’s two best known churches, Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was Sunday. St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. The original uber Catholic of the Northern Hemisphere. I hadn’t been to Mass in a while so going to St. Patrick’s was like hitting the social/spiritual exacta; satisfying a cultural imperative and giving my soul a much needed cleansing.
But we arrive to find that—yikes-- St. Patrick’s is an Anglican church, as in Protestant, so is Christ Church. What’s up with that?
‘Well, that’s all about Henry the V111 ,” says Nutall.
Geez, that guy again. It seems like most seismic events in Europe during the 16th century can be traced to the gluttonous British monarch trying to make an honest woman of Anne Boleyn
When the Pope refused to grant Henry a divorce to marry Anne, he did what only kings could do—he broke with Rome and formed the Church of England. Churches, including St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, were converted from Catholic to the new Anglican faith--even though the population remained Catholic. Thus, you have the anomaly that the largest and most visited churches in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, are Protestant.
Still they are historical and architectural marvels. St. Patrick is said to have baptized people on the grounds of his church as early as 450 AD and the crypt at Christ Church is the oldest structure in Dublin.
Drinking in all this knowledge sure can work up a thirst.
Guinness in America is great; with dinner, before bed, when you wake up, on the job. But it’s better in Dublin. It seems creamier, has less of a bite
“I hear that a lot,” says Lucy Kross, a young guide on the Guinness Brewery tour. “We are pretty particular about our Guinness here. For instance it has to be served at 6 Celsius, and I suppose it’s just fresher.”
The tour itself is a history, brewing and drinking lesson. I tried to sell this jaunt as a cultural necessity-- my wife didn’t buy that but did enjoy the tour—it’s hard not to. Guinness is probably Ireland’s most popular export. More than 10 million glasses are drunk daily. And you should never drink the foam atop the beer, that should still be in the glass when you are done. The tour takes about 45 minutes and ends at the Gravity Bar, a circular saloon atop the brewery with 360 degree views of Dublin. Upon entering you’re handed pint of 6 Celsius Guinness and then take in the dramatic urban landscape. This is really the only way to study history.
After a few days we decided to drive south and west.. Renting a car in Ireland is not terribly difficult but the biggest pain, besides the disturbingly high insurance, is handling a clutch with your left hand while maneuvering thru Ireland’s famously narrow roads.
First destination is the Rock of Cashel, which has been a fortress, monastery, church. Most existing buildings date to the 12th century. This might be my favorite ruin, anywhere. I love the Roman Coliseum and Greece’s Acropolis as much as the next guy, but those places (particularly the Coliseum) are just a stone’s throw from massive city traffic jams and guys hawking t-shirts.
The Rock of Cashel is surrounded by lush, green rolling hills, undisturbed by the sights and sounds of modern life. It sets a mood and does not let go. It’s a reverent place. Visitors speak in hushed tones. There is a town, but it’s a good distance from the Rock and pleasantly small.
Kinsale is a beautiful seaside village, in County Cork, about three hours south of Dublin The town surrounds a large harbor filled with sailing vessels. This is an affluent place, lots of second homes. Small and well-maintained, many of the buildings have been painted bright colors and refurbished as part of Ireland’s “Tidy Towns” initiative.
The population of 4,000 swells to 20,000 in summer—and many of those people can be found in places like the White House Pub, right in the center of town. It’s been in business since the early 1800s—proprietor Michael Frawley presides over a collection of locals and tourists. Murphy’s Irish Stout seems the beer of choice. It’s brewed here in County Cork. Music is quite good. An Irish band, the Celtic Knights is featured. Listening to traditional Irish folksongs, it’s easy to hear the roots of American country and hillbilly music.. Still, halfway this first set of fast paced Irish folk, the band broke into a rendition of—you guessed it--Country Roads. What is it with these people and John Denver?
Nevertheless, if I lived here—the White House Pub would be my hangout. It even had a friendly local drunk, Danny, sort of an Irish version of Otis from the Andy Griffith show, who ribbed the band and bothered the women.
Kinsale is the closest port to mainland Europe and that location resulted in one of the most pivotal battles in Irish, and perhaps, Western history. The battle of Kinsale. The Spanish armada joined with the Irish to drive the English out of Ireland. But the English prevailed. Which is probably a good thing. To hear locals tell it, had it gone the other way the Brits would be speaking Spanish and we’d be eating empanadas for Thanksgiving.
“The Spanish needed a victory at Kinsale to invade and dominate England,” says local historian Dermot Ryan. This was to be the jumping off point, but twas not to be. The Irish and Spanish were badly defeated.”
After a couple of days in Kinsale we drove to the Dingle Peninsula, probably the best known coastal area in Ireland. “Ryan’s Daughter” was filmed in the Dingle peninsula and it’s easy to see why. The surrounding countryside is magnificent. A 50 mile loop drive thru centuries old ruins, broad rolling hills, and dramatic coast lines with pockets of beautiful sand beaches is a favorite diversion and can take most of the day. “Beehive” huts line the landscape—these are small stone tent like structures built by monks around the 800 AD to find solitude. 5r6
Sheep and surfing don’t seem a natural fit—except here. There are about 500,000 sheep on the Peninsula. That’s a lot of sweaters. Some are in close proximity to Dingle’s best known surfing beach, Inch Beach, about 10 miles from Dingle. Cold water but crystal clear, OK waves, surf lessons for about $25 per hour. This is the first, and likely last time that I ever took a wave in while a sheep watched from the distance.
Nightlife in Dingle rocks in summer. It’s a hot family vacation destination. It does not have Kinsale’s aged charm but is loaded with pubs, shops, views. The Marina Inn overlooks Dingle’s broad harbor. The pub is popular, good pub food, great prices. There is a national law that no one under . the age of 18 is permitted in a pub past 9:30 PM. Don’t pay attention to it, the locals sure don’t. Approaching 10:30 PM and the pub has at least 4 strollers and 10-15 adolescents. One guy has his toddler in one arm, a pint in the other, swaying to the music. We again lasted till about 10:30, the place was still full and loaded with kids and we trudged out.
Enroute to our final stop, Galway, we stopped at the Cliffs of Moher. It’s one of the most popular tourists sites in Ireland, drawing 1 million visitors a year, and every one was there the day we arrived. Lots of tour buses. The Cliffs are a spectacular sight and at their highest point rise to 700 feet above the Atlantic.
But here I am at the last night of the trip, we’ve traversed and I am in the Bunch of Grapes pub in the Latin Quarter (nightlife section) of Galway, Ireland’s second largest city. Where the narrow, pedestrian only streets are packed like Times Square at Christmas. The pub is owned by Tommy Corcoran. It’s about 6 PM. The place does not serve food. It’s built for drinking.
“We get a fair amount of Americans comin to Galway” he says.
“I guess they like the pubs, want to experience a real pub culture,” I volunteer.
“Not really, they don’t stay out too late. The English, they’re the ones staying out late and having a good time. Americans go to bed earlier, seems they like to shop more than go to the pubs.”
I thought about Tommy’s comment the next morning as I packed our Guinness T-shirts and new wool sweaters. Embarrassingly, during the entire week, I did only manage to close one pub. Back in the pub in Dingle, even the toddlers outlasted me. Saw lots of ruins, smudged my share of Waterford crystal. Maybe I did not become an Irish laddie after all, but it sure was fun trying.