I set my watch 15 minutes fast. That way, when I die I’ll sneak into heaven before the devil figures out I’m dead.
– words of wisdom from the local dispensary, a spry gentleman one Guinness down in Westport, County Mayo
In almost every country we’ve visited around the world, with perhaps the exception of Bangladesh and Iran, we seem to stumble across an Irish pub. The problem with many of them: there’s usually something dubious, something un-Irish about them.
Possibly the food. Maybe the owners. Definitely the accent.
There’s even supposedly a do-it-yourself (DIY) Irish pub industry, whereby companies in Ireland offer an “Irish pub in a box” – so when you open one of your own, you’ll have all the requisite Guinness bar mirrors, typical Irish pub name signs (Murphy’s or Mulligan’s) and kitschy faux-finished knickknacks to tuck in the windows.
It tarnishes the Irish pub industry so unnecessarily cliché.
One of my lasting “Irish” pub memories was of a brawl that broke out while a friend's band performed. As chairs sailed across the bar, the band soldiered on, slowing things down with a rendition of All You Need Is Love until tempers eventually cooled.
After all of life’s misdirection, we had the good fortune to visit Ireland this year. And I’m not just talking Dublin, but the Ireland outside of the capital city, what some Irish friends dare to call “the real Ireland.”
While there, we found ourselves in a few Irish pubs.
Well, maybe more than a few.
At least once a day.
OK, more like twice a day.
And through our visits, we learned something of the ebb and flow of Irish life — and what it means to be a real Irish pub.
The Public House, The Local Living Room
Outside of a neighborhood speakeasy growing up where one could get 5 cent drafts in the town next door (don’t ask me how, or how old I am), I’ve never been anyplace where the drinking establishments felt more consistently like living rooms than they did in Ireland.
We related an incident to our friend John from Galway: “We ate at a pub in Clifden for lunch, but it didn’t look to us like a typical Irish pub. There was a steady stream of people coming in to sit at the bar, some to eat. The bartender offered help to a woman struggling with the latest update on her iPhone, people greeted one another by asking about how the family was doing. From moms to granddads, they were all there together.”
“Oh, that means you found a real Irish pub,” John clarified.
Pub is short for Public House. Many pubs in Ireland remain a gathering hub where people of all ages and lots in life come not only to drink, but also to take in the latest news about town.
As we sipped a Guinness and pecked away at a plate of fish and chips, we observed a stream of local humanity in a hum of news about family and friends.
On special days, say a Sunday afternoon, you might even find several older men lined up tables side-by-side enjoying their Sunday dinner. You can imagine that they are there every Sunday afternoon, in the same spot: their spot.
And don’t worry if you arrive alone. You’ll be part of the conversation, some conversation, before you depart.
Guinness: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
The wheels of those conversations, they are greased in great part by Guinness.
During our first night in Dublin, a cab driver advised us on all we needed to know for a first trip to Ireland: “You must wait for Guinness to settle. It tastes better that way, trust me.”
I’ve enjoyed several Guinness in my life, but in this one much-too-short visit to Ireland I believe I may have quintupled the count.
The texture smooth and subtle, and the taste – surprisingly variable across pubs yet always satisfying – seemed complementary to just about every meal from oysters to beef cottage pie. (And yes, we tried Guinness’ competitors Beamish and Murphy’s – preferred in that order — but it was Guinness that kept us coming back.)
I’ve always considered Guinness as it technically is, a stout. But a visit to Ireland, pubs and all, convinced me that Guinness in fact belongs to a beverage class all its own.
A real Irish pub knows a true Guinness pour, a five-step: 1) Tilt the glass, pull the tap forward for a carbonated beer blend; 2) Fill just below the harp symbol near the top of the glass; 3) Wait for stage one to settle; 4) Tap back, stage two, top it off with pure beer just below or at the rim of the glass; 5) Wait for the rising stream of bubbles to settle to the top. The head should settle just right, perhaps a millimeter or so above the rim.
Then it’s time to enjoy.
Note: We have since tried Guinness in London and most recently in the United States, where – GASP — steps #1, #3, and #4 are sadly ignored. A real Irish pub will learn you better.
Music: Intimate and Collective
To grease the wheels further, we need sound above and beyond the din of conversation, the sort of sound that resonates in the head and heart.
Live performances in Ireland were intimate. Musicians would sit in a corner booth or table, alongside the rest of us. They were part of the crowd as much as they were what the crowd had come to enjoy. At Porter House, we enjoyed at quick-pick banjo and guitar. Music as meditation.
Matt Malloy’s in the town of Westport, too, captures the music scene in an Irish pub. Towards the end of the night the lead musician, a fiddler, asked one of the regulars in the crowd what they ought to play.
“Let’s play something for the Americans.”
We, among the few Americans in the crowd, were taken aback by the request delivered warmly and tenderly by a graying man in a green sweater vest and wool trousers.
He went on to sing a tear-jerking rendition of “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Tony Bennett would be proud. San Franciscans, too.
It didn’t matter whether one was a tourist or a local. We were all there together, welcome.
As goes touristy things to do in Ireland, the live pub music we experienced transcended contrivance. Music and community – from the heart – tends to do that.
Bartender: Master of Ceremony (& Unofficial Tourist Information Office)
Bartenders in Irish pubs, as in many stations around the world, hold position as unofficial masters of ceremony. They set the pace, not only controlling the flow of drinks by masterfully pulling each Guinness and lining it up to settle but also the stream of conversation and people around those pours through an almost imperceptible orchestration.
“Do you have your own car? Do you like to explore?” asked the bartender at Porter House in Westport. It had taken him a nanosecond after we’d opened our mouths to realize that we were visitors.
“Ok, let me suggest a few places for you to get lost tomorrow. Back roads you should turn down towards the coast, a coffee shop with strong coffee.”
As he reeled off the name of one village after another, Audrey struggled to keep up, thumbing the transliterated Irish English into her iPhone. That getting lost was synonymous with exploration was endearing, fitting.
The following day we managed to match a few of the phonetically spelled names with what we’d found on our map.
In one of those “get lost” areas, we turned off on a dirt road, landing at the edge of a harbor pointed to the Atlantic Ocean – like land’s end, the middle of nowhere. Some fishermen stood on the pier trying their luck. As we walked to a more open view of the water, one of the casters strolled past us and smiled: “You were at the pub last night, weren’t you? I sat near you.”
It’s a small, small world.
So too in Ireland. So too in an Irish pub.
You can find Irish pub recommendations in our Ireland road trip article.