Irish pubs aren’t just about good beer
When friends learned I was headed to Ireland, I received one universal and consistent piece of advice: Go to the pubs.
Sure, they suggested seeing various cathedrals, stunning natural wonders and colorful towns. But, after all that? Hit the pubs. The guidebooks were filled with recommendations for dining – but, they advised, eat a full Irish breakfast or enjoy coffee or afternoon tea at – you guessed it – a pub.
Say what? I should spend 10 days pub-crawling across one of the world’s most storied nations? This I could do. And admittedly, I expected Ireland to feel like home. After all, Alaska is full of Irish sons and daughters, and nationally known as a hard-living state, where bleak winters are tempered by the warmth of local bars, where long summer nights lead to too-long lingering by the camp fire, passing bottles and crushing empty beer cans into the ashes. Alaskans appreciate the way nightlife brings a community together. Surely Ireland felt similar?
Not even close. Ireland takes it to another level. There is reportedly one pub for every 300 people in Ireland. That equates to some 11,000 pubs total in this relatively small island nation, where you can drive east to west coast in under a few hours (Note: stay to the left).
Here, the pub – or public house – is the social nucleus. Pubs are warm, open places, busy from when the doors open, until the final notes of traditional Irish music in the late hours. Crackling flames fill fireplaces. Children are welcome all day and it is normal to see families dining.
Regulars – mostly older, cheerful men – fill bar-side stools, ready to demonstrate that infamous “gift of gab.” There is something in Ireland called the “craic,” pronounced “crack.” The Irish will broadly summarize craic as the sharing of fun, good times, news, gossip and conversation. There is nowhere better to hear the craic than in a pub. The storytelling and relentless joking will pull you into this friendly and inviting culture.
Pubs are staggeringly old by American standards. The Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest, dates to 1198. Finding century-old establishments is simple. The oldest pubs are small and fold inefficiently into ancient floor plans of former homes or shops. Cubby holes, called “snugs,” tuck off of snaking narrow passageways. Velveteen banquettes line walls. Ornate, high-backed chairs slide alongside durable stools, with simple benches lining long tables. Toilets are often a long walk down slim halls and up creaky staircases. Coming in from the wet Irish air, the propensity of candles and open roaring hearths are welcome and warming.
In pubs, people almost always pay in Euros. They mainly drink beer (Guinness, unless you ask for something different) and whiskey (local blends like Jameson and Bushmills). Liquors like vodka and rum seem just for show and are rarely ordered. Anyone with a cocktail or shot is likely a tourist.
Pub grub can be excellent. Hearty meat dishes and root vegetables cut the wet cold, especially when eaten fireside. Traditional dishes include stews, sausages and potatoes, boiled bacon and cabbage, and meat or fish pies. Seafood like mackerel and oysters abound, or try fish and chips, with a side of mushy peas.
The highlight of any evening is traditional music. Locals will tell you the best spots. In smaller villages, all the town comes out to listen. With “trad music,” there are no stages. Musicians face each other around a table – flutes, fiddles, guitars, goatskin drums called bodhrans. They communicate with eye contact and nods, with an almost telepathic fluidity. Bartenders stealthily replenish drained pint glasses. The tunes stampede with momentum and energy, with one song flowing to the next, hours sliding by.
Occasionally the music stops when one person sings. Songs are often ancient, known and loved. The cacophony of the entire pub will crash to a stunning silence as the mournful words fill the old space. It is a magical moment, to see the stilling of all that boisterousness for reverence of music, a communal response to something so cherished.