We board a cab in the east end of St. John’s in the wee hours of a Saturday morning.
Our cabbie is fresh off the George Street rush downtown and is just about ready to call it a night when he drops us at the airport for our flight to Ireland at dawn. He politely asks where we are off to, and with our response, he snorts a laugh and wonders aloud whether it is all it is cracked up to be with “the drinking scene and all.”
Stereotypes abound about the Irish, including that of the rough-and-ready, hardy, happy-go-lucky drunkard. As is the case with stereotypes, our travels revealed that while pubs and breweries abound throughout the country, they are more interesting and varied than one might be led to believe.
And we didn’t find one pint of green beer on the Emerald Isle.
Although hoisting a glass or two in a local pub was something we thought we would do while in Ireland, it was buried near the bottom of a lengthy list of places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do: castles, ruins, museums and cobblestone walkways.
However, from the moment we disembarked from the plane and saw our first Guinness poster outside the airport, it became obvious that pub images and culture would figure prominently in our exploration of the country.
The Guinness toucan is by far the most pervasive alcohol-related image in Ireland. The ubiquitous bird is often found alongside such catchy slogans as “Lovely Day for a Guinness,” “It’s time for a Guinness” or the slightly alarming “Guinness is good for you.”
We spotted the toucan on billboards, in restaurants, on the street and, of course, in pubs.
One particularly intriguing ad features Guinness, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the legend of Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Fionn MacCool) linked to the Giant’s Causeway, an astonishing natural rock formation steeped in local legend. And, of course, the harp as the Guinness logo is reminiscent of the famous harp of Brian Boru, which is on display at Trinity College Dublin and has been a symbol of Ireland for centuries.
Although the toucan beckoned to us from the doorways of bars all over the country, it was our keen interest in local music that led us to visit a pub our first night in Ireland.
When we arrived around 10 p.m., we were surprised to find the band in full swing, and to learn that the music had started an hour or so earlier. We found out that bars closed up shop at midnight and we vowed not to make the same mistake the next night.
That began an almost nightly ritual for the duration of the trip: find a local pub, order a pint, listen to music, leave at last call, hit the chippy (fresh fries doused in malt vinegar and sprinkled with salt) for a midnight snack and head to bed. Not the kind of pace you can keep up for a long time, but a welcome change of pace from quotidian life.
The word “pub” truly lives up to its moniker here. The whole family is welcome at the Irish public house, and images of mother and father along with toddler or even stroller aren’t uncommon.
In most large cities, young ones are permitted inside until 6 p.m. They are allowed in much later, until 9:30 p.m. or so, in many rural areas.
As working people who live by the “early to bed, early to rise” way of living, we were pleasantly surprised that, in most pubs, the music starts as early as 8 p.m. and ends just before midnight. This was a wonderful excuse to make pub-going an almost nightly event during our travels in Ireland, as we could relax right after supper, listen to fabulous live music, and be in bed at a decent hour to rest before tackling the next day’s itinerary.
Irish pubs take the business of “craic” seriously, and we found the relaxed, easygoing atmosphere conducive to an enjoyable time. The level of comfort we felt in the pubs nightly gave us a sense of belonging. The pub serves a multitude of functions: drinking hall, restaurant, concert hall and sometimes even inn.
We had some delicious meals in pubs, often simple, filling fare. We tried two Irish stews, both the lamb and the beef and Guinness styles. One pub ran a carvery where we enjoyed a leisurely Sunday afternoon at the roast beef buffet, watching the Wimbledon finals on the big-screen TV.
In the various pubs that dot the island, we learned a lot about Irish music and Irish life. The entertainment is almost nonstop.
Upon stopping into a pub called The Scotsman in Donegal one night, we encountered a man perched upon a stool at the end of the bar belting out tunes with an accordion on his lap. When asked if he was the night’s entertainment, he answered in his thick brogue, “As John the Baptist once said, ‘There’s a better man coming after me.’”
And so there was — as a myriad of performers took the stage on a seemingly mundane Wednesday night.
We ended up in the midst of a bar crammed with patrons heaving out Ron Hynes’ “Sonny’s Dream,” a few minutes after we heard a beautiful and haunting version of “Kilkelly, Ireland.”
Another night found us in a hotel pub in Killarney revelling with a rousing Makem and Clancy tribute band.
Everywhere we went, musicians were very gracious in letting Kristin get up and step dance along to their jigs and reels.
We learned that Bulmer’s and Magner’s ciders (a rather tasty alternative for the Guinness-averse) are exactly the same, but with different names: in the republic and the north, respectively. And we cosied up beside locals in numerous towns and enjoyed wonderfully frank conversations about politics, religion and life in 21st-century Ireland wherever we roamed.
From Doolin to Dublin to Derry, pubs provided a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere.
In hindsight, our cabbie was partially right in his assumptions about Ireland. The pubs are, in fact, a scene, but the “drinking and all” is but a small part of it. And in case you’re wondering whether it’s truth or urban legend, it is true: Guinness tastes better in Ireland.
Kristin Harris Walsh is project co-ordinator at the MMaP research centre, and Kieran Walsh is an English Literature teacher at Gonzaga High School. Their travels over the past 13 years have taken them to five continents.