In American cities, it seems that every time you turn around, someone has opened a new Irish bar. So many authentic bar fittings have been shipped from Ireland to equip the new bars that you might be forgiven for wondering if any pubs are left intact back home. Riding the same wave of popularity that brought us “Riverdance” and filled New Age CD bins with Celtic harp music, these bars are part of a recent American infatuation with all things Irish.
The best of these new bars are warm and welcoming, with well-poured stout and good menus of fish and chips and hearty stews. The worst are bar-out-of-a-box creations, complete with maudlin piped-in music and corny signs on the wall, as convincing as a fake brogue. From best to worst, they all appeal to a nostalgia Americans seem to feel for an “old country” experience that may or may not resemble the real thing.
The genuine Irish bars in Boston, New York or Chicago have for decades attracted new arrivals from Ireland who stopped by to find jobs, contacts and a touch of home. They have provided a vital point of cultural connection for newcomers. While they serve the local Irish patrons today, many lack the cosy quality drinkers find in the new bars⎯that atmosphere that “feels” Irish.
So it’s understandable that American visitors to Ireland itself may be a little confused about what to expect of an Irish bar on native soil. The country is famously hospitable. There are lots of bars of all complexions. There are traditional, rustic drinking spots where a traveler is immediately welcome.
But these olde worlde spots are surviving in a country whose economy is one of Europe’s hottest. Modern, urban Ireland is thriving at last, even as it holds onto its oldest traditions, and this balancing act between new and old can perplex the visitor.
Compounding the confusion, the Irish have centuries of practice in enduring, accommodating or humoring foreign invaders⎯whether they are English colonizers, shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada, or American tourists. A visitor is welcome, but a vein of mischief runs through the interaction. Over a pint, the stories have a subversive edge in which fact and fancy blend disconcertingly.
The pragmatic entrepreneur telling you about enterprise zones will, in the next breath, warn you about the dangers of new construction in fields where Celtic standing stones are found. The young stock analyst fixing her makeup in the ladies’ gives you a market tip, then tells you about races of fairies who live underground. It’s not clear whether or not your American leg is being pulled.
Knowing this, when the invitation came to join a pub tour of Ireland, I jumped at the chance to see pub life first hand. The bar is still a center of the Irish community, the place where our images of Ireland can be tested against the real thing. Somewhere beyond the “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts and souvenir leprechauns was a cool glass of black stout topped with its signature creamy head, and the promise of good company in the place where all the contradictions can coexist: the pub.
Searching for Reality
Our group of Americans assembled in Dublin: a few willing couples and a number of thirsty single men who will all be known here, for purposes of anonymity, as “Sean.” We were there for the culture, for the the stout, for the pub life, or―in Sean’s case―to meet Irish girls while drinking stout in pubs.
Dublin is renowned for the sheer number and variety of its drinking establishments. There are historical, political, literary, and musical pubs; bars where revolution was planned, and where famous rock bands got their start. Faced with such an overwhelming array, our group concentrated on pubs linked to two pillars of Irish culture: music and language.
The first night started at O’Donaghue’s, famous for traditional music. It’s a classic city pub⎯made by long and narrow, its wood-clad walls covered with sketches of musicians. One of our group shouldered his way to the bar for a round of Guinness, the biggest stout brewer worldwide, and undisputedly dominant at home in Dublin.
Irish dry stout is deceptive: its image is assertively manly, and beer novices shy away from its supposed strength. But it is really the silky texture and strong roasted flavors that are mistaken for alcoholic power. Soothing and rich, most stout is not actually very strong. It is possible to float through a long night sipping stout until morning and not suffer, as we discovered later that night and the ones that followed.
Pints in hand, the rest of us peered over the crowd to see five musicians, who were seated in the booth under the front windows. With each new number, they took up or set down fiddles, tin whistles, guitars, banjos, uilleann pipes, a bodhrán―a shallow, hand-held Irish drum played with a two-headed drumstick―and an unfamiliar multi-stringed instrument. I asked a neighbor about the mystery instrument, which carried the rapid tunes on the jigs.
“An old Celtic instrument,” he said. “I think it’s called the bazouki.”
A Greek bazouki. I felt that sly tug on my leg.
Closing time came and we downed our stouts, intending to go home. Sean, however, had strength left to go clubbing. Thanks to him, we discovered what we should have guessed: the Irish have an impressive capacity to party.
After the pubs close, younger crowds flock to clubs where, for a cover charge, there is music and a bar that’s open very late. And it’s not just Dublin, the capital and urban magnet for one-third of the population. In Cork and later in Kilarney, the black clothes were less fashionable but the stamina was unaffected. When, we wondered, did these people sleep? Or work?