Pubbing in Ireland

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 21, Issue 3
July 1, 2000 By Julie Johnson

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?

Leopold Bloom Drank Here

The next night we gathered for a Literary Pub Tour, three hours of strolling the streets of Dublin in search of the bars and other destinations where some of Ireland’s greatest writers and their characters drank and relaxed. Two actors led the group in and out of the pubs, pausing to recite or tell stories from an astounding literary history. Starting in The Duke, we nursed a pint and watched the hapless pair from “Waiting for Godot.”  In the shadows of Trinity College, where Oscar Wilde studied, one actor brought Lady Bracknell alarmingly to life before we went on to O’Neill’s, off Grafton Street, which serves the college.

There I sampled Breo, a white beer from Guinness in the style of a Belgian wit. It seemed an odd choice for the mega-brewer. None of the bartenders, at O’Neill’s or elsewhere, seemed to know what it was. “It’s some funny lager they’ve put on for the tourists,” ventured one.

We passed McDaid’s, another well-known musical pub and a favorite of Brendan Behan, who was drummed out of the IRA for his general recklessness. Our guides related that Behan, on tour in Canada, recalled the sign that urged him to “Drink Canada Dry”―and he tried to oblige.

On to venues patronized by the writers O’Casey and Yeats, and by James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. The late-night streets seemed haunted by figures from the page and the stage, the legacy of the Irish love of a good tale told, no doubt, over a good pint.

Point of Embarkation

The pub is a healthy institution in Ireland. In the city or the countryside, the pub remains the place where nine out of 10 beers are consumed, and most of those on draft. Unlike England, where many public houses are “tied” to the brewery that owns them, tied houses haven’t worked out in Ireland, and the choice of beers on offer is up to the landlord.

In Cobh (pronounced “Cove”) on the western coast, John Mansworth, the owner of the 1895-dated Mansworth’s Bar, saw deeper cultural reasons behind the failure of tied houses in favor of privately owned pubs.

“We don’t want to work for someone else,” he said.”It doesn’t sit well with us. We were disposessed 800 years ago, and we’re not going to let it happen again. I had a guest here, a German, who said to me, ‘I don’t understand you Irish. You buy your houses and rent your televisions. In Germany, we rent our houses and buy our TVs.’ But we’ve known what it is to be tenants in our own country, and we won’t let it happen again.”

Despite the multicolored houses that line the steep streets of this resort town, Cobh has a melancholy history that seemed to fill the air. During the Great Famine of 1845-48 when the potato crop failed, the population of Ireland was cut in half. Many died, but Cohb was the main embarkation point for America for others who would never see their homes again.

Survivors of the grueling voyage settled in a new country where they became the next wave of despised poor immigrants. These were the people who founded the Irish neighborhoods, the bars and social organizations of American cities, who sent money back home and kept this connection with Ireland vibrant. The present-day population of Ireland is outnumbered nearly 10 times over by North Americans of Irish descent who emigrated from both the modern Irish republic and the Protestant north.

Murphy Country

When we reached Cork in the southwest, we were in Murphy country, a level playing field for the battle of the stouts.

Beer in Ireland means stout⎯almost entirely Guinness, Murphy’s or Beamish⎯or it means lager, generally Heineken. Forty-eight percent of the Irish beer market is stout (down from 55 percent), 43 percent is lager, and the remaining 9 percent goes to ales like Smithwick or Kilkenny. (By comparison, in the United Kingdom, stout is only 5 percent of the beer consumed. However, because of its much larger population⎯Ireland is only 5 million compared to the UK’s 59 million⎯the United Kingdom is the world’s largest stout market.)

This begs the question, why is stout so popular in Ireland? This had to wait until a visit to the Murphy’s brewery, and even then, I’m not sure if my leg wasn’t tugged one more time.

On a grey morning, we visited Lady’s Well Brewery in Cork, founded by the Murphy brothers in 1856. It is now a modern brewery, no longer drawing its water from the old well. For us, the treat was meeting Rex Archer.

Every family brewery must have someone like Archer, who started working for Murphy’s in 1939, who remembers when the present management was wearing short trousers, and who is still willing to interrupt retirement to come in and pour the occassional breakfast pint for guests. We slowly sipped the freshest stout this side of the brewhouse in “The Kiln,” the Murphy’s company bar built in the old maltings, and encouraged Archer to reminisce.

He told us about the hop sampling room where young accountants would go for a nap, lulled by the soporific perfume of the fresh hops. Pillows are still stuffed with fresh hops to comfort insomniacs.

He recalled the pre-nitro days⎯and it is worth remembering that the nitrogen dispense system that gives Irish stouts their characteristic creamy texture dates back only to the 1960s. “Murphy’s sold ‘flat’ barrels and ‘high’ barrels of stout, and a publican would mix the older and younger beer to achieve the balance he wanted. Say, he’d order ‘four high and six flat’ in 16 gallon kilderkins, so that’s how he got the stout he wanted.”

But why stout? In the early days, the principal product of Lady’s Well Brewery was porter, and the first stout⎯or a “stouter” version of the porter⎯was brewed in 1889.

Archer gave this account: “In the 1700s, the big houses all had breweries. The butler brewed the beer. In one, the butler was overly fond of his own product, and he knocked over a candle and burned down the house. He lost his post, of course, but the next day he searched the ruin and found malt that had been burned in the fire, and he brewed with it. The stout he made was so good that we’ve been making it ever since.”

More prosaic accounts trace the rise of Irish stout to energy taxes that fell on other stout-brewing regions under British control, keeping the energy-intensive, high-roasted malts for stout affordable only in Ireland. But, all in all, I prefer to think the butler did it.

Even though it wasn’t yet 11:00 in the morning, I sampled one special beer that the bibulous butler would have liked: Murphy’s Millennium, a 5.6 percent strong stout available only on draft in Cork city. For the first time, I was aware of the burn of alcohol in a dry stout, overtaking the chocolatey and roasted notes. It was very warming. This was clearly not the session stouts I’d become accustomed to on our long pub and club nights.

A Test of Taste and Loyalty

That evening in Cork city, before Sean headed off to the clubs and the waiting Irish lasses, we found that our hotel bar had all three major stouts on draft. I persuaded Gavin, a good-natured bartender, to set up unmarked glasses of all three for all of us. Stout drinkers are fiercely loyal to their particular brand, but here was a chance I’d never have back home to taste all three in fair proximity to their breweries.

The assessment of the group? Whether they named it correctly or not, the drinkers identified the Guinness sample for its underlying sourness. It had the palest head and retained it longest. Beamish and Murphy’s were much more similar, with a shorter finish, a candy-like flavor in the case of the Beamish, and a more robust flavor in the case of Murphy’s. I won’t betray Sean if I simply say that a few drinkers’ top pick in the tasting wasn’t the brand they loyally support in the bars.

I checked with Gavin afterwards. “You know,” I said, “there’s a man here who swears by Beamish, but he’s just chosen Murphy’s as his favorite when he couldn’t tell which is which. Maybe I shouldn’t let on.”

“Ah, well,” Gavin said, “Maybe things got a little mixed around. You can tell him that the one he chose as his favorite really was his favorite. That should make him feel just fine.”

And it did.

Maybe that was the essence of an Irish bar for us: Whatever we thought we found, we really did find. The music was as sweet or as revolutionary as we needed it to be. If we sensed our Irish roots, then they really were there. If we didn’t have any Irish roots, we could borrow some if we liked. Over a glass of good stout, our hosts graciously let us select the Ireland we wanted to take home with us.

Many thanks to Pub Tours of Ireland, 47 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2, for making this trip possible. Learn about their tours at

Julie Johnson
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.