In Britain and the Channel Islands it is getting more and more difficult to seek out a good pub. Times past each community, urban or rural, had a good selection of bars. These all had their own character, and variety. Many were urban ‘locals’ catering for the working man, others were larger roadhouses with a passing trade and perhaps offering food. The gems were often to be found in rural villages. Fast forward to 2009 and so many are gone and continue to go. With de-industrialisation and changing lifestyles many of the smaller ‘locals’ have disappeared. Others have been gutted and opened up to cater for a younger crowd and boast loud music and large screens for the football – the ‘superpub’. The large roadhouses, where they remain, have become ‘community’ pubs or semi-restaurants. The rural pubs are fast disappearing where they are not able to reinvent themselves in the face of draconian drink-driving laws. Yes a good pub can still be found but it is getting harder. But strangely the variety of beers and ales on offer has never been wider.
Irish pubs have always been different and intriguing. They all used to be dark and smoky, nooks and crannies. Often a bar was run in conjunction with another business, especially in the smaller towns. There were many of them strung along a town street and they sold red lemonade! They were inhabited by men dressed in dark clothing and flat caps who smoked and who often used to offer the small boy with his Dad a sixpence. Late at night the outer doors might be closed and the lights dimmed – perhaps the clientele were moved to a back room. This was the ‘lock-in’, and the Guards would know full well what was going on but would turn a blind eye. Often, and for no apparent reason, some old fella in the corner would start crooning a traditional song or playing a mouth organ. And maybe others would join in.
Times of course move on, but in Ireland they move more slowly. There are less pubs around, but a huge amount thankfully remain. They have had to smarten up thanks to modern health, safety and hygiene regulations. The smoking ban has removed much of the element of intrigue that bars once held. Women are comfortable in these surroundings and no one turns a hair. What has remained in many instances is the dark wood of the furniture and fittings, the nooks and crannies and the quality of the pint that is served in the slow, time-honoured way.
In the capital things are rather different of course. The Celtic Tiger led to a huge rise in the superpub where the newly affluent cared nothing for the ripoff prices. The Cafe En Seine in Dawson Street is typical and is the sort of place you couldn’t drag me in kicking and screaming. Temple Bar is the nightlife capital of Dublin with its bars catering for the young and for the tourist. A place to be avoided by night unless you are in the same stupid, singing, vomiting state as everyone else.
There are also some great old historical bars. On Baggot Street there are Toner’s, O’Donohue’s, Doheny & Nesbit etc. Fabulous places, all part of the history and fabric of old Dublin. But now they have a newly-acquired cult status and are to be avoided unless you like mayhem with your pint.
But look just outside the city centre and there are some gems, and many good, solid boozers. I am a creature of habit and when I find somewhere I feel comfortable with a good pint where I can read a paper or Athletics Weekly I am happy. In my early days in Dublin on the northside I often frequented Kavanagh’s or Findlater’s on Dorset Street. On moving south of the river I looked forward to my Sunday evenings at Mulligan’s – another historical, unspoit bar just far enough off the beaten track to be usually quiet. Unfortunately for me, it becomes a haven for GAA fans on summer Sunday evenings after big matches at Croker. In Ringsend I have shared my favours equally between the excellent Oarsman and Yacht. The latter is a haven for locals and it is rare to see a visitor or a young wan. It’s like walking into someone’s living room and the barstaff insist on delivering your pint to your table. I’ll miss the place and its genial regulars though I rarely spoke to any of them. My final pint in Dublin will probably be at Doolan’s in Hogan Place – a forbidding-looking place from the outside but a friendly local inside with a good pint and a cosy back bar away from the main bustle.
And now in Waterford I’ve found a flat two doors away from The Munster, a 100-year old bar hard by the old city wall. I think I’ve already died and gone to Heaven.