Every year Teasy would suggest going through the back of The Ramblers, one of the Irish bars you will find smack in the middle of northwest Ireland, to see how the living quarters had changed since she was a young woman 70 years before. And every year she would pull back. “I’m best remembering it the way it was.” This year, though, was different.
Con had laid out a tray for us in front of the open peat-filled fire… pota tae agus plata Bairin Breac agus im (that’s tea and barmbrack, buttered bread with raisins and sultanas). We were in mid-blether about the oul’ days when Teasy (a pet name for Teresa) upped suddenly from her seat, cleared her throat, and said she would take up Con’s invitation.
A twist of the door handle and two seconds later we were back in the early 1940s. “That’s where Mammy’s wooden dresser was, there, and up the stairs we had pictures on the wall.” “Mammy and Daddy’s bedroom was that one there, the boys had that room, me and Maura were in there, Breid and Ronnie there, a travelling salesman was in the last room at the end of the corridor, and the other one was spare.’’
Meanwhile, Back in the Modern Day
10 minutes later, we were back in 2018. I’d moved on to Guinness (more about the perfect pint anon), and she was naming the people in the pictures on the walls from when Mammy and Daddy ran McNulty’s Hotel, now The Ramblers Inn. Brockagh in Donegal is something of a time capsule, much like many a hamlet, or townland, in the northwest of Ireland. Little has changed in 100 years.
The Old Schoolhouse when you enter Brockagh is now a heritage centre named after an Irish patriot, Isaac Butt. It outlines his part in the Irish fight for independence from Britain. The centre also preserves various agricultural items and domestic heirlooms. Pictures adorn the boards to show visitors, including returning Irish from America and beyond, what life was like back in the day. You’ll also see the school’s first intake, Teasy and five of her siblings, beaming cheekily for the teacher and future generations.
Three brothers would emigrate to New York in the late 1950s and open their own bars. The last of them, The Irish Cottage, instituted in Forest Hills in Queens, only closed its doors last year, a casualty of COVID-19. Three sisters would leave for Dublin. One would marry into another proud pub family, the Tipperary Kennedys. They set up their business off O’Connell Street by the River Liffey.
In Dublin’s Beer City
The next generation is manning the pumps, in the now rebranded gastro pub The Workshop. And while the fare has changed and modernised, the secrets of the creamiest Guinness remains with John, Ciaran, and Tomas. They did, however, share that Guinness doesn’t travel well.
We all can’t be lucky enough to live in Ireland or visit. Nonetheless, the door is wide open to study and work here. And, in truth, there are Irish bars on every corner of every American town anyway. A typically red-headed Irish descendant trained in the skills of pouring the perfect pint lies ready to put their skills to the test.
Inside The Shoppes at Mandalay Place, Las Vegas, the Perfect Pint Experience is the crowned jewel of the newly-redesigned Guinness Store next to Ri Ri Ra. They will even send you away with a special certificate when you master the art.
The key is to pour two-thirds of the drink slowly at a 45-degree angle. Then, leave for a couple of minutes before filling the remainder. Finally, let it rest for its cloudiness to clear. And then drink deep. For the most authentic Irish bars, then Ireland’s your only man, as they say about the beloved ‘black stuff’ or ‘plain’.
Irish Bars: Music in the Air
Dublin is a modern, vibrant European capital with cutting-edge restaurants and bustling nightclubs. Nonetheless, it rightly holds dearly the quirky Irish bars frequented by everybody. All the way from James Joyce and Brendan Behan to Bono and Phil Lynott.
O’Donoghue’s Bar‘s proud claim to fame is that it spawned the trad group The Dubliners, named after a Joyce collection of short stories. They performed regularly back in the day in its snug, a cosy corner of the pub where musicians traditionally play Irish music. Fiddles and a goatskin-frame drum, the bodhrán, which is rattled continuously with a stick, were the only tools they needed.
The music, the conversation, the laughter, and the drink all add up to what the Irish refer to as the craic. And while the official currency of Ireland is the Euro, the real currency is the craic by which all people will be judged.
It is the greeting you will hear daily: ‘What’s the craic?’ and it is how you or a night out will be measured. ‘It was great craic,’ ‘mighty craic’ or the best of all ‘the craic was 90,’ though why it should be that figure is lost in the mists of time.
Gravity Shifting at the Guinness Storehouse
Any of these too when applied to you is a ringing endorsement. Although, the worst thing that can be levelled against you is that ‘you’re no craic at all.’ Where the best craic in Dublin actually is is subjective.
Where it is not is easy to identify. Everybody who is an actual Dub, or an adopted one, will tell you to steer clear of Temple Bar. This tourist hub next to the Liffey should be avoided like the plague. And a plague it is too, of Bachelor and Bachelorette parties. At the same time, you can also double the price of a drink from what you will find elsewhere.
The Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse in the Liberties area will afford you some of the best views in Dublin. You can walk through the long history of the stout and this historic company. It is exhaustive and you will truly deserve your drink at the end. Nobody is exempt, with former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama amongst those supping on Guinness there. Both popped up from their glasses with foamy white moustaches.
Elsewhere, but still in the heart of Dublin, is one of my favourites: Mary’s Bar and Hardware Shop on Wicklow Street. Just off Grafton Street, Dubliners’ upmarket shopping street of choice, Mary’s recreates that staple of the Irish rural pubs. The traditionally split bar/grocery store look remains very much alive, although the old-fashioned tins are just for decoration. Think The Waltons if they hadn’t lived in a dry, non-alcohol town. What it does have, which is particularly distinctive, is interior access to a fast-food store upstairs. You can bring your drinks in and out of each and enjoy both with some trad music ringing out too.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
If your image of a quintessential Irish bar is of multiple rooms with barn-doors, fireplaces and an old cottage feel, then Johnnie Fox’s in the Dublin Mountains (OK they’re not the Rockies but we won’t quibble as this is officially Ireland’s highest pub) is where you want to go next. Johnnie Fox’s is a popular trip for tourists, and Dubliners alike, with minibuses regularly snaking up the winding roads to the bar for its Hooley (or party) nights. The kitchen is renowned for its fish dishes.
There is a stage too, where you can jig away to traditional Irish music and dance all night. I would highly recommend a bowl of its chowder. It is the perfect accompaniment for one of the best pints of Guinness I have had in Ireland. Don’t get lost, though, through its many bars. On second thoughts, that’s all part of the fun.
Ireland’s two countries, North and South, remains something of a puzzle to man. It can simplistically be explained through religion, the Republic being predominantly Catholic and Northern Ireland mostly Protestant. Younger generations have become more secular and tensions have eased somewhat since the end of what they euphemistically called The Troubles.
What does unite the whole island, though, is the craic. The mantra ‘what’s the craic?’ will earn you a smile. It will also ensure a greeting no matter your religion in the North.
Belfast’s Crowning Glory
The accent is as thick as the Guinness you’ll drink in the institute that is the beautifully-adorned Italianate Crown in Belfast, or the Crown Liquor Saloon, to give it its posh name. It is a mere stroll from the Grand Opera House.
And should you be asked ‘Bout ye?’, then just smile. They’re really just asking about your general welfare. Relax, settle into your seat at one of the local Irish bars, order a Guinness, and you’ll soon be speaking just like them.
You may feel like you’re in a bit of a time warp as you walk through the capital of Northern Ireland. That is because you will be faced with murals of a finely-adorned and bewigged man on a white horse. He is the 17th-century King William of Orange, protector of Protestantism. A divisive figure, King William is a hero to some and a villain to others.
And Something from Game of Thrones
It’s actually best to leave old William to the locals. There are, after all, royal dynasties here less controversial and a lot more fun. Northern Ireland is a well-recognised location from Game of Thrones. Visit Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and have your picture taken by the wooden door in The Dark Horse across from The Duke of York. It and a number of other doors were hewn from the Ballymoney beech trees we all know as the Dark Hedges, some of which came down in a storm.
So, you will find plenty to drink to on both sides of the border. Enjoy the craic when you’re in Ireland. And sláinte, as they say in the truest of Irish bars.
by Jim Murty