On the journey to celebrate Irish pubs and writers, the tedium of modern air travel looms large. The act of travelling itself has become a test of long-suffering patience and restraint. Enduring endless line-ups laden with luggage, undressing at security and being felt-up, x-rayed, questioned and examined, fighting the urge to roll my eyes and struggling to hold my acid tongue in response to repetitive questions, cramped seats and terrible airline food all make for a boring bracket at each end of a vacation.
Fortunately, the time in the air on my most recent transatlantic flight home gave me time to reflect on my most recent trip, to Dublin, Ireland. The hours on the plane allowed me the luxury to recall and savour my many experiences, much like swirling a fine whisky on the tongue before its burning descent turns into only a memory of digestive warmth.
The analogy of whisky is apt when talking about Irish pubs and writers. At first it might seem like an odd combination to want to write about, but the two are inextricably linked, and provide some of my most memorable experiences on my visit to Ireland. This post was inspired by a literary walking tour and book of Dublin pubs which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
THE CENTRE OF THE COMMUNITY
The Irish pub has been a cultural and political touchstone and gathering place throughout Ireland’s colourful and sometimes tragically turbulent history. Through civil war, religious conflict, uprisings and struggles for independence, pubs served as safe houses, social hubs, and the source of news. The proprietor and patrons were often surrogate families and protectors for political fugitives in need of a safe haven or just a bit of companionship and for those unfortunates with no families or homes of their own. Writers were among the patrons frequenting their “local”, often famously chronicling events within and outside.
The modern day Republic of Ireland on the southern part of the island, is relatively tiny, with a population of about 4 million, which is the size of the city of Toronto and its suburbs. Dublin is Ireland’s oldest city dating back to the Vikings, and its largest, with 800 pubs serving a population of about 1.2 million which swells with bus loads of tourists every year.
RICH LITERARY HISTORY
Even if you haven’t visited the country, you’re probably familiar with its pub culture and most famous exports: Guinness, Irish whisky and St. Patrick’s Day. But you may not immediately think of Ireland as having a rich literary history, and yet this small country has produced some giants of the English written word both literary and purely commercial: William Congreve, Roddy Doyle, Brian Friel, Oliver Goldsmith, Maeve Binchy, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Frank and Malachy McCourt, and Samuel Beckett, to name only a few, many of whom were, or are, expats with lifelong, complex emotional ties to their homeland.
As a lesser-known contemporary writer, Colm Quilligan opines in his book that I mentioned earlier, “Dublin Literary Pub Crawl” (after which is named a fun walking tour of Dublin which I heartily recommend), “you can take the writer out of Dublin, but you can’t take Dublin out of the writer.” I would go further to add that you can’t take the pub out of the writer either, and in at least one notable case, like that of the savagely witty alcoholic Brendan Behan, nor could you get the writer out of the pub. Pubs played and continue to play a pivotal role in the lives of Irish writers and those of their characters.
Behan is a particularly flamboyant example, having been arrested as a revolutionary, excommunicated, rumoured to have been bi-sexual in a time and country when that was largely unthinkable, suffering diabetic comas from drinking, and using his gigantic command of wit and word to attract a great deal of attention to himself, due to his outrageous, drunken, public spectacles. He caused his wife Beatrice considerable heart ache, but he couldn’t stop and his opinion of publicity was that there was none that was bad unless it was one’s own obituary.
The biography “Brendan Behan: A Life” by Michael O’Sullivan, chronicles Behan’s destruction in the grips of what we would now call his alcohol addiction.
His talent and wit probably granted him a greater tolerance from those around him than he might have enjoyed otherwise. Since he was from a culture steeped in pints, Behan’s boozing produced some colourful quotes that sometimes camouflaged the depth of his alcoholism. In his local pub he pronounced, “I only drink on two occasions: when I’m thirsty and when I’m not.”
Eventually, the media and public grew tired of his drunken antics, and on a visit to Toronto as the host of a jazz concert, he gave an interview in an inebriated state. The journalist asked if, at this point he could even distinguish between poetry and prose. Behan thereby launched a zinger retort in the form of a limerick:
“There was a young fella called Rollocks
Who worked for Ferrier Pollocks.
He walked on the Strand
With his girl be the hand
And the tide was up to his….knees.
That is known as prose. If the tide had come any higher, that would have been poetry.”
He was asked what his plans were while he was there, and his double entendre said it all: “I’m going to drink Canada Dry.”
On one of his famous visits to New York, his play “The Hostage” was running at the Irish Repertory Theatre about to move to Broadway, and his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Borstal Boy” had just been published. His boozy, bad-boy reputation as a “drinker with a writing problem” both shocked and entertained the American public. The media were in a competitive frenzy to get quotes from the Irish phenom and one reporter asked a question meant to be probing but which came across as simply pretentious asked: “What message is in your plays?” Well, he handed the media a quote on a platter: “What do you think I am? A feckin’ telegraph pole?” Eventually drinking himself to death at 41, an obituary described him as too young to die and too drunk to live. Even so, he maintained his waggish humour to the end, when on his deathbed he couldn’t resist an irreverent quip to a nun who was his nurse, “Bless you sister. May you be the mother of a Bishop.” No doubt she was not amused.
THE WORD “PUB” ITSELF
The history of the word pub itself isn’t known for certain, but its origin likely comes from medieval Ireland. In those days, water wasn’t known as a necessary beverage for good health. In fact, people had deep suspicions of water as being the source of sickness, which was, in fact true, since it was hard to find an unpolluted source. Mead was a common drink (which was fermented honey and boiled water) as was ale, which is made from barley and water, boiled and fermented, which would kill off most of the bacteria. Village women who developed a particular talent for making tasty, home-made brews, would open their homes to the public to sell their concoctions to thirsty souls, which became known as a public house, thereafter shortened to pub. You can still see the term Public House above the door of some establishments.
WOMEN: KEEP OUT!
To an outsider viewing Ireland’s social structure through a modern lens, up until very recently, the country was ultra-conservative by western standards. Indicative of this is the prickly relationship between women and pubs. Pubs throughout history were havens almost exclusive to men, right up until WWII. Women could send a child on an errand to a pub to fetch her a jug of “Holy water” or she could stand outside with a jug or billy can waiting for an indulgent proprietor to fill it for a fee, or waiting for her man to come out, but no female foot was welcome over the thresh-hold. Drinking in the pub was considered a rite of passage for young men and there was much honour in “standing his round.” The old traditional Scottish joke is easily adapted to the Irish that goes: “An Irishman is the only male on earth who would walk over a dozen naked women to get to his pint.”
As Quilligan notes, pubs of old stunk with a Gawd-awful combination of tobacco, odour of the working man, their spit and vomit, which was partially absorbed by the sawdust liberally covering the floor. Add to that the lack of female toilet facilities, men — and the Catholic church — did everything they could to discourage females from even wanting to visit a pub. As in many conservative cultures that blame women for the weak moral fibre of men, the church decreed that those premises should be off-limits to women lest they sully the moral character of the men within.
As men enlisted for the war and women took their places in the work force, the pubs developed a hair-line crack in their men-only policy. Women were grudgingly allowed a drink in a pub but were segregated from the men in a small, airless ante-room called a Snug, and served through a hatch in the wall from the main bar.
Still with no toilet facilities, women would have no choice but to step outside to relieve themselves, and perhaps reeling from the drink, might stumble over the cellar grate, watering the most unfortunate heads of anyone stocking the store rooms below.
Through pressure from women who were supporting their families while their men were at war, and the slow-dawning in the brains of publicans (as proprietors are known) that female customers meant added revenue, the Snug slowly gave way to a more spacious “ladies’ lounge”, albeit still segregated from the men. Incredibly, Ireland only passed the Equal Status Act in 2000, up until which time a publican could legally refuse to serve a woman (though I wouldn’t like to have been the publican who tried!) and would still often only serve women in the ladies’ lounge.
Of the few notable exceptions to the no-women rule, including elderly women who had earned the right to full exposure through the many years of giving birth to a dozen children, rearing dozens more grandchildren and sometimes great-grandchildren, was after a funeral at a wake held in the pub. These were jolly, social occasions where praise and tears were heaped on the dead in equal measure over a jar. However, even then, it was unacceptable for a woman to order a pint. She was only permitted a half-in-a-glass.
As the story of the tricky relationship between women, the church and pubs goes in Dublin Pub Life & Lore as quoted by Quilligan:
Two oul’ ones who went into [the church] to make their confession, having had a few jars in the pub. One of the women fell asleep in the confession box while waiting for the slide to be pulled back. She woke suddenly and seeing the priest behind the wire mesh, said: “Give us two more bottles of stout and would you turn on the feckin’ light in the snug.”
Some locals we chatted with, both men and women, were wistful about the changes to the pub culture of the country. Women of a “certain age” actually miss the ladies’ lounge, where they could gossip freely out of ear-shot of their husbands. And men, well, they cry in their cups that there’s no place sacred left for a man but the priest-hood.
People still often identify with a “local”, but they are fewer and farther between as many pubs have adopted the modern, sports-bar ambiance with TVs and loud music to entice the young people who spend and drink freely, which discourages the old-timers who nurse their pint over a story or three. Still, “locals” do exist, as we discovered! As unsuspecting tourists we unknowingly wandered into a “local” off the tourist track, and found ourselves uncomfortably in the spotlight as all conversation stopped and all eyes followed us as we looked for a vacant seat to relieve our aching legs and feet after walking all day to see the sights. We were simply looking for fortification in a pint of deliciously creamy Guinness (which is my personal favourite), and a plate of bangers and mash, and thankfully, we broke the tension by observing to the publican across the silent room, that they obviously don’t get many tourists in here. The whole room laughed, and we settled comfortably to our pints.
There are also still pubs to be found that feature live, traditional Irish music on a Friday and Saturday night, and if you’re really lucky, you can still find the odd one where the locals go to practice traditional Irish clog dancing, which is very close to North American square dancing, but to Irish folk-songs with tap shoes (which we actually found when we travelled to the West coast in Country Clare).
Much of the information and many of the anecdotes in this post are thanks to the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl walking tour developed by Colm Quilligan, and his book by the same name which you can find here. I highly recommend both. If you plan to be in Dublin, don’t miss the tour which you can find at the Duke pub on Duke Street, right off the main pedestrian-only shopping thoroughfare of Grafton Street.
On the tour, you’ll be treated to performances of some of the anecdotes I’ve included and many more besides, by a pair of actor-guides who bring the full weight of Irish literary charm to life. And I also highly recommend the Historical walking tour, which starts at Trinity College and is conducted by a passionate PhD student of history at one of the city’s Universities.
It’s a great walking city, so bring comfortable shoes! Other highlights not to miss in Dublin are the tour of the fascinatingly grim Killmainham Gaol,
The Guinness Storehouse,
the Jameson Distillery (pronounced Gemesin by locals),
The National Museum of Decorative Arts and Furniture,
the Temple Bar district
and the Georgian doors of Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares.
If you’re lucky, like I was, you might even have a spooky encounter with a ghost in a Georgian home on Fitzwilliam Street. But I’ll tell you more about that another time.
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I’m grateful to have received permission from Colm Quilligan to quote from his delightful book, but the post is my own and he did not see it or pre-approve it before it was published, and I receive no financial compensation for writing it or recommending his book and tours.