Dublin

At around three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, after a visit to the chipper and a belly full of haddock, I walked into a pub called the Long Hall, a mahogany-panelled relic from the Victorian era and a Dublin classic. I ordered a Guinness from the barman and made myself comfortable on one of the soft-leather stools by the windows looking out onto South Georges Street. As my pint of beer frothed mysteriously, transforming from brown to black, I settled in to watch people, cars, cyclists and buses passing by, like reality TV without the TV.

A smartly dressed man sitting nearby, having heard me speak to the barman, asked where I was from. Like many Dubliners I’d met, he had the special knack of being friendly without trying to be.

“Ah, Canada,” he said, “that’s grand.” He’d knocked off work early, he told me. Oscar Wilde once said that “works is the curse of the drinking classes” but this man seemed to have struck an agreeable balance. I noticed he’d been reading the sports pages, so I mentioned something I’d seen earlier that day on a poster somewhere. “I think Ireland plays Canada in rugby at the end of the month,” I said.

“Aye,” he said. He paused, then added with a smile, “I reckon that our lads are going to put your lads in the soil.”

“Not a chance,” I said, having no idea. We both had a laugh and took a drink of beer.

There are not too many pubs like The Long Hall left in Dublin. Not just because they’re over two centuries old, but because they literally don’t make them like that anymore. The pubs in Dublin where most tourists go are the kind that have neon signs outside saying ‘Authentic Irish Pub,’ the surest way to tell that it’s not an authentic Irish pub. When Ireland’s economy was expanding like a puffer fish during the Celtic Tiger years, so-called trophy pubs, meant to snare tourists, exploded in Dublin. They tended to look the way tourists thought they should look, with phoney bric-a-brac and etched mirrors on the walls. Pubs became big business, with a corporate outlook on things like music, piped in via digital media managers that adjusted automatically to noise and energy levels. But in the beginning, pubs were literally public houses, places that were vital to a sense of community. A few of them still survive and I went on a mission to find them. They don’t serve food, or play recorded music or television. They’re places to have a drink, and if you are so inclined, a conversation.

Of course, there are some other things you can do at the pub, such as organize an armed insurrection. In the basement of the International Bar on the corner of St Andrew’s and Wicklow, I joined a group of history buffs on the 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour. The leader of the tour, Conor Kostick, said it was in dingy pub basements like this one where the Irish Brotherhood met one hundred years ago to plan the rebellion that became known as the Easter Rising, a battle that the Irish lost against the British, but which eventually led to the formation of the Irish Republic.

Kostick, an author on Irish history and a former professor at Trinity College, told the story of Ireland’s failed 1916 insurrection with empathy, but also a good dose of humour.  “It’s not many countries that make a national holiday to commemorate a defeat,” he said. “But this is our Bastille Day, our signing of the Declaration of Independence. It just took us a bit longer.”

I hardly ever take guided tours but Kostick’s insights helped illuminate the significance of buildings and statues that I’d walked by many times without appreciating. It made me think I should take walking tours more often. We stopped in front of Doyle’s pub, across the street from Trinity College, and a strategically important location. The rebels ransacked Doyle’s, taking benches, tables and chairs to build a barricade. But the leaders of the rebellion were very keen to communicate to the people that this was the beginning of a respectable Irish Republic, so they were resolutely opposed to any kind of looting. As a result, at Doyle’s and many other places in Dublin, the rebels left promissory notes detailing all commandeered equipment, to be redeemed on the establishment of the Republic. Some 15 years later, after Ireland finally won its independence, the new government made good on its debts. At least it offered to. Many preferred to keep the IOU’s instead. The Jameson Distillery keeps theirs on display as a badge of honour.

Trinity College is also where the famous Book of Kells is on show. The 1200-year old illustrated Gospel is exquisite, but the truth is, you can get a much better look at it online at Trinity’s Digital Collections website. But the visit is well worth it, mainly for the Long Room library. Built in the early 18th Century, the narrow, 65-metre-long hall houses some 200,000 books, many of them centuries old, on towering wooden bookcases. Down the middle of the library, glass display cases show off books from antiquity to the present day. You can’t help but feel a powerful sense of humanity’s noble pursuit of knowledge. One wonders what kind of temple to higher learning people will build in the future. A warehouse stacked with hard drives?

Feeling literary but also a little thirsty, I made my way to Mulligan’s pub on Poolbeg Street. Once a favourite hangout of James Joyce, Mulligan’s has been around since 1782. Bill Barich, author of A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub, says that Mulligan’s serves the finest draft in the whole of Dublin but more important, that Mulligan’s is a rare example of the soul of Irish pubs. A place where conversation is the cardinal and sustaining activity, not bingo, karaoke or Texas Hold ‘Em, says Barich.

I got there early so I could chat with Mulligan’s owner, Gary Cusack, and veteran barman Billy Phelan, who for the past 26 years has manned the taps in a shirt and tie, his hair, now snow white, combed neatly to the side.

The two of them were wiping sweat off their brows after helping to unload a Guinness truck of ninety kegs, something that happens at least twice a week. I sat down with Phelan as he caught his breath. Phelan told me the key to a good pint of stout was the length of the draw from the keg to the tap, the temperature, and the right amount of time to rest the beer before topping it up to get the perfect amount of creamy head—a quarter inch.

The list of famous patrons is long, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Peter O’Toole to John F. Kennedy. But locally, one of the most celebrated visitors is Billy Brooks Carr, a man from Texas who passed away in 2011, but who returned a while later. “Mulligan’s was his favourite place in the world. His relatives flew his ashes to us after he died and we put them in the base of the grandfather clock behind me,” said Phelan.

Speaking of the dead, I had yet to visit The Gravediggers. I’d left it to last because it was out of the city centre, next door to the cemetery. The pub’s actual name is John Kavanagh, but most people call it The Gravediggers on account of its location. On my way to the airport, I caught a cab and asked the driver if he wouldn’t mind stopping there for a pint. He was happy to. He even stopped the meter.

The Gravediggers has been in the Kavanagh family for seven generations, since 1833, and by the look of it, not much had changed. At the front of the bar, grimy wooden floorboards had a satisfying creak to them. Hinged saloon doors, heavily worn by the touch of hands, lead to a dark, spartan lounge in the back, heated by a fireplace in winter. Ancient benches in cosy corners looked inviting, but I chose to stand at the dark wood bar, rubbed to a dull smoothness by uncounted numbers of elbows.

I soon fell into conversation with a group of four men. One of them told me his sister studied nursing in Montreal. Another said he’d been to Halifax. They were all keen to talk with me and for a while, joking and swapping stories, I felt like one of them. If someone told me the Irish invented friendliness I’d believe them because they seem to do it better than anyone else.

They were gearing up to see the All-Ireland Hurling Championships at nearby Croke Park. (Hurling is something like lacrosse, but with slim paddles instead of sticks with baskets.) “It’s Europe’s third largest stadium,” one of them said. “It’ll be packed to the rafters. Over 80,000 people, all there to see an amateur sport. The atmosphere is truly unbelievable.”

Sadly, I had a plane to catch. But the atmosphere in the pub was pretty memorable, too. I wouldn’t have been able to see the game at The Gravediggers anyway, since there was no TV. There wasn’t much of anything, really. Just a bunch of people in an old bar enjoying their pint and the company of friends and strangers, the way it was meant to be.