The Thursday Tipple: Oil Can Harry’s, Lower Mount Street, Dublin 2

For a city that is growing, demographically and economically, and one that is building and going to go higher, it’s remarkable how few pubs are located in Georgian Dublin. Walk from Lower Mount Street to its upper namesake, then, Lower Baggot Street up to where it meets Pembroke Street. Walk down Upper Leeson Street itself. Walk along all the streets and rows between them. By my unscientific calculation, you’ll count on one hand the number of public houses. The district may not be as commercially populous as the Silicon Docks, the retail footfall not as heavy, but the streets will show you the brass plates of countless financial brokers, dentists, services industries and production companies in the arts, all hosting people occasionally looking for an after-work pint.

This sparseness of pubs leaves Oil Can Harry’s of Lower Mount Street well poised. The clientele on a bright May evening reflects the mix you might expect. Outside, a group of young Europeans are smoking and drinking without a care in the world. Two tables host young Americans drinking shorts. Opposite the bar, men in business attire who look and sound like they’re working in Dublin for a few nights, possibly a few weeks, sit at a high table and talk reflectively by a set of stouts. The scene looks like they’ve made it their short-term regular. Meanwhile, the older men whose knees nudge the bar look like committed patrons.

Despite the national/international mix, this pub has a distinctly traditional feel: the Irish sports paraphernalia plastered across the walls; the number of TV screens for showing sport; the cultural relics like old road signs with town and distance. There’s nothing gastro about the evening menu – chowder, beef lasagne, chicken curry, bangers and mash, sirloin steak – or the plate of scones wrapped in cellophane on the bar counter. Weekend nights bring live music, a mix of the traditional and the contemporary. A matronly lady with a winning smile keeps tables served and clean. This could be the Johnnie Fox’s of the concrete jungle.

Even more traditional than other traditional pubs in Dublin, the draught beer choice is limited. You’ll be spoilt for choice of whiskeys and spirits.

A strength of the pub is its spaciousness: out front where people can drink and smoke at one of the ample tables; the pub’s bright, front area with its large window that gives it a real sense of spaciousness; the large Library Room in the middle of the pub for anyone looking to curl up with a drink and book; and roof garden. Upstairs has a function room I remember being in for a 21st many moons ago, when the moon was associated with howling and this was a pitstop for the pseudonymous nightclub up the road.

The iconic nightclub is gone. The number of such traditional pubs is dwindling. Dublin is changing. Yet this dog-old establishment still stands, the O’Connors as wedded as ever to providing a traditional pub. But what will happen when running this pub is past them? Where will its current clientele will find a quiet, traditional experience? It will be interesting to see what happens this endangered bird when the owners take flight.

Prices (23 May 2019)

Pint of Guinness: €5.30

Pint of lager: €5.80

Pint of ale: €5.30

Pint of cider: €5.80

330ml bottle of lager: €5.60

Measure of whiskey: €5.10

Soft drink: €2.90

 

 

 

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The Thursday Tipple: The Schoolhouse Bar, Northumberland Road, Ballsbridge

The evenings are getting longer and the pints are getting more tempting. February and March brought random, discordant days of mildness that complimented the sunshine now stretching past office hours. People are getting more notions of staying in the city for an outdoor after-work pint.

Yet for a city that Leopold Bloom said offered a puzzle of crossing without passing a pub, there are very few establishments where one can sit outside without being plunged in shade. Given its low-rise aspect and most streets’ narrowness, you would think there’d be more. My uneducated guess is there are two reasons. Firstly, very few establishments have spacious plots at the back that can accommodate much sun. Look at how narrow smoking gardens are. Secondly, our climate discourages such spaces, front or back.

The consequence? On bright evenings you can walk through the city as the sun travels westward thinking this is the perfect evening to enjoy an outdoor pint. You walk further and further across Dublin 1 or 2, thinking every front area is too shaded, that the noisy standing-only gathering in front of you can be bettered. But by the time you cut your losses and stop somewhere, the sun is in injury time and your chance is gone.

Yet there are diamonds in the dark, like the Schoolhouse Bar.

The building was a school during Victoriana. Primary school children learnt there until 1969, when it closed after 108 years. After almost 30 years of dereliction, a hotel group bought it and converted it into a hotel, pub and restaurant.

The Schoolhouse looks and feels more like a church. Walking or driving down Northumberland Road, the turret and entrance suggest a space for the spiritual. Inside, the wooden interior and the acutely pitched roof of white and dark wood suggest matters spiritual.

Back on terra temporal, the ambience is relaxed, the layout spacious for high or low-seated chat or a quiet pint and read of the pub’s complimentary newspaper. The background music is soft. Food is served all day and evening, the evening bar menu including fish or burgers and chips, chicken curry, lamb pie as well as casual bites. To the left of the bar is a restaurant. The hotel is around the corner.

Outside, a row of small tables are lined below the green window ledges. Here you can enjoy the sun spilling across from the sky between Northumberland Road and the canal as it travels the western horizon. The orb (when it’s out) is not one that ducks in and out behind buildings beside you, or changes your experience moment by moment from sunglasses to farce. It’s a trapped sun, giving light to an area set back from the main road.

The church-like look raises another issue: its suitability as a post-wedding venue. Many who marry in the city, either in churches or in the registry office, five minutes’ walk away, contemplate Dublin’s glitziest restaurants for the celebrations and the renowned Shelbourne or Merrion hotels for the first night of marriage. For some, the choice of accommodation is a connection with the wedding night choice of parents or grandparents. The Schoolhouse is an alternative for meal, reception or accommodation – one that could involve less cost and no change of venue during the evening. For the laid back party the following afternoon or evening the ambience is good. I remember enjoying one such Sunday night ‘afters’, the venue so mellow it sucked the ‘end of weekend’ feel out of Sunday.

But from Sunday to sun days. Dublin 4 gets at least 1,300 hours of sunshine most years. Keep an eye on the forecast. If some of those hours are due this evening make sure you’re in the area.

I could not see a drinks price list on display (27 March 2019).

Coffee: €2.70.

Evening menu: Beef burger and fries €15.95

Casual bites on evening menu: Homemade Chicken Goujon & chips €11.50

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The Thursday Tipple: The Confession Box, Marlborough Street, Dublin 1

If you grew up as a Catholic do you remember doing your Confession as a kid? Entering the dark, wooden box; hearing the priest speak in low, solemn tones to the confessor on the other side; the conclusive tone of the other confession giving way to silence; then the waiting as the faceless priest lifted the slider to begin your session. ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been six weeks since my last confession…’ Above and beyond the intimacy of revealing one’s secrets, there was the irreverent challenge of trying to hear the words of the sinner on the other side.

The Confession Box makes hearing others’ sins inevitable. I enter it mid-Monday and the tiny pub is rammed. There’s an occasional inner-city accent but most faces and sounds are foreign. A non-Monday reverie fills the air. Those gathered are not the first of the influx for Paddy’s Day, just some of the many tourists who’ve followed the scent of its reputation. You can almost imagine people climbing through the windows to get in on the upcoming bank holiday Monday.

The name originates from its proximity to the Pro-Cathedral, just up the road, though the pub’s folklore focuses on confessions of the proclaimed. Some of those involved in the War of Independence, including Michael Collins, were excommunicated for their actions. It was here that sympathetic priests from the Pro-Cathedral discreetly gave them Communion and Confession. The Big Fella is plastered across the merchandise the pub displays on its walls, glass cabinets and behind the bar: t-shirts, hats, shot glasses etc. I get why pubs do it, but it gives them the feel of a shop.

Downstairs wedged, I climb to the first floor of mint green walls and upholstery and pale wooden flooring. This room is even smaller. My choice of view is either the barman moving directly below me or of the three lads sitting by the window, some five meters away. They talk at a normal level though it feels like we’re all in the same confession box. I earwig on the guy telling his two friends about all the texts, calls and emails he got from one girl whilst starting out with another. ‘I’m not bragging,’ he says with a north of England drawl, sighing as he conveys his difficulties in moving past the former. I sensed neither is now on the scene. ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it’s been a busy few months since my last confession…’

An intimate conversation in this pub I’d like to have listened in on is not this one, nor the confessions of the rebels (though they would be interesting) but one from early 1960. The pub was O’Flanagan’s then, owned by renowned sports player Mick O’Flanagan. He was one of the only pair of brothers to have played for Ireland in both rugby and soccer. He was a member of the Grand Slam winning team of 1948. After the untimely death an Irish Press sports editor and football writer in the 1950s a group of soccer reporters formed an impromptu committee to organise a charity fundraiser for his widow and family. In the following years, those involved wanted to formalise the committee. Soccer journalists felt they needed a collective voice to lobby the Football Association of Ireland and deal with clubs about facilities and match accreditation.

It was in this pub, undoubtedly over a few pints (perhaps mid-Monday – it was acceptable for reporters back then), that they discussed their dream and brought it alive through the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland. I can imagine the passion that fuelled their discussion, someone scribbling with a bookie’s pencil into a reporter’s notebook as they agreed their aims and rules. In the 1980s, my father used bring me to UCD soccer matches when there were more men on the pitch than dotted around it. At half-time, fans, the ref, linesmen, the club’s board (nearly half of those around the pitch) and journalists all huddled in the portacabin for a cup of tea and biscuits. The reporters then returned to their cold, enclosed box beside the subs’ benches where they took notes and filed copy with their newspapers or gave an update to RTÉ’s Sunday Sport through whatever technology they had. I’m sure those reporters had times when they were glad they had the association to make the case for better conditions for their guild. Some seventy years on, you’ll hear the association’s name when media report Ireland’s annual soccer awards.

Reputation looks favourably on The Confession Box’s pint of plain and its trad sessions. I can only confirm its intimacy. Tight spaces make for intimate, (somewhat) truthful confessions. Here there’s little penance.

Prices (25 February 2019)

Pint of Guinness: €5.00

Pint of lager: €5.60

Pint of ale: €5.00

Pint of cider: €5.70

330ml bottle of lager: €5.30

Measure of whiskey (Power’s/Paddy/Jameson): €5.00

Soft drink: €3.00

 

 

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The Thursday Tipple: Churchtown Stores, Braemor Road, Churchtown

Two years ago, we bought a house in Churchtown. New era, new world of buying furnishings and appliances, reluctant ventures into the den of DIY. One Saturday, I cut the cord on a hedge strimmer. An assistant in Homebase advised me on what I needed to buy and how to repair it. As he extemporized I thought of an old Woodies ad in which a homeowner asks a teenage staff member where she can find something relating to patios. The narrator explains that all the teenager heard was: “Bla bla bla, bla bla bla bla, bla bla patio bla bla.’ Replace patio with cord and I was the assistant. After I’d attempted to repair the cord, the strimmer plugged in and ready to be switched back on, I looked lovingly at my wife. ‘Well, if I haven’t got this right,’ I said, ‘it’s been real, yeah?’

Before Homebase, I had tried the small hardware store near us. It had a reputation for having everything. It was closed when I got there and I never entered it before it closed its doors for the last time early last year.

Rumours of a wine bar replacing it intrigued me, almost excited me. There are few pubs near us: a community pub twelve minutes’ walk away and a recently re-invented gastropub almost double the distance. I dream of having a ‘local’. Everyone who discovers a thirst at the weekend, on special occasions or when sport or the weather itches their feet should have a pub ten minutes’ away — close enough to walk home quickly from but not close enough that it’s beside the corner shop. When we were looking for a house I’d never considered the issue. Talk of a local establishment, albeit for wine, brought a new kind of dream.

Then, before Christmas, a friend told me a pub had replaced the old hardware store. We revised our plan of a pre-Christmas Friday night squat in the gastropub to a crawl. I read online about the new pub’s provenance. Three bothers, Kieran, Fehan and Barry Flood, Mullingar gentlemen who’d owned and ran a quintessential hardware store for 31 years, had put the shop on the market in the belief someone would take over the business. Nobody shared their dream. Those who bought the property, however, liked the idea of branding the pub in the old store’s likeliness. The balding brothers gave them old stock to enhance the retro look.

On the penultimate Friday night before Christmas, we crawled in, escaping one pub and the bitter cold for the warmth and ambient lighting of Churchtown Stores. It’s slick. Its layout offers a good range of high circular tables, snugs and couches. Like all new pubs, it understands today’s appetite for gins, whiskeys and craft beers. The neat, memorabilia-filled furnishing is also contemporary. Yet that night I heard something unique among the large crowd. It was the hum one finds in a new pub on its first or second weekend, conversation laced with the buzz of discovering a new local, a place where dreams – of pints, sporting glories, insightful or hilarious conversations, (re)connections – of a ‘local’ might come true.

There was an aptness about the smell of varnish filling our senses that night, a fusion of hardware stock and pub furniture, as though the pub is a reincarnation of the hardware store/pub you find (dying out) in rural villages and towns. I wondered if the old owners supplied them with the paints in their closing down sale, or advised them what type to buy. When we left I spotted two elderly, balding men having a drink at a quiet counter of the bar. Too many pints prevented me from identifying it was two of the brothers. I wondered if it was, there because they missed the store’s hum of conversation, or curious for the sound of a new kind of hum.

In an interview last year, the brothers explained that it hadn’t mattered if people had visited the store without spending money. What mattered was that they walked out happy. People would think nothing of ringing and asking for advice. Everyone was a customer of the future.

Churchtown Stores still has a fledgling feel. Christmas is long past and, late January, you can still smell the varnish. No food, tea or coffee is available. Nobody enters yet with a look of ‘returning’. The hardware store probably had a nascent feel once upon a time but it all worked out. I imagine the balding men’s toast of that Friday night: may this remain a place where people meet and get to know others, where they laugh and learn a little. May dreams come true.

I could not see a price list on display (29 January 2019)

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The Christmas Tipple: The Willows, Dundrum

For the first time in almost 15 years I’ll wake on Christmas morning in the house where I live. Usually I’ve been at my parents’ house, often with a visit to their local pub before the 25th for that wonderful Irish experience of a jammed pub on the first or second night after most people have finished work for the year, when the ping of conversation is filled with people’s plans for Christmas and pleasure at the prospect of days of indulgence ahead.

I’m bringing the final review of the year right down to the local level, to The Willows, a community pub in the heart of residential Dundrum, suburbia, where Christmas is evident from the fairy lights and green star-shaped lights on the pub’s black frontage and red brick exterior, below Heineken flags that flap so proudly one feels like one’s outside the embassy of a beer republic.

What’s a community pub, you might ask. I remember being bemused by the term when I’d first heard it when living in Inchicore. The give-away for The Willows is the location, embedded within a housing estate, the pub’s exterior looking like it’s been superimposed on the ground floor of three red brick houses along a row of five. Such pubs are focused on serving the locals. The pub’s website tells you that from descriptions of its golf society, the teams it has in the Dublin Snooker Leagues, the players’ skills honed on the three tables upstairs near the function room that houses weekly poker evenings.  It hosts fundraising events for Dundrum Athletic.

When we go down for a drink on the solstice, the ‘opening night’ of Christmas when work has had its year, we discover two parts of the community. In Mackers Bar there’s the community of men of different ages lined like ducks at the bar counter, supping pints, sitting below large flags for Dublin, Munster and Leinster nailed in all corners to the ceiling. They’re slagging each other and trying to persuade the barman to show football instead of racing on the largest of three televisions.

‘I’m trying to keep everyone happy,’ says the barman, pointing at another screen.

‘The results haven’t changed,’ one man says to another staring at a screen showing racing results. The others laugh.

Another local arrives and awkwardly wields a tall chair from the corner snug, bumping it into another guy’s knees. ‘Jesus you’ve only just arrived and you’re already causing havoc,’ the injured says and the laugher is revived. A bronze plaque affixed to the wooden divider wall of the corner snug says ‘Bullshit Corner’. No false advertising here.

The barman yields and switches channel to mollify the protestors. The racing followers balance their attention between the other televisions and the banter. Black and white photos of old Dundrum adorn the hallway of the Mackers’ Bar entrance. One shows King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra approaching Dundrum after attending the Leopardstown Races in 1904. Were The Willows open back then they might have slipped into Mackers for a cheeky one and to check who’d won the bumper.

The other part of the community, everyone else, sits in the ebullient lounge. It’s livelier tonight than the Saturday night we first visited here a few weeks after we moved into the area. That night, a friendly barman had caught our eye, took our order and got the measure of us over a few minutes’ chat when he brought us a ridiculously cheap pint of Beamish (just over €4) and an underwhelming, G&T lacking lemon. He told us the pub sometimes opens mid-afternoon as there is insufficient business before then.

‘Was that a menu I saw on the wall? Do you do food?’ my better half said to the barman.

‘You’d be lucky to get a packet of peanuts in here, love,’ he replied, tossing his head back in laughter.

But tonight there is peanuts, crisps and other pub snacks, and as I watch a guitarist tune and check the sound system before a night of live music I spot a wine and gin menu that wasn’t here on that first night. An array of gins has found its way here, along with the different Fevertree tonics. The pub has responded to the needs of the gin drinking community. The old, the middle and the younger are here tonight. The place feels as though the dozens gathered and the barmen all know each other. They know everyone else knows they will all be here deep into the night.

Community is a nebulous concept these days. We complain that neighbours don’t know each other like they did back in the day, like 1960, when a man called Maxi Walsh established this pub. But there are communities within a community: the athletes, the poker players, the snooker players, the drinkers. This pub brings the little communities together, binds them perhaps more than geography, in turn helping to create a sense of the local community.

After we slip away we notice directly outside the pub a car parked on the lip of the road, perpendicular to and blocking the cars nestled under the pub’s windows.

“Sure no one’s going to be leaving here with their cars tonight. It’s the Friday night before Christmas for fuck’s sake,” I can imagine a man justifying himself as he’d hurried from that car to Bullshit Corner. “Sure can’t everyone pick up their cars in the morning?”

I can imagine the guitarist having to ask if the person owning the Black Toyota could move their car, and the crowd saying he can’t as he’s drinking responsibly. And I can imagine everyone laughing, the man in question noticing none of it, and everyone feeling warm at being part of this proud, self-deprecating gathering of community.

Feeling a little more connected to an area we call home, we agree we might go back to our local for a drink on Christmas Eve.

Happy Christmas.

Prices (21 December 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €4.85

Pint of lager: €5.25

Pint of ale: €4.85

Pint of cider: €5.30

330ml bottle of lager: €5.40

Measure of whiskey: €4.25

Soft drink: €2.75

 

 

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The Thursday Tipple: The Lower Deck, Portobello Harbour

The nights are getting longer. By teatime, as I walk past the swans fluttering into and out of the black waters, the dark has long descended. The Lower Deck, tucked in behind the Atlas Language School in Portobello, is my destination. You’ve probably never been there but have noticed its black and brown exterior as you’ve passed the canal. At the windows by the entrance I peer at the GAA paraphernalia and photos beyond the glass. There’s countless framed black and white images of old Dublin — the Princess Cinema in Rathmines, the old cattle market on the North Circular Road, the fruit and veg markets. Some bring a smile: the famous one of a train that had ploughed through a building wall, caption Last Stop!. There’s one of an Old English Sheepdog on his hind legs beside his owner at College Green pawing a pedestrian crossing button.

Immediately inside the main door a cadre of old men, defined by ties and cardigans, sit in a snug amidst glasses of black and white of differing levels and empty, forgotten ones with white residuals. There’s no teatime look about them, more that of men deep into the night.

The medium-sized pub itself has a feel of night, one whose dimly-lit corners and intimate pockets have never been scattered by light. That enhances the feeling of welcome and intimacy on such November evenings. There’s dark humour here too. A photo behind the bar shows a hearse, The Lower Deck inscribed on the body of the vehicle, coffin inside. Caption: Dying for a pint. Did an old patron request that his remains stop at his local along his final journey? Perhaps he’d had his final night there too.

The Lower Deck has the traditional pub feel. It’s got a country owner, no doubt, Tipperary hurling memorabilia and photos peppering the room. An old-school projector screen is used to show sport (the 6.01 news is on the evening I’m there) while a small TV in the corner appeases the racing aficionados. Donation boxes sit beside the rubber drip tray with a prominence you rarely see in the modern bars up the road. Music comes in the form of singalongs on Sunday evenings, live music on Saturday nights though I wonder if the old men swapping views in the snug take much notice. In the land of retirement, the weekend begins on Monday.

Afterwards, I pause outside and look at the black and white photos again. There’s some of Portobello in the rare ‘oul times: the Old Mall in the 1940s; the pub when it was known as Ryan’s. This establishment has been serving the Portobello people for one hundred and fifty one years, unbeknownst to many who pass the canal on their habitual ways. A contemporary photo of the pub in black and white would hang easily among the others. The Lower Deck sits on the shoulders of a bygone era. Everyone is happy without colour.

Prices (23 November 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.00

Pint of lager: €5.50

Pint of ale: €5.00

Pint of cider: €5.80

330ml bottle of lager: €5.50

Measure of whiskey: €5.00/5.30

Soft drink: €3.00

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The Thursday Tipple: the workshop, George’s Quay

As you face George’s Quay, you see the old and the new swirl around the workshop. Etched above the pub’s sleek, non-capitalised name-sign is an old, tired one, Kennedy’s, the name from yesteryear and the family who’ve owned it since 1920.

On the pub’s gable end is a large 3D art installation that tourist and local alike gawk at as they wait for green men. It’s a representation of the endangered red squirrel, made from recycled city waste. Is the traditional Irish pub the endangered species before our eyes?

Slightly down from the gastro pub, towards the sea, lie derelict brick buildings and land parcels arising from the slaying of other windowless shells. They’re from the era of the Kennedy’s sign and will inevitably make way for modern, higher builds, the miracle being that the city’s quays still have relics of the past.

The city of 1920 that John Kennedy observed as he converted the Railway Bar he’d bought into his own was also full collisions of old and new. Some nearby buildings, damaged during the Rising, were being restored. The green-domed splendour of the Custom House, opposite Kennedy’s, would be severely damaged the following year by burning — a landmark episode during the political turbulence of the time.

This pub, re-branded and re-designed in 2014, also points to the past. Framed photographs inside portray Ireland’s commercial and industrial history. Its frayed wooden flooring and blacksmith’s tools showcased beside the bar denote retro-workshop. The theme is stylish, the grey interior cool and smooth. Yet one wonders how much those in financial services who descend here for a gastro burger lunch can connect with the tong or anvil. What nostalgia is provoked by photos of the docks among those drinking the signature Aperol Spritz after another day at the silicon docks? Amusing the chasms between modern themes and patrons.

What links today’s customers with those who’ve disappeared into the years is the railway bar identity. Tara Street Station opened in 1891. Kennedy’s location beside its entrance made it the perfect place for those too early or late for their train to grab a pint of plain. Wicklow is now found in the Wicklow Wolf behind the bar, no longer the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway Company train. Flapping timetables have been replaced by the real-time app. Not all in here will be heading to Tara Street. But most will feel its proximity as they look out the single, expansive window that frames the Loopline Bridge and crossing trains, or the hundreds passing by each hour en route to or from the station.

This bar isn’t large: a single room downstairs, an upstairs restaurant. When seating’s available, you’ll enjoy your drink or choice from its tasty lunchtime or dinner menu – the din from others never oppressive. But if you’ve missed that DART and the pub looks full, the layout is not convenient for standing. Ultimately every pub sits a basic test: can its customers get a decent drink in comfortable surrounds? The workshop passes.

The old and the new will remain at this centre point between the Loopline Bridge and the station behind it. High-rise development beside the station is envisaged. The plan for the city’s metro includes an underground station below the Tara Street station. The view might change. But one is confident the Kennedys will ensure the pub adapts for whatever the future will bring – still serving locals and whoever has thoughts somewhere between another pint and another train. The workshop has the basic tools. This species doesn’t seem endangered.

Prices (16 October 2018)

No price list seemed to be displayed.

A pot of tea for one cost €3.00. In a pub on the opposite side of the river it costs €2.20.

Cocktails: Espresso Martini €10.  Aperol Spritz €10 or two for €17.

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