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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The Thursday Tipple: The Swinside Inn, Newlands Valley, Cumbria

The Thursday Tipple takes a brief break from Dublin. It finds itself in Cumbria’s Lake District, England at its wettest, most mountainous and most majestic. At a distance from the iconic Lake District of tourist-filled towns like Keswick and Windermere, or the commercial worlds of walking gear, Beatrix Potter or William Wordsworth, we’re in the Newlands Valley. This is the other Lake District: the hidden, time-abandoned valleys and hidden lanes speckled with cottages, walls and chapels of stone, welcoming inns you won’t know about till you turn the corner.

Deep in a world revered though happy to be forgotten, we’re travelling back to our lodgings after a Thursday of steep walking. Late August sunshine radiates the oaks, horsechestnuts and pines, imposing mountains behind us forever following our eyes. Farmed, free range game leap onto stone walls as they travel from one field to another.

A turn around a sharp corner reveals a large, white-washed building. ‘That’s a nice pub apparently,’ says one of our crew, the ears of his voice pricked.

En-suite rooms, Garden, Refuge Bar is painted in large font on the gable wall. Refuge from what? Surely there’s no need for refuge in paradise. A garden?

A Whatsapp message tells us the others are walking to where we’re meeting them. There’s no point in going home beforehand. A free half hour has presented itself.

‘Will we stop for a pint in that pub we passed?’ I say, burning with thirst and curiosity.

We pull into the car park and let the beer garden we discover connect with the views in front of us. It all makes sense now. The view is the refuge after a long day’s exertion.

Before the eternal magic of a post-perambulatory pint in these parts, there’s one last, leaden-legged climb: up the decking steps from the beer garden to the bar. In the ‘Middle Room’ bar daylight sluices in from the French Windows, transforming a potentially dark room. The bar, tucked in on the right-hand side, harbours the friendly staff and all the beverage possibilities of the moment. Sprinkled through the room are high and low tables where you can sit, talk, sip and drink in the view. You immediately sense that time will never bother you here as you look out towards the mountains.

Back outside, amidst tables occupied by other amblers and cyclists, the pub’s lodgers and those staying in caravans parked on-site, we sit mesmerised by the view across to Causey Pike and Barrow, conquests past and future. The shaded mountains, abandoned now that evening has descended, stare at us, remind us of the highs and lows we’ve shared. On grey and wet days, these parts are steeped in melancholy. But on clear evenings like this there’s nowhere like it. A sip of Theakston Pale Ale feels like lightning binding sky and mountain and garden. Truly, this is the smoothest, silkiest pale ale I have ever tasted.

Sometimes memorable pub experiences are circumstantial: a time, a group, a thirst. The next day we tempt fate by returning after a light afternoon ramble. It’s Friday, late afternoon. Sunshine suffuses the beer garden again but it’s busier — people arriving and reuniting for catch-ups, open air and indulgence.

Yet our experience is repeated, this time enhanced by the tasty food we have. Various posters and fliers show the efforts the pub makes throughout the year to offer patrons and lodgers musical and culinary diversity. The following weekend will see the Swinside Beer and Music Fest.

I reflect in bewilderment at how different two consecutive Fridays can be: here today, surrounded by mesmerising mountains; at home next Friday, scurrying out of work, regretfully, predictably later than I’d hoped. By then a new cadre of holidaymakers will be descending on this beer garden full of hope at the days ahead. Our departure has arrived before our arrival had even begun.

They say that in the Newlands Valley sometimes the sun sets twice over the fells. On our days at the Swinside Inn, it never set at all.

Prices (31 August 2018)

Pint of Heineken: £4.85

Pint of Theakstons Stout: £4.85

Pint of Theakstons Lightfoot: £4.15

330ml bottle of lager: £2.95

Measure of whiskey: £3.30

Soft drink: £1.85

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The Thursday Tipple: The Wiley Fox, Eden Quay

Tucked in beside Liberty Hall, near the metallic hulk of Butt Bridge, is The Wiley Fox. Some might know it as its previous incarnation, The Pint, or The Liffey Bar before that. Others will know it simply as the place to slip in for a pint while you’re waiting for one of the many buses that leave from or pass through Eden Quay.

Two young men, one with the head of his arse staring out at everyone, are whiling away the hours at the bar when I arrive. Funny all the things you hear two strangers discuss in half an hour: homelessness and nearby accommodation; the number of penalty points one has; the life story (‘I left home at 17’); the ex-girlfriend, mentioned too much for her place in his current life to be deemed fully resolved.

Isn’t it good to see still strangers striking up conversation during a solitary pint? I thought it might only still happen in the movies.

Bar stool banter isn’t the only heart-warming thing in this “retro industrial café and bar”, as it describes itself. Its interior is a pleasant mixture of brick, calming colours and quirky, metallic lighting fixtures. You’ve many seating options. As shown, you can meet the world at the bar. You can sneak away to the sun-trapped area at the front, with its comfy armchairs, low circular tables and fireplace. Or you can watch the world and its buses go by at the keg tables outside. The right height for a circular bar table is a precise art. In the main section, this young cub has mastered it.

Some bars place great store in offering specials. Some don’t. The Wiley Fox has them across the board. €12 will get you either: two cocktails before 8pm; a pitcher of house beer; 3 bottles of certain lagers; or two vodkas/rums and a dash. There are more.

The extensive, decent-priced food menu, brought by the Smokin Bones barbeque restaurant, also has an American, industrial feel to it, its emphasis on wings with various barbeque sauces, burgers, pulled pork and ribs. “Low n’ Slow” is its philosophy, “simply cooking with wood & time”. Profound. Simple. Successful.

The Wiley Fox is a different beast some nights when The Sound House, a live music venue, comes alive. I didn’t experience it but Dance Club nights as well as music and comedy gigs are frequent. Monday nights bring the free-entry, Monday Club, while the last Friday of the month brings the intriguing-sounding Disco Lunch: dine and disco from 12-3pm. “Boss, I might be back from lunch late and sweaty….”

Both pints nearly empty, the two strangers-now-friends wrap up their conversation.

“Enjoy your wedding next year. Safe travels,” says the young man from the country.

“Enjoy your experience in Dublin,” says the departing, tucking his arse in before declaring he’s going to hunt down a taxi.

“Sure you can get a bus outside, it’s much cheaper,” he tells the blow-in and points out the likely price difference.

It’s the blow-in, however, who has revealed his wisdom. You don’t need to be waiting for a bus outside to justify coming in.

Prices (20 August 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.00

Pint of lager: €5.30

Pint of ale: €5.30

Pint of cider: €5.40

330ml bottle of lager: €5.30

Measure of whiskey: €5.50

Soft drink: €2.90

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The Thursday Tipple: J.W. Sweetman, Burgh Quay

Most Dubliners will know J.W. Sweetman’s predecessor on Burgh Quay, Messrs Maguire – the multi-storeyed pub on the right-hand side of the quays as you head north at O’Connell Bridge. They probably know it from summers’ eves and the unique views and light that spilled in to the second floor. In a low-rise city with many dark pubs, the upper floors seemed to stand on the shoulders of giants. When Mulligan’s was too busy after a Dublin football Sunday, ‘Messrs’ was an option or a place for food after pints on Poolbeg Street. In my mind, every Dub has been to an 18th, 21st or a retirement bash there.

Time marches forward and places change hands. J.W. Sweetman’s is the name outside it now and Thursday evening’s tipple is consumed on the ground floor to the drowning sound of upbeat jazz in the Blu Room upstairs, a weekly feature from 6pm. This pub has captured the zeitgeist of Dublin drinkers’ and tourists’ requirements: craft beers and a broad choice of new whiskeys and gins; plenty of TV screens to show all major sports events; and a decent food menu (with deals for times of the publicised sports events). The food is agreeable. I try the home brew of Red Ale (4.8%), punchy and crisp. Add in the 2.30am closing time on Saturdays and Sundays and you’ll see how this bar might do well. No doubt the city’s pubs rely on tourists, which might explain the American bar feel to the ‘mix’ pubs now offer.

Change of ownership hasn’t meant loss of view. By the windows on the second floor, you still get a great vista of the city’s river, the buildings on the quays and the wide expanse of O’Connell Street, with all its monuments and history. Tables are taken quickly so be alert.

Ireland isn’t just small geographically. They say if you put five Irish people in a room together, at least two of them will know someone in common. It was only after visiting the pub that I realised I knew an ancestor of the eponymous brewer.

The Sweetmans was a famous and successful family for centuries in Dublin, known for brewing, architecture and politics. By 1756, they had five breweries in Dublin, including one at 81 St Stephen’s Green that would later move to Francis Street. As a child I knew Brigid Sweetman, a sweet, elderly lady and daughter of Roger Sweetman, a Sinn Féin MP during the War of Independence and cousin of the party’s second president. Her antecedent, Patrick J Sweetman, was the first Irish brewer to publicly advertise his porter, an ad appearing in 1780. He sold it at a time when London porter dominated a local market defined by poor indigenous brews. In 1793, despondent local brewers succeeded in getting Irish parliamentarian Henry Grattan to repeal the excise duty on beer in Ireland — to encourage its consumption rather than the cheap, low-excise spirits that local brewers blamed for their misfortunes. After repeal, local beer brewing grew and with the production of a standard roast malt technique in the early 19th century, porter brewing proliferated.

Brigid used to proudly refer to her family’s brewing history. There’s no involvement by any of her relatives in the company that brews and runs this pub on Burgh Quay, though you’d be forgiven for thinking there is from the pub’s marketing or website. John William Sweetman and his descendants, however, would be pleased to see the renaissance of beer brewing in Ireland today after another long period of mass importation.

Prices (25 July 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.50

Pint of lager: €6.00

Pint of Sweetmans Craft: €6.00

330ml bottle of lager: €6.00

Measure of Irish whiskey: €5.60

Soft drink: €3.00

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