The Thursday Tipple: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dundrum Road, Dundrum

It’s Friday night and we’re all nearly 40. At nine we meet, uncharacteristically punctual. Perhaps it’s the rarity, perhaps thirst, perhaps because partners, kids and other demands have applied the reins of time management. Meet on time, enjoy the pints but don’t overstretch your stay or thirst. Tomorrow won’t forgive.

The headcount dotting the lounge’s bar counter and fireside seats is higher than I remember for a Friday night. There’s a buzz. There’s plenty of sport and politics on people’s agenda over the weekend. People have plenty to discuss.

The lounge of Uncle Tom’s, with its clean and fragranced smell and abundance of pink upholstered nooks, hasn’t changed since school friends and I first started coming here about 15 years ago. We were looking for a mutually convenient meeting point, somewhere tamer than pubs we’d frequented. I still remember hearing the pub’s conspicuous name for the first time.

Since then, this sizeable but always near-empty pub has been our spiritual drinking home. It’s here we’ve had vigorous debates, listened to each other about some of our best days and worst. It’s through walking in its double doors, the lounge staff station and sill of neatly spread newspapers coming into view, that we’ve discovered through attendance or absence where others in the group were at in life. On its long lounge benches and outdoor beer garden I’ve been reassured about friendships and loyalties. Here, I tested my groom’s speech on my best man, that night and others in Tom’s reaffirming why I’d chosen him.

And through it all the white shirted barmen with ties have remained unswervingly polite, the lounge staff always nice though idle. Their movements after last orders’ lights flicker has never been too zealous. Their pint of stout? Black gold.

Yet all good things come to an end. The 0.8 hectare site, which includes a car park, is in prime suburbia. Like a bolt of lightning one of the lads told our WhatsApp group he’d been there one night and told it was closing the following week once developers took ownership. Tales of other suburban pubs in Dublin should have been a portent.

The pub heaved for its dying nights. A dead pub serving was resuscitated. Locals crawled out of the woodwork. A major hoolie with music took place on its putative final night. I sorely regretted not paying my respects. Then apparently the developer owner gave the pub a reprieve of a week, then another. Then we heard nothing more.

At ten o’clock, I go up to the bar. Musicians have assembled near the fireplace for the monthly trad session. Tonight’s crowd definitely seems higher. The locals sing along. The small, dark-haired barman smiles as he approaches me. Between the lounge and the bar (that we’ve inexplicably never graced), he’ll be ticking over tonight.

‘What’s the story about the future?’ I ask.

‘No change for the foreseeable,’ he says, seeming comfortable about talking about it. ‘The owners are putting in planning permission but that could take a year or a year and a half to get, so we’re fine for the moment.’

A few weeks later I read about recent developments. The Collins family, whose name is etched on one of the front windows, bought the site 130 years ago. They’ve been selling pints and facilitating people since then. The family of Tony, the 89-year old proprietor, sold it last year to a developer.

As I walk home by Dundrum’s Luas bridge I glance back at Tom’s iconic pink neon sign and think of its legacy. How many friendships within a circle like ours have been part sustained and cemented there since 1890? We’re into our third decade there. Did I mention we’re nearly 40?

There’s a novel to be written about a pub that never did well until it was bought and faced closure to enable development. Locals who hadn’t drank there in years (or ever drank at all) flocked in night after night to pay tribute. The pub began to thrive. The property marked slumped. But the locals had learnt their lesson.

 

Prices (07 February 2020)

Pint of Guinness: €5.20

Pint of lager: €5.70

Pint of ale: €5.20

330ml bottle of lager: €5.00

Measure of Irish whiskey: €4.70

1/4 bottle of wine: €6.00

Soft drink: €2.80

Bottle of water: €2.90

 

 

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The Thursday Tipple: Johnnie Fox’s, Glencullen, Co. Dublin

A biting wind assaults us as we make our way with visitor from house to car to the dark depths of mountainous south Dublin. It’s the penultimate Monday before Christmas and the American wants to hear some trad. Narrow, dimly-lit roads define the journey from the end of suburbia, where the roads climb and the capital hands the baton to the Garden of Ireland.

In summer, Johnnie Foxe’s car park is jammed and offers views of Dublin’s eastern coast. Tonight, it’s near empty and the view is like the one on the old postcard of Cape Cod at night. The wooden benches outside are abandoned. Only several smokers loiter.

Nine o’clock it starts, the barman told me on the phone earlier, but all the stage shows is an abandoned guitar and mike. Has it finished early due to lack of visitors or the indifference of the East European family lining the bar? The effigy of an old Peig Sayers lookalike, poised near a stove and wearing a Christmas hat, shows more enthusiasm than anyone else.

A man in his late thirties or early forties with a benign smile appears, surveys the barren landscape, and mutters something I can’t hear amidst the chatter of the neighbouring table of diners. He starts strumming his guitar then singing. The first song is almost unnoticed, yields hardly any clap. He sings another and again it’s as though none of the three dining tables have their hearing aids turned on. He sings and sings, smiling, graceful, sometimes barely pausing as he moves from one ballad mindful of the oblivious crowd.

‘Give him a clap of encouragement,’ my dad whispers to me, and the balladeer nods in gratitude as he slips away for a break.

The conversation has subdued slightly when he returns and looks out at his lonely kingdom. Then he lifts his head and voice and sings as though his life depends on it.

I don’t know if you can see

The changes that have come over me

And these past few days I’ve been afraid

That I might drift away

I’ve been telling old stories, singing songs

That make me think about where I come from

And that’s the reason why I seem

So far away today

 

Till almost eleven he fills our heads with ballads young and old, from the last century, the century before and the one when this pub became a home for drink and stories. There’s an intensity to the listening by the end that tells me the crowd recognise his talent. A thunderous clap meets the end.

As we drive home along the dark roads and look down on the twinkling nightscape of the capital I think about how lucky we were. The pub does well, has a phenomenal pull for tourists, Irish and foreign alike. It must make commercial sense to have a nightly offer of music. Yet not many places are reliable in offering decent music from a bustling summer Saturday night to the quietest, coldest Monday nights in December and every night either side. A capital city needs places with a consistent cultural offering, where above and beyond the marketing and the merchandise, there’s always art to be found. Johnnie Fox’s labels itself the highest pub in Ireland. In praise of its offering, I’d recommend the climb.

Let me tell you that I love you

That I think about you all the time

Caledonia you’re calling me

Now I’m going home

And if I shall become a stranger

No it would make me more than sad

Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had

 

Prices (16 December 2019)

Pint of Guinness: €5.50

Pint of lager: €5.80

Pint of ale: €5.50

330ml bottle of lager: €5.40

Measure of Bushmills: €4.95

1/4 bottle of wine (187.5 ml): €5.90

Soft drink: €2.90

Bottle of water: €2.95

Soft drink: €3.20

 

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The Thursday Tipple: Brannigan’s, Cathedral Street, Dublin 1

In Dublin 1, they’re hidden until you know them. For many working and socialising in Dublin city, life brings you into the labyrinth of side-streets and alleys off O’Connell Street less often than the corresponding maze off Grafton Street. Yet someone tells you about or brings you to a pub you’d never even heard of. You try it and a new world opens up.

A quiet Monday night introduced me to Brannigan’s on Cathedral Street. Eight of us arrived, ordered pints, found a table and colonised it in the pub’s decent sized room in which most space for patrons is along the walls. Its open plan works. You and the white shirted barmen and lounge staff know where everyone else is and what they’re doing, who is or isn’t looking at everyone else. The pints are good. The music and TVs are unimposing. This is exactly what you want for a drink following a film, a play, a course, a day or week’s work, or whatever else.

By the front door a rifle and a bison’s head hang on the wall. It wasn’t always the Bovidae animal family in this area. Cathedral Street used to be called Elephant Lane. About three hundred and fifty years ago Dublin’s first elephant lived there. It was brought across the river every day to Parliament Street, where people would pay to see it in a viewing booth. The viewing booth caught fire in 1681 and with it the animal. The owner sold its remains to Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, whose doctors undertook the first recorded anatomical study in Ireland or England of an elephant .

The draught beer choice is standard, includes Dublin Blonde, O’Hara’s Pale Ale and Nitro. On another visit here, those tucking into evening meals (served from 3pm until 9/9.30pm) such as burgers, hot roast beef sandwiches and Irish stew look pleased. From my perch at a small square table in the middle of the room the clientele look like they’ve popped in here before. Tourists, easy prey for the pubs on O’Connell Street located near hotels and coach stops, are few.

It’s only after my visit that I learn of another dimension to the pub: the GAA. Tommy Moore, a famous Kilkenny hurler after whom the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Club Championship is named, owned the pub from the 1930s to the 1970s. For decades the All-Ireland hurling champions (inter-county) stopped at Moore’s, as it was then known, on the start of the thirsty journey home. Many GAA fans pause here for a pint on a Croke Park Sunday.

Moore was chairman of Faugh’s GAA club in Dublin for decades and allowed the pub be used as a makeshift clubhouse. For anyone with associations with a GAA club of insufficient means or size to have its own clubhouse this detail brings a familiar image of a man determined to do what he could to bring people and their dreams together. Images of Summer Sundays and people sidling into Brannigan’s for a pre or post-match pint seem a fitting tribute to his memory.

 

Prices (30 October 2019)

Pint of Guinness: €5.00

Pint of lager: €5.40

Pint of ale: €5.00

330ml bottle of lager: €5.80

Measure of whiskey: €4.80

1/4 bottle of wine (187.5 ml): €5.90

Soft drink: €2.90

Bottle of water/fruit juice: €3.00

Soft drink: €2.90

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The Thursday Tipple: Cocina Pura Vida, Carrer del Camí de l’Atall, Alcossebre, Spain

Good evening from the Cocina Pura Vida. Where?? It’s an outdoor bar in Alcossebre, Spain, where we’re joined at the other side of the table by the Mediterranean. It’s Wednesday evening and for the second time this week we’re here for a beer and the view past the bending coastal road beyond the table: a cobalt blue sea garnished with a cloudless horizon.

The idle barman catches our eye, smiles, remembering us from a few days earlier. He weaves his way between the dozen low, outdoor tables, all carpeted by the arid Spanish earth. Though there’s only one other occupied table in this predominantly outdoor bar and restaurant he doesn’t seem bored. The other night he tiptoed his way between his laptop at the bar (made from a disused trailer) and the kitchen at the back of the tented area. Summer tunes play quietly from speakers (think Ibiza). Those at the other occupied table that night had ordered from the menu of organic pizzas and tapas. His detailed preparation of their tapas looked like his life depended on it.

‘A small draught beer again?’ I ask him. He’s in his thirties, Spanish, though he looks like a tanned American surfer.  My hand gestures help identify that I’m after a 500ml glass.

‘Your small is our large,’ he smiles.

‘And what was the name of that herbal beer we had the other night?’

‘With rosemary?’

‘That’s the one.’

La socrarrada is a bottled artisan beer with rosemary and honey. Deep brown with a thin line of froth, its taste is unique for a beer and divinely delicious.

Where is Alcossebre, you ask? I too hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks’ earlier when friendship and circumstance led to an invite. Perched along the Castillion coast, Alcossbre is a small town with a beautiful June climate of 20 degrees plus by day, dipping by only a degree or two at night. The town and its fringe have two or three small, clean beaches and a good choice of family restaurants and tapas bars.

A beating sun dominates the sky all day, warming the sea sufficiently by mid-morning to invite swimming. At night, the fragrances from the pine trees along the coastal path come alive to invigorate the senses. The town’s distance from anything except the highly touristy town of Peniscola (think Gibraltar) and a spot-lit church and restaurant on the nearby mountain provides intimate views of the stars. As with the day, no boats or ships pass the horizon. We can’t tell where sea ends and sky begins.

For nine months of the year the town is quiet. June ticks over with tourists from Spain and a sprinkling from elsewhere in Europe. In July, the place explodes with tourists from Spain, Britain and French from the south seeking greater mileage from their euros. October and November, according an Irishman we meet who’s spent about a quarter of the year here for twenty years, are quieter and the weather is wonderful. For him, it’s all about cycling the smooth, undulating Valencian roads.

When I go up to the bar to order a second beer the barman is re-painting the pizza options on a blackboard.

‘It looks good,’ I tell him.

‘It needed to be re-painted. The letters had become…’ and I help him to find the word faded. He smiles with pleasure and a look that tells me time doesn’t matter.

I can’t tell if his days of web browsing and re-sprucing will be replaced by busier times in July. The bar is situated at the quieter end of the town, the nearest good beach and caravan/apartment resort closer to a small cluster of restaurants that probably wins out. But like us, he seems happy to be left in peace, consumed by nothing but the Mediterranean and a perfect horizon.

A 500ml glass of the only draught beer and a 330ml bottle of La Socarrada cost €7.50

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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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