The Thursday Tipple: O’Neill’s, Pearse Street

In Dublin, most good pubs are quickly hunted down and, to their owner’s delight, never left neglected. But every city has its blind spots, locations just off the beaten track that leave a good pub unnoticed to locals, tourists or an area’s workers.

O’Neill’s on Pearse Street may be one such pub. Located near the railway bridge that’s had a Guinness ad plastered across it probably since the O’Neills started serving here (1888), its footprint contrasts greatly with that of its namesake on Suffolk Street. The former is situated on a busy, vehicular street with few retail or entertainment units nearby. The latter stands just off Grafton Street. The former hasn’t opened on Sundays in about 10 years. The latter buzzes morning, noon and night.

Yet this pleasant, relaxing pub consistently hums along, mainly it seems to the tune of tourists staying nearby or in one the eight guest rooms upstairs. On the night I visit I’m unsurprised to notice a man sitting at the bar drinking Guinness with the expression of someone ready to pounce on conversation. The American asks me how to tip a barman if he’s paying on card. No need to tip barmen here, I reassure him, and he’s delighted to get chatting. Arizona. First time in Ireland. Here to discover ancestry. Staying 20 metres up the road, where the family have crashed out after the long flight. The nearby barman hears these lines in his sleep.

The good weather on the evening in question has detracted those who might have been there otherwise. The emptiness reveals the true amount of space offered by this pub of dark wooden furnishings and walls covered in framed portraits and pictures. There’s the long counter in the smaller bar, perfect for perched, one-to-one, reflective or chest-offloading pints. The counter running along the opposite wall offers the same. The little snug adjoining it facilitates the confessional pint with a partner, or the gathering of friends who want to lose themselves from the world.

Move to the darker lounge section and you’ll find a range of table constellations, nooks and crannies to suit your numbers or dynamic. My mind rewinds to previous winters and the cosy atmosphere the larger section offers: soft lighting; the gentle burble of conversation; a good range of beers and whiskeys (it offers whiskey-tasting sessions); and the absence of numerous TVs blasting out sport. This pub always offered an ideal spot for an audible winter’s night or a December Saturday evening drink after Christmas shopping.

Tourists and a small milieu seem to have sustained this pub. Just like its namesake on Suffolk Street, it offers many corners and pockets for a drink, but without the same commotion. It seems justifiably easy in its own, calm skin.

Prices (27 June 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.20

Pint of lager: €5.80

330ml bottle of lager: €5.30

Measure of whiskey: €5.00

Soft drink: €2.80

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The Thursday Tipple: The Bernard Shaw, South Richmond Street

As I leave the office, a colleague tells me he’s leaving work early to accompany his daughter to the Ed Sheerin concert in the Phoenix Park. In his mid-forties (I think), he sounds amused at the prospect of time-travelling.

At the entrance to The Bernard Shaw, a friendly, bearded bouncer asks me if he can check my bag for cans. Now I’m the one time-travelling. It’s good to still look half-young.

I’d known from a night there about five years ago (in hindsight it’s almost 15) that this pub-café-pizzeria lures a younger clientele. Tonight’s gathering at the bar, some ordering the pizza and pint deal, others the two G&Ts for €15, confirm this. They’re still in college or just beyond.

The wall opposite the bar displays art for sale by contemporary artists Stephen Shaw, Sinéad Smyth and John Kavanagh. The art is modern, accessible, interesting.* Other walls display posters for gigs (some on here) of which I’m no longer “street” enough to guess the genre. Weaved among the art works is a poster for the pub’s recent World Buckfast Day event. The liquid of champions, the pub describes it, promoted earlier in the month with the world’s first Buckfast 99s and Buckfast Bingo. This two-minute wait at the bar brings me through adulthood, studenthood and puberty.

A door at the back, past a narrow section with tables, leads to a vast outdoor area. There, dozens of patrons, Irish and non-Irish, sit at wooden tables under the plastic roof or stand at keg tables in the uncovered area. They’re drinking and talking quickly, enjoying this fresh but unrelentingly sunny May evening. All seem oblivious to the mural of a Shaw quote (the only Shavian trapping I can see) on the gable end of the pub’s building: Music is the brandy of the damned. I’m time travelling again, transported back to college nights and standing outside the students’ bar, drinking carefree but in conformity. It’s noisy. It’s busy. It’s vibrant.

From a vintage, double-decker bus, permanently stationary at the back of the yard, patrons order delicious-looking pizzas and bruschetta. Inside, the smell of fresh food being prepared is wonderful. My order of coffee order causes consternation. They tell me to order it at the bar (also a café by day, with a sumptuous-looking menu). The barman tells me the opposite. The lads in the bus then dutifully oblige. Upstairs, people sit at cramped tables enjoying their meal and the view (you can book tables). In 2015, the blue bus made it into the McKenna’s Guide (a recognised list of best places to eat, shop and stay in Ireland). The space on the other side of the building the pub’s event space for Thursday-Sunday food markets and events like flea markets.

Back outside, chatter glides over a large, steel door. I’m a child again as I open the magic door and find a smaller crowd sitting at small tables formed from crates propped up by mini-kegs. A polemical whiff lances the air. Another colourful mural, this one on the big socio-political matter of the month, spreads across the wall shared with the neighbouring property.

As I enjoy the outdoor vista again I ask myself for what age tourists I review pubs. This might be a good place for young tourists to meet other young tourists. Then I look again at the crowd and notice no ethnic separation. This is modern, young, dynamic Dublin: those from Ireland and many from elsewhere, studying or working for companies that attract many nationalities, enjoying drinks in this post-commercial, non-landscaped space. It’s under my nose and I just haven’t noticed it much.

After leaving, I look back at the distinctive, black, asymmetrically-shaped building with its ice cream cone stand outside. Both neighbouring buildings are long demolished, the gable ends now frayed with concrete and crevices filled with thriving plants. The streetscape as you travel down South Richmond Street now makes sense. The vast, boarded space that looks like a demolition site is a world of outdoor eating, drinking and magic buses. Young Dublin has made a home where old Dublin once lived. It could be Brixton. Or maybe I’m showing my age again.

Prices (17 May 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.50

Pint of Becks: €5.80

330ml bottle of Heineken: €5.50

Brewtonic: €6.00

 

* The pub will host a closing night for their work tomorrow (25 May).

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The Thursday Tipple Reloaded: O’Connor’s, Ballinrobe (Good Friday)

The Thursday Tipple detours for one month only, for a special dispensation: to mark the end of an 89-year ban. It abandons Thursday and Dublin to describe my first ever pub pint on Good Friday.

On the start of the four-day bank holiday weekend we drive west for a few nights away. Good Friday had started overcast in Dublin but as we cross the Shannon late afternoon the mounds of grey peel back and an immovable sun hangs low in the sky. Excited, half-frivolous drive-time radio presenters document the first opening of pubs on Good Friday in Ireland since 1927 and the thought ransacks my head that we’ll have to stop for a legal pint en route.

Village after village in Mayo that we drive through, all pubs seem closed or uninviting despite doors being open. Have they not heard the news? I ask. Deeper into the county we venture, our options narrowing, until the car-filled streets of Ballinrobe tell us somewhere be worth it. Ballinrobe. Have I been here before? What do I know of it? Summer evening racing is all I can think of, from my college days working in a bookies.

On Glebe Street we find a large pub with unmistakable yellow exterior walls, door open, half-decent looking beyond the open blinds. Silence follows our entrance, neither sinner nor saint around. A tall, stern faced barman with greying red hair appears and we wonder if we’re crashing the non-party. But when we order two stouts the voice suggests welcome.

‘Nobody in today despite the novelty?’ I ask, noticing the clock shows ten minutes past midday or midnight, six hours off. The walls are an over-zealous pink, contrasting with the dark oak wooden furnishings. A white kettle beside a yellow Schweppes ice box reminds me of every other rural Irish pub.

‘Nah,’ he says shaking his red-faced head, looking unsurprised or unexcited. ‘Not yet anyway. Hard to know if we’ll get anyone.’ People are gone away for the weekend or are not bothered coming out, he explains. It’s then that I realise what we’d experienced driving through towns earlier, the same feeling as every past Good Friday throughout Ireland: quiet; abandoned; everyone gone somewhere else for the weekend.

‘Where are yee from?’ he asks, a candid, stock phrase we subsequently hear all over the west for the weekend. Common ground is found. He knows well the area in Dublin where we live. His late sister lived there and we update him on some of the pubs he once knew well. A smile crosses his face as he listens then tells us of his own seemingly rare reconnection to Dublin’s drinking world a few weeks earlier on the margins of a rugby match at the Aviva.

The Good Friday theme returns. His own experience since he married and had kids has been to go with his family to visit in-laws in County Clare. It was a day out with his family. Many publicans interviewed on radio earlier also characterised the day of closure as an opportunity, usually to get the pub renovated. The daughter of a pub owner in Dublin 2 told me recently the day has been simply rostered as one of barmen’s days off for Holy Week.

He tells us an anecdote of a barman travelling on Good Friday years ago to visit his future wife in a different part of the country. The man stopped to get petrol in an abandoned town. As he paid for the fuel he asked the cashier if he knew anywhere he could get a pint.

‘If you park your car two hundred yards down the road and come back up to me I might be able to show you,’ said the cashier. After parking the car he was led through an empty pub to a back bar heaving with people. I never asked if the man got to his destination that night.

‘How’s Ballinrobe doing?’ I ask.

‘Ah it’s alright,’ he says, again unexcitedly. ‘We’ve a Supervalu and a Lidl. There’s an Aldi on the way.’

The stout is penetrating. Another person arrives just before we leave. The woman is in the adjoining bar, talking to the barman’s sister, who runs the pub with him. She’s having a soft drink. There might have been a packet of crisps. Was it for this the Wild Geese spread?

‘Enjoy your weekend,’ he says with a nod and half-smile, reminding us to visit Cong, a nostalgic look on his face, maybe for foot-loose, fancy-free Good Fridays. Perhaps next year he might revert to closure.

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The Thursday tipple: The Oval Bar, Middle Abbey Street

It’s a hectic part of the city where you might well need quick refuge.

The tourist might head there to gawk at the GPO, the Spire or join the masses for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. For Dubliners, on any given day it could where evangelists offer pamphlets or preach microphoned messages of salvation. It’s where young men and women in brightly coloured jackets might hover to talk direct debits for charities or tourist information. Hoards of Mediterranean children, briefly in Ireland to learn English, walk en masse, making straight perambulation tricky. Someone to your left is having a robust argument with an acquaintance or even themselves.

For that quick escape, situated near the corner of O’Connell Street and Middle Abbey Street, is The Oval Bar. An elegant façade of columns, square windows quadranted by metallic lines and beautiful, walnut coloured frames, the pub is recognisable by the two lamps etched with its name. The somewhat chaotic look to the covered seating area outside betrays the fine exterior, as the garish red walls inside do the elegant wooden panelling and tiled flooring.

Since 1822 the pub has stood here, witnessing political upheavals, changes in neighbours and drinking culture. Both the 1916 Rising (which started round the corner) and the Civil War forced it to close its doors. The old cadre of journalists who worked down the road and drank here during or after shifts for over a century are long gone — retired or dead — as are their mores.

But the pub has survived, endured seven handovers of keys to the front door. There’s something of its transient past about the atmosphere, however, as though any of those congregated are only staying for the one drink or a meal, then heading into the night. Perhaps it’s inevitable being located in an area of few residents.

‘Do you’ve Beamish?’ I ask the barman.

The barman with black shirt and tie shakes his head. ‘Sorry, only the real stuff here.’

The real stuff is good stuff, as is the food. The pub prides itself justifiably on its traditional Irish stew. Its owner is passionate about sport. If you’re in this part of the city and searching for a pub to catch a match or race, though you may not be assured of a seat, chances are the TV will have what you want.

Framed prints of the pub’s history document its place in an evolving social and political environment. Go back 145 years and you’ll have found it losing some trade to the Gin Palace down the road. Victorians shared our current obsession with gin.

Reach back to the pub’s formative days and you’ll find the beginning of the Temperance Movement, a social movement against consumption of alcohol, borne of religious roots. The movement extended into the chartist temperance movement, which linked the abstinence campaign with that of extending the right to vote to all working men (later women). The idea was to persuade Westminster that working class people were responsible enough to vote.

The current owner of The Oval Bar was at the vanguard of those seeking to normalise pub trade on Good Fridays. On Good Friday 2010, he opened his chain of pubs for a day of serving food, sport on TV and non-alcoholic drinks. The Temperance Movement might once have been pleased by his innovativeness.

This year, the owner’s campaign will bear full fruit. With the ban on selling alcohol on Good Friday lifted this year (100 years after some women were given the right to vote), his doors will open on Good Friday for a Friday like any other.

With ordinary men and women having persuaded the powers that be that they should be allowed vote, or buy a drink on Good Friday, it’s unlikely the tooth paste will be put back in the tube. Yet 145 years on, those in Dublin 1 looking to start the Easter weekend with a nice G&T might still be tempted to wander down the road.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Prices (08 March 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.00

Pint of lager: €5.60

330ml bottle of lager: €5.20

Measure of whiskey: €4.40

Soft drink: €2.80

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The Thursday tipple: Peter’s Pub, Johnson Place

It’s a distinctive name for a pub in Dublin – not a surname in the possessive case or an adjectival definite article (e.g. The Hairy Lemon), but a possessive case first name. Peter’s pub: owned by three generations of Peters spanning many, boozy moons. The name suggests gentlemanly, chivalrous, more refined than the noisier establishments off Grafton Street where patrons spill out onto the pavements in their droves on warm evenings or Fridays. It’s also got history on its side: a licensed establishment for over 200 years.

Patrons can judge for themselves how this pub compares in the refinement stakes, but on these cold winter nights its cosiness is indisputable. The size of this pub (and its snug) means it always feels busy, thus rewarding when you find a free table. The current winter warmer drinks menu, with drinks like Martell and Kahlua hot chocolates, compliment the mood. The food menu, sprinkled amongst the knee high tables, will also help with the thaw. If you’re only after a beer, there’s even the choice of warm cider.

It’s not the presence of old pub memorabilia on a beam above the room that makes a visit worthwhile, nor the tea lights and candles on window ledges by the half panelled, half cream-painted walls. It’s the presence of at least one barman from the Old School of Attentiveness.

There are two types of barman in Ireland. The passive type trundles through his shift, takes your order then prepares the pints and shorts in his inimitable, humdrum way; serves sandwiches, meals or exotic drinks with a look that suggests the task is on the fringe of his job spec. Sometimes he’ll remember your order, sometimes he won’t. As you chat to him his eye will wander towards the next customer loitering to order. When the drink you want is not available he doesn’t offer an alternative. And you’re not always assured you’ve been given the right change.

The attentive type, trained at the old school, notices you when you arrive. He smiles as you speak, nods approvingly at your order. ‘I’ll drop it down to you,’ he says, has a friendly word to both the patrons he knows and the patrons he identifies as ‘not from around here’. Food or drink, he’ll compliment your choices or help you decide if you’re unsure. He’ll remember your order as he suggests: ‘Same again?’

Amidst collecting empty glasses, ensuring the TV volume and channel are to everyone’s satisfaction, keeping the place tidy and the taps ready to pour more, he’ll saunter to your table to check ‘everything is alright’ and that you have enough relish. When you inquire about the taste of an exotic drink he’ll offer you a taster.

His demeanour will always be the same, on good days and bad. And if you are ‘from around here’ and drinking with those ‘not from around here’, and your companions tell you how impressed they are at the quality of Ireland’s barmen, you’ll find yourself very proud to be Irish.

At least one such barman works at Peter’s Pub. His teacher was the third Peter, who undoubtedly taught his son every part of the profession before handing over the trade to him several decades ago. Peter died in August 2017 but his legacy lives on.

Prices (08 February 2018)

Pint of Guinness: €5.60

Pint of lager: €6.20

Measure of whiskey: €5.40

1/4 bottle of wine: €6.80

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The Thursday tipple: JJ Smyth’s, Aungier Street

JJ Smyth’s exterior spells confidence: recently painted walls of contrasting colours; large, national flags almost draping the building; a large plaque commemorating famous Irish poet and lyricist Sir Thomas Moore, who was born here. When I open the door, my arrival brings cold autumn air and surprise to the dated interior and the handful gathered.

Three young German women are conversing with the barman and it looks serious.

‘Most of them are about 4.2 or 4.3%,’ he says of the beers’ strengths, looking at the taps reflectively.

‘Weaker than in Germany,’ they say.

‘Yes, true,’ he nods. ‘But if you drink enough of these you end up with the same result.’

Their laughter scatters the quietude, a hush that contrasts with the vibrant, lively nights this pub saw for 30 years as unofficial home to Dublin’s jazz. Renowned Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart had Monday night residency here. Ex-Miles Davis saxophonist Dave Liebman regaled the place.

We went to the last live gig here in early 2016, a Sunday afternoon session with Nigel Mooney, grandee of Dublin’s jazz scene, who plies a trade of classic guitar and enchanting voice. In 1986, Mooney persuaded JJ Smyth, owner till he sold the pub last year, to give his blues band a three-week trial in the long, dark, upstairs bar, previously used for weekly darts tournaments and occasional lesbian discos.

‘Will the end of jazz here affect how much work you get?’ I asked Mooney that day.

‘Oh, it’s only about 90% of my work,’ he said. For hours that afternoon he brought old pal after old pal on stage to give a swansong, a palpable sense of the curtain drawing on an era. We stood beside an octogenarian Dub who’d ventured into town to be at that final gig. Jazz had always been his thing. It was his homage to the place that had been Dublin’s jazz scene for all those years.

As I take my pint from the bar I ask the young barman why the new owners have dropped the music. ‘Was costing too much to have a barman upstairs for a whole evening just to cater for the gigs,’ he says.

Echoes of lost jazz contrast with the excessive thump of 80s, 90s and beyond bellowing from the sound system. The German girls soon leave and the inescapable, invasive music seems wrong in a bar with a handful of locals and a middle-aged, suited man with dyed black hair who looks like he’s entered the wrong establishment. Red candles held in Gunpowder Gin bottles contrast with the soft green seating, red walls and purple carpets. Little white lamps adorn the wood-panelled wall beyond the bar. It’s late November and the interior ironically feels almost fashionable given it’s pre-Christmas.

A middle aged group enters, shake hands with two frequenters they obviously know. ‘Can I get a dodgy pint of Guinness?’ one of them asks the barman. The additions change the balance between talk and other noises. The German girls return. Another group of tourists enter, ask a local to take a photo of them and another conversation starts.

This is the unpredictability the visitor faces: somewhere that might have no life; or a milieu of ‘old Dublin’ locals in for a no-frills pint and banter, and tourists who’ve serendipitously wandered in. It feels like it oscillates between the two – by the week, by the night, by the hour.

The weekend after I visit the pub I spot an ad for Sunday afternoon sessions by Mooney and accompaniment in a Dublin hotel. Smyth’s seems bereft without the jazz, but the music has moved on. The law of life is change.

Prices (23 November 2016)

Pint of Guinness: €5.20

Pint of lager: €5.70

Measure of whiskey: €5.20

1/4 bottle of wine: €6.60

 

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Picture perfect

There’s even a word for it: deltiology. Though many of my friends believe I’m more of an archaeologist. I’m a collector (or student) of postcards and plague relatives and friends with requests to send me a picture memento of wherever they’re going for holidays, the exotic work trip, honeymoon (I do!), or a city break.  After a lifetime of collecting, I’ve hundreds, shoeboxes full of postcards of different sizes, colour, black and white, matt or gloss, from the predictable messages to the bizarre. They’re all unique, just like people’s writing styles.

For some it’s a concise description of what they’ve done. For others, it’s a description of the place or a line about receiver and life back home. Humour motivates some writers while others begin by proudly proclaiming they’ve fulfilled their promise to send one. One of my favourite senders is the writer whose messages are two lines encapsulating what they’re doing, the ambience and the backdrop of what they’ve escaped back home.

Despite the world’s diversity, the experience of sending a postcard is near universal. There can be a challenge in finding a shop or post office with a good range of cards, then a stamp (often the real linguistic test), a pen and a post box.

For the receiver, the challenge is in the waiting. There’s no correlation between distance and postal journey. Some of the postcards I have from far flung places arrived within a week. Some European countries fare far worse. Not long after my wife and I first met I asked her to send me a postcard from a girls’ holiday.

‘Do you really collect them?’ she asked, bemused.

‘Really, I do. And I’ve never got one from Ibiza before.’

Nothing arrived and the joke that she couldn’t be trusted began to run. Ten months’ later, her valiant efforts came through the letterbox. I still have the image of a shopkeeper discovering the card she’d asked him to send down the back of a cash register. I knew then…

Yet the art of sending, like mail, seems to be dying. Why bother when you can take a photo and Whatsapp it? If you want to give someone the flavour of a place in real time you can Facetime. When I ask people to send one their groan contain the exasperation of going back in time.

Yet for all the effort – and it really can be – the postcard remains an authentic gift that gives a sense of place or experience that a text or call can never do. The writer must dedicate a few minutes to describing their journey or experience. For the recipient, it’s a snapshot they can touch and feel, a memento they can retain and revisit in a way not done with the ephemeral phone photo or text.

As postcards die, or hibernate before a future renaissance, there’s another benefit to bear in mind: it’s a way to remotely keep in touch with those with whom you want to gently revive contact. You know those aunts or uncles or family friends you want to say hello to but whom you wouldn’t just ring or text? Or the friend you haven’t contacted in ages with whom a reconnecting call or text has grown ever more daunting? The postcard is the perfect connector. The next time you communicate the postcard will be the stepping stone from which you can pick up where you’d left off.

Like the Christmas card, it can be a thoughtful way to simply say hello. For me and a certain friend, we send an annual or biannual postcard, different places but always the same two-line private joke without a sign-off. It’s our way of saying that despite time and distance we’re still friends.

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