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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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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