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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Postcard from a Tuscan vineyard

The Chianti region of Tuscany seems the natural choice of oenophiles for vineyard visits in sun-soaked Tuscany. But in the province of Grosseto there’s an alternative map of cantine. When we ring Rooca di Montemassi, a wine producing farm near the high, historical town of Massa Marritima, tour there’s an uncertainty about the tour booking process.

‘We cannot do five o’clock, but perhaps later, say six o’clock?’ says the man with English who’s handed the phone. Three o’clock is agreed without giving any names or details.

The man with English is Aloysius, a big, burly man who strokes the curls of his beard as he answers questions during our tour. For over an hour he walks the 450 hectare estate with just two of us, showing us the land and the process of making Rocca’s red, white and rosé wines. The museum of the farm, with exhibits of implements and practices from over a century of farming, contains a particularly arresting photograph of workers and perhaps the owners playing Booce (boules in Italy), the photo full of expressions and social signposts. Aloysius points out that we know the photograph was taken after 1900 by the woman who’s bearing her arms, unacceptable before the turn of that century.

About one hundred and fifty years earlier, with Peter Leopold, grand duke of Tuscany that the swampy land of the region was drained to rid it of mosquitos and their deadly threat of malaria. With the drainage complete wine production, first practised here by the Etruscans, thrived.

About forty people work on the Montemassi farm, which produces two million bottles of wine annually. Seventy-five per cent is exported. Aloysius shows us how the grapes are skinned, the juices fermented and the two different processes of exposing the juice to the grape skins to give the wine its colour. The storing of wine is costly: the wooden casks, lasting twelve years, cost €12,000 each to produce; the longer-lasting metallic ones cost €40,000 each. Different wines require different storage, the two different barrel costs reflected in the price we pay for a bottle.

Conversation reveals Alfonso’s Irish connection, a year spent in N.U.I. Galway studying political science in 1993-4. He hasn’t been back recently because work brings him a lot to America.

After inspecting the white, horned cows that live in harmony with the vines, we head inside to try two whites and three reds. An Italian calls into the wine shop, tries two wines that Aloysius tells him about, then buys a few bottles to take away. Aloysius exudes pride when the passer-by compliments the produce.

No breeze abates the dead heat to which we emerge, but the winds of change blow across the farm. Italian demand for wine is decreasing, according to our guide. The company that bought the farm in the 1999 has made farming an organic one, requiring changes to fertilising and land-use.

And then there’s the climate. Alfonso strokes the curls of his beard again. They’ve seen unprecedented temperatures over the past ten years. The history is drainage but the future may be drought.

‘Did you ever get to use your political science degree in the real world?’ we ask him as we shake hands.

‘No. Only in dealing with difficult people in business,’ he laughs.

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Saturday at the Aras

Saturday morning and we arrive at Phoenix Park early to inquire about tours of Áras an Uachtaráin. Tickets are only available in person and on the day (Saturday tours only). It’s 9.30am. The next available tour is at 3.15pm. The welcoming OPW staff, who we meet again in the afternoon, speak with great pride at showing citizens and visitors alike the president’s official residence.
The guided tour of the Áras shows you the rich architecture and interior design of a house first completed in 1751 by Phoenix Park ranger and amateur architect Nathaniel Clements. We’re shown the State Dining Room, where new governments have their first cabinet meeting after ministers receive their seals of office. The table was used for cabinet meetings in Leinster House until 1960. The State Reception Room – recognisable as the scene of presidents being photographed with visiting dignitaries, newly appointed ambassadors, Taoisigh, ministers or judges – contains four inspiring paintings by 17th century artist Thomas Mullen depicting Killarney at different times of the day.
In the State Withdrawing Room we observe the original ceiling, a magnificent chandelier of entwined shamrocks, roses, thistles and leaks commemorating the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and Louis XIV couch and chairs gifted from the Palace of Versailles. The mahogany library in the President’s Study lies below a ceiling depicting Juno and the four seasons.
The house has seen much change since the original two-storey brick house was built. It was residence to British viceroys from 1782 to 1922, extended after the Act of Union to reflect its increased official and social importance. The portico and ballroom were added. Formal gardens were laid out in the 1840s, the decade a visit from Queen Victoria prompted the addition of a dining room and drawing room. George V’s visit in 1911 prompted the construction of a west wing.
After independence, it became the home to Britain’s governor-generals to Ireland. After a brief idle period in the 1930s, it became the residence to holders of the new office of president. Yet the house has continued to evolve, sometimes reflecting presidential preferences.
After walking through the house we’re greeted by two new guides, Shadow and Bród. Serious looking, ebullient, they charge towards the back of the house and talk at a policeman they clearly know. These are the president’s two Bernese mountain dogs. They’re friendly and approachable, but the dog-wary tourists among us are initially startled.
They guide us along the walk of the formal gardens, leading on to the upper walled garden, full of colour and precision at this time of year. Standalone 25 minute garden tours began for the first time last month. The president’s garden is full of organic fruit and vegetables, the apples used to make juice for visiting guests. The dogs, who clearly escort tourists outside all the time, wait when we stop to listen to the guide, then grow impatient and charge on to lead the way.
Surely the head of State is around if the dogs are?
‘No, he’s gone west for the weekend,’ explains the guide. ‘Galway United were playing last night.’ The incumbent is a big fan and former club president.
At the end of the tour the canines lead us back to the house, a poetically informal ending to an informative tour.

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Spectator centre stage

It’s Saturday morning in the Abbey Theatre and the foyer is beginning to bustle. People are buying tickets. Staff are preparing for the matinee performance of Othello on its final day of performance. A dozen of us are arriving for the backstage tour, always themed to the play currently performing. As Othello is on, our welcoming guide mentions M, another Shakespearean play, in passing. It’s bad luck to say the play’s name in a theatre so he only says the letter.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons, and Saturday mornings, Ireland’s national theatre provides this tour, walking visitors through the theatre, the back stage, the prop and make-up rooms and the narrow corridors that display a wealth of portraits of the theatre’s friends and famous actors throughout its 112 years of existence.

Shakespeare apparently died 400 years ago this year, a motivation for hosting Othello. The tour guide shows us the choices made concerning the seating. The lay person doesn’t think of such things, but seats are added or removed for certain performances. The details are also in the choices about lighting and stage. Othello has a trial-like theme; the stage’s paucity reflects this.

Our tour is defined by the guide’s intimate knowledge of the theatre and drama itself. He teaches us about the political and social history of the theatre, its evolution as a national theatre, including its two changes of venue and the tragic 1951 fire. In this Centenary year, guides are keen to relive the story of Easter Monday 1916, when some of the Abbey’s acting company and staff left the theatre to join the Rising. Cathleen ni Houlihan was never performed that night. Life was imitating art outside.

Along the tour of almost two hours the twelve-strong group of visitors ask many questions and a relaxed, interactive dynamic develops. That’s what the guide wants. He reveals day-to-day life in this building defined greatly by its spatial limitations: where the actors rehearse, how props are delivered and collected, where actors wait between scenes. In ways the theatre’s history follows Irish history, its choices of productions mirroring attitudinal change. The theatre’s egalitarian ethos comes across.

Our guide provides anecdotes. Only one actor, apparently, has ever succeeded in getting his own dressing room. Another actor had to spend eight hours every day getting made-up for a performance during which he never spoke. The choice animal hair sometimes used for actors’ wigs is hair-raising.

The tour ends with a description of the portraits in the bar upstairs, including the memorable triptych on the stairs. It’s lunchtime and the pre-matinee bustle is growing. Someone asks the guide another trivia question about a famous actor who’s performed here. ‘I’m not sure about that one,’ the guide says with a smile, ‘but I can ask at the wrap party tonight.’ The backstage encyclopaedia is always expanding.

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