For the first time in almost 15 years I’ll wake on Christmas morning in the house where I live. Usually I’ve been at my parents’ house, often with a visit to their local pub before the 25th for that wonderful Irish experience of a jammed pub on the first or second night after most people have finished work for the year, when the ping of conversation is filled with people’s plans for Christmas and pleasure at the prospect of days of indulgence ahead.
I’m bringing the final review of the year right down to the local level, to The Willows, a community pub in the heart of residential Dundrum, suburbia, where Christmas is evident from the fairy lights and green star-shaped lights on the pub’s black frontage and red brick exterior, below Heineken flags that flap so proudly one feels like one’s outside the embassy of a beer republic.
What’s a community pub, you might ask. I remember being bemused by the term when I’d first heard it when living in Inchicore. The give-away for The Willows is the location, embedded within a housing estate, the pub’s exterior looking like it’s been superimposed on the ground floor of three red brick houses along a row of five. Such pubs are focused on serving the locals. The pub’s website tells you that from descriptions of its golf society, the teams it has in the Dublin Snooker Leagues, the players’ skills honed on the three tables upstairs near the function room that houses weekly poker evenings. It hosts fundraising events for Dundrum Athletic.
When we go down for a drink on the solstice, the ‘opening night’ of Christmas when work has had its year, we discover two parts of the community. In Mackers Bar there’s the community of men of different ages lined like ducks at the bar counter, supping pints, sitting below large flags for Dublin, Munster and Leinster nailed in all corners to the ceiling. They’re slagging each other and trying to persuade the barman to show football instead of racing on the largest of three televisions.
‘I’m trying to keep everyone happy,’ says the barman, pointing at another screen.
‘The results haven’t changed,’ one man says to another staring at a screen showing racing results. The others laugh.
Another local arrives and awkwardly wields a tall chair from the corner snug, bumping it into another guy’s knees. ‘Jesus you’ve only just arrived and you’re already causing havoc,’ the injured says and the laugher is revived. A bronze plaque affixed to the wooden divider wall of the corner snug says ‘Bullshit Corner’. No false advertising here.
The barman yields and switches channel to mollify the protestors. The racing followers balance their attention between the other televisions and the banter. Black and white photos of old Dundrum adorn the hallway of the Mackers’ Bar entrance. One shows King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra approaching Dundrum after attending the Leopardstown Races in 1904. Were The Willows open back then they might have slipped into Mackers for a cheeky one and to check who’d won the bumper.
The other part of the community, everyone else, sits in the ebullient lounge. It’s livelier tonight than the Saturday night we first visited here a few weeks after we moved into the area. That night, a friendly barman had caught our eye, took our order and got the measure of us over a few minutes’ chat when he brought us a ridiculously cheap pint of Beamish (just over €4) and an underwhelming, G&T lacking lemon. He told us the pub sometimes opens mid-afternoon as there is insufficient business before then.
‘Was that a menu I saw on the wall? Do you do food?’ my better half said to the barman.
‘You’d be lucky to get a packet of peanuts in here, love,’ he replied, tossing his head back in laughter.
But tonight there is peanuts, crisps and other pub snacks, and as I watch a guitarist tune and check the sound system before a night of live music I spot a wine and gin menu that wasn’t here on that first night. An array of gins has found its way here, along with the different Fevertree tonics. The pub has responded to the needs of the gin drinking community. The old, the middle and the younger are here tonight. The place feels as though the dozens gathered and the barmen all know each other. They know everyone else knows they will all be here deep into the night.
Community is a nebulous concept these days. We complain that neighbours don’t know each other like they did back in the day, like 1960, when a man called Maxi Walsh established this pub. But there are communities within a community: the athletes, the poker players, the snooker players, the drinkers. This pub brings the little communities together, binds them perhaps more than geography, in turn helping to create a sense of the local community.
After we slip away we notice directly outside the pub a car parked on the lip of the road, perpendicular to and blocking the cars nestled under the pub’s windows.
“Sure no one’s going to be leaving here with their cars tonight. It’s the Friday night before Christmas for fuck’s sake,” I can imagine a man justifying himself as he’d hurried from that car to Bullshit Corner. “Sure can’t everyone pick up their cars in the morning?”
I can imagine the guitarist having to ask if the person owning the Black Toyota could move their car, and the crowd saying he can’t as he’s drinking responsibly. And I can imagine everyone laughing, the man in question noticing none of it, and everyone feeling warm at being part of this proud, self-deprecating gathering of community.
Feeling a little more connected to an area we call home, we agree we might go back to our local for a drink on Christmas Eve.
Prices (21 December 2018)
Pint of Guinness: €4.85
Pint of lager: €5.25
Pint of ale: €4.85
Pint of cider: €5.30
330ml bottle of lager: €5.40
Measure of whiskey: €4.25
Soft drink: €2.75