Frothing at the mouth and loving it

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 1995, 12:00am

IT was the Guinness that fired my enthusiasm as it slaked my thirst. Everyone said the stuff didn't travel and in the way of these things I had to find out.

Sure you can drink it in Hong Kong, and some places have even made the effort to learn how to pour it properly - straight glass, fill it three quarters or so and let it settle before topping it up.

But the black stuff has had to travel a long way to get here and while the advent of joints like Delaney's and O'Brien's in this hot little corner of the world may make some folk think they know their Irish pubs, the addition of wood panelling, plus three men and a banjo to an office block in Wan Chai or Causeway Bay falls a long way short of the real thing - brave and welcome attempts though they may be. In Dublin, authenticity comes in all shapes and sizes. There's the seething folksiness of O'Donoghues - walk in, hold up the requisite number of fingers and the pints of stout are already on their way.

Then there's McDaid's, the cave-like and multi-storeyed haunt whose location, on Harry Street, off the snazzy, pedestrianised Grafton Street, and connections - with the writers Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien, among others - have admittedly turned it into something of a tourist trap.

Should you be filled with dread at the thought of the long walk from McDaid's to cross the majestic O'Connell Bridge without a drink, you could see a doctor or stop off on Fleet Street to force your way into The Palace whose huge mirrors do nothing to subvert its warming, not to say intimate, narrowness.

It is here that the journalists of the Irish Times gather to drink away the trials of the day, and it was here, or more precisely the back bar, that the writers of the 1950s and 60s, got together in the place they dubbed 'intensive care'.

There's the Brazen Head on Bridge Street, which dates from the 17th century and is probably the city's oldest pub, Mulligans on Poolbeg Street, which was once reputed to be so - 'Is this the oldest bar in town? No, but it has the oldest staff!' - and the Long Hall on George's Street in whose back rooms the Fenians and the Irish Volunteers agreed to join forces to form the Irish Republican Army.

This IRA is not, you should note, the terrorist gang who did their part to make the struggle in Northern Ireland the horror story it became after 1969, but the 20s force of freedom fighters, whose cause is celebrated at the must-see museum at the old Kilmainham Jail, whose heroes are remembered with a fondness Ulster's killers would probably never understand.

Everyone knows the Irish are reputed to have been born with the ability to talk the hind legs off a donkey and play heart-wrenching music, but they were also given the rights to civilised drinking - not exclusive perhaps, but you will have to go a long way to be or see anyone embarrassed by what goes on in a Dublin pub. The noisy amateurs of Lan Kwai Fong could learn much from dignified old pros who inhabit the nooks and crannies of Joxer Daly's, John Kehoe's, Slattery's or James Toner's.

But the young people know how to do it as well as dispensing wit and verve from pink faces surrounding dark eyes in a brogue to make your ears and heart tremble.

There is a genuine romance to these old places with their many connections - factual and fictional - to events and people and characters.

Davy Byrne's on Duke Street is now a bit of a posers' paradise compared to the more traditional pubs, but it is the centre of attention on June 16 each year - Bloomsday.

It was on June 16 that Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce's Ulysses, bought his gorgonzola sandwich with mustard washed down with burgundy at this 'moral pub', having decided against the meatier attractions of the menu in Burton's restaurant.

And each year, devotees and the curious tour Dublin, visiting the places immortalised by Joyce and Bloom.

However, if you arrive at any other time of year you can sample the delights and history via the Jameson Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, run by a group of actors who take people with a thirst for good Guinness and fine words round the various pubs with bookish connections.

The tour, lasting more than two hours, includes a bit of acting, a lot of story-telling and, of course, a bit of drinking.

It began in 1988, as a bit of an idea but now it has become a thriving fixture, taking 12,000 people a year to the likes of Mulligan's, the Long Hall and the Palace.

You may also stop at Neary's, on Chatham Street, near the Gaiety Theatre, with its theatrical connections and fine old frontage.

Then there'll be Sinnott's, on South King Street, with its collection of Oscar Wilde memorabilia, including a portrait of the artist as a young boy dressed as a girl and letters written after he went to prison - a century ago this year - having fallen foul of the Marquis of Queensberry's rules for the love that dare not speak its name.

The tour's founder and organiser Colin Quilligan, says it would not usually stop at a refurbished pub, but with Sinnott's they make an exception.

He may also give thanks for the beer-soaked existence of Brendan Behan - 'With Behan you can stand and talk about him outside almost any pub and be pretty sure he stopped there'.

But in Dublin the names of the writers trip off the tongue as fast as the names of the bars. To those mentioned above you can add Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey, J. P. Donleavy, Christie Brown and Roddy Doyle. It's that kind of place - money and the condition of your liver and synapses cease to matter as the chat, the Guinness and the occasional wee Jameson's flow.

The pubs are as warm as the people and it's a very different kind of posing you might be getting up to as you prop up the bar.

My own favourite bolt-hole has just a dank smell, sawdust on the floor, a barman with the face of a potato farmer - if not a potato - and an atmosphere of total calm in which to immerse yourself in the Irish Independent while the rain pelts down outside and you wonder why God failed to make this Ould Country your Ould Country.

If you think I'm telling you which one it is, think again, havens like this are far too precious to reveal to the likes of you. But if you do find it, I'll be the one in the corner practising my accent, paper in one hand, pint of Guinness in the other - because it's better to travel and sample the real thing.