I have never been one to sit on a beach for very long. Maybe it’s because of the body my fondness for beer has given me, or my general dislike of being too hot, but beaches and all-inclusive resorts have never been on my radar. Whenever I have an opportunity to unwind I immediately think of leather benches and something pint-shaped in front of me. So off we were to Ireland!
Ireland has something that Canada doesn’t: pubs. Maybe that’s unfair, Canada has its pubs, and you can even find pubs modelled after Irish pubs across the country, but they’ve never felt quite right. The pub culture is something that isn’t on the same level here in Canada as it is in Ireland. My wife and I spent a little over a week driving from the big city, to the seaside, crossing through countless small towns along the way, and each small town had the same things in common. There was a very large, ancient church, a butcher shop, post office, and at least one pub – many older than all of Canada. I tried to stop as many as I could and this is what I learned:
- The Snug: The snug is something that I had never heard of before and it is something that didn’t make it across the Atlantic when business owners were setting up their own Irish pubs in Canada. A snug is a small enclosure inside of the pub that was meant to maintain women’s honour when inside a pub. For as integral a part of the Irish culture that pubs are, they were historically seen as places of ill repute. The windows on a pub were frosted or painted to keep the patrons shielded from judgemental gazes from the outside and there were maps put out by the church to show the locations of all public houses in Dublin to ensure that pure, god-fearing Dubliners were kept away from the depravity inside the pub doors. It’s with that mentality that the snug was born. Women would go inside this small enclosure to keep their presence hidden, because it was inappropriate for women to have a drink in a public house. They would sit in here with the other wives of the men in the bar, hidden from sight, with their honour intact. Many of these snugs are still present in the pubs today, but have been repurposed as additional seating. I enjoyed seeing them and learning their history because it just seemed so backwards. Why would women bother going if they had to sit in an enclosed box? Why did punters care if there were women there too? The snug is a quirk that seems to be unique to Ireland.
- Food isn’t always served: You always associate food with pubs. There are many cookbooks (a couple that I own) that offer up authentic pub fare that sticks to your ribs and warms the cockles of your heart on a cold rainy day, but many pubs don’t have a kitchen. They may have wrapped sandwiches or a bag of crisps, but there’s no need for a menu because nothing is made to order. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just so different from the pub culture in Canada. In Canada, wings, potato skins, cheese sticks are always on offer to complement the drinks on offer – but in Ireland, the beer is the star.
- Conversation is king: Rarely do you see a pub in Canada that doesn’t have 40-inch screens displayed to allow you to watch the hockey game over your companion’s shoulder. This isn’t the case in Irish pubs. If there is a tv, it’s a small one that is behind the bartender and you need to be sitting at the bar to see it. A radio isn’t a given either. Patrons talk to the people they’re sitting with, or anyone else. I met a nice older man in a wonderful pub called Morrissey’s, established 1776. He wished my wife and me well, told us about his son living in Toronto, and talked about his wife who was waiting for him to come home. Another time we met a young Dubliner and his date. We talked about what we did, the American elections, and our mutual fondness of Neil Young. I loved this. There are many times that I have been in a pub in Calgary and I have to lean in to hear the people at my table because of the pounding bass that’s smothering the conversation.
- They cater to Americans: Going into an Irish pub, with my distinct lack of Irish accent, people assumed I was American. I have had nothing but positive experiences with American tourists, but I am not one of them. Because of the belief that I was American the first beers on offer were Budweiser, Coors Light, and any other forgettable beer that you can think of. To get to anything local, or anything close to being a craft beer, you had to press the bartender for information, and the local beers were often thrown in as an afterthought. I don’t really understand travelling across the world and drinking what is on offer at home. The drink local movement should be in place even if you’re not a local. I did my best to drink from the local brewery in the town that I happened to be in. I had Wicklow Stout, Galway IPA, Brian Boru Wheat, and anything else that I had never heard of. Some were great and others I am happy to leave on that side of the Atlantic, but I was happy to try everything.
- They LOVE Guinness: Guinness is EVERYWHERE! You can have Guinness chips or BBQ sauce, you can buy golf balls, tree ornaments, or oven mitts. Anything you can think of has been emblazoned with a Guinness logo and is on offer to tourists and locals alike. Oh, you can also drink the beer but this truly seems secondary to the branding. Guinness is the KISS of the beer world. If they can put their name on it and charge money for it, they will.
The true takeaway that I have from trying to get to as many pubs as possible during two weeks in Ireland can be summed up by a plaque that is behind the counter at the Palace Bar in Dublin. Behind the bartender is a small white sign that says “A bird is known by its song, a man by his conversation,” a quote from Irish sportswriter Con Houlihan. I can’t think of a better way to sum-up the difference between Canada’s pubs and those in Ireland. Irish pubs are about making a genuine connection with others. They offer a venue for organic conversation over a couple of pints, whether that was what you were looking for or not. They allow you to meet new people, while spending time with those you’ve known for years. Pubs give you a taste of local life that is unrivaled by anything else. They give you an insight into the history of Ireland. They are a venues to be revered. I didn’t see any robed men, or smell any incense as I pushed open the pub doors, but there is no doubt in my mind that these pubs are holy places and must be preserved.