Sláinte! Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Irish Pubs
“Oh, yes, they’re regulars here. One of them is my great-uncle, and they’ve been coming here since they were lads, three times a day.”
“Excuse me?” I couldn’t help but reply.
“Three times a day, that’s right. Once at noon, then again midafternoon, and once more around 9 o’clock. Two pints each, every time.”
My husband and I were in a small traditional pub in West Kerry, talking with the landlady about two gentlemen we’d met there on a previous visit. Farmers by their clothing, in their 70s and chatting quietly together in Irish as they nursed their pints, they stood for everything we’d hoped to find in southwest Ireland: community, tradition, real people living down-to-earth lives… and if tradition included six pints of Irish stout every day for over 50 years, well, so be it.
Welcome to the world of Irish pubs!
I have to say that we’re new at this. I can’t begin to count the number of pubs in County Kerry alone, so there’s a lot of research ahead before we qualify as experts. However, we’ve noticed points common to all the pubs we’ve visited so far that are giving us some hints about Irish culture.
First and most refreshing, you don’t have to drink alcohol in an Irish pub if you don’t want to. I would never dream of going into an American bar for anything other than an alcoholic beverage—maybe a soft drink as the designated driver but not for a cup of coffee or tea. Here, you can order a coffee made with real Italian espresso or a strong pot of tea, and no one gives it a second thought. If you’re a teetotaler and don’t like sugary sodas, you’re just as welcome to stay and sip your coffee while enjoying the craic (lively conversation) and the traditional music.
Yes, the traditional music! This might not be true for all Irish pubs, but we have yet to visit one that didn’t hold live music sessions. Some have music one night a week, others every night, and some have Sunday afternoon sessions, as well. Featured artists come in from other counties to perform, or local musicians get together and play all evening for the joy of it. Traditional Irish music is a vibrant part of life here, as natural as breathing, and an exhilarating trad session in a local pub is an experience not to be missed.
Live music might also be the most noise you hear in a pub. Here in Kerry, the pubs are pretty peaceful. Piped music is turned low enough to be a pleasant background to a meal or a leisurely glass of wine. Cities like Dublin or Cork may have pubs with loud, pinging, flashing pinball machines that shred your nerves while you’re trying to have a quiet drink by the fire, but we haven’t found any here. Nor are there multiple flat-screen TV’s tuned to multiple sporting events. If they have TV at all, it might be one screen showing a rugby or Gaelic football match with the sound very low or turned off completely. Without all this mechanical noise pollution, conversation can flourish without need to shout to make yourself heard.
We also love that children are not excluded from Irish pubs. We’ve seen kids, from toddlers to teenagers, sitting down to a meal with their parents and grandparents, and they’ve invariably been well-behaved. Of course, there are age and time restrictions required by law, and pubs follow them strictly, but there is enough flexibility for entire families to come and enjoy the company of their friends and the music, and no one is left out.
Which brings me to the real heart of Irish pubs: the people. None of the appealing qualities I’ve mentioned would mean much without their energy, friendliness, and sense of humor. Sure, some of the staff can have bad days, or the guy next to you at the bar can be grumpy—we’re all human. But even with these minor glitches, the people—behind the bar and in front of it—have been our greatest discoveries while exploring Irish pubs.
We won’t soon forget the two farmers I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Nor another farmer named Michael, who told us—complete strangers—all about countryside management, his farm neighbors, and his two adorable baby goats with cream-colored faces and black ears.
There was also the landlady at another pub, who brought her injured-but-recovering puppy to work with her one Sunday afternoon. She made a blanket bed for him in the middle of the floor, and, while she tended bar for the next hour, the puppy chewed and worried his toys, pausing only to wag his tail and accept the many cuddles given to him by the patrons.
But the best example of what an Irish pub is all about comes from a Sunday afternoon traditional music session at a pub near us. We were sitting in a corner listening to a group of five musicians, when they all began to smile and look toward one particular spot in the room. I peered around the corner and saw a tiny girl in a red velvet dress only a few feet away. She was dancing. Her white tights were too big and were slipping down, the toes flopping as she toddled, and her daddy crouched beside her and offered his hand for support. She held onto his thumb as she danced to the music that was—and is—her heritage, with a smile so wide the room could barely hold it. That was weeks ago, but she’s probably dancing still.
We have a long way to go before we can claim to have experienced all that Irish pubs have to offer, but their essential easygoing, welcoming spirit has been on display from the first time we pushed open a door and stepped up to the bar.
However, we do understand the importance of ongoing research, so I will continue to report on our findings… from the pub, of course.
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