Although we constantly repeat in this blog that we rarely drink, we finished almost every day of our recent trip to Ireland in a pub. We drank in pubs, we danced in pubs, and once we even slept above a pub. Our travel philosophy of adapting to the customs of the place we visit and doing whatever the locals do, turned us for 10 straight days, into drinking bloggers with a traveling problem. But we loved every moment of it and have no regrets.
Pubs are an integral part of people’s lives in Ireland and represent the centers of every community. Like anywhere in Latin America where every central square is dominated by a cathedral, every Irish town, no matter how small it is, is centered around the pub. Driving through Ireland, we encountered pubs everywhere: from the bustling capital city of Dublin to the midsize towns of Kenmare and Killarney to tiny villages in the remote Sheep’s Head peninsula.
Each day in Ireland we were learning something new about the history, traditions, and etiquette of pub life, all while visiting fantastic pubs. For starters, before our trip, we did not even know that the word “pub” was short for “public house”. When it was mentioned to us during one of the tours, both Julia and I had a synchronized “aha!” moment. Centuries ago, when the term “public house” was coined, it was used to denote places such as taverns and inns that were opened to the public, in contrast to private houses.
Another realization was that a pub is not just a watering hole but a place of connection and community for the Irish. Getting together with friends for a pint is always a good way for staying in touch and maintaining strong social bonds, and the Irish live by this principle. Before the trip, we expected Irish pubs to be full of young people but that was not always the case. We regularly saw groups of middle-aged friends drinking and socializing, married couples having a night out, or even old people nursing their drinks and singing traditional Irish songs. But it is when we saw a 5-year-old drinking a glass of milk next to her mom, who was gulping down a milky pint of Guinness in a pub in Kinsale, it became clear to us that Irish pubs are absolutely for everybody, where people of all ages feel at home.
On the practical side, we also picked up a couple of pointers. First, do not come hungry to Irish pubs after 9 p.m. as you will not find any food there. For the most part, pubs stop serving food (even bar snacks) after a certain hour. We learned this the hard way on the first day in Ireland when we turned up at the Pumphouse pub in Kilkenny at 9:15 p.m. There was no food there, and we ended up eating a stir fry at a Chinese restaurant next door as this was the only available food option in the area.
Another useful tidbit we learned was that pouring a pint of stout is a delicate and time-consuming process. It takes multiple steps, involving pouring beer in stages and allowing it to settle. When ordering my first Guinness at the Pumphouse, the bartender took my order and then … forgot about it. Or so I thought. Several minutes after ordering my beer, I was still sitting by the bar empty-handed nervously waiting for it. In the meantime, the bartender was absolutely unbothered by my stern and impassionate glances, seemingly ignoring my half-poured pint sitting at the beer tap. Eventually, a glass of Guinness with a trademark foamy top landed in front of me. Served in an iconic glass, a pint of Guinness is that universal image rivaling in recognition maybe only a Coca-Cola bottle. The wait was well worth it every time I ordered Guinness from then on.
During our 10 days in Ireland, we visited some remarkable pubs with a lot of character. Some of them displayed a plaque of James Joyce Award for being an “authentic Irish bar which retains a genuineness of atmosphere, friendliness, and presence of good company.”
Stepping inside Dick Mack’s pub in Dingle felt like traveling back in time. One wall was filled with bottles of whiskey and other hard liquor from floor to ceiling, while shelves on the opposite wall were stocked with old books, shoeboxes, and boots, reflecting the pub’s rich history. This business, which was established in 1899 and has been in the hands of the same family, initially was a grocery store, then became a leather shop, and finally converted into a more lucrative pub business.
Just a short walk from Dick Mack’s, we dropped by Foxy John’s, a pub that is also a part-time hardware store and a bike repair shop. When you enter, to the left is the bar with a wide selection of beers and apple ciders; to the right are tools, machine parts, and bike locks, all for sale.
Dalton’s in Kinsale was the best pub for traditional Irish music. We were just strolling by this pub in the evening when we popped our heads inside and saw the packed place with a bunch of older residents playing instruments and singing in English and Gaelic. This “trad” session felt like dropping by somebody’s house.
The Pumphouse in Kilkenny was just perfect because our Airbnb was located right above this pub, so it was very convenient to enjoy the drinks and then take the stairs to our room.
Temple Bar in Dublin was surely touristy as hell, but the atmosphere was festive, and we did not mind being surrounded by other tourists celebrating the Irish pub culture on our last day in the country.
One pub, MacCarthy's Bar, warrants a special mention. We found this James Joyce Award pub in the small town of Castletownbere, Cork County. The pub, founded more than 160 years, became world-known when it was featured in Pete McCarthy's book McCarthy's Bar (2000), where the main character travels through Ireland visiting different pubs and learning about the changing Irish society. As part of this journey, he visits MacCarthy’s Bar, too. The pub is not only described in the book but is also featured on its cover. Considering that the book was a #1 bestseller in Ireland, the pub immediately became a tourist attraction. Another MacCarthy Bar’s claim to fame is that Joseph Aidan MacCarthy, the original owner’s grandson, was born in the apartment above the pub. His life as a doctor of the Royal Airforce and a prisoner of war to the Japanese during the Second World War is also subject to several books. Inside, the pub is a mini-museum with newspaper clippings and articles telling incredible stories of the MacCarthy family and the fabled doctor.
However, we remember this pub for another reason. By the time we got to MacCarthy Bar late in the afternoon, we had had a long day of driving. Although a passenger, Julia decided that she needed a cup of coffee to boost her energy. As she was ordering her coffee, I went to the bathroom and when returned, I found the bartender explaining to her the process of preparing a good cup of Irish coffee. Julia whispered to me that since we were in Ireland, it just made sense to make coffee a little bit Irish. The bartender said that for Irish coffee all you need is hot water, instant coffee, sugar, and whiskey. We did not see her preparing the coffee as we were checking our phones. Five minutes later, the bartender appeared carefully carrying a beautiful glass cup of coffee topped with whip cream. Julia took a picture of the coffee, licked the whip cream off, and then took a big gulp.
“Oh, no!!” she squealed, her eyes widening.
“Hmm…How do I say that?? I am not sure this whiskey has any coffee.”
Apparently, the bartender was very generous and did not skimp on whiskey. Julia barely finished the drink and by the time she did, her face was as red as a boiled lobster. Instead of the needed energy boost, this spiked cup of coffee made her even more lethargic, and to get her back in shape, we needed to take a vigorous walk through the streets of the town.
“How much did you pay for the coffee?” she asked as we were getting back in the car.
“What??? 7 Euros for a cup of coffee?? Ah, never mind. That was a glass of straight-up whiskey, so 7 Euros is a good deal.”
“And it had whip cream…” I smirked.
We jumped in the car and drove off to the next pub.
In Ulysses, James Joyce once wrote immortal words, often quoted on plaques in Irish pubs, “A good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub.” To me, the question is not how one would do that, but WHY. Why would one deny themselves the pleasure of a dark foamy pint, the lively fiddle and the whimsical flute of the traditional Irish music, and a good conversation with a friend? No trip to Ireland would be complete without it.