Literary History By the Pint in the Pubs of Dublin

By Sandra Gurvis

Dublin is full of legends about elves, Blarney Stones, fairies and leprechauns, and it has more varieties of stout, Irish whiskies and other libations than you can shake a wand at. But the real enchantment comes from the fact that proportionally, Dublin, and in fact the whole of Ireland, has produced more writers, artists and other creative people than anywhere else in the world.

And, for a city of its size, it likely also has the most pubs on the planet, close to 800 within its 44-square mile radius. So many watering holes, so little time. Where to start? For those familiar with literature – and most have heard of James Joyce’s Ulysses (as opposed to actually reading it), or the poetry of W.B. Yeats or the plays of Samuel Beckett, to mention a very few – the places where many of these legends, ate, drank, brawled and worked on their masterpieces are a logical opening chapter. And the Literary Pub Crawl provides a full-on Table of Contents, curated by local guides and actors Colm Quilligan and Frank Smith, who have been entertaining attendees with their pithy, knowledgeable observations since 1988.

Dublin is a walkable city, where visitors frequently use their smartphones to find their way in lieu of asking directions or consulting maps. And the first stop, The Duke pub, was easy enough to locate, although meeting up with the tour required elbowing through the crowd to get upstairs to the private “snug,” or small room. Found in many pubs, snugs were used by writers and other dissidents, allowing them to brainstorm or otherwise stir up the populace, and provided respite from the swarms of jostling merrymakers anxiously waiting for their next pint. Like many of Dublin’s pubs, Duke’s is crammed to the rafters with rich-colored wood and boasts a shining, elaborately stocked bar with stained glass and other period accents.

Then it was on to Trinity College where the guides gave a brief “cultural stop without drink,” discussing literary lions such as playwright Oscar Wilde, who is affiliated with this storied institution. Because it was nighttime – and it’s advisable to bring layers, even during the warmer months – there was no access to Trinity’s crown jewel, the Book of Kells. Completed in 800 AD, the world-famous manuscript was written on vellum, with handcrafted and elaborately guilded illustrations, and contains the four Gospels of Jesus based on text completed in 384 A.D. intermixed with passages and narratives from even earlier periods.

After that, the rest of the tour consisted of “drinking stops without culture.” On any given evening these might be:

McDaids: Reputed to have once housed the City Morgue, this was the place for “free artistic expression, without censorship of political correctness,” according to Quilligan.

Grogan’s Castle Lounge: The hangout of Irish writers of the 1970s, Grogan’s pub is bit shabbier and attracts a wide customer base, including outspoken Dubliners: “You will not get away with bragging about your portfolio here,” notes Quilligan.

The Old Stand: At 300 years old, these walls do talk and are filled with photos of famous Dubliners, sports memorabilia and other local artifacts. This was where soldier, revolutionary and politician Michael Collins helped engineer Ireland’s early 20th century struggle for independence.

O’Neill’s Pub & Kitchen: An Irish version of a steakhouse, known as a “carvery,” entrées are freshly cooked, generously portioned and sliced to order. Illustrations of writers and other well-known Dublin patrons decorate its many snugs and hidey-holes.

The Stag’s Head: Taxidermy alert: Those sitting at the bar will come face-to-face with its namesake. But, along with attracting writers and film crews, this authentic Victorian pub, “one of Dublin’s most lavishly designed gin palaces,” according to Quilligan, is a stunner, offering up mosaic granite-tiled floors and a mahogany bar topped with red Connemara marble.

Tours usually end at Davy Byrnes, where the ample wine list conveniently provides the alcohol content of each pour. Heavy with history, this was where writer Brendan Behan allegedly uttered that famous line about being “a drinker with a writing problem.’’ Byrne’s was also served as the backdrop for Ulysses.

At some point during the tour, Quilligan and Smith will likely reveal the ending of that particular tome. But even if you haven’t read a single word of Ulysses, you’ll get a pretty good idea of its flavor, and that of Dublin’s pubs.

Other Highlights

Dublin Whiskey Tours: Sample five whiskeys in three bars and distill (and instill) your knowledge of this popular Irish libation. Alcohol tolerance preferred, but not required.

Fade Street Social: Everyone feels welcome at this casual yet elegant destination. A restaurant, tapas bar and cocktail bar offer a varied, locally sourced menu and tasty, generous portions.

Sophie’s Rooftop Bar: Located on the top floor of the Dean Hotel – which is not particularly easy to find – the 360-degree view of the city is the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow amid a twinkling treasure chest of an interior. Pricey but worth it.

Irish folklore and storytelling: It’s a twofer: A chance to check out The Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub dating to 1198, and experience the magic of Irish legends through storytelling and song, between courses of a traditional Irish dinner.

Dublin Writers Museum: This Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame for Irish writers features books, artifacts and other memorabilia of the big names as well as some lesser-knowns.

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