I try to find some focal point to these things, you know. In case you haven’t noticed, I do my best to zero in on something that can really give you the feel of a city. Upon returning to Dublin for the first time in many years, it struck me that I needed to find something quintessentially Irish to write about, but nothing really came to mind.
I decided to ask a cab driver about it. Cab drivers in some countries can be a bit reserved, even surly, but the Irish are rarely reserved and while they may sometimes be surly, their surliness is usually peppered with wit.
“Something Irish to write about?” Asked the driver who took me from the airport. “Well, there’s the Guinness Storehouse, but it’s all full of tourists, you know.”
“No, I need something Irish.”
He thought about it for a while.
“When it comes right down to it, you know, the most Irish thing about Ireland is communication. Ireland is all about the way we communicate with each other. What you got to do is to go to a pub, have a pint, and learn about how we communicate.”
“You want me just to talk to the Irish?”
“No, I want you to listen to the Irish. We slag each other off, you know—we say right awful things to each other, but it’s all in good fun. It’s what you call humor, don’t you know? You must learn about that, then you’ll have your quintessentially Irish subject; And you know, you sit down with your paper and your pen and a pint of Guinness in front of you, they’ll come talking to you, they’ll tell you where to go for your next pint and next thing you know you’ll be on some other side of town. You must forget everything, forget who you are and what you know, and where you end up, and that’ll tell you who you are.”
“Everyone in Ireland is a philosopher.”
“That we are,” he agreed, as I noted down a number of pubs he suggested, all in the historic center of the city, all more or less frequented by James Joyce. I then set off with a French friend to discover the Irish art of communication, find the perfect pint of Guinness, and discover who, exactly, we were, by the type of pub we ended up in.
I must say that Dublin has never struck me as a beautiful city. It’s made of bricks: the buildings, the sidewalks, everything is made of brick. I find brick cities to be cold, industrial. You expect to see Charlie Chaplin skittering around the corner with a bevy of incompetent cops running after him. Yet despite the gloominess of the building materials, Dublin is always abuzz. It’s true, the Irish like to communicate, and they go about it with no great measure of discretion, whether sitting at a bar or walking in the street. Grafton street is a perfect example of this—a busy pedestrian thoroughfare where a constant hum bounces off the brick and where street performers do whatever they can to attract attention. On the way down Grafton to our first pub, John Kehoe’s, we passed a number of them, including a young boy who could solve Rubik’s Cube really fast. He seemed to be about twelve years old and he was standing with a circle of perhaps thirty people around him. He solved the puzzle over and over; different spectators mixing it up in-between attempts. With each new success he was roundly applauded and the hat at his feet was flooded with coins. On one hand, I was impressed, on the other I couldn’t help wondering why the kid wasn’t in school at four o-clock on a Monday afternoon. Who knows—maybe he was some kind of child genius and had just graduated from Trinity College (which begs the question of why he was solving the Rubik’s Cube in the street for a living).
Kehoe’s is a Dublin institution, but that can actually be said for any of the pubs my friend and I visited. Inside it’s divided into three parts; the “shop” in the front, the bar in the middle, and the “snug” in the back. Historically, these served to provide social and gender segregation but today you can’t really tell the difference between them, except that the shop is a little quieter than the rest. When I was there it was inhabited by a young couple with a baby. The father was drinking Guinness, the mother was drinking cider and the baby was drinking milk (or at least his bottle had a nipple on it and seemed white).
I struck up a conversation with Dennis, one of the two barmen.
“You’re looking for the best pint of Guinness in Dublin, are you? Well one of the finest pints in the city is right here, you know. ‘Tis a sharp draw, and you need a sharp draw. You’re sitting over fifty kegs of Guinness.”
“We’ll try it,” I said, and ordered two half pints, causing Dennis to raise a discrete eyebrow. I was quickly to learn that while a half pint may contain half the liquid, from a metaphysical perspective it was far less than half of a pint. Throughout the afternoon we were asked the same question—“if you’re looking for the perfect pint, why are you drinking halves?”
When I explained that the cab driver had given me a list of pubs to try, Dennis asked to see it. He considered it and nodded. “‘Tis a good list, but incomplete. You’ll have to add the Stag’s Head, Toner’s and the Palace Bar. But you’ll have to come back here as well, there’s not much of an atmosphere before six.”
I duly noted his suggestions and then promised him that I would come back to tell him whether or not Kheo’s really did serve the best pint, after having tasted the others.
I should make a brief, voluntary digression here to point out that just about any Irishman will tell you that Guinness tastes different depending on the pub in which it’s drunk, and it tastes entirely different when consumed outside of Ireland. You might think this is either psychosomatic (actually, I suppose the correct term would be psychogustatory, but I digress even from my digression) or simply Gaelic affectation, but it’s true. The pint at Kheo’s was indeed a good one—smooth, creamy, satisfying and damn early in the afternoon.
My French friend and I drained ours and then headed out, where we started looking around with the unmistakable air of the lost, trying to decide which direction we were supposed to go. Jim came to our rescue.
Jim was a short, elderly gentleman with a thick brogue who was drinking his pint on the stand-up table just outside the pub, where he could smoke his cigarettes.
“You fella’s lost?”
“We haven’t had quite enough time to get lost yet, per se, but it’s true that we don’t know which way to go.”
“Where ya headin’?”
I explained our quest—to find the best pint of Guinness in Dublin.
“Good idea, that. You don’t want to be drinking a pint in every bar, though, you’ll be laid out well before you can make your mind up. Oh, but what the hell, have a pint in each place. Which pubs will you be trying?”
I gave him the list of places that Dennis had given me.
“Good places, those, but you’ll want to go to McDaid’s as well, ’tis just over there,” he pointed to our right.
I told him that Dennis said Kheo’s had the best pint in town. He thought about it carefully.
“They serve a good pint, it must be said. Otherwise I wouldn’t be drinking it, you know. You can tell the quality of a pint of Guinness by the rings on the glass.”
He held up his glass for me to examine, but I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I nodded just the same. I asked why there was such a difference in the taste from one pub to the next.
“Oh, there’s a lot to it, you know. Most important thing is where the casks are. You don’t want much distance between the cask and the tap. Kheo’s keeps theirs in the cellar, where they should be. You can trust me about Guinness, you know, I’ve been drinking it for fifty years. I love it. I love it more than me wife, but I wouldn’t tell the bitch. You know, when John Kheo died he left four million pounds to the church, the bastard. Four million. He was as mean as a snake, too—if you were a cent short, just a penny, mind you, he wouldn’t serve you your pint. You’d say, ‘John, I’m just missing a penny,’ but the bastard wouldn’t serve you. Then he leaves four million to the church down the road. Over there.” He pointed in the direction opposite to McDaid’s. “Where you fellows from?”
I explained that I was American and that my friend was French.
“Oh, I like the French. I’ll take any chance to piss on the English.”
We thanked Jim and headed over to McDaid’s, outside of which is a statue of Philip P Lynott, the bassist for Thin Lizzy. It’s kind of surprising to see a life-size bronze statue of a man with an afro leaning on a Fender precision in the middle of the street in Dublin, but Dublin is a city of surprises. Either way, it certainly bode well for McDaid’s.
McDaid’s is a seedier, more accessible place, with the same dark, used wood and intricate ceiling. The bar was staffed by Dave, a younger version of Dennis, who expressed only the slightest surprise when we asked for half pints.
I noted that behind the bar was a sign indicating that McDaid’s had been in operation since 1779, but elsewhere was a sign indicating that the pub was founded in 1873.
“Daragh got it wrong when he wrote that,” explained Dave, “He was drunk.”
“But off by a hundred years—that’s a bit much.”
“I’m kidding. You see, we only got our liquor license in 1873, although it was a bar of sorts for a hundred years prior. Before that, it was a morgue. That’s why there’s all the bloody stained glass.”
When told of our quest, Dave added a few more pubs to our list, including Grogan’s and Neany’s.
My French friend and I spent the next few hours walking from one to the other. As the evening wore on I find that my notes become increasingly illegible, as does my memory. I’d love to describe all these places to you, but they kind of run together into one big uberpub in my mind, with dark wooden walls, soft wooden floors, and hard wooden bars. All of them were staffed by dry, witty and exceedingly friendly barmen who took intense interest in our quest and kept adding other pubs to the list, all the while explaining the art of storing, pouring and drinking Guinness.
Of course, given our consumption of Guinness, we had to make frequent use of the facilities, and there I stumbled upon (I mean that literally) a dispensing machine on the wall of one of the pubs. I don’t know if there are dispensing machines on the walls of women’s bathrooms nor what they would dispense, but in men’s bathrooms there are often condom dispensers, which occasionally save a slot for breath mints (I suppose they figure that if you don’t take care of your breath first, you may not need the condom after all). My journalistic instincts were still sufficiently honed to note the rather unusual selection offered by the dispensing machine. To whit:
- “Golden Root Complex: the Ultimate Pill For Adults”
- “Sensational Vibe Pleasure Ring”
- Two types of condoms
I couldn’t let that go, so I slapped my piece of paper up against the wall to copy down the names of all these things and consistently got jostled by other men trying to make their way past me to the urinals as I struggled with the fact that my pen won’t work when writing against a wall.
This is the epitome of travel writing.
My French friend indicated that we really had to be going, since we had a business dinner to attend (!) so we started off in the general direction of somewhere or other, until I realized that we hadn’t returned to Kheo’s! We had promised Dennis after all! We therefore staggered back up Grafton and into our first pub. Dennis had been right, there was far more atmosphere now. Dennis, however, was gone, his replacement, Donald (do all barmen in Dublin have names that begin with D?) explained that given his twenty-two years of seniority, Dennis pulled the easier shifts.
“We promised him we’d come back and tell him whether Kheo’s really did have the best pint in Dublin.”
“You’d best try another, then.”
“Actually,” he continued, “you should ask the boys.” He jerked a thumb to a group of four men sitting at the end of the bar. “Well boys, what do you think?”
“Worst pint in Dublin!” the thinnest of the lot exclaimed. “You’re better off drinking dishwater.”
One of his friends chipped in. “Great for constipation, though. After a pint here you can shit through the eye of a needle.”
They had a good laugh and ordered more Guinness. We had to go, but I have no doubt that they continued to communicate with each other late into the night.