I WAS always fascinated by Ireland — the history, the “Troubles”, the music, the place names, the literature, Gaelic sports — and wanted to make a good impression when I made my first visit there in 1995. I was also fascinated by the Guinness and the whiskey so the good impression was, to be frank, not possible.
Tensions were still running high across the religious divide, even in Dublin, and plenty over there didn’t particularly want the English to share the craic.
It was raining, so we decided to get a taxi into the city from our B&B and — having already had a few — as I raced to the cab to avoid the rain I slipped and landed back first on a step, quickly bouncing up and denying pain so the driver didn’t form the conclusion that I, sporting a pair of tartan trousers bought from a Carnaby Street fashion emporium, was a total idiot.
If he didn’t the owners of the pubs in the Temple Bar area — a gentrified tourist zone no locals would ever drink in these days — where the beverages are priced to ensure only clueless foreigners like myself venture there, certainly did.
The next time I went there was on a stag party, so there was no pretence to not be an idiot on that trip — and I was, as was everyone else. The bouncer who carried me out of the bar I had fallen asleep in and carefully placed me on the pavement would testify to that.
County Clare was a different proposition altogether. My friend Robbie and I stayed in his wife’s family’s old cottage in Coroffin and that felt like real Ireland.
There was one main street in that village and it housed eight or nine pubs, some of which doubled as general stores, men sitting at the bar silently sipping Guinness while the shop assistant packed their groceries. Not a word spoken between them.
Gerry Quinn, a former top hurler, was an a***hole I had been told, but he was the first to welcome us into Bofey Quinn’s bar, which hosted Wednesday and Saturday night sessions of music, dancing and story-telling and from which I staggered at 3am with a fair proportion of the pub-goers (most of the performers were well into their 70s) still bashing out Irish rebel songs with a good deal of enthusiasm.
There’s plenty of anti-English sentiment in those songs and some of the other bars in the village had pictures on the walls of the local volunteer IRA brigades, usually no more than five or six blokes, brandishing old Thompson guns as they set off to fight the War of Independence just prior to the 1920s.
There was nothing about the modern IRA — that’s a whole different war game — but these chaps were seen as freedom fighters.
I went back with my partner a couple of years later and with the Celtic Tiger having had its stripes removed, the pricey boozers and shops weren’t just in Dublin, and for those who enjoy Irish literature, it was hard to imagine any of the characters in the books of James Joyce or, say, William Trevor, spending a day drinking in any of these establishments.
Certainly not enough to make the sort of impression I did.