Leave it to the Irish to coin a term that basically translates to having a damn good time. Visiting Ireland and failing to experience good craic (pronounced crack) is as unfortunate as it is unlikely. It’s everywhere. But the best way to enjoy it is by partaking in a treasured Irish tradition: going to the pub.
The reputation of Dublin’s Temple Bar district had me expecting it to be a particularly historic part of the city. Not so. Temple Bar adopted its identity as a hub of pubs, restaurants, music and theatre relatively recently. In the 1980s the area was close to being demolished and the site used for a new bus terminal, but the development was opposed and the district instead transformed into a cultural centre.
There are so many venues in the area that a pub crawl could actually be done on hands and knees. But we do the respectable thing and walk (although not very far) to our first stop: Buskers Bar, which is downstairs from our hotel (The Temple Bar Hotel) and known for its live music. This isn’t a venue that claims to be a traditional Irish anything – the €5 cocktail menu and sleek interior dispel any notion of that. But the music by a relaxed trio that included a fiddle player in singlet and shorts was like a scene from P.S. I Love You.
After dinner and cocktails, we walked along the lively Temple Bar to The Porterhouse. The Porterhouse Brewing Company has bars in several Irish cities, including two more in Dublin, and also in London and New York. The fact the bar is owned by a brewery probably says it all, but this place has a great beer selection. I particularly loved the empty bottles lined up along the walls.
Three days later and the Stena Line Gathering team is back in Dublin for one last night. We’d practiced the words to Molly Malone in the bus and heard Galway Girl enough times to be able to sing along, but it wasn’t until our visit to Taylors Three Rock that we experienced traditional Irish music live. Taylors Three Rock hosts regular performances showcasing Irish music, dance and humour. The venue, a former coaching house, is the largest thatched roof building in Europe and inside it’s a warren of bars, function rooms and memorabilia.
If you listen to much Irish music you’ll know the songs are not just lyrics – they’re stories. At the Irish Night performance The Mighty Ghosts of Erin sung of the mountains in Ireland’s south west in Whiskey in the Jar and the heartache of losing a girl who returns to America in Boston Rose. When it played an instrumental version of Danny Boy, a guest at the next table chimed in with the vocals.
Until now, my only taste of Irish dancing had been watching Riverdance on the television. Incidentally, the group will perform in July as part of The Gathering and also attempt to set a new world record for the longest line of Riverdance dancers. At Taylors Three Rock I saw the toe-tapping moves of Irish dancing close up – quite literally when a puffed dancer took a break on my lap during the show. The dancing really is incredible. I found myself mesmerised at the dancer’s feet most of the time. It’s all so fast!
Galway: Home of the Hooker
Galway is Ireland’s party city – a stroll down Shop Street at midnight on a Friday makes that apparent as does the number of women dressed up for Hen parties.
Our group jumped on The Viking Galway Pub Crawl for some insight into the best spots in the city. We started at The Skeff Bar where I tried my first Guinness. It seems absurd that after frequenting Irish pubs for years and visiting the country two years ago I’d yet to sample Ireland’s most famous export. The verdict? It tastes like beer.
But not all Guinness is created equal. Our next stop, an Irish-speaking bar called Club Áras na nGael, apparently has the best Guinness in Galway. The secret, said our guide David, is high turnover. The less time the stout spends on the pump the better, so never order it at a nightclub. With one Guinness under my belt I felt qualified to agree – my second glass was noticeably better. Yet I’m a lightweight so much to the horror of a friend, a Galway girl who stopped by to catch up, I left half on the table.
I stole away from the pub crawl at Club Áras and let my friend, Hanna, show me her favourite spots. We ended up at The Salt House, a small bar with a good selection of beers on tap, currencies of the world pinned up behind the bar and a New Zealand flag tacked on the ceiling. The Salt House has a local brew, the tantalisingly named Galway Hooker, on tap and I couldn’t resist ordering it. But if you’re hoping the name is a nod to some local women I have to disappoint you: The Irish Pale Ale instead honours the traditional fishing boats used in Galway Bay.
By midnight, my self-imposed curfew, it was tough to walk down Shop Street. The crowds from the pubs on either side had spilt into the middle and it was difficult to know who is drinking where. But the Hen parties were still going strong.
Annascaul: Small town, lots of craic
Our third night was spent at Annascaul, a small town on the Dingle Peninsula in Country Kerry. A sign acknowledges the town as the birthplace of Antarctic adventurer Tom Crean. Equally as interesting is the fact there are six pubs here while the most recent census put the town’s population at just 271.
A Saturday night in a town this size wouldn’t usually offer much entertainment. But Annascaul isn’t your average small town. Paddywagon Tours (www.paddywagontours.com) runs a hostel and a new B&B, Inspiration Lodge, here so there is a stream of tourists. Our visit coincided with the 30th birthday party of two locals who celebrated in the best-named pub in Ireland. The Randy Leprechaun is also run by Paddywagon and attached to the hostel.
After a lesson in Irish dancing that left our head spinning, The Randy Leprechaun started to fill with a mix of backpackers and locals. A pub stalwart, Jim, who apparently frequents the bar every night regardless of the antics inside, unfortunately didn’t show, but it looked like he was the only one in town to miss the occasion. There was plenty of craic all round.
One of the most interesting aspects of Irish culture is the way it’s embraced by the younger generation. The dance floor, which wasn’t that crowded for most of the night, was packed when the DJ started playing Irish favourites in the wee hours.
Cork’s Heritage Pubs
Pub crawls happen haphazardly around the country, but Cork has taken away the guess work, highlighting seven pubs as part of a Heritage Pub Trail around the city. With only an hour or so in the city, we visited just one – The Bodega in Coal Quay. The former site of the St Peter’s Food Market, The Bodega features a beautiful interior of columns, arches, chandeliers, art and candelabras. The food (I had the roast lamb) was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
The Stena Line Gathering 2013 was hosted by Stena Line, Tourism Ireland and Paddywagon Tours. All opinions are my own.