Travel News

Poetry in motion

Where better to pub crawl than in the streets of Dublin? Paul Daley tours the city’s more famous drinking houses, retracing the steps (and reading from the works) of Beckett, Joyce and Wilde. Make ours a pint.

By Paul Daley
We are upstairs at The Duke, a Dublin pub with a fine literary and political tradition. And we are waiting for Colm Quilligan and Derek Reid, two Irish actors. Or at least that's who we think we're waiting for. But instead, as Quilligan and Reid front a small crowd that will follow them from pub to pub over the next two and a half hours, we get Estragon and Vladimir from the opening act of Samuel Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot. Two and a half hours is a little arbitrary, of course. Because in the words of Quilligan, the convenor of the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, "it all just depends, now, on how fast you drink - or walk."
Thankfully (given the number of literary pubs in Dublin), Quilligan's pub crawl emphasises literature and walking as much as drinking, if not more. For nobody - not even the Australian cricket team that in 1989 toured England after sinking beers all the way to Heathrow - could manage a pint in every Dublin pub with a link to a writer or a poet.
Today Dublin, with a population of about a million, has just 800 pubs, according to Quilligan's book Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. I say "just" because at the height of Dublin's powers as the drinking capital of the world in about 1782, the city - which then had a population of about 250,000 - boasted 2000 alehouses, 300 taverns and 1200 brandy shops.
On this brisk Dublin night we follow Quilligan and his mate through some of the city's more famous drinking houses, as the two men tell stories about - and read from the works of - some of Ireland's most famous writers including Beckett, James Joyce and, of course, Oscar Wilde. As the two actors skate seamlessly in and out of character, there's a quiz along the way (it's amazing just how much Ulysses trivia a group of Arkansas undergraduates can absorb) and a re-creation of Dublin past.
One minute you're in the forecourt of Trinity College, shivering in the wind while listening to one of the university's most famous alumni, Wilde. The next you're under a dim street lamp as Quilligan and Reid play two beggars from the 1750s serenading passers-by.
Then it's on to Davy Byrnes, which won its fame, or infamy, as the "moral pub" in Ulysses - the saloon into which Leopold Bloom strolled before ordering the Gorgonzola sandwich with a glass of Burgundy. Beckett was a regular at Davy Byrnes during the 1930s. But well before he set foot in the place, the forefathers of the Irish free state - including Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith - were regulars there.
Most of the pubs we visit on the literary tour are away from Temple Bar, Dublin's tourist mecca and the scene for countless British bucks' and hens' nights every weekend. Which seems just as well, for most Dubliners will tell you that Temple Bar is actually "Dublin lite" and that, despite the homeliness and history of some of the pubs there, its marauding hordes are often best avoided on Friday and Saturday nights.
If it's traditional Irish pubs you want, you really don't need to wander far from the very centre of the city to find them. From Davy Byrnes, move on to McDaids, Nearys, the Stag's Head or nearby O'Neills - a corner pub with a stunning Victorian façade and a barman who chastised one man in my group for daring to order a Scotch whisky.
In his book, Quilligan recounts how doctors cautioned the poet Brendan Kennelly, an O'Neills regular, to stay out of the pub or face death within a year. "I had to think long and hard about that because a man can drink a hell of a lot in a year," Kennelly apparently remarked.
If you're still on your feet, it's worth visiting the enduringly elegant Shelbourne hotel on St Stephen's Green, the place de jour for politicians, visiting heads of state, artistic types, wheelers, dealers and celebrities since it first opened its doors in 1824. Don't be put off by the two Nubian princesses standing sentinel at the Shelbourne's doors - it's a welcoming place. The hotel played a prominent role in the Easter Uprising of 1916, after it was garrisoned by the British Army. British troops traded shots with the rebels in nearby St Stephen's Green while the independence fighters also holed up in the nearby General Post Office.
A walk down nearby Baggot Street leads to any number of small, intimate and very laid-back pubs - including Toner's and Doheny & Nesbitt - that are off the main tourist trail. Nearby, O'Donoghue's in Merrion Row is a lovely place in which to while away a wintry Sunday afternoon, although the alluring sounds of traditional Irish music can make it tough to find a seat.
You've probably figured out by now that the Irish are fond of a drink. To be sure, you're right. But what do they drink? Guinness is (reputedly at least) the nectar of the gods for many an Irishman. It's an acquired taste, they say. And I've tried. But even perfectly poured at just above room temperature in a centuries-old Dublin pub by a barmaid resembling one of the sisters from Clannad, Guinness just doesn't work for me. And apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way. While beer still accounts for the majority of the alcoholic drinks market in Ireland, wine consumption is growing rapidly.
If you like to sip rather than swill, the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the Irish Republic has plenty of options. A new Dublin of chic bars, small hotels and fine-dining restaurants has found a place within the old.
The 44-room Dylan, a boutique hotel tucked away on the edge of the city centre, is an exercise in quality over quantity. When we enter at dusk, the grand late Victorian building (once the nurses' quarters for the Royal City of Dublin Hospital) is all inviting warm and moody lighting, with candelabra reflected off glass and mirrors. The young, the not-so young and the most definitely beautiful mill about in the lounge, which features a bar fashioned from a single piece of pewter. You can get a Guinness here, of course. But you can also order a fine cocktail, a quality wine by the glass and a selection of excellent and reasonably priced bar food.
No two bedrooms are alike at the Dylan; some are a mélange of vivid colour and exuberance, while others are neutral and ultra-modern. All are superbly comfortable with giant beds, wireless internet and designer toiletries.
A short walk away is Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, a Dublin fixture for more than a quarter of a century that has come to be regarded as perhaps Ireland's finest restaurant. This two-Michelin-star restaurant serves understated modern cuisine using the freshest local seasonal produce. It's all crisp white linen and formal service, but there is nothing remotely stuck-up or stuffy about the experience. The food is earthy and unpretentious, beginning with the selection of excellent house-made bread and ending with petit fours. Try the signature lobster ravioli with fresh egg pasta, toasted almonds and split curry dressing somewhere in between.
By the time you return to the Dylan, the bar will truly be coming alive. Look out for the famous, for they favour this hotel and its bar.
While Dublin has always been known for its drinking opportunities, it is also a haven for those in need of retail therapy. The multistorey Stephen's Green shopping centre is home to many of the big brand-name fashion retailers. But for something different, wander the streets around Market Arcade in South Great George's Street and poke around the antique shops, bookshops and second-hand clothing stores.
By mid-afternoon, as an inky dusk begins to descend, the pubs around the retail centre will once again start to fill up. There's a reason for that. For there are few cosier, more inviting places to be at this time of day, with or without a Guinness.
  • Author: Paul Daley