October 17, 2021

Of poets and pints: a literary pub crawl in Dublin

Let me start this story with a couple of “bet you didn’t know” bits of trivia: author and playwright Oscar Wilde played boxing for his alma mater, Trinity College. And Oliver Goldsmith, of The Vicar of Wakefield fame, also wrote the popular nursery rhymes Jack & Jill and Hickory Dickory Dock.

I know these interesting tidbits because of an evening in Dublin spent on a pub crawl, punctuated by not just pit stops for beer but also generous amounts of information about the city’s poets and authors. The Dublin literary pub crawl is the perfect mix of everything the city has to offer: history, architecture, green open spaces and literature, all of it washed down by pint after pint of glorious beer.

Actors

After all, Dublin has produced four Nobel Prize winners for literature (William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney). And it has been home to literary greats like James Joyce, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. In a nod to this rich heritage, Dublin is a designated UNESCO city of literature.

And on the other hand, Dublin is also home to over 850 pubs. As the joke goes, “How do you cross the city without passing a pub?” The answer, credited to James Joyce, “Go into every one of them.” Pubs were, and still are, to Dublin what coffee houses were to Vienna – social and cultural hubs. And for many writers, their favourite watering hole was a haven and sometimes even a muse.

We cannot, of course, go into every one of them this evening, but the aim is to get us into atleast a few pubs with literary associations. I reach The Duke at 7 pm sharp, all ready to start crawling my way through Dublin’s pubs. Colm Quilligan, the brains behind this literary pub crawl says, “At the end, you won’t be too drunk, but you won’t be too sober either.” And on that promising note, the pub crawl begins.

The group – about ten of us, mostly Americans – meet in the “snug” on the first floor of The Duke, a room that is just as small and cozy as the name suggests. Every pub has a snug, although the idea is redundant now. Till the middle of the 20th century, women were barred from entering pubs, a rule supported by the Roman Catholic Church to “prevent the spread of vice.” It was only when the men went away to war – in the 1940s – that women were grudgingly allowed into these hallowed premises, and even then only in a small, segregated area called the snug.

The Duke

Colm and his colleague Frank get the audience to loosen up a bit with their rendition of the Waxie’s Dargle, a traditional Irish folk song about local candle-makers. Then they don black bowler hats and enact a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, ending with a quote from a London reviewer at the time it was first performed, “The only play ever seen in which nothing happens – twice.”

While the Irish take great pride in their famous literary works, they are not beyond laughing at them too. The duo then act out a bar brawl from Ulysses, claiming that this is the most familiar scene from this quintessential Irish novel, “since it is in the first chapter, and few people get beyond it.”

Performance

From The Duke, we head out as a motley procession towards Trinity College, which Colm calls “a cultural stop without a drink.” Standing in the front courtyard facing the grand buildings, he talks about its illustrious students, including Oscar Wilde. The writer hated the college, referring to his classmates as a “dreadful lot” and dropped out to study at Oxford instead. But during his days at the college, he refined his drinking skills, following in the footsteps of others like Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Beckett before him.

Trinity College

Our next stop, which Colm declares a “drinking stop without culture,” is O’Neills, housed in a beautiful Victorian building. This bar is filled with locals and tourists, drinking away after a hard day’s work. The vibe is warm and friendly, and the pub itself is a warren of several tiny rooms and nooks (including, of course, a snug). There has been a pub in some form at this same spot for over 300 years, with a reputation for serving some of the best beer in the city. Another of Colm’s colleagues, Jessica, joins us here.

By the time we leave O’Neills, a few pints of Guinness have gone down among the group, and while we are not actually crawling yet, we are walking very slowly. Although the origin of the term “pub crawl” is from another university town, Cambridge, Colm says, “There have always been pub crawls in Dublin, even way back in the 17th century, when Trinity students went rampaging through the city’s taverns, narrating from the works of classical Greek and Latin poets.”

ONeills

Colm should know, given that he founded this modern version of the pub crawl over 20 years ago. This one comes off as a great experience since the guides are all professional actors, with a passion for literature. Not surprisingly, this literary pub crawl is one of the most popular activities for any visitor to the city, and ranked high on the Sunday Times’ list of the world’s 50 best walks.

From O’Neills, we walk across to the Protestant St. Andrews Church, built in 1665 but closed in the 1980s thanks to dwindling patronage. Today, it serves as the Dublin Tourism Office, still providing guidance to the masses, although not of a spiritual nature. On the pavement outside the erstwhile church, Colm and Jessica perform a hilarious scene from Strumpet City, James Plunkett’s story about a massive industrial strike in the early 20th century, known simply as the Lockout.

The scene is about a dialogue between two of the strikers, Toucher Hennessy and Rashers Tierney, both begging on the street for a spot of beer money. Rashers gives Toucher a quick lesson on spotting the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, so he could customise his appeal. Colm and Jessica live the parts with their gestures and accents, taking us back to a time of great strife in Dublin.

Toucher

Following that is another halt for more beer and more stories at The Old Stand, once a haunt for political activists and now favoured by professionals in finance and law. Our final stop for the night is at Davy Byrnes, a trendy bar now, known for being featured in several scenes in Ulysses. Its other claim to fame is that Samuel Beckett lived in a room above it during his student days at Trinity. However, I like Davy Byrnes best as the pub where novelist Brendan Behan uttered his famous line about him being a “drinker with a writing problem.”

Through the walk and the pub stops, Colm has been throwing pop quiz questions at us (including the ones about Wilde’s university sport and Goldsmith’s nursery rhymes). Finally, in front of Davy Byrnes, the winners get coveted Dublin Pub Crawl T-shirts as prizes. Of course, most of us stay back for that one last pint at Davy Byrnes and exchange of notes about the experience. It has been a long – and entertaining – walk and I am glad to rest my feet. But I cannot complain; Colm had warned us that the whole thing takes over two hours “depending on how fast you walk and how slow you drink.”

Davy Byrnes

QUICK FACTS

Getting there: Fly to Dublin on Jet Airways, connecting via Abu Dhabi with partner airline Etihad.

Accommodation: Stay at The Fitzwilliam, located close to the main shopping areas. The cozy Brooks Hotel is another popular choice, also ideally situated for shopping and eating options.

For more information: log on to http://www.dublinpubcrawl.com

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This was published in the July issue of Jet Wings International – see it in pdf form here

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