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

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

The Galway gal

I spent my first evening at Galway going on a long long walk to kick a wall. Not that I was particularly angry or frustrated; I was just following local tradition by marking my presence at the end of Prom, the promenade that runs right along the sea at Salthill suburb.

Galway HookerOn that leisurely amble, I realised what the Irish mean when they say, “If you don’t like the weather in Ireland, don’t fret. Just wait for a minute and it will change.” Sure enough, it was bright and sunny when I set out from my hotel in the centre of town and cut through Eyre Square. Couples stretched out languidly on the grass reading or just soaking in the mild summer sun. Mothers watched over their playing kids as tourists stood in groups gawking at the rusting fountain modeled after the Galway Hooker (nothing improper about it; it is just the name for the traditional fishing boat of the area).

I was clutching at a map, strictly unnecessary since Galway is a small town in which it is tough to get lost. The weather gods continued to smile on me as I walked through the imaginatively named High Street and Shop Street, open only to pedestrians. The narrow shopping lanes suddenly opened up on to the Corrib river, another hotspot for the locals who were out in full force, feeding the swans who cannily stayed close to the banks.

“They are enjoying one of the six sunny days that Ireland gets in a year,” said Mark who fell in step with me as I headed towards the Claddagh and then the promenade. By the time I got to the wall (which I duly kicked), the sky had turned an ominous grey and the rain came down as fierce, fat drops.

River Corrib

Mark was a music teacher at the local college; music is the soul of Galway, a town whose rhythm is set by a young population. Of these, over a quarter are students. Seeing my interest in traditional music, he pointed me to the Tig Cóilí pub, the perfect place to listen to good Irish music (and seek shelter from the persistent, annoying rain). My first time alone in a pub, I was immediately embraced by the warmth of the locals and the pulse of the music.

Lonely Planet calls it a gem (as I discovered much later, after I had returned home), “Two live céilidh a day draw the crowds to this authentic fire-engine-red pub, just off High Street. It’s where musicians go to get drunk or drunks go to become musicians…” If Galway is called the most Irish of all Ireland’s cities, then I would call Tig Cóilí my most Irish experience in that country.

Trad music

Tig Colii

The next morning, I set off on a walking tour with Fiona Brennan, a Londoner married to a local and living there for many years now. Through Fiona’s stories, the medieval walls and buildings of Galway, so far hidden behind the shops and pubs, suddenly became visible. I also found out that several common English expressions such as “lynch mob” and “not giving the time of day” have their origins in this city.

Galway, now one of the fastest growing towns in Europe, has a history dating back to 1124. The name is believed to derive from the Gaelic word ‘Gaillimh,’ which literally translates to “fort at the mouth of the stony river”. Today, it is also the heart of Ireland’s cultural activities, hosting the Arts Festival, the Comedy Festival, the Jazz Festival and the Oyster Festival, among others every year. And at the entrance of the main shopping district, there is a statue dedicated to one of Ireland’s favourite sons, Oscar Wilde in conversation with Estonian writer Eduard Vilde.

After the guided walk, I explored Galway on my own some more, revisiting the places Fiona had pointed out. My favourite part was the Latin Quarter, the neighbourhood with the liveliest boutiques, pubs and hostels. Most of the buildings on this stretch had brightly painted facades and even at that time of the morning, there were a few buskers strumming on their guitars. The meandering cobblestoned streets had a laidback European feel about them, enhanced by the al fresco cafés lining the sides.

Galway lanes1

Galway lanes2

When I went to Galway, I was intrigued by the fact that it had been voted among the world’s sexiest cities a few years ago. Locals, including Fiona Brennan, had not heard about it and were surprised when I brought it up. After a couple of days wandering its lanes, I found my answer in Galway’s youthful Bohemian vibe, its pulsating music scene and undeniably cheeky Irish sense of humour.

Another day, I headed towards the Cliffs of Moher on the Wild Atlantic Way, counted among Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. Over a million people visit the cliffs every year and it was easy to see why this is one of the ‘Signature Experiences’ on this 2500 kilometre route along the Atlantic Ocean. The cliffs rise to over 700 feet at their highest point, and stretch for eight kilometres. At several places, it is a straight vertical drop to the raging ocean below; a few daredevils stood on tiny ledges posing for photographs, imagining themselves on Titanic movie posters.

I spent a couple of hours walking on the narrow path, trying to locate the three Aran Islands in the distance. Nothing could spoil the tranquility of that experience: not the cacophony of the seagulls, not the rush of the tourists with their mobile phones. As I made my way back down towards the Visitor Centre, local musician Tina had just started her session with her harp. As her clear voice soared to the skies, I closed my eyes to savour that moment.

Cliffs of Moher

And on that lovely, sunny morning (in Ireland, it is difficult not to talk about the weather), I knew that there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be.

FACT FILE

Getting there: The nearest airport is Dublin, from where Galway is roughly three hours away by bus (available at the airport and can be booked online).

Other places to visit: Limerick is the other big city close to Galway and Ireland’s first Capital of Culture for 2014, with lots of fun events scheduled through the year. The Wild Atlantic Way drive is a stunning route of 2500 kilometres on Ireland’s West Coast, perfect for a self-drive holiday.

No rhyme or reason

I had not been in Limerick for an hour before someone mentioned Angela’s Ashes. The most famous book to come out of this city is the depressing story of a poor, dank, Catholic Limerick from the 1940s. And I had gone there, fully expecting to feel as dejected as I did when I first read it as an unsuspecting teenager.

Instead what I found on its streets was this signboard:

The Limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks up to the slums,
And promptly becomes,
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

This could easily be a description of the current mood of the city too: fun, boisterous, and ready to become drunk and disorderly at the wee drop of a Guinness. Add to it the words young and prosperous, and you will know why I was happy to be there that spring evening.

This is Limerick’s year in the limelight, chosen to be Ireland’s first homegrown Capital of Culture. And from everything I have seen in the past, European Capital of Culture cities preen endlessly and go on public relations rampages.

Limerick, on the other hand, sits quietly, refusing to take any of it seriously. And I mean it in the best possible way. At an informal press meet, CEO of this project Mike Fitzpatrick was asked about how Limerick was chosen. And Mike, also director of the Limerick School of Art and Design – cue long hair and twinkling eyes – said, “Oh, there was some talk of an Irish Capital of Culture and we put our hands up, and here we are.”

For all that nonchalance, they have their eyes set firmly on the larger target: European Capital of Culture for 2020. Mike and his team have put together hundreds of events and exhibitions through the year, some extending into the next. In early September, the Royal de Luxe came to Limerick for a three day-and-night romp through the streets. The world’s largest street theatre company arrived with a float – The Giant’s Journey – telling the story of an Irish Grandmother Giant.

The Giants Journey
(image courtesy: Limerick City of Culture website)

My favourite event though, which happened over the weekend I spent in the city, was the Culture and Chips Carnival. You tell me, how can you not adore a city that equates fried potatoes with culture? And creates an event around it during what is possibly one of the most significant years in its modern history.

So the Salon Perdu, a massive circus style European mirror tent (Spiegeltent) was set up in the heart of Limerick. For almost a century now, these tents have been used as travelling dance and entertainment halls. Marlene Dietrich has performed there and Marilyn Monroe loved it. And history may – or more likely, may not – say that I have eaten there. For, that evening, I joined a few hundred other people at a formal dinner hosted at the Spiegeltent. Think beet chips with goat cheese, beef chips and mushroom toast, crafts beers and local wines. The dinner ended with music provided by local rock bands, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

Salon Perdu

Spiegeltent

Over that weekend, Lema Murphy emerged chip champ at the World Chip Championships, with her triple cooked chips with a baked bean and bacon sauce, served with a deep fried egg yolk on the side. And judges spoke of seeking participants with a passion for the potato. As I said, my kind of place.

But the Capital of Culture project is not just about food. There is a lot of investment in art, on the streets and in the city museums. The EVA International Project, Ireland’s Biennale of contemporary art, has this time around been brought under the umbrella of the Capital of Culture. The theme, not surprising for Ireland perhaps, given its recent violent history, is Agitationism. There are installations everywhere, in traditional venues such as the Limerick City Gallery of Art and in quirky spaces such as a former milk plant.

So there was total cultural immersion, walking among these installations, in a somewhat bemused manner (modern art being modern art). Then we were taken on a whirlwind tour through the fabulous Hunt Museum, one of Ireland’s largest private collections of art and antiques. And at St. John’s Castle, I amused myself posing for photographs behind heavy duty armour suits – hail fellow, helmet – and playing interactive video games, all in the name of understanding 800 years of Limerick’s dramatic past. Before you judge me, remember, there is only so much culture anyone can imbibe in one morning.

Later that afternoon, there was the incident of what came to be known in our group as Twice Backwards On The Shannon. This Limerick story practically wrote itself as I stepped out of the Shannon river, adrenalin pumping, fingers shaking, bodysuit dripping. My maiden kayaking adventure and I found myself going backwards on the rapids (ok, in hindsight, they were not that rapid but hey) not once but twice. The second time was when I saw that my fellow kayakers, bloody showoffs who had likely been doing this all their lives, had smoothly got themselves to the shore. And I let down my guard, happy in the thought that one more box in my long list called ‘adventure activities’ was marked, never to have to be repeated.

Just when I started paddling towards the bank – and the inviting warmth of our team leader Dave’s van parked there – I felt myself being pulled back by the strong currents. Not a good time to remember everything we had discussed earlier in the day: that the Shannon is Ireland’s longest river, not far from the Atlantic Ocean and that at low tide, the currents get rather rough. To cut a long story short, Dave had to pull me ashore and to my acute embarrassment, has documented it all on his nifty camera.

Kayaking

This is not to say I hated it all. After the initial ten minutes of sheer terror, I found myself relaxing and waving a cheery hullo to the swans gliding by my kayak, perhaps attracted by the bright green colour. I even seem to remember a brief spell of time when I was fearless enough to let Dave – bless his patient heart – out of my sight. And co-kayakers say (although like Aamir Khan in Ghajini, I have no memory of it now, since there exist no tattoos, or photos of the moment), I even let go of my paddle and played a ball game with the gang once.

There is something to be said about seeing a city from the water; not from the comfort of a cushioned seat, as a guide drones on about the buildings you cross but wedged tight in a canoe, paddling on for dear life. Medieval castles and bridges loom large in the horizon, making you feel very small and strangely excited.

St Johns Castle

However, of all the Capital of Culture events, the one I cherished was the choral festival called Limerick Sings at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The 12th century Cathedral is the oldest living building in town, used for both daily church service and community events such as this choir festival. During my quick visit earlier in the day, it was a quiet and dignified place of worship with stunning stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers.

Come evening, as locals and tourists together headed there, the Cathedral turned into a spectacular venue, with the chandeliers lit up and the voices of the choir singers soaring into the tall ceilings. And you know the best part? Beginning with the devout Lassus Scholars, soon joined by spiritual musician Nóirín Ní Riain, who glided in through the aisles playing what seemed like a small Indian harmonium, and then the choir groups all the way from Minnesota, they all seemed like they were having great fun.

Cathedral

Limerick Sings
(image courtesy: Tourism Ireland)

Limerick today is a big University town and there are crowds of young people everywhere – on the streets, in the outdoor cafés and in the pubs. And as you would expect from any young self-respecting Irish person, they are drinking beer. There’s nothing left of the impoverished, miserable city that McCourt wrote of; Angela’s ashes have long been scattered into the wind. And there is no better time to be in Limerick.

Limerick

THE INFORMATION

Getting there: Fly Jet Airways or Etihad out of Mumbai (Rs. 33,000) or Delhi (Rs. 35,000) to Dublin via Abu Dhabi. You can take a coach from Dublin Airport to Limerick (more frequent services from downtown; 3hrs; about 200km; from €10; dublincoach.ie), or take the frequent 747 bus to Heuston Station to board a train to the Limerick Junction (from €14.99; irishrail.ie).

Visa: Visa for travel to The Republic of Ireland is processed in seven working days (Rs. 5,000 for single entry and Rs. 8,300 for multiple entry; 022-67866033, vfs-ireland.co.in). Holders of a valid short term visa for UK don’t need a separate visa for travel to Ireland although the Irish Short Stay Visa Waiver Programme requires they travel first to the UK for immigration check. This programme doesn’t amount to a common UK and Irish visa regime (and the possession of an Irish visa does not allow travellers to enter the UK). Travel to Northern Ireland is governed by additional regulations. The British- Irish Visa Scheme, expected to become effective from December 2014, will allow visitors from China and India to travel to Ireland and UK on a single visa, though they would have to travel first to the country that issued the visa.

Stay: The Savoy is Limerick’s best address, located in the middle of the shopping district and within walking distance of all attractions; rooms from €109.

Trivia: The name Limerick has nothing to do with the poem with the format AABBA but derives from the Gaelic word Luimneach meaning ‘bare ground.’ However, there is a theory that the poetry form got its name due to its popularity in Irish bars and public houses many centuries ago.

***
An edited version of this story was published in the November issue of Outlook Traveller – read it online here

Friday photo: Cliffs of Moher

Just returned from a short trip to the Republic of Ireland, where I visited Dublin, Galway and Limerick. I managed to go on a drive on part of the Wild Atlantic Way to the Cliffs of Moher.

In Ireland, they say “if you don’t like the weather, just wait for a minute; it will change.”

Although the day started off grey and gloomy, the rain stayed away and it actually turned sunny by the time I was ready to leave the cliffs. As I was walking down towards the car park, I ran into Tina singing and playing on the harp. A beautiful song for Ireland…

Cliffs of Moher

***
Also see: Friday photo series