Irish pubs — historically known as public houses — were the social and entertainment hub of the community, as well as refuge from passing rain showers, and in many places still serve these important functions. Traditionally they were a man’s domain, a place men could go to discuss politics and local happenings away from the family. More recently the gender bias has faded away, though as we discovered, a heavy imbalance in patronage remains.
Story telling, fiddle playing and singing often accompany a good drink, while the TVs, if any, are ignored until the occasional soccer or rugby match comes on. For many individuals the pub is a home away from home, the other regular patrons their extended family, and traditionally the pub owner was a central and well-respected figure in the community.
Studying the guidebooks, one cannot help but notice the emphasis placed on the pub experience. More ink is spilt describing where to find the best pubs, the best pub music and proper pub etiquette than on any other attraction or experience in Ireland.
The stereotypical Irish pub is named O’Conner’s, O’Donnels, O’Sheahans or the equivalent. At any given time, no matter how early in the day, has at least one or two very old men (usually drunk) bellied up to the bar (who may or may not be singing depending upon how many pints they have had), and in the evening serves as a magnet for local musicians, interested in trading a few tunes on the guitar or fiddle for a pint. The sign of a good pub is one with an elderly local in attendance, since one can expect they should know the best local pubs by this point in their life. Unlike some other expectations set by the guidebook, here it did not disappoint.
It was about 6 p.m. when we entered Mulligan’s Pub in search for a quick bite. The place was lifeless, except for the sole patron precariously perched on a bar stool enjoying a pint of Guinness and belting out the chorus of “You are the Wind Beneath My Wings” at the top of his lungs and with more heart and soul than Bette Midler on her best day. Not even the bartender was in sight — perhaps no coincidence. We were disappointed to discover there would be no dinner and a show, as this pub didn’t serve food and forced us to find the day’s ration of potatoes elsewhere.
Enticed by the rumor of a traditional music session, we stepped into the Kingdom bar a couple of nights later only to find a similar scene — but without the singing. A friendly local was enjoying his evening as the pub’s only customer by chatting with the proprietor/bartender, who also appeared to be a close friend by default.
Since the pub had long ago ended their weekly jam sessions when Ireland’s economy slowed during the Great Recession, we took advantage of his story telling propensities.
Wanting desperately to find some good, traditional Irish music (all too often we discovered Irish musicians playing popular American music), we surveyed the streets of Kilarney where among the various options we discovered two young men playing up-tempo Irish reels and jigs on the fiddle and guitar, with an occasional ballad thrown in the set-list. The pub owner politely interrupted them when it came time for the winner of the Rose of Tralee contest to be announced on TV. This contest is an annual event where representatives from across Ireland and Irish communities around the world compete to win the prestigious title and crown. The locals were a bit disappointed when Haley O’Sullivan from Texas won. I think it fair to assume they would have preferred she stay home and compete to be the Yellow Rose of Texas and left the Tralee contest to the local gals.
We did finally discover the traditional Irish music session we were searching for, the type where locals just show up to play each week for no compensation other than a couple of pints. Fiddle, accordion, guitar, tambourine, and a bodhrán (an Irish drum covered in goat skin) comprised the band once everybody had showed up and settled into the dimly lit corner of O’Sheahans pub.
After a bit of small talk the accordion player started in on a tune and the others joined as if they had rehearsed all week for this evening show. Within moments the entire pub was overwhelmed with the driving sound of rhythm guitar, the drone of the accordion and the smooth melody of the fiddle. This wasn’t just background music. Conversation ceased and everyone in the pub drew their full attention until the last note was drawn. At that time conversation would resume briefly while the musicians took a few sips of their brew and considered what tune to play next, and then the whole cycle would start over.
During one such break, a patron who appeared a little unsteady on his feet approached his friends in the corner and eventually convinced the accordion player to give him a turn at the squeezebox.
My low expectations were shattered when after a slow and groggy start this guy expertly squeezed out a quick reel, with the rest of the band joining in sync. After similar experiences elsewhere, you come to the conclusion that most everybody in Ireland can either play an instrument or sing a tune and they aren’t the least bit shy about sharing their talent, especially after a couple of pints.
In the two hours we were in attendance, we watched the skinny, 70-year old fiddle player down five pints of Guinness — each set before him by a bar patron as soon as he finished the last swallow of the previous pint. Meanwhile, the music never suffered in spite of it, and in-fact, makes me think that perhaps Guinness is the key ingredient — keeping those fingers loose and strings in tune. I am eager to test that hypothesis myself to see if a few pints might improve my own fiddling.
My description of the pubs, thus far, fails to recognize or consider the destructive effect alcohol and too much time and money spent at the pubs can have on families and individual persons. Pictures of Ireland often display rows of colorful houses. The joke is the houses were painted different colors so the man of the household could more easily find the right abode after a night at the pub.
While there is another side to this story, the Irish (and guidebooks for that matter) emphasize the good cultural aspects of pub life and for better or worse make light humor of the less glamorous past rather than dwell on and take offense at the drunken Irishman stereotype and underlying reasons for it.
I must admit we didn’t find any bagpipers in the pubs, and thank goodness. We might have left our hearing in Ireland if we had. That’s the only instrument I could think of that came close to starting with a “p” to give this piece a clever and catchy title. Luckily the pipers were relegated to performing on the streets for mere pocket change.
And no, I did not take my own fiddle. I knew I wasn’t prepared to keep apace to these pub house professionals. Those ambitions will have to wait for the next trip.
Slán go foil.
Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa