And now for something completely different.
In some ways, this business of doing pub reviews is a sort of racket. A native born Dubliner has imprinted upon his DNA a Platonic Ideal of the perfect pub and they can tell how close any pub is to the Ideal just by looking at a matchbook cover with the its name on it. Pub reviews are for tourists; especially American tourists.
But how are tourists to know what the real Dubliner’s criteria are for the perfect pub? For Americans, the answer would seem deceptively simple since most pubs in Ireland are now modeled after Irish pubs in America. And just as the Dubliners were able to imitate perfectly the British “Bar” down to the large potted plants, the red flocked wallpaper, and the two waiters ignoring you while they chat in the back, all Dublin pubs seem authentic to Americans right down to the old farm tools, the Guinness signs nailed to the wall, and the festive paper shamrocks hanging off the light fixtures. But there are significant if subtle differences between a good pub and a bad pub if we look at them as a Dubliner would. Although I am not a native born Dubliner, after several years of personal research I have been able to discover the five crucial things a Dubliner looks for in a good pub.
1. Does the cellar have a low ceiling?
The Dublin brewing industry has been very successful at spreading the nonsense that when a barman pours a “traditional” stout or ale, he is “pulling” it up from a keg kept cooling in the cellar. This is supposed to account for why a professional Dublin bartender’s right arm is always much larger than his left and why “premium” stouts and ales command much higher prices.
In fact, what every true Dubliner knows is that the long handles on the tap are simply connected to a bell in the cellar. When the barkeep pulls the bell, a bar maid pours your stout from a bucket down below and then makes her way with it up some steps.
Those pints the bartender puts on the bar in front of you that are fizzing 90 percent head are actually electrical devices meant to distract you during this process, and are made by the same people who make Lava Lamps. Before the bartender actually hands you your beer, he puts the electrical device down on the rail and then the bar maid hands him the real beer up from a trap door at his feet. The reason that you want the cellar ceiling to be low, of course, is because a low ceiling means fewer steps. This is not only important because you get your drink faster. It is also a fact that Dublin Municipal Law requires the job of Cellar Wench to go to the bar maid with the most seniority, which generally means the oldest and slowest person in the house. Fewer steps means that it is more likely that she will make it all the way to the top as the evening wears on and she begins to get more and more sloshed. (Now you know why it takes longer and longer to get a pint as the evening progresses.) Finally, pub owners like fewer steps for insurance purposes; it becomes less likely that the drunken old lush will break a hip if she takes a header. This helps keeps prices down.
2. Are there nice large sinks in the Gents’?
The Ladies’ Rooms in Dublin pubs are all impossible and hardly worth talking about. Dublin pubs weren’t even required to have Ladies’ Rooms until The Great Dublin Pub Reform of 1986. Before that time, pubs had what was called a “snug”, a small private enclosed drinking area next to the bar where a woman could relieve herself if necessary into an empty pint glass. Ladies’ Rooms were only grudgingly added thereafter and all of them are inadequate. This is why one of the jobs of the “designated driver” on a Dublin woman’s night out is to stand in line next to the Ladies’ all night, so that the drinking members of the party have at least a sporting chance of getting into the loo before sheer desperation makes them sneak out into the parking lot. This also explains why in Dublin so many drunken men are married to teetotaling women. The area in front of the Ladies Room is a good place to meet these women and since the men have to pass through it in order to use the Gents’ anyway, they can often kill two birds with one stone.
Now it is in the Gents’ where one realizes that despite many decades of women’s liberation in Dublin, a pub is still really a man’s country. The first thing you see in a Dublin Gents’ is a long trough for the micturation function and a single toilet stall somewhere in the back for show. Dublin Pissing Trough Technology (PTT) has advanced light years since the days when flushing the trough would cause a cascade of water to pour over the tops of your shoes, which was a primitive but necessary and effective way of rinsing them off. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing; pissing on other people’s shoes was a way people in the pub would express friendship and solidarity in those days before Dublin joined the EU. Nowadays, of course, no one urinates on anyone’s shoes any more, at least as a rule. In fact, if you want to experience the old-fashioned custom of having a stranger pee on your shoes, there are only two places in Dublin where you can go. The first is any sports bar that has televisions mounted at each end of the trough showing separate sporting events. There you will have yourself pissed on inadvertently as the men standing next to you try to watch both televisions at the same time. The second place where you can have a truly authentic experience (as in so many other ways) is at Grogan’s Castle Lounge on James Street. There, people piss on whomever they want, and you have the added attraction that the person pissing on your shoes might well be an artist, poet, or famous author.
But what about the sinks that I mentioned?
Though trough urinals are very flexible and one built for eight men can, in a pinch, accommodate sixteen, twenty four, or even thirty five at once, their capacity is not unlimited. I can still remember the time that I went to the Gents’ of a very busy pub in Dún Laoghaire and saw twenty men at the trough and at least four men at each sink. So it turns out that having large enough sinks is essential for overflow purposes, especially at the last mad rush before time is called when you have to dash in and go, and then get back to your table in time to order the last three pints of the evening.
(I am not, saying, incidentally, that because Dubliners piss in the sinks that you shouldn’t wash your hands in the Gents’ in a Dublin pub. I’m only saying that you shouldn’t wash them in the sink.)
3. What kind of charitable opportunities are available?
It is widely known that any money that a Dubliner doesn’t spend on drink he donates to charity. This is why there are so many Irish saints. Any pub worth its salt will have a number of collection jars behind the bar where the drinker is invited to demonstrate their spontaneous generosity. A lack of these implies a cruel and tight fisted publican who is probably also watering the beer. My personal favorite collection container is in the shape of a life boat, apparently from some organization that is trying to reduce the number of drownings in Dublin by giving a rowboat to every swimmer.
The intent of these collection jars is often misunderstood by the American tourist, who thinks they are some kind of fancy tip jar. But when you get five cents back from your drink order of eight pints and you tell the bartender to “keep the change” and he tosses it into the lifeboat, he isn’t saying “thanks for the tip”. He’s saying “piss off.”
4. Does James Joyce have any relationship whatsoever with the pub?
Dublin sometimes seems crammed full of pubs that James Joyce drank in, walked past, or wrote about somebody walking past. A pub that has to advertise itself on the basis of someone who has not had a drink of any sort for 75 years is simply pathetic and the real Dubliner avoid these places like the plague. Remember that James Joyce himself avoided them by emigrating. If these particular pubs were so damned great, he would have stayed in Dublin.
5. Is the chaos enough at closing time that I can walk off with my half full glass?
Parting is such sweet sorrow. When the publican has given you the five minute to closing warning and after you have banged down two and a half pints in three minutes flat, you may find yourself inclined to take your time with the last half pint. But you may run out of time and the barmen may begin clearing the pub with whips and chairs before you are finished. In a Dublin pub, while you can leave your false teeth behind on a plate and forget to take your shoes, you are not allowed under any circumstances to leave any amount of alcoholic libation behind you in a glass on a table.
So when you can’t force that last bit down; when it sticks in your craw like lumpy clam chowder, is the publican a tight-wad who will make you force it down anyway, perhaps offering to give it a little shove with a wooden spoon handle? Or is he a generous warm hearted person who will look the other way when you stagger out the front door holding the remnants of your precious brew?
The best thing about pubs that let you walk out with the glass is this: After you yourself have spent a night out and watched three of your own pints go arse over heels down the cellar stairs; and someone behind you has peed on the back of your head because the sinks in the Gents were too small to handle the overflow crowds; and the bartender not only took your five cents but bit the coin first and held it up to the light before throwing it in your face; and when the photo staring at you from across the bar all evening turns out not to be John F Kennedy as you first thought but James Joyce himself, and the seat that he is sitting in and glaring at you from is the very seat you are sitting on yourself and the plate of rashers curdling in from of him is the very same plate of rashers curdling in front of you at that very moment, you may stagger out onto the pavement with glassless hand looking for a new place to go the next night. And all you have to do is follow upstream those patrons walking towards you with glasses in their hands. Like an Irish salmon, swim up this stream until you find yourself a new spawning ground where you can rest in the tall reeds under the shade of the trees.