An ode to Ireland: Irish life maintains the wonderful tradition of the local pub


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My husband likes to say I whined and dined my way through Ireland when we spent our honeymoon there almost 25 years ago. It was a different place then, still in the grip of well-deserved stereotypes. Wherever we went, no matter how much we paid, the same soggy meal followed us around. You would think the Irish would have at least 1,000 ways to prepare potatoes, given that they're the national vegetable of sorts. But no, they just boiled them. And having not one drop of Irish blood in my veins, I might never have returned except that our daughter decided to spend a semester at Trinity College in Dublin.

So off we went with a grand plan to show her the countryside and retrace our route -- the Ring of Kerry, through the rocky Connemara to Galway and back to Dublin on a diagonal. Much had changed in the intervening years. The economic boom had created new jobs, new housing and best of all, many excellent new restaurants of every ethnicity. The bust that followed has undone some things -- we passed entire residential projects abandoned in mid-construction and the unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent -- but the dining scene remains much improved.

What hadn't seem affected in any way was the hearty pub fare or indeed, the pub life of Ireland. It's a rich tradition on so many levels that has evolved with the times yet stays culturally intact.

Unlike bars -- hardly the American equivalent -- pubs are not only socially acceptable but the hub of social life. From the friendly neighborhood joints to the tony tavern in Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel, from the student spots to the tourist traps in Temple Bar, there is a pub for every reason and every season.

My personal theory is that the constant cold and damp drives people to drink. There is nothing as welcome as a stiff scotch and a roaring fire late on a dreary afternoon. Especially as a visitor who has spent hours tramping around or trying to find a parking space, there is great relief in plopping down in an aged room and giving up the ghost of the day.

That this has been going on for centuries is apparent from the look of many places. Shabby chic seems to have been invented in Ireland, where some of the finest pubs boast threadbare furnishings and wall decor that spans generations. The charm is in the well-worn welcome they offer, and in the camaraderie of the clientele. There wasn't a pub we entered where a greeting wasn't extended, be it a nod, a smile or a full-on hello. The distinctive aroma of spilled Guinness was as pervasive as the creaky odor of old wood and cracked leather. But it's the warmth I remember most.

I watched two elderly ladies drink their beers without the least sense of urgency, engaged deeply in conversation with their shopping bags at their feet. They had friendship and the time to enjoy it, two luxuries fast becoming obsolete in this age of Facebook and texting. Why meet when you can tweet?

A family gathered on a Saturday afternoon for lunch in a small pub in Dingle, the kids horsing around while they waited for their food, the parents chatting with friends at the next table. Yes, they have fast food in Ireland, but speed doesn't seem to be the issue. Easy, inexpensive meals and a convivial place to enjoy them is what a pub is all about, at least before 10 p.m. or so. After that it's a different story, but not much different.

In Killarney one night, we entered what seemed to be the local hot spot. Three musicians played Irish traditional music with such sorrow and longing even I began to weep for a history that wasn't mine. The pub was packed with people of every age. Older couples had their pints at tables by the fire. The girls in incredibly high platforms and even higher skirts congregated in the back, by the boys. Students and young adults wearing the requisite long scarves sat in clusters, discussing who knows what but with great intensity. It was a Wednesday or Thursday -- not a weekend -- and people were out having fun.

Perhaps this was a tame pub, for though there were some visibly drunk customers, they were in the minority. The student pubs around Grafton Street in Dublin had a different clientele, ranging from rowdy to Joyceian, and the packed tourist pubs with their cheesy Irish music and mostly American imbibers, yet another. You can find country and western pubs, folk music pubs and sleekly minimal cocktail pubs, but the most common are the neighborhood variety like the one in Killarney, the French cafes of Ireland.

The one thing they all have in common is big business on St. Patrick's Day, a national holiday since 1903. More than 1 million visitors descend upon Dublin for what is basically a day of drinking. The shops are filled year round with green merchandise of every persuasion and degree of tackiness. Leprechaun masks with red beards and green top hats seem to be especially popular, as is anything with a shamrock or green hair. The pubs serve green beer, and it flows like lava through the streets where many of them are clustered. The crowds drink it as they push and surge to see the parade, the centerpiece of the celebration. Floats and bands, celebrities and dignitaries and protesters, 4,000 performers including dance troupes from around the word, a carnival, a citywide party! And the last man standing is ... probably sober.

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Marylnn Uricchio: muricchio@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1582.


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