Poets and pubs in Dublin


 Dublin’s fair city has changed in recent years. Cranes have come to dominate its skyline and people of all hues – Polish, Chinese and African as well as Irish – now throng its streets.

Yet one essential aspect remains the same. Dublin still has its literary heritage, a heritage that revolves around poets, pints and pubs.

If Parisian writers were inspired by café life, their counterparts in Dublin sharpened their wits and honed their stories in pubs. Brendan Behan and his barroom banter; Patrick Kavanagh nursing a pint and contemplating poetry in McDaid’s – two examples of writers seeking solace in the atmosphere, characters and companionship to be found in the pubs of Dublin.

This led me to thinking: if I wanted to discover more about Irish writers and delve deeper into the literary life of Dublin, perhaps the best way of finding out was to follow their trail through the pubs of the city.

This is exactly what I did on Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl. This tour offers a new perspective on the city, the hostelries that line its streets and the characters that once frequented them.

“There have always been pub crawls in Dublin,” says Colm Quilligan, a Dublin-born actor who started giving this tour 21 years ago. “Trinity students had a reputation for rampaging through the city’s taverns as far back as the 17th century.”

But rampaging is not what Colm has in mind for his tour. Instead, he promises an experience that is “not too drunk and not too sober.” He and his fellow actor Frank will lead us through the streets of Dublin, regaling us with theatrical performances and entertaining tales of Joyce, Beckett, Behan and others along the way. 

We start in the upstairs room of the Duke Pub. There are six of us on this cold November night – two Americans (a former writer with the Wall Street Journal and her son), a Polish librarian living in Dublin, two German students of Irish literature, and me.

We gather around as Colm kicks off the tour with a song. “A ballad is a living ghost that longs for a living voice,” he says, quoting from poet Brendan Kennelly before launching into a rendition of “Waxie’s Dargle.” His sidekick Frank encourages us to join in and before long, the entire group are singing loudly.

Colm and Frank then tell us a little about the Duke Pub. Dating back to the 18th century, it has quite an illustrious history.

Early in the 1900s, the Kiernan family from Longford bought the pub. Kitty, one of the family’s daughters, went on to become Michael Collins’ fiancée and this pub became one of his safe houses in the city as a result.

More recently, Paul Hewson – now known as Bono – used to be a regular.

But back to the present and our evening’s entertainment. Donning bowler hats, Frank and Colm perform an excerpt from Waiting for Godot. Their professional acting skills shine through as they bring the humor and pathos of this play to life. Afterwards, they make us laugh by telling us of the reaction to the Beckett play when it was first performed. One reviewer described it as a play “in which nothing happens, twice.” 

More funny stories follow with tales of James Joyce and his early life in Dublin.  Frank tells us how Joyce propositioned Nora Barnacle (the woman he jokingly refers to as “the only one who would stick to him”) and ended up embracing her amorously in a rhododendron bush in Howth. A few days later, Joyce tried the same trick with another woman, not noticing that she was already accompanied by a suitor. The man punched Joyce to the ground and he had to be rescued by a passing Jewish gentleman. Apparently, it was in recognition of this stranger’s act of kindness that Joyce made Leopold Bloom, the main character of Ulysses, Jewish. 

We leave the warmth of the Duke and venture out into the freezing cold and the cobbled squares of nearby Trinity College. Shivering under the bell tower, which marks the cornerstone of this 400-year-old university, Frank and Colm recount some of its history. 

Built in 1592, Trinity was initially a school of divinity. “Students were supposed to rise at 6 a.m. for prayers,” says Frank. “But they were better known for drunkenness and debauchery.”

This was still the case when Oliver Goldsmith attended in 1744, Oscar Wilde in 1872 and Beckett in 1920. All honed their drinking skills here.

To illustrate Wilde’s prodigious drinking ability, Frank tells a tale of his tour to the U.S.  Wilde visited Leadville, CO, a mining town that was home to the biggest bordello in America, where there was little interest in his lecture on art and aesthetics. The miners challenged him to a drinking competition. They drank whiskey in the mines, expecting him to fail miserably. Instead, Wilde was the last man standing and had to learn how to operate the lift in order to bring them back up to the surface.