Teeth chattering, we weave our way through a maze of narrow streets to O’Neill’s Pub. There has been a pub here on Suffolk Street for more than 300 years. The latest incarnation is a Victorian building that houses a warren of interlocking rooms. Some of these are snugs – small alcoves that used to be set aside specifically for women but are now used by those seeking privacy.
Poets Michael Longley and Brendan Kennelly and writer Brian Keenan used to be regulars in O’Neill’s. Their pictures adorn the walls and we sip our drinks and soak in the warmth as Frank and Colm tell us all about them.
Before long, it’s time to move on again, this time to St. Andrew’s Church. Built on the site of the first Viking parliament in Dublin and formerly a Protestant church, it is now the city’s tourist office.
It is also the perfect setting for one of the highlights of the tour. It’s here, on the steps of the church, that Frank and Colm perform a passage from James Plunkett’s Strumpet City.
The story is set during the 1913 lockout, a major industrial dispute between 20,000 workers – led by Big Jim Larkin – and 300 employers in Dublin. The dispute lasted for months and resulted in severe hardship for the strikers, two of whom are depicted in the passage dramatized by Frank and Colm. One plays Toucher Hennessy, a man who needs money for a drink. (A ‘toucher’ is someone who buys one drink in a bar and then nods and agrees with the chatter of other drinkers, hoping that they will buy him another.)
Toucher is begging on the street with his friend Rashers Tierney. Rashers is giving him a crash course in how to tell the difference between Catholics and Protestants and how to adapt his patter in order to get the most money from both.
Both actors are pitch-perfect. With their accents and mannerisms, they succeed in bringing a long-forgotten time in Dublin’s history back to life. Their performance is so authentic that a local character – himself slightly drunk – interrupts to ask what they are talking about.
As we walk to our next port of call, we learn about the history of pubs in Dublin. Beer has been popular in Ireland since the Celtic times. Apparently even Saint Patrick himself had his own personal brewer.
With water too dirty to drink in the Middle Ages, ale was the beverage families drank at the table. Women brewed this ale in their own homes and some were better at it than others. If a woman’s ale was good, her neighbors and friends would buy it. In time, her house would be opened to the public.
This was how local pubs began. By 1750, Dublin had 2,300 of them, serving a city of 130,000 people.Today, while the population has grown, the number of pubs has decreased. One of the 800 now left – The Old Stand – was our next stop. An interesting stop it was too, what with its association with Michael Collins. He used this pub as a base to gather information about the profiles and whereabouts of British secret service agents during the War of Independence.
Our final destination was Davy Byrne’s Bar. This bar has a long literary lineage. It was here that Leopold Bloom enjoyed a cheese sandwich and a glass of Burgundy wine in Ulysses. James Joyce used to drink here. Samuel Beckett used to live above the pub when he was a student at Trinity. And Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Myles na gCopaleen used to frequent the pub in the 1940s and 1950s.
As we sit inside, nursing our drinks, Frank and Colm tell stories about Brendan Behan, who described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem.” Behan was quite the character. He joined the IRA at 16 and set off to Liverpool on a one-man bombing mission. He was arrested and spent three years in detention, an experience that formed the basis of his novel Borstal Boy.
He was also a witty man, charming people wherever he went. On tours of the U.S., he was so popular he had to have a police escort – quite a departure for a man more used to being on the wrong side of the law.
This is but a taste of the many stories that were told on my literary tour of Dublin, a tour I would heartily recommend. My guides, Frank and Colm, were informative, friendly and thoroughly entertaining. They led me on a tour that was personal, humorous and always interesting. I learned about the history of some of the city’s most illustrious pubs. I heard stories about the writers of some of Ireland’s best-known literature. I laughed at their jokes. I marvelled at their antics. And I raised a few glasses in their memory.
The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl takes about 2 hours 15 minutes and involves walking approximately half a mile. There are eight pubs on the tour. Four are visited in any given night. To find out more, visit www.dublinpubcrawl.com