When my wife Bobbie and I traveled to Ireland in May, I was searching for the one, true, authentic Irish pub to which I could compare the so called Irish pubs on Madison Street here in Forest Park. I thought I knew what I was looking for. I had a composite picture in my mind pasted together from movies and travel guides.
My real Irish pub would be located in a small town off the beaten track. It would have an unassuming facade and a small interior. There would be a lot of woodwork, a peat fire in the fireplace, a relatively small bar with two taps: one for Guinness and one for either Smithwick’s or Harp. This ideal pub would be patronized mainly by locals, and dozens of friendly Irish folk would gather round us for conversation and story telling. Oh yes, and a band featuring guitar, pipes, fiddle and bodhran would be playing.
I asked our B and B host where we could find a pub without tourists. The elderly Irishman smiled wryly and replied, “There is no such place. We’re living in a global village, and visitors are everywhere.” He did say that we could get a taste of what pubs used to be like by visiting Johnny Foxe’s.
Johnny Foxe’s promotes itself as the “highest pub in Ireland.” The pub is the only building at a crossroads 1,000 feet above sea level. The view was grand; green pastures, stone fences, sheep and cows for miles. And the smell. Yes, it was smoke from a peat fire coming out of the chimney.
What luck. Finding a real Irish pub on our very first try. Opening the door, we were rewarded with a flagstone floor covered with wood shavings, newspaper clippings about John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland on the wall and a couple speaking in Gaelic at a table near ours.
The food, however, was a disappointment. It was a gourmet delight. Prawn salad and fresh salmon with vegetables that tasted like they had just come from the garden. I was expecting “real” pub food like Irish stew and shepherd’s pie. What’s with this healthy stuff? On top of that, no one came to have craic or conversation with us. The final flaw was the chef, whom we saw having a smoke outside as we left. He was an Asian guy.
The next stop on our trip was Kinsale. We drove down a steep hill to a two-story building painted gold with a beautiful view of Kinsale Bay.
Disappointment set in, however, when I noticed that the crowded pub was filled with 30-somethings. Bobbie and I were the oldest people in the place, and loud rock music made conversation difficult.
In Kenmare, we went to a pub called Thaddy Quill. A singing couple named the Maquires started out the first set with “Hello Mary Lou,” and as I looked around I realized that the place was packed with tourists who had come in on the buses parked out back.
I had almost given up on finding the archetypal Irish pub until we stopped at a place called Killeen’s in a little town called Shannon Bridge. Killeen’s is really two businesses in one. On the left is a bait shop/convenience store and on the right is the pub. When the owner brought us the menu, he also gave us two photo albums filled with pictures of bar patrons and fish caught in the nearby Shannon River. The specials listed on the short menu included shepherd’s pie and pannini.
One of the patrons was playing an old upright piano and many in the crowd were singing along. Four Girl Scout executives from England, who were in Ireland for a conference, were swinging pints of Guinness in time with the music. Fishermen were at the bar trying to top each other’s stories. And in the bait shop, some older folks sat around tables drinking Guinness.
When I asked the pub owner if I could take a picture of him pouring a Guinness, he motioned for me to come around to his side of the bar so I could get a good angle. We weren’t drinking beer that night, so when we ordered tea, he brought a plate of raisin bread, too, and told us it was all on the house.
Except for the pannini on the menu and the omnipresent Budweiser on tap, this, I knew, was as close as I was going to get to the ideal I was looking for.
Ten days after returning home I set out to visit every pub on Madison Street bearing an Irish name: Horan’s, Healy’s, O’Sullivan’s, Slainte, Molly Malone’s, Doc Ryan’s and Duffy’s. It took me three nights and five friends to hit them all.
Most had aspects that were authentically Irish. Duffy’s has the facade that most reminded me of the pubs in Ireland. Molly Malone’s has the most authentic Irish food on the menu. It also has the least amount of neon of the pubs on Madison Street.
They all have a variety of beer on tap, and of course Guinness.
Speaking of Guinness, all but one bartender poured it the right way, the way the owner of Killeen’s in Shannon Bridge taught me.
Many of the pubs in Ireland were not all that Irish, according to the fantasy I brought with me.
Pub owners in Ireland are out to make a buck-or rather a Euro-just like bar owners here in town. They’re not in the business of running museums, unless of course they can make money at it. If the tastes of their patrons change, they’ll change with them. Even Killeen’s in Shannon Bridge served pannini.