Fifty of us are squeezed into an upstairs room at the Duke, a neighborhood pub described as a good place to meet friends when you want to chat without shouting and spitting at...
DUBLIN Fifty of us are squeezed into an upstairs room at the Duke, a neighborhood pub described as a good place to meet friends when you want to chat without shouting and spitting at each other.
We squat on stools around wooden tables and sip pints of black beer as Jessica Freed, a professional actress, leads us in a drinking song about Celtic candlemakers called “Waxies Dargle.” She glides through the verses with a clean Irish lilt, and we sing the chorus with gusto even though we’re hearing it for the first time.
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“What’ll you have, will you have a pint?
Yes, I’ll have a pint with you, sir.
And if one of us doesn’t order soon
We’ll both be thrown out of the boozer.”
For next two hours, we’ll join Freed and fellow actor Derek Reid on what’s been billed as a Literary Pub Crawl through old Dublin.
Pub walks like this one are popping up in many cities as entrepreneurs feed travelers’ desires to connect with locals. They offer a night out for the price of a movie ticket (most cost $8-$10 plus the price of beer). But the chance to sample local brews is only part of what the walks are about.
“This is a literary pub crawl, so if you’re here just for the pubs and the beer, you’ll have to put up with some literature as well,” Reid told our group.
By the time our walk ended at the Davy Byrnes, where Leopold Bloom, the central character in the James Joyce novel, “Ulysses,” stopped for a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy on his famous walk around Dublin, I found that I had acquired a taste for Irish Guinness. But it’s the culture stops that turned out to be the best part of the evening.
After leaving the Duke, we headed first not to a pub but to Trinity College, a Dublin institution since 1592. Among its famous students were writers Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Oliver Goldsmith.
Our group huddled in a dark courtyard around Freed as she explained what it was like for Goldsmith (“She Stoops to Conquer”) to be a poor student here in the 1740s.
“Being a scholarship student wasn’t very pleasant in those days. In order to show that they weren’t paying any fees, they had to wear big red hats,” she explained. “They could be picked out by any fee-paying student and made to do any sort of menial task they wished.”
After a stop at O’Neil’s pub, a college tavern that’s been on the same site for 300 years, we regrouped under the stone porticos of the former Saint Andrew’s Church, now the headquarters of the Dublin tourist office.
Freed and Reid stood on plastic milk containers and performed some impromptu street theater, acting out the roles of two unemployed drinking buddies during a labor dispute known as the 1913 Dublin Lockout.
In approaching passers-by for beer money, it was important to be able to tell the difference between a Catholic (generally on the employers’ side) and a Protestant (union sympathizers), Reid explained.
“If he looks fat, he’s a Catholic,” said one beggar to the other. “Of course, Protestants are sometimes fat too, but they never look it.”
No drinking required
David Tucker, owner of London Walks, a 40-year-old tour company with 15 pub crawls in its repertoire of 250 guided walks, calls his pub walks “literary, historical guided walks that are punctuated by a few stops at pubs along the way.”
Drinking alcohol, in fact, as many an Irish or English teetotaler will tell you, isn’t even required. “You can go in and have coffee,” said Tucker, “or just a soft drink.”
In his fedora and oiled canvas coat, Tucker looks more like Sherlock Holmes than a Dickens scholar and former journalist. A radio newsman from Wisconsin, he compares neighborhood pubs to an Englishman’s living room, but with their darkened windows and clubby atmosphere, they can be intimidating to outsiders.
Tucker says his walks “are designed to key visitors into the city. We aim to make people feel like they belong for a couple of hours to a neighborhood that’s very much off the beaten track.”
Fitzrovia, an area of London close to the bookstores and museums of literary Bloomsbury and chic of Oxford Street, is one of those neighborhoods. Tottenham Court Road, where Tucker starts a walk into what he calls London’s Latin Quarter, leads to a gaslight district of historic pubs hidden among a tangle of businesses advertising walk-in back rubs and French fast food.
“Tottenham Court Road is probably one of the ugliest streets in London, but 100 years ago, there was a lot here,” Tucker told a group of about 25 of us who met him outside the Goodge Street underground station on a chilly Saturday night for the start of his tour. A poor area, it attracted craftsmen who worked in the furniture and cobbler workshops.
Down an alley filled with cafes and cottage-style houses, Tucker pointed to what looked like manhole covers.
“They’re coal holes where horse-drawn wagons would drop coal into the cellar to heat homes,” he explained. “A little house like one of these would generate about two tons of ash annually. It wasn’t (London) fog. It was smog, caused by an inversion.”
Near the former Young Communist Club where Karl Marx was a frequent visitor, we found the King & Queen, a pub known for its traditional folk music and an ale called Adnams brewed in Suffolk, England.
The room was smoky and crowded, but I managed to work my way to the bar and order a half-pint of bitter, a malty ale best served at room temperature. “The Englishman’s drink is bitter,” said Tucker. “Lager is for women and foreigners.”
I found a vacant stool and sat down with Ann Ljungberg, a practiced pub-walker from Sweden who was visiting London with her mother, ViviAnn Westin.
“When I come here on business, I always go on a pub walk,” said Ljungberg. “It’s a way to get out by yourself and have some company. You meet the locals and you learn something.”
Ljungberg and her mother had devised a strategy for making it through the evening without drinking too much. First, they made sure they had a big lunch. Then they split pints at each stop.
A few nights later, I joined a walk led by Tucker’s wife, Mary, a former dancer and trapeze artist. The neighborhood was Chelsea, a fashionable area where King Henry VIII had his manor house and Princess Diana shopped and lunched along swanky Sloane Street with a gaggle of pals nicknamed the Sloane Rangers.
Mick Jagger and Julie Andrews owned homes next door to each other, (Tucker has fun imagining them as neighbors), and in a house once owned by Sir Paul Getty, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel kept a menagerie of exotic pets, the reason why there are still clauses in some leases that say “absolutely no peacocks.”
Our group was small, only a dozen or so, and the result was a cozier, more intimate evening.
Our first stop was the Fox & Hounds, an old-style, no frills Victorian-era pub with wooden floors and bangers and mash on the menu. The owner refuses to install video-poker machines, and the beers on tap are from Southwest London’s old-time Young’s Brewery, where beer has been produced in the same site since 1581.
Along darkened streets, past rows of elegant brick row houses, Tucker led us through a village-like neighborhood. She pointed out the Duke of York’s house, built in 1801 as the home of the youngest son of King George III. (The mansion is slated to become a shopping complex.) Nearby was the Chelsea Royal Hospital, designed by architect Christopher Wren. “And this,” Tucker said, pointing to a white townhouse facing a tree-lined square, “is where it’s believed James Bond had his flat.”
At the end of the street, we could see the green and orange glow of our next pub, The Surprise, home to the Hooray Henrys of the neighborhood, the male version of the Sloane Rangers.
There were long wooden tables and a fireplace in one room and overstuffed chairs, a patterned rug and a piano in another, throwbacks to a time when pubs were divided into areas for men-only and families. The menu had ribeye steak sandwiches on grilled Italian bread and French wines by the glass.
“The first pub has people who don’t really reflect the kinds of people who live in Chelsea,” Tucker said. “This pub does.”
This left me wondering how the average tourist knows where he or she might feel welcome?
In Prague last spring, I joined a walk led by a Czech college student through the working-class neighborhood of Zizkov. He took us to a pub where men sat at long tables playing cards and watching soccer on television. Beers were 25 cents, and three of us drank and ate potato pancakes and fried cheese for around $3. We were the only foreigners there, and if we had been by ourselves, I doubt any of us would have gone inside.
If you do find yourself on your own and thirsty, and a neighborhood pub beckons, David Tucker has this advice:
“Just stick your nose in. If you walk in and you don’t like the vibe, you can walk out,” he said.
“There’s few things more depressing than a naff pub, and few things more wonderful than a good one.”
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com