Dublin: A Literary Pub Crawl

Dublin’s Pubs—With A Literary Slant

By Eric D. Goodman

Pub: it can be short for publications (that you read) or public houses (where you drink). Is it a coincidence that both are popular pastimes in Dublin?

This reverence for books—for writers and poets—was something Nataliya and I found in conversations with locals, in the streets and bars. And also, in the paces, one might expect to find it.

Pub Crawl Started on Duke St.

One of the highlights of our Dublin visit was joining in on a literary pub crawl. Nataliya and I approached the meeting place, nestled on historic Duke Street, the pub’s Victorian façade of aged brick holding a gilded wooden sign with gilded lettering that read, “The Duke.”

Inside, on the second floor where our literary evening began in a private room, the dim lights cast a warm glow as we sat with about twenty other visitors, eagerly awaiting the start of our adventure, Guinness pints in hand.

Our hosts, three men of a certain age—likely in their late 50s or early 60s—mentioned that they’ve been doing these tours for decades. Two of them were trained actors, while the third was a bard with a guitar. The two actors took a deep breath, standing before us and launching into a scene from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Our wait was over.

“Let’s go,” one said, in character.

“But we’re waiting for Godot,” the other responded stubbornly.

“A great play, by the way,” the first added before transitioning seamlessly into an Irish pub song, engaging the entire room in a lively chorus of clapping and laughter.

Following the song, the guide, still in character, welcomed us to the underbelly of Dublin’s literary soul. “Tonight, we’ll tread the very cobblestones walked by Joyce, drink in the pubs he haunted, and raise a toast to the ghosts of giants.”

Stories about James Joyce

Next came stories about James Joyce here at the Duke, as though he were sitting along with us. Our guides referenced scenes from Ulysses, an opening scene from the pub-friendly book taking place just across the street. 

Our guides threw down a challenge: “There will be a literary quiz at the end of the evening to test your knowledge. And the winner will receive: a Dublin Literary Pub Crawl t-shirt.”

“You’ll be the only one back home wearing one,” his counterpart said, “because I’m pretty sure we’ve never actually sold one.”

We exited the private room and entered the more crowded Duke Pub below, a cozy haven established in 1820. We weren’t just patrons; we were characters thrust into a theatrical tapestry woven by two charismatic actors, channeling the spirits of Beckett, Joyce, and Wilde. One minute, a guide was Beckett’s existential Estragon, lost in the absurdist void, the next, another was Joyce’s lyrical Bloom. 

The Duke, we learned, was a haunt of James Stephens, the whimsical poet who found inspiration in its worn floorboards and the murmur of fellow Dubliners. As a guide recited Joyce’s “Molly Bloom” monologue, Nataliya and I found ourselves transported to the warm bedchamber of Leopold’s wife. 

Leave When You Should Leave

“We shouldn’t overstay our welcome,” our guide said. “Something James Joyce was known to do. A friend invited Joyce to stay in an extra bedroom in his home. Joyce stayed … and stayed … and never paid. The friend, dropping subtle hints, realized Joyce wasn’t catching on.

He decided to be less subtle and introduced another guest to share the room with Joyce. Now, here’s the twist – this fellow had just returned from war, and his nights were filled with hallucinations, convinced he was under attack by animals.”

He took a hearty gulp of Guinness. “As you can imagine, the nights in that room got a bit lively. Joyce’s new roommate woke and shot at imaginary animals above Joyce’s head. Bullet holes appeared above Joyce’s headboard. The owner took the gun and assured he would come if there were any animals. The next time Joyce’s roommate yelled in terror, the host bolted in and fired above Joyce’s bed. Joyce moved along promptly.”

“So should we,” his partner said.

Passing Pubs in Dublin

The stories went on as we walked. “In Ulysses, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom ponders that it would be a good puzzle to try to cross Dublin without passing a pub,” our guide said. “Tonight, we won’t succeed.”

Our guides then walked us through crisp night air to Trinity College, the alma mater of Oscar Wilde. With theatrical flair, our guide painted a picture of Wilde’s adventures in the American Wild West. “Picture this,” he began with a mischievous grin. “Oscar Wilde, the epitome of European refinement, finding himself in the rugged landscapes of Colorado.”

The group leaned in. “Wilde, known for his lectures on art and aesthetics, found himself in a silver mining town. Now, these miners weren’t exactly the sophisticated audience he was accustomed to.”

A ripple of laughter cascaded through the group.

“After a particularly haughty lecture, the miners decided to celebrate – in their own unique way. They led Wilde down into a mine shaft for what they called a three-course whiskey tasting. Now, the miners had a plan to put the haughty Irishman in his place. They thought they could outdrink Wilde and leave him in the mine shaft as a playful prank. Little did they know, Wilde was no stranger to revelry—or whiskey.

“By the next morning, Wilde emerged from the mine shaft, leaving the passed-out miners in the shaft. When he encountered the hungover men the later that day, he advised them that next time they invite an Irishman to a whiskey tasting, make it a four-course tasting.”

“Trinity College,” our guide began, “a cradle of intellect that has nurtured some of Ireland’s greatest minds. Beyond Wilde, let us delve into the annals of Trinity’s literary legacy.”

With an air of reverence, the guide spoke of Jonathan Swift, the satirist extraordinaire and author of Gulliver’s Travels, who once roamed the same cobblestone pathways we now walked. 

As we meandered through the college’s courtyard, the guide gestured towards the iconic Campanile. “Wilde, Swift, Beckett – their spirits resonate within these walls.”

Our next stop was O’Neill’s on Grafton Street, timeworn gem on bustling Grafton Street. The pub, established in the 1700s, has witnessed centuries of laughter, literary discussions, and spilled pints. The walls, if they could speak, would recount the whispered poetry of Yeats, the fiery debates of Shaw, and the boisterous laughter of Brendan Behan. 

Amidst the lively atmosphere, Nataliya and I struck up a conversation with a bearded Irishman and his friendly wife. They were up for the weekend from their country home. We sat cattycornered at the bar.

“Why Dublin?” he asked, his accent rich and hearty.

“For pleasure,” Nataliya replied. “We’re on vacation.”

“Pleasure? Seems most Americans we meet are here to trace their ancestry, digging into their family roots.” 

“We’re here to enjoy the city and its stories,” I said.

The bearded Irishman grinned. “We live midway between Belfast and Dublin, only an hour and a half away, and we never made it on this tour until now. It’s good craic, isn’t it?”

“Yes, good fun,” I said. Before we could continue our conversation, the guides were rounding us up to resume the tour. We walked across the street to the statue of a woman.

“Molly Malone, or Maggie Malone as some affectionately call her, is a beloved figure in Dublin’s folk culture,” our guide explained. “Her song recounts the tragic tale of a young woman who plied her trade as a fishmonger by day and sought love’s embrace by night. It’s a ballad that encapsulates the essence of Dublin’s soul – a city of laughter, love, and, of course, a touch of melancholy.”

As we absorbed the ambiance, the guide invited us to envision Molly Malone’s bustling life against the backdrop of Grafton Street, her journey echoing through the centuries. The Maggie Malone statue, with her perpetual charm frozen in bronze, became a testament to Dublin’s ability to immortalize its tales in art and song. 

At the edge of the street, just before entering the final pub, the guide announced a trivia contest. “But here’s the twist,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the stories we’ve told tonight.” 

The guide spoke about an Irish author tasked with writing the collected fairy tales of Mother Goose for publication. He was short two tales and the publisher was waiting, so he made two of the stories up himself.  “Which two tales did the author make up?” 

What two now-famous Mother Goose tales were not original Mother Goose nursery rhymes? Nataliya and I discussed in whispers. She and the burly Irishman simultaneously shouted out their answers, “Jack and Jill and Hickory Dickory Dock!” 

The Irishman’s voice boomed louder and seconds faster. The guide tossed a t-shirt his way, completing the night with a flourish.

Our final stop on the literary pub tour was Davy Byrne’s, a pub immortalized in Joyce’s Ulysses. Here, in the hallowed ground where Bloom indulged in a Gorgonzola sandwich, we were treated to a literary treasure: a first edition of Ulysses, nestled behind glass next to a bust and eyeglasses, like a sacred relic. 

We walked over to the bar when it was time for a refill. Standing at the bar, our guide shared a pint with us and we engaged in conversation. We noted that it isn’t a cliché—Guinness really is the drink of choice here, on tap at every pub and restaurant. 

“Nairobi, Africa, is one of the most popular Guinness importers outside Ireland,” he said. “They love the stuff there as much as we do here.” 

“We’re fond of it in Maryland, too,” I said. “The only Guinness factory in the United States is located in Baltimore, not far from where we live.” 

He looked surprised. “I’m always finding new trivia to add to my notes,” he said. “Guinness is yet another emigrant to America. I may have to use that.”

As we returned for a last look at the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses behind the glass, our old drinking mates joined us. The Irishman slipped his t-shirt to Nataliya.

“I pass the prize on to you,” he said with a smile. “It won’t fit me.”

“At least you know it’ll be a conversation piece in America,” I said. “No one else will have one.”

“Happy to keep the conversation going,” he replied. 

We looked back to the display case. Davy Byrne’s had been featured in Ulysses. Now, a first edition of Ulysses was featured in Davy Byrne’s. 

Eric D. Goodman is the author of seven books. His most recent is Faraway Tables, a collection of poems focused on travel and a longing for other places. His novels include Wrecks and Ruins (set in Baltimore and Lithuania) and The Color of Jadeite (a thriller set in China). Hundreds of his stories, poems, articles, and travel stories have been published. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.

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