John Daly: A pint of plain may be your only man, but JP had the best ideas about last orders
Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30
Never pass a bar that has your name on it. Taking this immortal command as his signpost, author Pete McCarthy embarked on a personal quest across Ireland's pubs that eventually emerged as the 1998 bestseller, McCarthy's Bar. Amongst his 'Rules of Travel', he advised: "When perusing a menu, never consider anything containing the words goujon, platter or cheesy." Hard to know, then, what the sadly departed Pete would make of today's Irish pub, a place where gastro cooking has almost elbowed aside gas craic as its guiding ethos. Though the venerable 'pint of plain' is still your only man, it is increasingly forced to compete for counter space with upstart blow-ins like penne, chorizo, rillettes and terrine. We've surely come a long way from pork scratchings and red lemonade, lads.
Thirty-four Irish bars secured listings in the recent 2015 Michelin 'Eating Out In Pubs' guide. Cork and Down lead the field with six listings each, followed by Clare and Mayo, with four and three. Quality food and good hospitality are the key ingredients, according to the guide's editor, Rebecca Burr: "Simple food like crab claws, a pint of Guinness and the atmosphere that hits you as soon as you walk in the door. We still look for places with good home cooking and traditional recipes, that's what we are after."
Another small dark stranger who's become a regular at every vintner's counter is exotic coffee, with the hissing of Gaggia and Lavazza machines now part of any boozer's rattle and hum. "Publicans used to collapse like a Bateman cartoon if anyone asked for coffee, now they want to know if it's decaf or cappuccino you're after," observed Maeve Binchy of the brew battle now raging between caffeine and beer.
A recent survey carried out for the 'Support your Local' campaign polled hundreds of tourists from across the globe as to what most influenced their decision to visit the Emerald Isle. Some 54pc listed the Irish pub as a key factor, and, of course, the conversation.
Chat remains the essential art form of any decent Irish pub, frequently demonstrated through the winkling out of every morsel of information from even the most reluctant patron.
In the documentary, The Irish Pub, Cavan barman Paul Gartlan put it best: "You go into a pub abroad, they'd nearly ignore you. You go into a pub in Ireland, they'd go up on your arse to find out who you are - name, address and creamery number before you'd even get a drink." With the variety of conversational gambits available in any local as broad or peculiar as you want to make them, a wet Tuesday night on the high stool can be enlivened no end by topics mixing Prime Time with Family Guy. On a stormy evening earlier this week at the Bulman in Kinsale, one of the Michelin winners, incidentally, the topics under discussion included how to fiddle an NCT test, where to find cigarettes at €5 a carton, why Trump might just make the White House and did Johnny Depp really just buy a place over the road.
Though changing social habits have seen thousands of pubs close their doors forever over the past decade, there are still enough relics of auld grandeur remaining to keep the taps pouring for another century or two.
JP Donleavy, who won a Lifetime Achievement at this week's Irish Book Awards, recalled the pubs of Dublin in the 1940s and 50s, and how they inspired his classic creation, The Ginger Man.
"Dublin in those days was a city of warm bars and endless conversation that continued from midday to midnight."
During his Trinity days, Donleavy frequented many of the city's legendary watering holes, including McDaid's, which became an unofficial headquarters for the post-war literary generation that included Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien, Austin Clarke and Liam O'Flaherty. The Ginger Man's main character, Sebastian Dangerfield, was loosely based on another Trinity student, Ganor Christ, who was also a regular at the Harry Street hostelry.
Donleavy particularly remembers Brendan Behan's input into his masterpiece: "Brendan always arrived in a state of chaotic disarray, soaking up all the attention within McDaid's. Later on, in a state of extended inebriation, he rather cheekily made a number of uninvited editorial suggestions on the margins of my manuscript, and infuriatingly, all of them made perfect sense."
Little wonder then that Donleavy years later declared: "When I die, I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin."
Now there's a perfect definition of 'last orders'.