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The Irish Pub – Personal Qualifications

Beer-swilling with Sev Johnson and Seamus Raben, June 2018.

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The Bottletops


I have long enjoyed a partiality for Irish pubs. The first that I recall was The Tobinstown Inn, a granite structure located on a crossroads adjoining my family farm in County Carlow. When I was 10 years old, Guinness launched a nationwide contest offering toucan t-shirts to all entrants – and a trip to a mysterious island for the grand winner. To win, you had to find the letters F, I, T, R, N, E, E and E inserted in Guinness bottle tops. Then you had to identify an unnamed island which looked like a wobbly isosceles triangle.

My elder brothers duly returned from the Tobinstown Inn laden with plastic bags containing hundreds of sweet-scented bottle-tops – Harp, Bass, McCardle’s, Stag, Smithwick’s and, above all, Guinness. Over the coming days, we isolated all the Guinness tops, yelping victoriously when we came upon a lesser-spotted F or N. An atlas was produced and we poured over it for many hours. My hairless bosom swelled with pride when my brothers concurred that the island just had to be Tenerife. We didn’t win the plane tickets but I’ve nonetheless had a soft spot for Tenerife – and Guinness – ever since.


The Tobinstown Inn


In my father’s childhood, The Tobinstown Inn was called Ryan’s and run as a grocery bar by the formidable Mrs Ryan. Her family were said to have come from Tipperary. The bar served strong whiskey and bottled beer. Many a patron was to be seen toddling uncertainly out the door in the direction of Acaun cemetery, the Haroldstown dolmen, Knocknagan and the nearby townlands of Lisnavagh and Ballybit.

Bill Burgess, who died in 2007 at the age of 105, recalled that the three families at Tobinstown Cross in his childhood boasted an astonishing 34 children between them. Another local child was the late Atty Dowling who, like Bill, featured in our first ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ book.

Trade at the inn boomed for a period after the Second World War when my grandfather established a pack of hounds at Lisnavagh, hunters being notoriously thirsty people. However, after the Ryan’s sold in the late 1960s, the pub never really regained its identity. It was sold and resold throughout my childhood. At one point it was offered up as a lottery prize. I led many of my cronies through its doors during the early and mid ’90s, most notably for the Tobinstock Weekend. I was attracted by its easy access, cheap prices and a feisty pool table. The customers were suitably cagey but once you cracked into the spirit of the show, a fun evening was possible. In 2005, the Tobinstown Inn was sold again but this time it’s licence was sold separately. To one of the big Dublin chains perhaps. Or maybe to one of the new German supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl then making inroads on the land. The building has been a private home ever since.

See here for more on Tobinstown.


A Spirited Education


By the time I left my school in Scotland in the summer of 1990, I had grown extremely fond of pubs. I loved the revelry, the chaos, the anonymity and the manner in which, as nights rolled on, the drinkers within seemed to find more and more in common. God only knows the drivel that passes from mouth to ear on such lively nights but it was all immensely good fun.

At my school in Perthshire, sixth year students over 18 were allowed down to the Drumtochty Tavern in Harrietfield every Saturday night. We were to drink two pints and two pints only. Ho ho. On the Sunday evening, the Warden opened an in-house bar at the school where everyone of age was again allowed two pints. This was all useful training for the infamous Rose Street pub-crawl in Edinburgh which we tried – and failed – to conquer during rare weekend leaves from school.

Meanwhile, a friend with a walky-talky established radio contact with a local farmer who duly began a healthy side-line, leaving hessian sacks of delicious booze in a hedge by the Almond River in return for a wad of cash and a decent commission. When I was revising for my A-levels, I had a glass of Jameson whiskey every night. My housemaster busted me but genially turned a blind eye, for which I still hold him in high respect. Sometimes I think those nightcaps explain why I pulled off a bizarre coup and earned enough points to read law at Trinity College Dublin.


Global Phenomenon


Before Trinity came the world. My father, a retired naval officer, was strong on the notion that young men should travel far before they settle down. My brothers had both gone to Australia; the younger one visited America on his way home. In October 1990, I set off around the world with the incorrigible Timothy Slingsby. As 18-year-olds, we carried false identity cards to ensure we would still be served liquor during our three months in the USA. We had astonishingly little trouble from New York to Virginia and then, after a 10-day drive across the States, up to Los Angeles and Seattle. Only in Texas did our ID’s fail us.

During our trip through Arizona and New Mexico, I read about the people who lived here long ago, and how white man had destroyed them with whiskey a hundred years before my birth. When we later arrived in Hawaii, the Polynesians did not seem to drink so much but, clad in their ‘Aloha’ jewellery, they too seemed somehow destroyed. In New Zealand, the Maoris we encountered in pubs were rough and angry. In Australia, many of the Aborigines seemed to reside in Coolabah casks. I was beginning to learn that while there was tremendous fun to be had out of booze, for others, it marked the termination of hope.


Student Days


Dublin during the early 90’s was a terrific place to be a student so long as you weren’t trying to study anything. I learned to drink copiously, primarily in the pubs of Baggot Street. The staff of Horgan’s at The Lansdowne Hotel would let us take away full bottles of whiskey and vodka at the end of the evening, so long as we vowed to replace them again next day. My next local was Pepper’s on Lower Mount Street in whose beer garden we spent many long sunny afternoons, guzzling Bulmer’s cider and playing backgammon.

Away from Dublin, I travelled frequently to all provinces of Ireland, stopping at as many pubs as I could along the way. I was greatly influenced by these misspent years, enjoying the banter with old lads who’d let themselves go and whose type we would later try to preserve in ‘Vanishing Ireland‘.

One exceptional night, four friends and myself chanced upon the Blackwater Tavern in County Kerry for the wake of Big Bertha, the oldest cow in the world who had died that morning. Where else would you be? I later wrote an account of this night that appeared in The Guardian and the Irish Daily Mail.

My boozing thankfully put paid to my legal career and I transferred to history in 1993. A three-week marathon in the Czech Republic in ’94 was probably the peak of my debauchery although I did achieve similar results the following year while at college in Groningen, Holland, and again during the course of a 30 months sojourn in Hong Kong between ’96 and ’98.

Indeed, my first residence in Hong Kong was at No. 2 Lan Kwai Fong, slap bang centre of the busiest drinking district in Asia. And all the bits at either end and in between were kind of drink orientated too, if I’m honest. For the most part, it was terrific fun. There were occasions when it spiralled down. Like licking honey off a razor blade, as somebody put it.

It should also be stated here that my good friend James Fennell, photographer and pioneer of ‘The Irish Pub‘, was frequently to be found on the bar stool next to me.


Kilkenny & Mrs Moore


I returned to Ireland in the autumn of ’98 and soon made my way to Kilkenny City where I became properly enamoured of the Irish pub. I played chess in Syd Harkins, witnessed brawls in Andy’s Tavern, swayed to various beats in Andrew Ryan’s and John Cleere’s, toasted the River Nore from Tynan’s, cursed the bouncer at Caislean ui Cuain and chalked the billiards cues of the Home Rule Club. I adored my time in Kilkenny and it was thus with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation to launch the Kilkenny Whiskey Guild in 2017, as well as Walsh Whiskey’s Legacy whiskey at St Canice’s Cathedral in 2023.

By 2002, Moore’s in Grangecon was one of the established favourites for my circle. I moved to Ballyhook, a farmhouse 5 minutes’ drive from Moore’s, where I remained for close on two years. With her bespectacled smile, teetotal Mrs. Moore would proffer lollipops as we stumbled out the door at close of night, urging us to drive with caution.

On the rare occasions I drove home, I tried to pretend I was in a horse and carriage and went at a suitable trot – 20kmh at a push. For many long years, everyone knew you weren’t allowed to drink and drive. The law existed but it was there to be flouted. It was considered socially acceptable to drink five pints at the bar, and maybe a couple of whiskeys at a pals house after, and then drive home. The Gardai used to let you go if they didn’t know you and, if they did know you, they’d suggest you pull up and get a lift home from here.

That’s the way it was. Today, you’d be ashamed to say you’d driven with more than a pint under your belt. Many people won’t so much as sniff a drink and drive. I have not drunk and driven for many long years now, partly because I am engaged in erecting scaffolding around my battered body after so much fun and games in my younger years. I still drink on occasion and visit pubs perhaps two or three times a month but I am now a champion of 0-0. Or, as one roguish pal calls it, ‘fake beer.’


Good Timing


If I had to pick a precise time when the authorities started to toughen up on drink-driving, I’d say it was the St Paddy’s weekend 2003. That was the last weekend I spent at Ballyhook. (We had a farewell party, attended by a hundred plus people, on what transpired to be the start of a three-week springtime heat-wave. The sky above was black with US fighter jets making their way from Shannon Airport to Kuwait. There was a very real chance I’d be on board one of those jets within the week but that’s another story).

For me, the near future would involve a return to Dublin where I found both my feet and my ever-loving wife, became a father and concentrated on my writing. I missed the pub culture but I was equally aware that the pub culture was changing quicker than my baby’s nappies. In July 2006, James Fennell suggested an idea which would allow us both to see just what these changes were from a delightfully close proximity. And lo, ‘The Irish Pub‘ was born.

The book stood me in good stead. By 2024, I had produced a podcast series for Guinness, traveled around Ireland to find the best snug for Power’s Whiskey, produced a history of the Jameson and McCarthy whiskey distilling families, made a film for Irish Whiskey Assets and worked closely with Walsh Whiskey and the Kilkenny Whiskey Guild.