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Friday, 22 January 2010

A Toast Across the Water

The Republic of Ireland has a great reputation for its pubs. People from all over the world regard them as being some of the most welcoming and enjoyable places in which to drink.
This applies even to people who haven’t visited the country, and helps to explain the preponderance of Irish theme bars all over the world. Such is their number, that I have a friend based in New Zealand who has a full-time job playing in a covers band that are hired out exclusively by Irish bars across the globe.
My experience of the Republic is limited to a wedding in Donegal and a stag in Dublin in the 90’s. The bars we hit in Dublin were largely confined to the Temple Bar area, but I do remember one great little place – and I mean little – slightly further away from the Liffey. It was indeed the size of your front room, making a place like the Halfway House in Edinburgh seem cavernous. Our party filled the place and in the toilets you could see the feet of passers by in the street above through the glass pavement cover. The rest of the weekend was a blur.
Family connections have taken me to Northern Ireland on many more occasions, at first mostly to Belfast. It’s a good city for bar sampling. It’s also the place where I re-discovered Harp lager. Trying it again for the first time in years, I soon was glad it’s been largely phased out over here. On a better-tasting note, I was also introduced to Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Heresy this may be, but it is a smoother drink than many of our popular blends.
The Duke of York holds the record for me as the most packed pub I’ve ever been in, suck in your stomach to move busy. In Glasgow the doors would have been shut at 9.30pm, but in they kept coming. Café Vaudeville, also in the city centre is good for bling and dressing up, also packed every weekend.
The Morning Star tops my list, though; a historic pub with antecedents two centuries old but very much a place for today. Aware of its past but not constrained or obsessed enough with it to become just a tourist attraction. You reach it as if by accident down a narrow close, or entry as its called in Belfast, and walk in to a place that bustles all hours. A varied hot buffet – not just limited to the ubiquitous roast with champ - is available from lunch till tea and you can even get your caricature done by a famous regular.
More recently I’ve been to the country beyond the main city. Small town you might call it. Moyra, Lurgan, Lisburn, Glenavy, Crumlin. Names perhaps only known to most people from news reports but all good places to stop for refreshment. The pubs there sit on the towns’ main streets, semi-traditional places, some hosting folk music and some playing Premiership football wall-to-wall. They all serve food in big portions. You get used to that.
The town I’ve seen most of is Dungannon, in County Tyrone. Forty miles west of Belfast it sits on a hill at the end of the M1 motorway, the beautifully restored St. Patrick’s church catching a keen eye. Streets branch off down from the town square, these linked by smaller roads and alleys.
On my first visits The Fort, probably the largest pub in the town, was our place of choice. Busy at lunchtimes and weekend evenings, serving reasonable pub grub, fair-priced drink, with a quieter back bar and large upstairs function room, it ticked a lot of boxes. It also had a side alley, easy to access for a quick smoke on a small cigar. Probably its best attribute was as a venue for a late lunch followed by an afternoon watching sport on the well placed but discreet TVs.
One evening a local mentioned another bar worth a visit, the recently refurbished Hagan’s Bar. It was just along the alley at the back of The Fort and down the road. Hagan’s had been the archetypal old mans’ bar – good at what it had done but lacking wider appeal.
It had been a quiet night in The Fort so the contrast in Hagan’s was marked. Packed with people from the door to the far end of the room. The space is narrow as you enter, the first bar near at hand, then the area widens at the second bar before narrowing again down to where there is a mini dance floor.
A door from there leads to one of the best smoking areas I’ve experienced. A clever use of existing walls, a fire escape, added beams and the alley at the back of the building has created an indoor feeling and a focal point for easy chat.
Upstairs is another bar with a pool table that is probably extraneous, but this area lends the pub another mood, the clientele up here tending to be younger than the average downstairs. Here as in the rest of the bar there is a judicious mix of light and dark woods creating a further welcoming feeling.
The atmosphere in the whole place never flagged during the entire evening, punters of literally all ages living it up, enjoying the mingle, the chat and the music which united rather than divided us.
On our next visit to Dungannon we did pop in to The Fort, intending to stay as long as the place held our interest. The flaws that had been creeping in had surfaced properly. It was Saturday night and the average age was very low. This was not unusual but there were no older or even slightly older drinkers. Not one. If eclecticism of drinkers makes a pub great, The Fort was struggling.
If the atmosphere was good then all this could be forgiven but it seemed to be sucked right out of the place. The square shape of the pub’s main area wasn’t helping to hold any party ambience that might have existed. This wasn’t the management’s fault short of a complete structural refit but their door policy was letting the place down. A sign of eyes being taken off the ball, direction being lost.
We were out of there quick and off to Hagan’s. Once again there was a great mix of ages, styles and attitudes. The division of space to create atmosphere working to full effect. This is partly luck for bar owners, depending on the type of building they inherit, but also some shaping had gone on here, intelligent, sympathetic design to help create a great venue. Needless to say the rest of the night was a good one.
For a city boy, drinking in provincial towns like these was new experience, before you even factor in the cultural differences across the Irish Sea. Comparisons can perhaps be made to pubs in Fife and Ayrshire, similarly rural areas without any cities. Maybe, but the only way to find out is to travel.
Small town bars may lack the cutting-edge trendiness of cities and they may suffer from the over-familiarity of faces seen too often and too regularly, but the one moment I remember most vividly from my drinking times in Northern Ireland is half-an-hour from closing in Hagan’s, at the busy middle bar, being bumped all over the place but not caring. The drinks were on their way, that track was playing, and I was there.

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