Oh, dear. Yes, we’re sorry – mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and so on. We know what the reaction is going to be when you reach down to the end of this article and realise that your own favourite old Irish pub isn’t included. It isn’t you, it’s me, as Lily Allen once said, and so it really boils down to personal taste.
The questions, of course, are these: what do you want from an Irish pub that you won’t find outside Ireland? And what constitutes authenticity? The former has to include a tangible atmosphere that isn’t stage-Irish yet remains true to its origins.
The latter has to include a structure that seeps history and legacy but isn’t the Zoolander version of derelict. Capturing all of this and presenting it to both native and visitor in a way that isn’t insulting to the former or condescending to the latter isn’t easy, but we reckon our selected pubs have that blend. Could we have selected ten more? Easy. Twenty more? Easy-peasy. Over to you.
Tigh Neachtains, Cross Street, Galway
When we say that customers can mingle closely in this pub, we mean it. Occasionally, you might be lucky enough to find an empty snug, but more often than not it’s standing room. Yet what a room you’re standing in. Take a close look past someone’s shoulder at antique nautical charts on the walls as well as old posters for arts festivals (the world-renowned Druid Theatre is a few feet away across the street). If you can squeeze in at the weekends, try to catch an earful of fleet-fingered traditional music, but be advised: your good footwear (and your tired feet) will be stepped on. tighneachtain.com
The Stag’s Head, Dame Court, Dublin
Dublin has surely the biggest number of terrific old pubs to visit, but this core city centre bar is up there with the best in the world. For starters, The Stag’s Head is truly, madly, deeply Victorian, so be sure to take in the wonderful display of stained glass windows, granite tabletops, marble tiled floors, carved wood fittings, mirrors, and the mahogany bar. Also worth seeking out is the tiny parlour lounge located behind the main bar. A shrine to authenticity? Yep. stagshead.ie
The Long Hall, South Great George’s Street, Dublin
If you think The Stag’s Head is a beaut of an old bar, wait until you see The Long Hall. For over 130 years, it has hosted as many solitary book readers as it has alcohol imbibers, yet via its mirrors, mahogany and gold leaf carvings, the softly ticking clock behind the bar, and the bar staff (which have been refreshed occasionally through the decades), the pub remains one of the best places in Ireland to meet, greet, leave and return to. Warmth and nostalgia have never been sensed so firmly here – this place is, quite simply, amazing.
Sean’s Bar, Main Street, Athlone, Co Westmeath
As if to offset any notions of the implausible, there is a Guinness Book of Records certificate on the wall of Sean’s Bar that indisputably states the establishment is the oldest bar in Europe (and possibly the world). Whatever about the age, the atmosphere here is life-affirming. While the floor slopes from the front of the bar to the back (no, you haven’t had too much to drink!), pay heed to the light and shadow within, the fire on a cold winter’s day, and the snug, which is a treasure to behold. seansbar.ie
Callanan’s, George’s Quay, Cork
There are some Irish pubs that look as if the past 50 years hasn’t impacted upon them one iota. Callanan’s belongs to that rare batch of what you could safely describe as pubs that time (almost) forgot. You can safely guess that the pages of home decorating magazines have not been flicked through here – the tables remain a bit wobbly, there are hints of hair oil in the air, and there is – thank the Lord – no television intruding on the conversation. Fancy a game of cards and rings, or the challenge of ‘How Many People Can You Fit Into The Tiny Snug?’ You’ll find all of that here.
The Crown, Great Victoria Street, Belfast
For many, this is the jewel in the crown (pun not intended), a pub that is bedecked with ornate Victorian Gothic period details such as gas lighting, mosaic tiles, decorative carved ceilings, a granite-topped bar styled like an altar, and a sequence of snugs featuring original gun metal plates (for striking matches). All around the frontage are etched and stained glass windows, which refract and reflect a myriad of colours as you sip from your glass. Acquired by the National Trust in the 1970s, The Crown is the cathedral of Irish bars, with its snugs the confessionals. Take a pew. nicholsonspubs.co.uk
The Gravediggers, Prospect Square, Glasnevin, Dublin
The pub’s official name is John Kavanagh’s, but locals have known this pub on the north side of Dublin as ‘The Gravediggers’ for over eight generations (the Kavanagh family has overseen the pub since 1833). There are two sides to the establishment: while the lounge has its eyes firmly fixed on the future (with its superb gastro-pub fare), the public bar is simply a history lesson. Unusually for a pub, it has the distinction of banning music and singing – in 1984, after the funeral of singer Luke Kelly, the likes of U2, The Chieftains, and members of The Dubliners walked in, with instruments in hand, only to be informed that the pub was for drinking in, and nothing else.
Morrisey’s, Main Street, Abbeyleix, Co Laois
People of a certain age will remember driving past Morrissey’s whilst driving the pre-motorway road between Dublin-Cork-Dublin. Back then, you might have even paid your respects to the establishment. Now, it’s virtually a local pub again, but you’d still be strongly advised to take a detour from the motorway to experience it. As for its treasure trove of nooks, crannies, snugs, and long-gone, fondly remembered grocery memorabilia – they have to be seen to be believed.
Crosskeys Inn, Grange Road, Ardnaglass, Co Antrim
Crosskeys Inn started out as a coach stop on the Belfast-Derry-Belfast road and dates back to the 1650s. It is, unsurprisingly, as authentic as you can imagine, but it can claim something that very few can: it is the oldest thatched-roof pub in Ireland. To say the pub has matured well is an understatement: a mix of uneven walls, worn stone floors, low ceilings, and open fires blend to create an unforgettable place. crosskeys-inn.com
Anderson’s Thatch, Elphin Road, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim
Built in 1760, and long regarded by ‘old pub’ aficionados as something of a gem, Anderson’s Thatch is renowned as much for its antique aesthetic as its regular traditional Irish music sessions. Charm drips off the walls here, and as it is located by the River Shannon and its busy boating community, it doesn’t want for interesting people to chat with. As for the music? It starts, say the pub owners, “when the cows are milked”. Say no more. andersonspub.com
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.