A particular brain-wave rippled through the pubs of Dublin like a series of minor earthquakes forever reshaping the atmosphere of the city and its most internationally-renowned institutions. Or maybe it travelled with more of an air of paranoia, a great secret whispered in the back pew at Sunday morning mass under the cover of the priest’s monotonous sermonising. However it travelled it’s hard not to disdain the night-club atmosphere that has taken over many of the city’s pubs as I sit trying to communicate my world-view over torrents of digitised sound-waves, present thanks to the keen observation that punters drink more when music is loud.
The traditional Irish pub has always been a vision of quaintness, dark and smoky affairs where segregated groups gossip or proletise in the early hours of the evening only to merge into one large red-faced cyclone by the end of the night, arms around shoulders singing the songs of our grandfathers. By night’s end you’d be goggle-eyed with a head full of smoke, but you’d be well enough to appreciate the classic slapstick as old grey beard Paddy trips over a step at closing time and goes sprawling face first into the street’s only puddle.
Then the more cosmopolitan scenes of holiday destination-esque night clubs started to find their ways to these shores, offering extremely cheap drinks and stereo systems that made your ears ring for days after. These are the places where now you can drink yourself beyond reason, where the closing time spillage consists of nobody to appreciate the spectacle, aimless clowns performing hilarious tricks to no audience.
These are two kinds of drinking houses to be found in Dublin, only polar opposites in the loudness of the music and as the pub exploration expedition I had found myself on had brought us to this venue on Wexford street, the think tank of Dublin pubbery’s grand scheme to pump alcohol through the stereos and into our bellies had had its desired effect; we drank our pints and left.
As any savvy city-walker knows there are certain criteria to be obeyed when selecting a place to spend your evenings. Depending on how strict you are these can vary greatly. The easiest method of finding a place to go is through elimination and the first to be eliminated is Dublin’s very own tourist containment area, Temple Bar. The pubs that find themselves located in the centre of this part of the city are strict no-go areas for most Dubliners, and it is also the place most Dubliners will direct tourists to if stopped and asked for directions, regardless of where the tourist wants to go. Dublin City Council’s brief flirtation with the idea of salvaging Temple Bar came to an abrupt end recently when a large “McDonald’s” sign appeared on one of the buildings in the main square, so no ambiguity remains in this area, it’s quite definitely off the list. The odd thrill-seeker might wager a trip to The Porterhouse, just on the edge of Temple Bar, but even the most death-defiant will only risk it before dark.
Harcourt Street is another easily crossed off area of the city, where the venues play host to Ireland’s very own home-bred tourist population. This street is on the extreme end of the above-mentioned nightclub invasion, the philosophy of each of them being not dissimilar to that employed by most totalitarian states. The people exist only to shed their cash into the great dictator’s pockets. He keeps a few wage-slaves about the place to struggle with the nigh-on unconscious over five euro notes and to slip on pools of vomit and shattered glasses as they drag buckets and mops up and down the length and breadth of these zombified cities of the damned.
This isn’t baseless conjecture. For my sins I spent a grand and wasted time in my college days being dragged to these places by my peers. Three memories stand out; first, that of having spent a good thirty minutes wrestling with and climbing over a mass of bodies at the bar, finally coming away with a pristine pint of Guinness. As I set it down on the table before me for a brief moment a body was promptly thrown in front of me, turning my once pristine pint into a splattered mess like everything else in this place. The second was a conversation with a jeans-clad Connacht woman complaining about the short-skirted high-heeled girls who looked unmistakeably like insects as they manoeuvred their way up and down the steps and in between groups of cattle-like men. The third was a conversation with an almost unconscious man on the street outside about whether John Lennon and Jeff Buckley would have made great music if they hadn’t died when they did. The rest of my many trips to these places are an alcoholic blur.
You can’t build anything from negatives, eventually you have to deal with the reality of the situation, to take a stand after you’ve crossed off the noisy, the dodgy, the places with the televisions and the corny guy on the guitar. If you decide to avoid the places with only the generic taps on the bar, Heineken, Budweiser, etc. you find yourself more often than not having to compromise. For one all the best music venues in the city have a fairly generic list of beers to choose from. The point being I suppose that craft beer pubs have their “thing” and music venues have their “thing”.
The great unspoken secret is that the these places tend to share a similar crowd. They get labelled “hipster” spots and so are avoided by the general populace. I don’t know where the label came from but it’s incredibly convenient because whatever a hipster might be it is infinitely better than a scumbag or a drunk lout if only for its discretion and seeming invisibility. That said, there is a definite triumvirate of locations that undoubtedly support a regular hipster constituency. Cassidy’s of Westmoreland Street is the centre-most of the three in the city and has the most regular loud recorded music atmosphere of them all. It boasts a large contingency of Trinity students of all walks, not specifically hipsterish and so is the safest for the wary.
As evening falls on Dublin a seating area expands slightly onto the street in front of Cassidy’s. You hold a conversation with someone as the red and white car lights manoeuvre in blurs behind their head and those not fortunate enough to be in a position to enjoy a pint pass by solemnly. They cast their eyes in at the comic book paintings that fill the windows and walls and as you sit there watching them watch you you don’t for a second wish to switch positions with them. The downstairs is quieter than the upstairs, good opportunities for mischief. The last group I was with there assigned dares. One guy took one of the boardgames that are lying around the place and asked a group of strangers to play with him. One of the girls asked him sympathetically if he comes to Cassidy’s alone to play boardgames with people. He was very convincing.
When you go to the toilet in Cassidy’s you wash your hand’s in a white sink completely covered in red spray paint. When you dry your hands the drier tells you “you’re better than you think you are”. The one thing that connects Cassidy’s and the next two venues is that people scribble like mad on the walls. Further down the road and the most “happening” spot is Whelan’s of Wexford Street. Wonderful poems fill the wall of the toilets including a markered in “who brings a marker to Whelan’s?” It’s a pub in front and a great venue in back that a good act can easily transform to their own needs. Upstairs is a smaller venue and a smoking area where you can escape to for a bit of quiet if necessary, that is from the music. Before long the crowds have mobbed and everyone finds themselves shouting to be heard over the shouting.
If you’re very important, as I have sometimes been judged to be and other times not, you can make your away to the up-upstairs part, where the bands hang out before and sometimes after the gigs. The décor is very 1960s, a comfy fireplace stands in the centre of one room with the DJing area just in the corner next to it, playing anything from Hank Williams to Bruce Springsteen. It’s usually a gregarious crowd that congregates here, as I found out the night I was chastised for my youth by a thirty-eight year old singer in a rock band and a forty-two year old Berlin night club owner, with dreadlocks and a strong south London accent. “Travel, stand up straight, don’t care what people think about you, etc.” A bit like your hippy parents trying to get you out of the house.
The final destination is a continuation south through the city to Portobello’s Bernard Shaw. A great picture of Daniel O’Connell with the words EMANCIPATE YOURSELF cut out in large letters greet you as the building comes into view. Without shame or self-consciousness it is the most unabashedly hipsterish venue in the city. A tiny bar area in the opening usually at night needs to be trawled through until you reach another small area done up in a typical night club style. This area is usually deserted, or occupied by first-timers who instinctively go towards the most familiar-looking place. Before the toilets there’s a seating area. The first time I went there they were projecting Sidney Chomet’s L’illusioniste. Before you come to this area however, is the entrance that most people are headed directly for when they come to the Bernard Shaw, that of the smoking area.
Pool tables, improvised seating, pizza on a double-decker bus and a lighting system like a Wong Kar-Wai film are the beginning of describing this area. A great variety of people hang around here. On top of the bus you can look out over the whole venue, which in the naked light of day is really little more than a desolate building site. You can smoke a hookah pipe and eat a pizza and drink a Hoegaarden and it’s all very easy on the senses. On the bus one night we met a Spanish couple and talked about the differences between Irish and Spanish drinking culture. “We usually drink outside,” the man explained, before adding “but we are not knackers.”
The difference between the nightclubs and the hipster spots are numerous and significant. It’s impossible to speak for everyone but the idea that anyone could be a frequenter of both types of places seems absurd, and that person is undoubtedly a poser or emotionally unstable. Having, at different points in my life, frequented both types, I know first hand the effects of the two. In the first you wake up the following morning, remembering nothing and with an empty wallet. In the second you remember most of what happened, and chances are you will see the people you met there again at some point. As for the places you would actually care to go to Cassidy’s, Whelan’s, and The Bernard Shaw are only three of many. But for the person with a desire for an actual good time without the hassle of exploring Dublin’s many surprises, they’re as safe a bet as you can get.