My first night in Belfast, I asked a porter to point me to a pub and set off for the historic Crown Bar. I'd come to Ireland officially for the scenery, but unofficially because I love a good pint, and I figured what better place for a nice Canadian girl to sample different brews than in cozy Irish pubs, chatting up people who wouldn't necessarily assume I was hitting on them. I was single, but I wasn't looking for anything beyond fun conversation, or craic, as the locals call it.
Yet despite its warm Victorian decor, the Crown Bar turned out to be, in fact, a bar just like the ones I avoided back home. The crowd was young, stood around holding their drinks, and had to shout to be heard above the Top 40 music. I didn't want to give up too fast, so I elbowed in looking for a group I might mosey up to. A few sheepish minutes later, I elbowed my way back out. Other "pubs" I tried in Belfast had the same party atmosphere. The city has sure bounced back from the Troubles and become a happenin' spot. Its downtown seems to be all about shopping and nightclubbing.
Out West, Galway's cute main drag gave off a more welcoming vibe. I sat outdoors, watching buskers and sipping Guinness. Then I discovered the local pale ale, Galway Hooker. (That's after the fishing boat, not the ladies of ill repute.) I was smitten. A pint of that mellow goodness and I practically sailed back to my seaside hotel.
I stopped in at O'Connor's Famous Bar because I liked that it had a wheelbarrow and broomsticks perched on its ledge. I'm a sucker for places with personality. Inside, my jaw dropped. Hanging from the rafters was a pirate's booty of copper pots, jugs, lamps, wheels, buoys, swords and maps. The fireplace even had laundry strung over it. A band played pop tunes on old-timey instruments, while office types danced and their mates laughed along. This was my kind of pub - bustling yet intimate, whimsical yet raw. I stood around smiling for ages. But no one smiled back. This crowd was deeply into their own craic. I left feeling enchanted and lonesome at the same time. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad getting hit on after all.
The medieval town of Derry was my last hope to enjoy a pint the way I'd seen in my emerald imagination. The tourism-booth lady recommended Tinney's, a pub where the regulars were sure to talk your ear off. I ordered a Guinness at the bar. (Galway Hooker isn't served up North, alas.) A woman a few seats over smiled and asked, "American?" I replied, "Canadian." She cringed and apologized. I joked there was no need now that Barack Obama's President, and thus began a rollicking evening with Aileen and her friends. When I got hungry, the Tinney's bartender gave me his own chocolate bar. "He never does that for anybody!" Aileen said. Pete the Plumber bought me a pint and invited me back to his apartment for coffee. I declined, but did a little jig inside at the attention. The pub's owner, Paddy, came in with his wife and showed me around, pointing out his ancestors on the walls and bringing me another pint. The bartender made me take home a Guinness T-shirt. I was beginning to think the reason Ireland went broke in the recession is because they give everything away to tourists.
I woke up the next morning with a little hangover and a big smile. Now, that was craic! I didn't think anything could top Tinney's, but on my last night in Ireland, I figured I should try a pub in Dublin too, even though I'd been told not to expect much from that city - "the armpit of Ireland," scoffed my Celtic-blooded colleague. A waitress suggested Grogan's Castle Lounge. I sat outside with two women who grumbled non-stop about their country. Not exactly sparkling conversation. I left them to stroll the famed Temple Bar area but found it full of hucksters. So I went back and took a photo of Grogan's as a keepsake.
Then, vaguely defeated, I joined the women again. A buddy of theirs had arrived. He and I started chatting. He complimented my nose and made fun of my comfy Canadian clothes. He invited me to another pub. He kissed me in the street. And just like that, I was no longer single. I now live with this lad in Dublin, where we go out often for our beloved Galway Hooker ale. In our living room hangs that photo I took of Grogan's, showing my lad sitting there laughing, moments before my Irish pub crawl changed our lives.
Special to The Globe and Mail