Dublin and the smell of wet wool. They'd jam the pubs around Trinity every night till "half-eleven," heads bunched in talk over small round tables loaded with glasses and cigarette butts. The College Mooney. The Bailey, where they say Joyce sat in the window and mused. Davy Byrne's with its plush redness and painted office girls. That one was like Clyde's.
Up the street was Neary's, smoky and Edwardian, where little boys in white coats held the cut-glass doors and brought you grog and oysters. The crowd there was older, the talk more serious. "So'e comes bootin' outta the backstretch like you wouldn't want to believe," I overheard a man say. He had been to the races that day and was standing tailors of hot malt all round. He even sent me one.
And then there was Toner's, Slatery's O'Donoghue's, on Merrion Row, just down from St. Stephen's Green . . .
Out in the country, where the "coulties" lived, it was different, of course. Louder talk. More drinking. More music. No deep Georgian splendor to lose yourself in. Somehow the Guiness always seemed thicker and better in the country, the head so foamy the barman would take it off for you with a knife.
Sometimes you'd see whole families in those rudely made public houses - the red-faced old men sitting against the walls with their "jars," the cattering mums, the little kids in short pants amusing themselves with made-up games. I remember staying for a night once in a town named Sixmilebridge in the west of Ireland. There were half-a-dozen going pubs for the maybe 500 people who lived there. I picked the brightest and found the place absorbed in a television showing of "Return to Peyton Place." "I think 'e 's out for the count," said the bartender after the heroine cracked her lover with a poker. As the plot thickened sexually, the place grew to an embarrassed, rapt silence. No one left.
The other night I dropped round to several bars in Washington, some Irish, to see what memories might click in. A few did, though most of what I saw seemed not so much honest revelry as an American yearning to feel a past that sometimes never was. Somehow, St. Pat's Day is our universal ethnic feast.
At the Hawk 'n' Dove on Capitol Hill, which is not in the least an Irish bar except between the 10th and 17th of March, Bing Crosby and "Danny Boy" are floating from the juke. The Irish colors are up. Bottles of Paddy and Old Fitzgerald have taken over the front row of the liquor stand. (On St. Patrick's Day the beer turns green and McSorley's ale goes on sale.) Paul Meagher is keeping bar.
"I began to flinch by late February every year," said Meagher morosely. "It's the dread of the day, I think, more than actually having to work it. I don't know, it's like trying to serve a thousand Lyndon Johnsons and Brendan Behans at once. Half of them press the flesh and the other half want to fight."
Next stop, the Four Provinces. This one's uptown on Connecticut and has a big, airy, county feel.Tonight the place is slung with bunting and posters. The Irish Breakdown, a quartet owing something to American blue-grass, is up on the bandstand in the midst of "The Wings Are Singing Freedom." "It's Tommy Makem and is about the troubles in the North, which please God will be over soon," the banjo player tells the audience.
The redhead who brings my Guiness says the place has been a zoo since Sunday. She's just begun at the Four Provinces and doesn't know what to expect - not quite, anyway, since she used to work St. Patty's Day at an Irish bar in New Jersey. "They tell me business has been great since 'Star Wars' opened next door," she shrugs.In a moment she is called away by the next table. Two white Russians, a gin and tonic and a Schlitz.
Across the street I duck my head in at Gallangher's Pub. Coolly clad couples talking head to head over red tablecoths and candlelight.A solo folksinger. It doesn't parse.
Nor does it parse at Ellen's Irish Pub farther down Connecticut. Outside on the walk there is a double sign: Irish Stew on one side, pizza on the other. Inside the place is quiet. A over a drink. I use the bathroom and leave for Matt Kane's.
Matt Kane's Bit O'Ireland looks and sounds authentic Irish - if not like something you'd find in Dublin, certainly in blue-collar Cork. Bodies two deep at the bar. Fine old brick walls. Sloping wooden floors. County colors hanging from the ceiling along with pinched road signs to Killarney (Cill Airne in the vernacular). Lots of old paddies here keeping time to Butch and Maeve on the bandstand. Downstairs: an inscribed photo from JFK. Also present: U.S. Marines off duty. You can tell by their haircuts. All ears.
Pat Troy goes to Kane's a lot. He is a locally prominent Irishman who runs a shop called the Irish Walk and has a show every Sunday on a Laurel radio station. He doesn't take the drop. When he comes in the bartender makes him a "Pat Troy Special" - a ginger ale and two cherries. "I'm a pioneer," he says.
At the entry way, cut in wood, there is this: "Come all ye young rebels and listen while I sing. For the love of one's country is a terrible thing."
Finally the Dubliner (4 F St. NW), in look, at least, the town's most Irish bar. Great paneled wood and mirrors and globes of tarnished yellow light. Drawings of Joyce and Behan. A little brass plate: Proper dress required.
Near midnight now. Tipsy students and savvy young Hill politicos with their ties pulled down. An odd gregarious salesman or two, including a chap from Belfast. Up on the stage, the Irish Tradition, a folk trio. That melancholy, almost abrasive scrape of fiddle. How can Irish reels sounds both doomed and merry? Last year the Dubliner sold 9,000 pints of draught and another 3,600 bottles of beer. By this afternoon the patrons will be out in the street waiting to get in. That wouldn't happen in Ireland. They'd find another pub.
Whenever I miss Ireland and Irish bars, I look up J.P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man." I did last night and came on this:
Sebastian went hurriedly to a building with an eagle over the door in which they were serving liquor.
"Good day, sir."
"Good day. Put a bottle of brandy on the bar."
"All of it, sir?"