The click of my heels on the pavement pauses as we stop at the mouth of an alleyway. It has all the requisite charm of a European side street: cobblestones, low lighting, and every so often a tumble of noise from a nearby doorway.
“This is the one, Kelly – one of the oldest pubs,” says my friend, tugging me along toward the bright spot halfway down the alley. A Guinness sign shines like a beacon, and I wonder at the ease with which we use superlatives. Is this how we travel? How we mark a good time? At the oldest, tallest, widest, finest, darkest, most, best place in all the land.
I’ve been to bars. I was a bartender for 4 years during my undergrad years, at a hole-in-the-wall college bar. I know the smell (cigarettes and stale beer), the feel (the bar rag sticking on a spill), the sight (packed house, patrons on the prowl) and the sound (Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Frankie Blue Eyes crooning from the corner jukebox). But a pub? That’s a bar of a different color.
The noise comes first. The heavy wooden door yawns open and the hand on the small of my back nudges me into the room; glasses clinking, booming laughter, the steady thrum of conversation. It’s packed. It’s warm. The light is yellow like sunshine and puddles on the scarred wooden tables, the piles of winter coats cast into corners. Immediately, we are drawn in.
The boys march toward the bar, and the girls locate a table in a back room. There are people everywhere – ruddy faced, full of gestures and the bravado of storytellers. The conversation rises and falls around us, and I realize that although it’s loud, this is not the cacophony of a bar where you yell at your friends and lose your voice. This is the sound of people. Saturday night, no work tomorrow, pass me a pint, people.
My cider is cold and crisp like the apples it came from. My cheeks are flushed and I’m relieved when a nearby couple vacates a low table so our group can sit down. A rowdy bunch of women are roaring in the corner booth, under a long mirror which extends the room and reflects plaques on the walls that are polished to a high gloss. Strangers share tables and stories, friends pick up the next round of pints and barkeeps maintain a steady banter in a rhythm older than time.
How easy to settle into a place like this, at the elbow of an Irishman with a brogue as thick as his Guinness.
This, is an Irish pub.
[photo 1]: Gravity Bar, Guinness Storehouse, St. James Gate, Dublin, Ireland
Impressions are based on Duke of York pub, Belfast, Northern Ireland