Foolin’ In Doolin

The town of Doolin, Ireland, circa 2003.

“Two people got blown off the Cliffs this year so far,” the bus driver informed the nearby passenger who had asked about the Cliffs of Moher.  Our bus from Dublin to Doolin was nearing its destination, and with that, the famous Cliffs of Moher.  “In fact, two to three people usually die each year because they get too close to the edge without minding the high winds.”

I guess I would have to be cautious while at the Cliffs.  I didn’t bring my parachute.  But before the Cliffs of Moher, there was Doolin!

My travel buddy Alisa and I had decided to go to Doolin, a small town in County Clare, and also visit the Cliffs while we were there.  Why Doolin? Because a friendly (maybe drunk) Irishman in Quay’s bar in Dublin recommended it as we knocked back the pints.  Always follow the advice of the locals no matter how inebriated.  Well, not always because they might advise something crazy like snorkeling in a giant vat of mayonnaise or running for political office.  But this gentleman had bought me a Guinness, so I thought he was at least worth listening to. 

Doolin is well known for having fun and lively music sessions, which is why I wanted to go there.  You see, I love Irish traditional music.  And in Ireland, traditional music is a large part of the culture.  In pubs around the country musicians will gather at various times to play tunes and songs together.  Since it is traditional music, most musicians and singers know many of the same tunes and songs.  They gather together to play music they love while consuming metric tons of beer for the fun of it.  These gatherings are called sessions.  

During these sessions, if you happen to get drunk enough to run around the town naked while laughing at telephone poles in the process, or you make a whole slew of new friends, or you learn what “whack fo’ the diddle” actually means, or you make a fool of yourself by trying to speak with an Irish accent, that’s all part of the fun. No judgement.

Doolin here we come!  The only real hurdle was getting there on time.

You see, the traditional music sessions in Dublin ended around 9:30pm to 10:00pm, and after that, they pumped out the latest popular music on their sound systems. So we were a little disheartened after we bought our bus tickets and realized we wouldn’t arrive in Doolin until just after 9:30pm.  As we later found out, we had nothing to worry about.

After scaring the tourist who had asked about the Cliffs of Moher, the bus driver dropped us off in Doolin.  Alisa and I hurried to the hostel where we purchased our bunks and dashed up to the dorm room.  We didn’t even bother trying to lock up our packs.  We just threw them on the bunks and dashed away, flying out of the hostel and down the lane.

Not far from our hostel we saw the sign for O’Connor’s pub just up the street.  To me, it was like a beacon of good times ahead.  Especially since the sun was setting and its beams of light illuminated the door, as if the rays of the heavens guided us to the pub while a chorus of angels cast their holy singing voices in welcoming chants of, “Drink here!”

The street was eerily quiet as we approached the pub.  It seemed we were the only people awake and about in this small, Irish town.  But we learned the truth when we stepped inside.  A cacophony of sound greeted us, as we heard traditional music playing as soon as the heavy, wooden door was barely a few inches ajar.  Once fully opened, the din of people chatting and the clank, clink, crash of pint glasses added to the mix.  Inside, O’Connor’s pub was packed more full than an arena crammed with teenage girls and old creepy dudes at a Brittany Spears concert. 

I looked back outside, and saw almost no live humans while the inside was full of churning bodies, music, beer, and good spirits.  I knew this was the reason for the empty street.  Everyone was inside the pub.  A good sign.

Alisa and I threaded our way through the entryway and found the session band.  There were two fiddlers, a flute player, a guitar player, a button accordion player, and a bodhran player.  This bodhran player had the most rustic and unique bodhran I’ve ever seen. His bodhran’s frame was made from tree bark, instead of the nice, finished wood that has been sanded and stained.  A crude goatskin was stretched tight over it and fastened in place with rope.  And it sounded fucking amazing.

The music was rocking in full swing, belting out favorites like Drowsie Maggie, The Star of Munster, The Mason’s Apron, and Julia Delayney’s.  The session band had the attention of the entire pub.  Given the amount of people in here, probably the population of the whole town.

The next thing on our list, and this is important to complete your all-Ireland experience at a country pub, was beer.  Easier said than done at a Doolin pub.

Navigating this crowded pub to reach the bar was like a mosh pit at a Megadeth concert.  I would know.  The only difference was that here in this modest country pub there were no Mad Max villians or guys wearing chain mail.  This made approaching the bar a little less dangerous.  Only a little.  I may have seen an orc from Lord of the Rings, but I can’t be too sure.  It was in passing and we were thirsty.

Alisa and I managed to reach the bar and get some pints with only a minor bit of elbowing and sword fighting, then returned to the band to enjoy the rest of the evening.  The band would play a rollicking set of tunes, and we would drink more beer.  The band would later take a five or ten minute break, and we would drink more beer.  Every now and then a new fiddler or flute player would show up and the other musicians greeted him or her happily.  

We drank more beer.

Sometimes in between instrumental sets, someone in the pub would break out in song.  That’s the beauty of a session.  Anyone can join in.  One particular man that sang several songs that evening stood out in my mind.  I don’t remember his name, but I’ll refer to him as the Old Irish Singer.  He stood next to the session musicians the entire evening.  He was an older gentleman with short, gray hair, which was covered in a wool tam o’shanter cap.  He was neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat, but did possess a bit of paunch.  He carried his paunch like a badge of honor and wore a coarse, tweed jacket most of the evening with a scarf draped around the back of his neck.

We guzzled more beer.

The Old Irish Singer always had a pint of Guinness in one hand and a set of wooden spoons in the other.  During the instrumental sections of music, the reels and jigs, he merrily clacked away with the spoons in rhythm with the tunes.  In between the reels and jigs, he would belt out some of the best renditions of Irish traditional favorites that I’ve ever heard.  And he did it all acapella.  

We continued beering drink.

The music session wasn’t scheduled for any set timeframe.  The band played until late into the night.  By the time they ended, many of us remained in the pub chatting and socializing.  We got to chatting with the Old Irish Singer about how awesome everything was.  He informed us that O’Connor’s was one of three pubs in Doolin; all three equally busy and raucous every night, and that he alternated between O’Connor’s and Mcgann’s.  

The effect had no beer on us, because we could liquor our hold!  So more beer please!

This went on until around 3:30am or so.  It would have continued until dawn, but one of the men behind the bar, maybe the owner, I don’t know, went about the main room and shouted, “All right, we’re closing!  Get the hell out of here!”

Alisa and I stumbled out of O’Connor’s pub and into the pitch black.  Yes, it was pitch black because Doolin was too small to be bothered to put up streetlights.  We allowed our eyes to adjust to the dark, allowing the chilly air to shake off the beer goggles, and then staggered back to the hostel while narrowly avoiding a fall into the nearby stream.  

People shouldn’t leave random streams just lying around where hapless drunks could fall in!  Think of the safety hazards!  Falling into the stream would have been quite awkward, because we would be standing at the edge of the Cliffs of Moher the following day.

Myself during the session at O’Connor’s pub wearing an Indiana Jones fedora like a proper dork. Circa 2003.
The Cliffs of Moher.

Dublin Shenanigans

Me at The Temple Bar, wearing a fedora like a proper dork.

I didn’t mean to start a mosh pit at a dance club in Dublin. It just kinda happened. I swear.  After all, I was in Ireland and there was much alcohol involved. But before I get into that let me fill you in on how I came to be in Ireland’s amazing capital city, and some of the shenanigans that took place.

I had always wanted to visit Ireland.  In June 2003, I finally arrived there after taking a train from London to Hollyhead, and then a ferry trip from Hollyhead to Dublin.  The ferry pulled in to Dublin at about 5pm, and then I met my friend and travel buddy, Alisa, at the hostel in the middle of the city.  So what does any country-respecting, culturally aware and knowledgeable travel wannabe do in Dublin? Listen to great Irish music of course! And Drink. And see the historical and cultural sights and wonders of the Irish capital. And Drink. 

That’s right.  By the time we were checked into the hostel, it was evening and the Book of Kells, Dublin Castle, and the St. James Gate Brewery were closed anyway.  So Alisa and I hit the Temple Bar district like every other tourist, ready to do battle with our livers, and started knocking back all that great Irish beer.  We enjoyed the lively and fun Irish music sessions, where local musicians come to the pubs to play traditional music. It’s fucking amazing.

I must say that Irish people are very friendly.  They’ll approach complete strangers to say “Hello, how are you?” and “Where are you from?” and “Care to join me for a pint?”  We had great fun meeting local people in Dublin. And even greater fun pub crawling and starting mosh pits with them.

The surprising thing I found about Ireland was that there were people from all over the world there.  Irish (der!), French, English, Norwegians, Daleks, fellow Americans, Canadians, Australians, Wookies, Germans, and the occasional Nerd.  And we were all drinking in Irish pubs together, having a great time. See! World peace can be achieved with alcohol!

Overall, day one in Dublin was great.  Alisa and I had a great time. Now, on to day two!

During the day I toured the St. James Gate Brewery.  This is where Guinness is made and all things holy occur.  At the end of the brewery tour, one will end up at the top of the facility in a place called the Sky Bar.  From here, you get a free pint of Guinness, and can look out over the city of Dublin from several stories up.    The Guinness Brewery is a Mecca for beer aficionados, drunks, barley connoisseurs, alcoholics, Irish culture lovers, and those seeking the world record on something like, “most live hamsters fitting into a single human mouth.”

Afterwards, Alisa and I visited Trinity College to see the Book of Kells.  For those who don’t know about the Book of Kells it’s actually four books, not one.  The Book of Kells are the four gospels of the New Testament which were written and hand drawn over 1,200 years ago by Irish monks.  They are an orgy of intricate artwork, color and Celtic knotwork, which show holy scenes from the Bible. There is so much hand-drawn artwork, one sometimes forgets there is the occasional gospel verse.  I wish I could include pictures of the stunning artwork, but when I tried to take a shot one of the security staff gave me the stink eye and said, “No photography allowed.”

We dined at one of the many Irish cafes and then bivouacked back at the hostel.  The battle plan was to gather more intelligence from our fellow hostel guests about the local pubs for our planned drinking assault.  Before we set out, Alisa informed me she would be staying in that night, and wanted to retire early. No worries, so I set out for the Temple Bar and commenced with Operation Guzzle and Flirt.

The evening went well.  I was knocking back the pints while socializing with a random group of Irishmen and a couple of American girls.  We all ended up pub crawling around the Temple Bar district together. The Quays Bar, Farrington’s, and others were all invaded and conquered by us.  One of the friendly Irishmen we crawled with invited us all back to his flat for more drinks.  

While at his flat, someone suggested a nightclub.  I don’t remember the name, but it was one of those underground clubs (literally). I do remember that our Irish host had to knock on the door, speak to someone through a tiny window in the door like a speakeasy, where we then paid our cover charge before being allowed in.  And by in, I mean we descended a flight of stairs to enter the dark and smoky club, thumping with pop music and bass beats. I half expected there to be vampires and mobsters…or both.

By this time I was drunk enough to pay 9 Euro for a Long Island Iced Tea.  That’s about 14 bucks in ‘Merican. And half of that drink ended up on the dance floor.  I shouldn’t neglect to mention that I was wearing an Indiana Jones-style fedora all night.  Because I’m a dork.  

Anyway, while I was on the dance floor Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started playing in the club.  The energetic guitar riffs mixed with the blood in my alcohol system made me want to head bang and rock out.  So I did just that, and while doing so…may have accidentally bumped into everyone next to me on the dance floor.  In good-natured fashion and sportsmanship, several of the other Irish gentlemen on the dance floor took to my drunken nudging by kindly bumping me and their neighbors back.  Some people didn’t seem too keen on the idea (I can’t imagine why), but many others loved it and joined in. Next thing I know, there was a full-blown mosh pit going in the middle of the dance floor at this nightclub in Dublin.  Good times!

As the end of the evening drew near (more like early morning), I returned to the hostel.  You see, in a hostel you purchase a bed in a room full of bunks that are shared with other travelers.  That’s what makes them so cheap. As I entered the dorm room I noticed Alisa wasn’t in her bunk. In my inebriation I felt I needed to make sure she was ok.  One of the other travelers in the room saw me looking around.

“Are you looking for your friend?” she asked me.

“Yes.  I just want to make sure she’s alright?”

“I think I saw her in the next dorm room,” she pointed out the room to me.

I walked to the indicated dorm room and knocked on the door.   Not a millisecond later the door flung open. Out poured two buck-naked men who ran down the halls of the hostel.  Not only were they clad in their birthday suits, they were giggling as they pranced around this Irish establishment with cries of, “Tee hee hee!”

Then a third man, fully clothed, poked his head out of the room and yelled towards his naked companions, “You couple of sausage jockeys!”

I walked into the room and found my friend there.  She was also fully clothed, but suspiciously had her camera around her neck.  I looked at her, then back at the two naked gentlemen who were just returning from their late night hostel prancing session, and then back at her.  Alisa just looked at me with a complete innocent look on her face, shrugged, and asked, “What?”

The night pretty much ended after that.  I nursed a hangover the following day by taking some headache meds and seeing more of the city’s sites.  The next night was another dose of pub-crawling with great people, beer, and craic. And then we went to Doolin and Galway for more shenanigans.    But that’s another story.