How to Down a Pint in a Real Irish Pub

How To: There's more to it than simply bellying up to a bar and ordering a beer. Cheryl Donahue explains how to become a first-class punter (and if you think we're talking football you really need this).

12.06.06 | 2:01 AM ET

imageThe situation: You’ve just landed at Shannon Airport after a long flight, cleared customs and emerged into a misty gray morning in the west of Ireland. Never mind the hour. It’s time for a pint. But don’t squander your first drink in the Emerald Isle with a coachload full of tourists at some Day-Glo megapub alongside the highway. You want the real experience, the traditional Irish pub: the place where the locals gather for news, companionship and a bit of the black stuff. And you want to fit right in. Herewith, your pub primer.

Where to go: Despite the bright paint and endearing names—Tir na nÓg, Whiskey in the Jar, Molly Malone’s, to name a few—no proper pub was ever found alongside an Irish national road. The first thing to do is get off the highway. Pop into a shop and pick up a copy of The Irish Times or the local paper, so you’ll have something to read. Then look for a small village with at least three pubs. A one-pub village won’t cut it, as everyone and their brother will be there, from the permanently drunk old-timer spewing forth about the Black & Tans to the fresh-faced passers-by. You’re looking for the true local spot. So pick a pub that has the proprietor’s name painted above an opaque front window, and a solid front door from which it appears nothing ever enters or leaves.

Making an entrance: Push open the pub door. You’re likely to find a row of large, silent men in Wellington boots drinking pints at the bar. If it’s the weekend or evening, you’ll also find intimate groups of men and women at tables and in the snug (a small, enclosed space found in many bars, where you can sit for a private drink). All will fall completely silent when you enter, then briefly glance your way before redirecting their eyes pintwards. Keep your cool. In the fleeting moment that the locals acknowledge your entrance, give a nod. Do not try to find a table first. At this point, the barman is the only person in the pub who will speak to you. His professional code demands it. So head straight for the bar.

Ordering your first pint: Order a pint of Guinness. Divert not from this tactic. Women can opt for a glass (a half pint). But do not scan the taps to see what’s on draught. Do not order a piña colada, gin and tonic or a margarita. Above all, do not order a Budweiser.

A proper Guinness requires two pours. Wait. As your pint settles, have a casual look around the bar. Admire the memorabilia, inspect the photo of the local Gaelic football team, and perhaps scout out a table for later. Be sure to return to the bar before the pint is served—you’ll know the Guinness has finished settling when the barman moves it off the rubber mat and onto the bar. Letting an unaccompanied pint sit on the counter reflects poorly on your commitment. Pay the barman. Don’t worry about tipping—it’s not expected. 

Fitting in: Sit at the bar, read your newspaper and drink your pint. Or go to an empty table, read the paper and drink your pint. Adopt an attitude of self-possessed receptiveness. You are there, you’re reading your paper and you are fine. You’re not completely engrossed in the day’s news, however. Look around a bit, smile at someone if they smile at you, but do not unleash a huge American grin—the Irish find this slightly maniacal. Appear open, but not unhinged.

The barman may engage you in a bit of conversation. Answer in a friendly and direct manner, giving away only what is necessary. If the opportunity for a witticism arises, and you’re the witty type, go for it. Otherwise, play it straight—everyone is listening.

Eventually, one of the punters (bar patrons) will start a conversation. If you understand what he or she is saying (accents in the west of Ireland can be tricky), respond. If not, smile and nod—unless the person is frowning, in which case, frown and nod.

Wait for the next punter to arrive. Look up briefly from your glass in acknowledgement, then redirect your glance pintwards. You are now part of the crowd. 

Advanced technique: Show cultural awareness. Before arriving in Ireland, rent the complete box set of Father Ted (a British sitcom about three priests that was a huge hit in Ireland and gives new meaning to the word irreverent). If someone breaks into an exaggerated “Aw, go on, go on, go on,” you will know to respond with a chuckling, “Aw, you will, you will.”

Find out in advance whether it’s the Gaelic football or hurling season, and how the local team is doing. 

Be ready with a song. A bout of singing can break out at any time in Ireland, particularly in a pub. Sing a song. Aw, go on. That silent, becapped farmer sitting next to you at the bar may suddenly give forth with 12 sad verses, delivered in a heartrending tenor. This is his party piece. Have yours prepared, too. 

Ask a random punter, “Is it yourself then?” It’s colloquial expression used to express mild surprise at seeing someone in a place you might not have expected to see them. Wait for the answer: “Sure, who else would I be?”

And finally: If you find yourself in a city pub in Ireland, your biggest challenge will be getting the barman’s attention. To combat the steady drunken roar emitted by three open floors of trendy young Dubs (Or Corkonians or Galwegians), try adapting the technique for rural pubs by focusing on a manageable subset of people in the pub. Use the nod, make eye contact, order that pint of Guinness (except in Cork, where Murphy’s is the local stout) and set yourself up at the bar. When Bono walks in, give him the nod and go back to your Irish Times. If it’s Colin Farrell, buy him a pint.

Photo by Cheryl Donahue.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) is a freelance writer who's been living in Ireland since 1998, mostly in the rural west. She has written about running with sheep for Kerry In View and Wren's Day in Dingle for International Living, and she maintains a blog. She's been known to give a song or two when the singing's on, but never the "Fields of Athenry."

11 Comments for How to Down a Pint in a Real Irish Pub

Darren 12.11.06 | 2:53 AM ET

I’m a non-drinker, but a former habitant of Dublin. It’s my understanding that if you really want to fit in, you should just place your order as ‘a pint’. The default, I believe, is Guinness.

Michele 12.29.06 | 3:49 PM ET

I have a friend who went to Ireland and was taught by locals in a pub to tap his pint of Guinness w/ a coin to listen for the sound to change before drinking it.  Is this true or just a prank on an American?

Carol 12.29.06 | 4:44 PM ET

I’ve been to Ireland several times and once while in a pub in Galway City I noticed people ording pints with blackcurrent syrup in them. Yum!

Wally 12.29.06 | 5:37 PM ET

Part of the Guinness lore is the Tale of the Seven Rings.  Each sip leaves a ring of foam, 7 sips is all that is necessary to down a pint - leaving 7 rings.

Ex-Barmaid 12.29.06 | 6:57 PM ET

Ohh, you silly Americans, of course you tip in Ireland.  It’s insulting and rather American not to do so.

a. donahue 12.29.06 | 9:00 PM ET

“A Pint of Plain is you only Man” —wish I could remember the source—think it was Flan O’Brien At Swin Two Birds.  Whatever, there is really nothing like a great pint—slainte.  A Donahue

Ronan 01.07.07 | 12:15 AM ET

No, please!! To all you lovely kind Americans out there. As an Irishman and a rural Irishman at that,whose family ran a pub for years, please do not tip the barman!!!!!!! especially in a country pub..It would only embarass and shock. Please trust me on this. If you want to express your gratitude, when you next buy a round tell the barman, “And one for yourself” ie you’re including him (or her) in the round. It usually doesn’t mean he or she will drop glasses and have a drink with you, though it sometimes might. It just means the price of a pint will be taken from you and spent or saved as is the barmans wish. But again, I must insist; only do this if the barman is particularly friendly or helpful or has given you some benefit or some sort, ie. a good tip on a horse or whatever ..And even then it’s really, really not expected. As a rule simply..Don’t tip! If you do, especially as a tourist, you’ll run the danger of looking stupid!

Timen Swijtink 02.07.07 | 7:30 AM ET

This article offers an overly complex view of having a good time, in my opinion. One thing it fails at is explaining that all the points are worthless if you can’t relax and enjoy your beer.

That said, the article is a nice read and has inspired me to do a similar piece on Bia Hoi which is part of Hanoi’s beer culture.

Phil 05.16.07 | 1:35 PM ET

I think this is a great primer. Unfortunately Ms. Donahue neglected to enlighten would-be pub crawlers on the Art of the Round. This could lead to some embarassment. Fortunately Wikipedia explains it all in good detail:

Kelsie Noland 12.31.07 | 7:46 PM ET

Haha!! I thouroughly enjoyed reading this piece! Though not quite legal to buy alcohol here in the states, I’ll remember these tips in the future. And sad to say, if Bono walked in while my pint was being served, I would very rudely leave it sitting on the bar to fling myself upon him and steal his sunglasses.

donald reid 10.26.08 | 2:01 AM ET

i don’t really have a comment, but i come from newfoundland, canada a province that has a very very strong irish background. but when it comes to tipping, we always do it, i always do. if i get good service and people r helpful the atmosphere is right and the pints r good then by god i will give u a tip. i always wanted to come to ireland, and i always been a big drinker of guinness and love having a good time. but the info that i have read gives me some good tips to remeber when i do come to ireland!

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