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.