Travel: Pubs and people give Dublin its real heart on a wintry weekend
Offbeat experiences and eccentric characters make Ireland's capital warming even on a chilly day, says Harry Green
FOR the briefest of moments, I think I've walked straight into a soap opera. As the door of the pub swings open and I take my first tentative step inside, the entire place falls silent. The chatter and the laughter, all the singing and revelry that I could hear outside, stop in an instant. A cluster of rugged faces stare back at me and I almost retreat into the dark evening I've left behind.
But this isn't a pub from the telly, it is the Blue Light in Sandyford and the most Irish of welcomes is soon bestowed upon me.
"Come on in," bellows an old beardy chap clutching a glass etched with the frothy remains of pint of Guinness. "Find a seat. Do you know any songs?" he adds warmly.
Within a second, the music restarts. In one dimly lit corner of the pub sit three men, one with a flute another with a fiddle. Together they jam happily, playing Irish folk tunes, the rest of us smiling and tapping our feet.
Then the mood takes a more sombre turn as the third man, my new beardy friend, closes his eyes and sings songs from his childhood, his haunting vocals sliding down the stone walls as a respectful silence descends.
This is probably a typical Wednesday night at the Blue Light, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it local, in the hilly countryside that hugs south Dublin, and I feel incredibly privileged to have stumbled upon it. But such good fortune doesn't happen by accident.
I'm on a pub crawl with a big difference. Having returned to Dublin for the first time in a decade and following past visits that left me a little underwhelmed, I'm determined to see Ireland's capital at its best. Keen to avoid the Guinness factory and the hop-on/hop-off buses that trundle along the banks of the River Liffey, I enlisted the help of MakeMyDay, a new company that specialises in original and engaging tours that showcase 'the real city'.
Promising a cliche-free experience, they had already set me up for a morning with a local historian, learning all about Dublin's complicated past and the urban legends that surround Trinity College. In the afternoon, I went kayaking along the Liffey with a band of musicians who would stop and play old songs under each bridge (the acoustics were phenomenal).
Then, it was time to meet pub guide Shane. Joined by a group of visiting Americans, we set off out of the city and into the Dublin Mountains. The word 'mountains' is a tad misleading (more hills than Himalayas), but the narrow and twisting country lanes are a revelation.
I didn't expect to experience such a true sense of rural Ireland so close to the capital. I imagined one would have to travel for hours, down miles of countryside and deep into the very heart of the island to find such glorious scenery and people... and pubs.
Shane shakes his head. "No," he says. "Most people come to Dublin and barely venture away from Temple Bar but the pubs there don't give a true sense of what it's all about. To do that, you have to leave the city behind."
Over the next few hours, we visit three wonderful and very different drinking dens, including Johnnie Fox's, said to be one of the oldest pubs in Ireland, dating back to 1798 and bursting with antiques and photos from centuries gone by.
Back in the city after one drink too many, Temple Bar – the epicentre of the city's nightlife – is lively indeed, with tourists drinking overpriced pints. Once home to wealthy merchants, the area later became rather unsavoury until a wave regeneration in the 1990s that saw it rise in popularity once again.
From there, it's a quick hop over the famous Ha'penny Bridge to my hotel, the Morrison, located right on the river. Its 145 minimalist rooms celebrate local culture by reproducing lyrics from famous Irish bands and singers on the wall, everyone from Westlife to Thin Lizzy.
Also offering the same impressive river view and located just a few minutes away is the Winding Stair restaurant, named after the Yeats poem (but, yes, there's also a winding and very creaky staircase). I feast on Lough Neagh venison carpaccio with parsnip fritters and steamed East Coast cockles and Connemara mussels.
Before bidding farewell to my new favourite city, there is just time for a walking tour, but not your average one. MakeMyDay have arranged for me to meet two born-and-bred Dubliners, James and Anthony, but they aren't professional tour guides. Instead, they take me on an eye-opening stroll around The Liberties, one of the city's most working class and colourful neighbourhoods.
It's not typically a place most visitors would consider – in fact, in the past it was best avoided completely – but James and Anthony are full of love, passion and defence of their patch.
"This is the heart and soul of Dublin," says James. They proudly show me around, from sprawling estates and alleyways alive with street art to the haunted ruins of a medieval prison, all the while sharing childhood memories including riding on the back of Guinness trucks and that of the naughty old cabbage salesman who would famously wait for husbands to leave before making his deliveries.
I can't help but smile. It's always the people that make a place. You just have to know where to find them.
:: Tours are available from MakeMyDay (020 8895 6828; makemyday.travel). Prices vary.
:: Rooms at the Morrison Hotel are priced from £143 (morrisonhotel.ie) room-only.
:: For more information see ireland.com