It’s 9:30 p.m. at The Blue Light Pub in the dark, mist-fingered foothills of the Dublin Mountains just south of Dublin city limits. In the glowing, stone-walled front room, a gaggle of seated musicians is coaxing a chilly spring evening into a toasty night of toe-tapping bonhomie. With smiles at every table, most visitors appear to be tucked in for the duration.
Nowhere does pubs better than Ireland where “100,000 welcomes” is a standard greeting. But, while many tourists think a Guinness in Dublin’s ever-packed Temple Bar area is the bucket-list way to go, the Emerald Isle’s countryside tavern scene is far more magical for travelling pub pilgrims, especially when traditional music is on the menu.
“I’ve been playing here on and off for years,” says Feargal Chambers, virtuoso of the uilleann pipes, a mellow-toned bagpipe subspecies that plays well alongside other instruments. At The Blue Light, where local musicians gather most evenings, this can include flute, accordion and the bodhrán drum, its double-headed stick beating the time on many of tonight’s infectious jigs and folk songs.
As the communal revelry unfolds, aided by glasses of “ebony nectar” and craft beer by regional producer Four Provinces Brewing Co., distant Dublin shines like a starry backdrop through the windows. “This pub has always been a great gathering place for locals and strangers alike,” says Chambers, adding he loves playing wistful ballads like “Dublin in the Rare Ould Times” for misty-eyed audiences.
It’s this warm fusion of conviviality and grassroots authenticity that inspired Shane O’Donoghue to dream up Rural Tours a few years back. “When I travel, I always love experiencing places like the locals do,” O’Donoghue says. “So I asked myself: if I was visiting Dublin, what would I want to do?”
The answer was to drive small groups of visitors from the city to some of the region’s loveliest, but hard-to-reach rustic pubs. Word of mouth soon spread, and O’Donoghue now offers two main tours: one to the bars of the Dublin Mountains and another adding the watering holes of the wider Wicklow Mountains area a bit further south.
“Good Irish pubs make you feel welcome as soon as you walk through the door,” says O’Donoghue. “There should be good entertainment and a good selection of beverages, from local beers to the best-poured Guinness around. But, for me, it’s the people that make good Irish pubs great.”
Among these solicitous locals is Joey Comerford, choreographer of the eye-popping live dance performances at Johnnie Fox’s Pub & Restaurant, a 220-year-old hillside pub in Glencullen village. “Our hooley [dance party] is one of the oldest in the area, and it combines traditional dance and 1970s step dancing with a contemporary edge,” he says.
Audiences can watch dancers work themselves into a high-stepping, Riverdance-style frenzy on the small stage, but the pub itself is also a showstopper. Its labyrinthine interior features several museum-like rooms crammed with old tools, yesteryear photos and intriguing knick-knacks that include the bottled ashes of a patron who never wanted to leave.
But, while there are also live music shows here, it’s the hooleys most visitors write home about, says Comerford. “We interact with the audiences, bring them on stage and basically feed off their energy to make sure we all have one big party together,” he says.
In the Wicklow Mountains, the energy is more relaxed, but the welcome is equally heartfelt at family-run Glenmalure Lodge, a gable-roofed 19th-century pub tucked against the trees in a glacial valley ornamented with numerous sheep. And, while perfectly poured Guinness, peat-fuelled fires and chatty staff breed a sociable ambiance, it’s the comfort grub that turns many visitors into fans.
“We’re very proud of our menu. Many of our ingredients are born and bred in the hills here,” says owner Anne Dowling. “Our most popular dish is probably the roast leg of Wicklow lamb with mint sauce, but the venison steaks are also a favourite.”
The pub itself, marinated in local flavour, is just as tasty, figuratively speaking, especially in summer, when its outside tables are the region’s most-sought-after alfresco hangouts.
The secret to great Irish country pubs, says Dowling, isn’t complicated. But, she adds, her team never rests on its laurels. “No matter where you’re from, we want all our visitors to feel welcome and looked after here. And they should always remember their experience, long after they’ve gone home.”