herald

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Growing up in the shadow of Arthur G

At one minute to six on Thursday, in a campaign co-ordinated with military precision, thousands of visitors, and doubtless several natives too, will raise a glass to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Arthur Guinness's rather wonderful beverage.

It is a drink which has since become synonymous not only with Ireland but more specifically the city of Dublin.

And growing up in the Liberties, it was impossible to escape the presence of the St James's Gate brewery.

Not only did it occupy a huge area at the top of Thomas Street right down to the river and across to the Grand Canal and act as a major employer in the area, but there was also the matter of the smell.

On summer days, this entire part of the city had the tang of malt and hops in the air, an aroma I can still vividly recall and certainly with more fondness than the waft of animal carcasses from O'Keefe's knackers' yard on Mill Street.

Although immortalised in verse by Flann O'Brien in A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man from At Swim-Two-Birds and referred to throughout James Joyce's masterpiece Dubliners, the humble pint has received a major make-over in recent decades.

Snazzy advertising campaigns have increased the international awareness of the drink to the extent that the Guinness Storehouse is now the biggest tourist attraction in the country.

And if you'd told me that 20 years ago, I'd have assumed that you'd overdosed on Harp.

Taste

However, what is rather strange about Guinness is the way in which a lot of people seem to love the idea of a pint of creamy stout without actually being able to stomach the taste of it.

Certainly, you can bet that trays of pints won't be on the backstage riders for many of the acts who've been gathered for the Arthur's Day gigs.

There used to be this notion that Guinness didn't travel well and while that's now a nonsense due to modern production techniques, there remains the fact that nothing tastes quite like Guinness when you're drinking it in a proper, old-fashioned Dublin pub.

The drink and the city are inextricably linked in this way and there have been times when I've been out on the town and heading to proper pubs with people who almost felt guilty for ordering lager or ale.

On one such excursion to Mulligan's and The Palace Bar with the late Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens -- who'd studied Irish literature and wanted to drink in places he'd only imagined reading Dubliners while he was growing up in Brisbane -- he admitted that it felt wrong not to be drinking Guinness in these wonderful pubs, but he simply couldn't abide the taste of it.

As autumn starts to kick in and Dublin comes into its own of an evening, you'll find many a thirsty punter heading into the city in search of the best pubs.

Be it Peter's Pub, the Stag's Head, Fallon's, The Gravediggers, Frank Ryan's or The Long Hall (where Robert Smith of The Cure observed: "I don't believe in the afterlife, but if there's a bar in heaven I'd imagine it looks like this") -- they'll be wondering whether they've missed out by not acquiring a taste for the city's most famous product.

Enjoyment

Years ago, there was this almost mythical pursuit of premises that served a great pint and, if truth be told, in most city establishments nowadays there's not that much variation in the quality of the stout on offer.

But what can't be explained by any simple equation is how the surroundings and company affect one's enjoyment of what's in the glass.

That is the essence of the pub experience and there's no better place to experience that than in Dublin. Cheers Arthur, and thanks.

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