Country Pubs of Northern Ireland
Martin Mooney encourages you to visit his favourite pubs
What follows is not a guide or an advertising feature. If anything, I’d rather keep my favourite Northern Irish country pubs a secret. Part of the charm of a rural boozer is, of course, its difference from the standing-room-only drinking barns of Belfast. They are, or should be, places where drinks and conversation and meditation on the trials and small triumphs of a quiet life are the order of the day. So I won’t be naming names – or not that many anyway – because I just don’t want to see you there!
No, this is part personal survey, part memoir. It’s a piece of atmospherics, a celebration of a stereotype, and a homage to a cliché. If you have your own opinion, your own favourite, write your own article. But in the meantime, and in the interests of scholarly order, I’ll deal with the subject under a number of headings, the first being…
I’m a townie, and my parents didn’t often own a car. But I was introduced early to the joys of country pubs which, in memory, seemed always to have gardens where my brother and I could bicker to our heart's content while our folks enjoyed a quiet drink away from the small-town local. Parental pints snatched during the ‘rest-stops’ on Ulsterbus mystery tours became, in time, teenage pints shared with them on weekend drives into odd corners of the country, finding gems and not always remembering where we’d found them.
There is, for example, the post office-cum-grocery store-cum-pub in the tiny village of Leitrim in the Mournes. We visited on more than one occasion, yet each time seemed to stumble on the place, and each time never being sure that it was in fact open until our drinks were in our hands. Something there essential to the country pub: it should have something of the shebeen about it, and the possibility of the lock-in should hover tantalisingly in the fag-smoke beneath the yellowed ceiling.
Though the air of borderline legality (or the lack of a modern communications strategy) can be taken too far. I remember stopping at a watering hole in deep dark Glenariff, and not seeing a member of staff for fifteen minutes. We had all seen too many horror films (this was the 80s, and ‘video nasties’ were ripping apart the fabric of civilisation) and jokes about self-service were rapidly replaced by visions of a family never seen again.
The car is of course the greatest threat to the rural pub – or at least, the perfectly sensible laws that govern the use of a car and the use of alcohol at the same time. Writing as one who trashed a Fiat Uno – and barely scratched a large elm tree – en route from one of his favourite country pubs, I can safely say that driving to one, getting twisted, and driving home is to be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, it would be a shame to see these places lost. Find a teetotal friend with a driving licence, then, and force them to wait in the carpark while you keep a vital part of our heritage alive.
A country pub has to be in the countryside, of course, or in a very small village. So this article won’t mention the wonderful drinking dens of Portaferry, such as The Slip Inn, even though they have many of the features celebrated here. Fishing villages don’t really count, either. And hotels anywhere have to win inclusion by being small and infrequented, and having bars which function almost as semi-detached annexes to the main business of room and board.
No, country pubs crop up in hamlets, at cross-roads, or – especially – on their own in the middle of nowhere. The Mill Bay Inn on Islandmagee is an interesting example, having had in its history a hotel attached, a fine line in locally-sourced seafood, and a few cottages scattered along the road that ran past it. It was still, though, a place locals would dander down the island to, and dander – less directly – home from.
Fixtures and fittings
They don’t have to be open fires and bric-a-brac, though original bric-a-brac, the genuine detritus of years of operation, is always good. Nothing a museum would look twice at, though. No rare finds. Stuff your granny might have chucked if she could have reached that high shelf. A china dog with a decent layer of fag-tar. A polished brass plate with a sailing ship. One of those pictures made with string on a black felt background.
A turf fire, at least in the east of Northern Ireland, is pushing it, a too-deliberate stab at the nostalgia-tourists. So too are street-signs, unless they have actually been stolen from their place by youths who now, as men in middle-age, prop up the bar. A reasonable level of 70s or 80s makeover is acceptable, especially if grub is being served (though if grub is being served, anything more than stew, soup, sandwiches or crisps begins to undermine the place’s claim to be a country pub and not some kind of uppity would-be-urban[e] bistro.
Locals? A must. You should feel a little uncomfortable for the first ten minutes. If you still feel uncomfortable as you get up to order a second pint, perhaps you shouldn’t stay to drink it. But chances are you’ll fall into conversation, like one in Co Armagh where a young thatcher and I compared the levels of backbiting among the poetry and the thatching fraternities. (He drew a vicious-looking hooked knife by way of illustration, and I had to admit that poets rarely went armed, even in Belfast. Though there was that time when James Simmons….)
When? Sunday afternoons. Any weeknight but Friday. As soon as possible after opening time is best, though, in that quiet hour when sunlight catches in the dust raised by the cursory flick of the cleaner’s rag, and the smell of Mr Sheen and Jeyes Fluid still lingers in the air. Or, as in the Saltwater Brig on the road north from Portaferry, the smell of the reedy, riverine coast of Strangford Lough, reminding you that the ground beneath your feet is shifting and impermanent, and that you should enjoy your drink while you can.
Now, what are you having to drink? The country pub in the north, as throughout Ireland, always risks being seen as a marketing ploy for the drinks industry. The warm fug of a front-parlour bar is seen through amber whiskey-light in a hundred television commercials, and the association is kept up in the reproduction advertisements for archaic brands – Dunville, old Comber – that you see even in otherwise genuine rural boozers. Nevertheless, and while here as elsewhere the lager monster rules, there are drinks that fit, and drinks that don’t.
Whiskey itself is an example. A hot one is a fine thing, but immeasurably more efficacious if taken, slowly, by the fireside in some country hostelry. Make it a good one, but not too good. Powers, Bushmills, or Jameson, and save the malts until you’re feeling better. Alternatively, if hot fortified wine is what the doctor ordered, forget port and slum it with Mundies.
For beer drinkers, well, if you’re lucky, there'll be a real ale on tap. It will probably be a British import – not at all a bad thing – but you may get lucky and find some bizarrely-named local brew. Hilden Brewery’s hand-pump stouts will surprise Guinness drinkers with a wider range of flavours than you’d expect to find in a glass of porter. Though the Guinness itself is always worth a shot – usually well-kept, served with patience, and best enjoyed without undue conversation. If worse comes to worst, go for Bass or Smithwicks ale, and avoid the ‘creamy’ (as in haemorrhoid cream) nitro-keg foulnesses like … well, after the piles reference it would probably be in all our legal interests to avoid naming names.
Well, as Hillary said of Everest, because it’s there, that sense of tradition or escape or privacy or rural solace. It’s being closer to nature without getting your feet muddy – though if you have got your feet muddy, you’ll enjoy it all the more (just remember to wipe them!) For the drinker, it’s somewhere to savour rather than gulp, relax rather than binge. For visitors, if they’re lucky, it’s a glimpse of contemporary rural Irish life as it’s lived now, and maybe an antidote to the sentimental enthusiasms that drive the north’s embryonic tourist industry.
Arguments could be marshalled in favour of the country pub as an important part of many small rural economies. Alternatively, you could say that the country pub should be supported as a reminder that vast beer-hangars are not the only way to consume alcohol and enjoy one another’s company. These are both sound reasons for taking the time to get lost and stumble on gems of your own.
Fundamentally, though, it’s just that these are good places to spend time. And if that time moves a little more slowly, then all the better. None of us – the country pubs least of all – are getting any younger.
By Martin Mooney