It’s 9:30 p.m. at the Blue Light pub in the dark, mist-fingered foothills of the Dublin Mountains. In the glowing, stone-walled front room, a twinkle-eyed 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 look tucked in for the duration.
Nowhere does cozy old pubs better than Ireland. 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 charming countryside tavern scene is a far more magical nirvana 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 bagpipes subspecies that plays well alongside other instruments. At the Blue Light, where local musicians gather most evenings, that can include flutes, accordions and the bodhran 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 from regional producer Four Provinces Brewing – distant Dublin twinkles like a starry backdrop through the windows. “This pub has always been a great gathering place for locals and strangers alike,” muses Chambers, adding he loves playing wistful ballads like Dublin in the Rare Old 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 (ruraltours.ie) a few years back. “When I travel, I always love experiencing places like the locals do. 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.
“Good Irish pubs make you feel welcome as soon as you walk through the door,” contends 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 really make good Irish pubs great.”
Among these solicitous locals is Joey Comerford, choreographer of the eye-popping live dance performances at Johnnie Fox’s, a 200-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.
For audiences, that means watching 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 weaves through several museum-like rooms crammed with old tools, yesteryear photos and intriguing knickknacks – including 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, suggests 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.”
In the wider 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 sheep-studded glacial valley. And while perfectly poured Guinness, peat-fueled 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 – especially in summer, when its outside tables are the region’s most sought-after alfresco hangouts.
The secret to great Irish country pubs, agrees Dowling, isn’t complicated. But she says her team never rests on its shamrock-laced laurels. “No matter where you’re from, we want all our visitors to feel welcomed and looked after here. And they should always remember their experience long after they’ve gone back home.”