Pubs: Ireland’s Watering Holes

A center for socialization, pubs offer eats, drinks, entertainment and their own vocabulary

Dick Mack's pub Dingle Ireland County Kerry (© Mira / Alamy)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

The Irish government passed a law making all pubs in the Republic smoke-free. Smokers now take their pints outside, turning alleys into covered smoking patios. An incredulous Irishman responded to the law by saying, "What will they do next? Ban drinking in pubs? We'll never get to heaven if we don't die."

It's a tradition to buy your table a round, and then for each person to reciprocate. If an Irishman buys you a drink, thank him by saying, "Go raibh maith agat" (guh rov mah UG-ut). Offer him a toast in Irish—"Slainte" (SLAWN-chuh), the equivalent of "cheers." A good excuse for a conversation is to ask to be taught a few words of Gaelic.

Traditional music is alive and popular in pubs throughout Ireland. "Sessions" (musical evenings) may be planned and advertised or impromptu. Traditionally, musicians just congregate and play for the love of it. There will generally be a fiddle, a flute or tin whistle, a guitar, a bodhrán (goatskin drum), and maybe an accordion. Things usually get going around 9:30 (but note that Irish punctuality is unpredictable). Last call for drinks is usually around 11:30.

The music often comes in sets of three songs. The wind and string instruments embellish melody lines with lots of tight ornamentation. Whoever happens to be leading determines the next song only as the song the group is playing is about to be finished. If he wants to pass on the decision, it's done with eye contact and a nod. A céilí (KAY-lee) is an evening of music and Irish hoedown.

Percussion generally stays in the background. The bodhrán (BO-run) is played with a small, two-headed club. The performer's hand stretches the skin to change the tone and pitch. You'll sometimes be lucky enough to hear a set of bones crisply played. These are two cow ribs (boiled and dried) that are rattled in one hand like spoons or castanets, substituting for the sound of dancing shoes in olden days.

Watch closely if a piper is playing. The Irish version of bagpipes, the uilleann (ILL-in) pipes are played by inflating the airbag (under the left elbow) with a bellows (under the right elbow) rather than with a mouthpiece like the Scottish Highland bagpipes. Uilleann is Gaelic for "elbow," and the sound is more melodic, with a wider range than the Highland pipes. The piper fingers his chanter like a flute to create individual notes, and uses the heel of his right hand to play chords on one of three regulator pipes. It takes amazing coordination to play this instrument well, and the sound can be haunting.

Occasionally, the fast-paced music will stop and one person will sing a lament. Called sean nos (Gaelic for "old style"), this slightly nasal vocal style may be a remnant of the ancient storytelling tradition of the bards whose influence died out when Gaelic culture waned 400 years ago. This is the one time when the entire pub will stop to listen as sad lyrics fill the room. Stories—often of love lost, emigration to a faraway land, or a heroic rebel death struggling against English rule—are always heartfelt. Spend a lament studying the faces in the crowd.

A session can be magical or lifeless. If the chemistry is right, it's one of the great Irish experiences. Between songs, talk to your neighbor. Locals often have an almost evangelical interest in explaining the music.

Irish Pub and Music Words
The Irish love to socialize. Pubs are like public living rooms, where friends gather in a corner to play tunes and everyone is a welcome guest. Here are some useful pub and music words:

Trad: traditional Irish music
Céilí (KAY-lee): Irish dance gathering
Bodhrán (BO-run): traditional drum
Uilleann (ILL-in): elbow (uilleann pipes are elbow bagpipes)
Poitín (po-CHEEN): moonshine, homemade liquor
Táim súgach! (taw im SOO-gakh): I'm tipsy!
Slainte (SLAWN-chuh): Cheers! To your health!
Go raibh maith agat (guh riv mah AG-ut): Thank you

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus