We have more on the rest of our visit to Moneygall over on our traveling writers' blog: Writers Gone Isled. But we just have to talk about one of the more memorable Irish pubs here.
To set the stage: Moneygall is a teeny-tiny town with one main street (now for the fairy-tale remix: Once there was a teeny tiny woman in a teeny tiny town with a teeny tiny pub...), and no one had heard of it until Barack and Michelle visited it in May of 2011 (after they discovered they were really the O'bamas). Our friend and host Eimear just happens to have grown up there. It has precisely two pubs, as far as we could tell, and they are right across the street from one another (huh, maybe that's where Starbucks got the idea...). The larger of the two is more or less what you expect out of an Irish pub (leprechauns dancing on the tables? CCR and Bob Dylan cover bands?).
The smaller one is exceptional. Here it is from the outside:
Instead of dim iridescent lighting, J Hayes Bar has a strip of bare fluorescent bulbs across the ceiling. The counter is Formica-topped, and just high enough that you feel slightly small leaning against it. There are two beers on tap (Guinness and Smithwick's) (pronounced Smith-icks...emphasis on the "icks"), a mini-fridge with bottles of Miller and cans of Heineken, a row of whiskeys and such along the back mirror, and a paper Obama mask above a small Obama bobblehead. The wall has framed pictures of various get-togethers that might have been in 1987 as easily as 2007.
All this might be strange on its own (or potentially creepy). The woman behind the bar, though, turns it all into the most remarkable pub we've ever visited. Her name is Julia, she's about 81 years old, and she is the sole proprietor and bartender. (To hear her tell it, she got behind the bar when she was 16 and basically never left that post!)
She greeted everyone who entered by name (their real names, not the generic "Hey...guy" or "Howdy partner"). I've never seen any barkeep do that for reals, or outside of Cheers. (Everyone except for Jenny and me, of course, but straight away she got our names down. I imagine for weeks she'll be talking about the two Mexicans who visited her. Sharp as a tack, Julia is, but deaf to the word "New," it seems.) Her handshake was firm, her smile genuine, and straight away you knew this woman was anything but doddering, no matter how much her pub resembles your grandma's kitchen (yeah, if grandma left the liquor cabinet unlocked).
She poured and pulled our selections. She was adorable with the condensation on glasses and bottles -- for whatever reason, she could not stand a single drop to smudge the glass, so she would run her hands firmly down the sides until the unmarred glass glistened. My Guinness might not have been pulled perfectly to the Guinness corporate standards, but I've never seen a beer pulled more carefully or more caring. She got every drop into the glass that would fit, and with a slow and steady hand delivered it to my section of Formica.
Best Guinness I've ever had. It wasn't just the atmosphere, either. It was smoother, richer, less bitter. However Julia takes care of her draft lines, or whatever grandmotherly tenderness goes into her pub, the results shine through in her pints. Anyone going through Ireland and seeking the best Guinness can just skip the official Storehouse tour and go straight to Moneygall. (This is a certifiable fact, as far as I'm concerned. I sipped that Guinness and could not believe my tongue! For once, this big-business brew did not taste flat or stale, as it usually does in any other pub! And here we thought we could go a whole year without blogging on the behemoth of dark barley...)
The back door opened at intervals so that some fellow (no idea who he was) could give us updates on the European soccer championships (Greece advanced, Russia was eliminated) (the interruptions were delightfully surreal, like the cut-aways on Family Guy). Eimear's former coach, a swell guy named Rody, popped in for his usual, and he ended up buying us all a drink. (He missed his chance to say, "A round for the house!" You always say it when there's fewer than five folks in the pub.)
We chatted away with Rody, with Julia, and the whole evening was my first true experience of truly small-town life. Julia knows Eimear's family better than Eimear does, and the moment Eimear ducked out of the room, Julia leaned over and assured us in the most confidential of tones that you couldn't find a better family than the Ryans. (Actually, Julia possessed that admirable quality of being able to talk honestly and openly about anyone in the room or absent. She mostly referred to everyone as "lovely," but I genuinely believed that's just how she sees the world.)
We could have stayed in Julia's pub all night (and might have if Eimear never stood up and put on her coat. Julia's atmosphere, though fluorescent and odd, is hypnotizing. The whole occasion zooms in on the microcosm of families, stories, and the mysteries of the human heart one can only properly discuss when under the influence. You settle in and never again think of the outside world again. Kind of like going to Neverland. Now, isn't that what having a neighborhood snug is all about?).
Eimear, being a good tour guide, wanted to show us the competition across the street, and in fairness we wanted to see it -- the pub where the Obamas famously pulled and sipped a Guinness. But before we left, we were sure to capture the true spirit of the evening in a photograph:
Note Julia's death grip (a.k.a. grandmotherly love-grip) on Jenny's arm, and how Jenny is only one centimeter shorter than the President. (oh, does that mean I am tall enough to be president one day?)