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There's this pub in...

Lift a pint or two at a handful of the favorite haunts of barkeepers in Boston

McDaids, Dublin
Sports fans gather to watch a game at McDaids, a classic pub in the heart of Dublin. (Phillip Massey/WPN/For the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / March 2, 2008

In almost three years of writing about night life for the Globe, I have become well acquainted with the venues that are the backbone of the city's social scene: its Irish pubs.

On almost every visit to one of these establishments on assignment - whether it's a Ben Affleck-endorsed tavern in South Boston, a cozy watering hole in Jamaica Plain, or a sleek Irish bar downtown - I have found myself talking to Irish barkeeps happy to tell me about their favorite pubs back home.

"If you ever find yourself in Ireland . . .," they will say, before mentioning the haunts where they first became familiar with Guinness (or Beamish) on tap and learned how regulars should be treated.

When a friend and I booked a vacation to Ireland this winter, I checked in with these local personalities so that I could see their favorite bars firsthand. What I wound up with was a unique pub crawl.

McDaids, Dublin

(Recommended by Joe Dunne, owner of McGann's near the TD Banknorth Garden and Lir in the Back Bay.)

When Dunne isn't running his Boston pubs, he's visiting Dub lin, where he owns a stylish downtown bar called the Front Lounge. It's a popular, modern night life spot with local art on the walls and one of the most diverse crowds you'll find in the capital city.

But when work is done, Dunne heads to McDaids, a more classic Irish pub in the heart of Dublin. It looks like what many bars in Boston want to be - old and homey without trying too hard.

At first glance, McDaids reminds me of a library, although a bartender says the aged books on the shelves are fake. On the walls are portraits of Irish literary greats including Brendan Behan, who supposedly hung out here and based a few of his characters on fellow regulars.

During our visit, the focus isn't literature but sports. The place is packed with rugby fans of all ages who are fixated on a giant television that hangs over the bar's front door. The patrons collectively swear and groan when the match turns sour. The place reminds me of a smaller version of Doyle's in Jamaica Plain, without all of the Kennedy memorabilia.

Speaker Bar, Celbridge

(Recommended by Shay Hearns, barkeep at Shenannigans in South Boston.)

From Dublin, I travel about a half-hour by car to a small, green watering hole on the main drag of Celbridge in County Kildare, which reminds me of Amesbury if Amesbury were flat. Before Hearns began serving Guinness at Shenannigans, he tended to regulars at the Speaker Bar here, named for House of Commons speaker William Connolly, who lived in nearby Castletown House in the early 1700s. It's been almost 15 years since Hearns served a pint at this place, but based on his description, it is just as he left it: a tiny bar attached to the town's quaint inn. The flat-screen television looks anachronistic. The walls are decorated with old music posters because pub owner Noel Devine, 60, used to be in a rock band called the Millionaires. He says he still owns his bass guitar. "It's under the bed."

To my surprise, everyone at the bar knows of Hearns. In fact, it so happens that one of the men used to be his barber. They joke about their former bartender as if he might walk in at any moment.

Devine tells me he's been to Boston lots of times and claims to have seen Peter, Paul & Mary perform at the Black Rose. He asks, "Is Foley's still as busy as ever?"

Lawless's, Dunshaughlin

(Recommended by David Cawley, co-owner of the Blarney Stone in Dorchester.)

Cawley offered up the Lawless establishment in County Meath as his hometown pick, a place he de scribed as a genuine tavern for locals. I imagine a cozy pub with antiques and beef stew. But when we step into the Lawless, it's nothing like that. In fact, the place looks dark and bleak.

The patrons, who are all male and at least 70 years old, are staring at a small television set. On the back wall is a framed portrait of a champion bird from a cockfight dipping its beak into a pint of Guinness.

Once I get brave and introduce myself, the mood changes. Barkeep Paddy Hayes ushers me through a door to a section of the bar that turns out to be a livelier party and a brighter spot populated by younger men, 40 or 50. They want to buy me a cider, tell me about their bookie, and teach me about Gaelic football.

Johnny Commons, the shortest and most flirtatious of the group, proudly shows me photographs of County Meath football teams that have defeated Dublin. It's a very big deal when Meath beats Dublin because Meath is the little guy, the underdog, Commons explains. Dublin has access to so much talent that when Meath manages to take the title, it's a big deal, something like . . . like . . .

"Like beating an evil empire?" I say.

"Yes, that's right!" he says.

If he only knew.

Before I leave, I chat with the older guys, who seem envious of the commotion on the other side. One tells me that those younger guys sit around all day and talk about what they're going to do with their lives. "We talk about things we've already done," he says.

The Hi-B Bar, Cork

(Recommended by John Casey, barkeep at the Brendan Behan in Jamaica Plain, who used to work for the now-closed Littlest Bar in Downtown Crossing.)

One of Casey's favorite haunts is in the heart of Cork City, a place called the Hi-B (as in, the Hibernian). It isn't so much the ambience or the beer that makes this place noteworthy, Casey says, but that it's run by a true local character, the grumpiest of bartenders who "doesn't let women drink out of pint glasses because it's not ladylike."

"He has all of these rules," Casey warns.

I brace myself when we stop by for a midmorning visit.

We climb creaky stairs and enter the second-floor hideaway. The Hi-B has a low tin ceiling, a red floor, weathered chairs, and drapes that give the place the feel of an old living room. Hanging on the bar's back wall is a series of creepy, albeit accurate, sketches of mostly-deceased entertainers such as Bing Crosby and Clark Gable. It turns out they were drawn by the grumpy bar owner himself, white-haired Brian O'Donnell.

Almost immediately, O'Donnell lives up to Casey's hype by yelling at us and telling us off-color jokes. He blasts classical music (when we arrive, it's Swedish composer Franz Berwald's "Sinfonie Singulière") and claims to be a "Mahlerphile."

At the bar a regular, who happens to be a sports reporter for the local paper, says he's having a few pints before work.

On tap is a regional brew called Rebel Red. Over the bar there's a sign that warns of one of O'Donnell's simplest rules: no cellphones.

"I have a great hate of the mobile phone," he says, staring me down as if I'm about to accept a call. "I find, if you have to bring the cellphone to the bar or the pub, whatever you want to call this, it's defeating the purpose of coming to the pub."

Baby Hannah's, Skibbereen

(Recommended by Paul Byrne, owner of James's Gate in Jamaica Plain)

It's an hour-plus bus ride from Cork south to Skibbereen, a quaint town not far from the Celtic Sea. Even on this rainy January afternoon, the journey is a scenic one. It's all green hills and post-card-worthy pastel villages.

Like James's Gate, Baby Hannah's is a cozy place where one could spend an entire afternoon with a good book. There's sawdust on the floor, and unlike the other small-town bars I've seen on this trip, it's as welcoming to women as it is to men.

Technically, this is Byrne's wife Deirdre's hometown bar, and coincidentally, her family happens to be here. A shiny, happy group by the fireplace includes Deirdre McCarthy's sisters and their husbands and children. The toddlers are keeping busy at bar tables with coloring books.

Baby Hannah's owner, Seamus White, says the more than 200-year-old bar is always family-friendly. "Especially in the summer with the beer garden," he says, before leading me to a small green paradise in back that looks to be prime real estate for warm-weather pints and picnicking.

Inside, Jeff Heaton-Jones, McCarthy's brother-in-law, introduces himself as a former Bostonian. He moved to Skibbereen four years ago after meeting his wife, Lorraine, at the Brendan Behan in Jamaica Plain. She was living in Boston at the time, bartending at The Field in Central Square in Cambridge.

In an accent that's now a blend of Ireland and Massachusetts, Heaton-Jones admits that he occasionally gets homesick. He misses Boston sports, of course, and grimaces when he says he had to watch the 2004 World Series online. And then there's the food. He longs for the options he had in the States. Ireland isn't as big on appetizers.

"Everything here is steak in peppercorn sauce," he says.

Sounds perfect, I think.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.

Related

If You Go

Ireland pub crawl

McDaids
3 Harry St., Dublin

011-353-1-679-4395

Old-fashioned pub draws a mix of ages, locals, and tourists.

Speaker Bar
Main Street Celbridge, County Kildare

011-353-1-627-1158

A cozy pub attached to a small inn. Populated by regulars (mostly men). Best for afternoon sips and small groups.

Lawless's
On the main street Dunshaughlin, County Meath

011-353-1-825-9113

A dark pub that draws an older crowd during the day and locals in groups at night.

Hi-B Bar
108 Oliver Plunkett St., Cork City

011-353-21-427-2758

An attic-like city pub packed with knickknacks, regulars, and a bartender who's a legend in Cork.

Baby Hannah's
42 Bridge St. Skibbereen, County Cork

011-353-28-22783

A well-lighted bar where families are welcome. Best to visit in summer because of the beer garden out back and the nearby beaches.

Boston bars that inspired the crawl

Lir
903 Boylston St. 617-778-0089

lironboylston.com

Sleek Back Bay bar appeals to night-lifers and the happy hour crowd.

Owner Joe Dunne's more traditional Irish pub, McGann's, near North Station

(197 Portland St., 617-227-4059, mcgannspubboston.com), is more casual with live music.

Shenannigans
332 West Broadway, South Boston

617-269-9509

A popular, remodeled spot on Southie's main drag.

Blarney Stone
1505 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester

617-436-8223, blarneystoneboston.com

A swank yet cozy spot known for its tasty menu and expansive lounge.

Brendan Behan
378 Centre St., Jamaica Plain

617-522-5386

A casual local favorite where you can people-watch, play darts, and bring in Chinese food from down the street.

James's Gate
5 McBride St., Jamaica Plain

617-983-2000 jamessgate.com

Cozy bar/restaurant offers fine cuisine and a warm fire.

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