Music in the local, Nightmare or Nirvana

night1There are two kinds of people who drink in bars; those who like music and those who don’t. I grew up in a world where the thought of a band or a jukebox were considered sacrilege in a pub and the electronic beep of a one armed bandit or the ring and ding of a pinball machine were considered the rhythmic flap and beat of the flames of hell.

In that same world, no-one batted an eye when someone stuck a finger in their ear and struck up a come all ye, usually about the wicked ways of drink and faithless women, or men.

It’s all there in the songs, whether it’s folk, country, blues or jazz. One of the classics is from Frank Sinatra’s For Only the Lonely, Capitol Records album. The song is called ‘One for my Baby’. On the Live from The Sands album, Sinatra offers his own explanation for the song, ‘drunk songs are set in small bars or bistros in the wee hours of the morning and they’re talked or sung by a fella who’s got problems, like his broad flew the coop with another guy and all the bread, so, if you will assume the position of a bartender, this the way these guys behave…the classic, tinkling piano intro and those magic words, ‘it’s quarter to three, there’s no-one in the place, ‘cept you and me.’

And Hank Williams could not have put it any better with ‘There’s a tear in my beer’, when he sang, ‘there’s a tear in my beer, ‘cos I’m crying for you, dear, you are on my lonely mind.’

Shane McGowan of The Pogues took a different stance on this, in ‘Streams of Whiskey’, when his protagonist encounters Brendan Behan in a dream who offers him advice on how to deal with life’s travails and then concludes, ‘there’s nothing ever gained by a wet thing called a tear, when the world is too dark and I need a light inside of me, I’ll walk into a bar and drink fifteen pints of beer.’Pogues – Streams Of Whiskey Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Of course, there is the ‘in vino, veritas’ argument, too.

My personal favourite is Rosie Flores’ simple and succinct toast to bars and music in her rockabilly classic, ‘This Ol’ Honky Tonk’, from Dancehall Dreams, ‘here’s to the bar room and here’s to your dreams, you can bury all your worries in the honky tonk scene, your heart has a home, if you’re feeling all alone, just forget all your troubles, tonight, this ol’ honky tonk makes it alright.

All this musing was prompted last night while I sat, alone, at the bar of The Thomas House in Dublin’s Liberties and listened to the deejay spin old punk, pub rock and ska classics from my youth, to a bar full of people with an average age in the mid 20s, and I didn’t feel alone. I had conversations with a couple of people and exchanges laughs and jokes with a few others.

People choose their pubs for the company they can meet there and often, their decision is tempered by the music they’ll hear. If you like to natter when you’re in a pub, don’t go to pubs for hard line folk fans or jazz enthusiasts. If you like heavy metal, avoid country honky tonks or easy listening, pop joints. It’s a horses for courses situation.

In my teenage years I often went to folk clubs and bars where the insistent jeer of ‘ciúnas‘ (quiet) was part of the territory, however annoying. If you want to hear great singers sing great songs, find those pubs. If you want to hear the blues, find a blues club or pub and so on.

All publicans know that music draws customers and happy customers buy drinks. It’s a simple equation, or so it seems but if the balance is wrong, it’s a recipe for disaster.



Tipping is not a town in China

Tipping is often a contentious issue and regardless of what people tell you, there is no standard rule.

Everyone likes some measure of appreciation for what they do, whether it’s praise,  a pat on the back, a thank you or a fiver in your pocket; it’s all appreciated. Now I’ve spent time travelling in North America, Europe and Australia but not so much in Asia or Africa. I’ve been to every country in Europe except the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden or Iceland. One thing I’ve learned is there is no country where people don’t tip. The only difference is the frequency and quantity, tipped.

Equally, through my experience both as a consumer and a service industry worker, whether as a bartender or a waiter, I know of no hard and fast rule as far as tipping is concerned although I do know there are some people who tip and some who don’t.

I always try to tip someone and I work on a simple measure of 10%, as a base and then, based on the level or quality of service delivered, I might pay over the odds. That’s pretty much a standard with people who work or have worked in the service industry; they know what it’s like.

On the other hand, I’ve often railed against the practice in the United States, in particular, where tipping is a required imperative and measured in precise mathematical terms, somewhere between 15 and 20%. Now, as a waiter and bartender, part of me wishes this was standard practice in Ireland, too but what I rail against is the absence of any discretionary choice for the consumer; it’s pay the money, regardless.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I understand the mechanics of the argument. In the United States, service industry workers are paid minimum wage and the bulk of their income derives from tips or gratuities. In addition, the often tightly structured work chain involves a maitre-d’, waiters, busboys and kitchen staff and while the maitre-d’ might be seen to pocket the big dough, he or she will have the others in the chain to look after, too. So the waiter looks after the busboys and someone might throw something in for the kitchen staff along the way.

In Ireland, even if you’re working at minimum wage, it is, arguably, a living wage but that doesn’t exclude tipping. Ask anyone in the Irish service industry and they’ll tell you their life would be a whole lot harder if they weren’t getting tips. It’s a whole lot harder to maintain a pleasant demeanour and a welcoming smile if you don’t feel your work is being appreciated. It’s a whole lot harder to maintain and deliver the type of service you’d like to get yourself, if all you can look forward to is a sullen shrug and an empty pocket.

And ask anyone in the service industry if they’ve ever heard a tourist tell them they were told not to tip in Ireland. Now that’ll open a rage of fury because that instruction or advice is given to visitors. I’ve even heard people, Irish people, tell visitors that, right in front of me, as though they’re imparting some magnificent insight of arcane knowledge about Ireland of the Welcomes. These same people are usually those who will regale their new found tourist friends with cringe inducing broguery while slugging back the drinks their bought, as though they’re monkeys getting fed with nuts at the zoo.

While there is no hard and fast rule, some nationalities tip better than others. Irish people, I find, are good tippers when they get good service. Not all of them, of course, some Irish people never tip but I remember, as a child on family holidays, how my father would slip a coin, with surreptitious dexterity, into the hands of a grateful waiter. Strangely, southern Europeans, particularly Spanish and Italians, are notoriously bad tippers. The French don’t tip. Germans do tip but rarely, generously. The English, as a general rule, do tip and often tip well. When I worked in London pubs in the 1970s, many customers liked to ‘buy’ the bartender a drink. This often happens in Ireland, too. Of course, as the staff cannot drink on duty, it is customary to say, ‘thanks, I’ll have it when I finish work’ and then pocket the price of the drink. Canadians don’t tip, as a general rule and Australians are the same. Americans do tip and tip well.

Having said that, I’ve been tipped well by French, Spanish, Italian, German, Canadian and Australian customers. I’ve had parties of Americans spend as much as €174, hand me €175 and wait for the €1 change. This latter happens more regularly than you might suppose or imagine.

Visitors often ask me what is the tipping protocol in Ireland? and I give them the same answer, every time. I tell them to ask if there is a ‘service charge’ on their bill. Service charges are often added to bills – anything between 10 and 12½% – that never see their way into the pockets of the service employee. If there isn’t a service charge, then use 10% as a jump off point and then measure the level of service you’ve received – attentiveness, speed and standard of delivery, demeanour etc – and pay more, at your discretion. If a customer asks me if there’s a tipping policy related to where I work, I tell them there is no service and that tipping, while entirely at the discretion of the customer, is greatly appreciated. The trick, I’ve found, is expect nothing so you’re never surprised.

A young couple sat together in the place where I work. They ordered a pint of Guinness and a glass of wine. As the evening progressed, I paid occasional visits to their table when I spotted their drinks depleting to a point where a refill might be in order. They were deep in conversation and we engaged in some banter. They drank three more rounds and appeared merrily on the bright side of tipsy when they asked for their bill, which amounted to €45.60. I left them to count it out and returned later to scoop a pile of assorted notes and coins from the table. It amounted to €58.60, so I returned to them with their change, assuming they may, in their tipsiness and unfamiliarity with the currency – they were both English – have made a mistake.

‘No such thing,’ they told me, smiling, ‘that’s all for you and thank you.’

The Perfect Pint

IMG_3899IMG_1542IMG_1744You always know a serious Guinness drinker, the minute they walk in the door. First, their priority is not the people they’ve come to meet or where they’ll find a seat. Second, they won’t be too concerned about the surroundings, the bar’s decor or atmosphere. No, what they’re looking for is the state of the pint of Guinness.

They want to know how frequently the Guinness is being poured. They want to know the state of those pints, as in, how well are they being poured.

So let’s say, our man (or woman) walks into your bar. His eyes will sweep the room, table and bar level, although he’ll concentrate on the bar as this is where he (or she) would sit. Why? So they can keep an eye on the pour and the Guinness gets to them as quickly as possible and doesn’t sit around, waiting for someone to deliver it.

I poured my first pint of Guinness in 1966. I was 10 and it was in my uncle’s bar in Sligo town, Co Sligo. Back then, pouring a pint of draught Guinness was an even more complicated affair than it is today. The glass tilt (45°) remains the same. Back then, though, a pint was poured in three stages, compared with two, today. It was an elaborate process, watched with studied attention by my uncle’s regulars. I felt it was like a rite of passage. The second part of the process, then, brought the pour to the top, when the bartender would take a swipe and smooth the creamy head across the top of the glass. A further ‘settling’ ensued. The final ‘topping off’ brought the gleaming, creamy smooth head ‘proud’ of the glass, lending it a mildy elevated dome shape.

So here, according to Guinness Master Brewer, Fergal Murray, are the six stages of pouring a perfect pint of Guinness,

Step One: The Glass

“The bartender takes a dry, clean glass, which should be a 20-ounce tulip pint glass,” Murray says. “The internal aerodynamics of a tulip glass allows the nitrogen bubbles to flow down the sides of the glass, and the contour ‘bump’ in the middle pushes the bubbles back to the center on their way up.”

Step Two: The Angle

“The glass should be held at a 45-degree angle under the tap. The tap faucet should not touch the tulip glass or beer. If you just hold it straight under the faucet, you’ll get a big block of bubbles and a fish eye.”

Step Three: The Pour

“Let the beer flow nice and smoothly into the angled glass and fill it up three-quarters of the way.”

Step Four: The Head

“Let it settle. On the way through the faucet, the beer passes through a five-hole disk restrictor plate at a high speed, creating friction and bringing out nitrogen bubbles. The bubbles are agitated now — they can’t go back into the solution, so they flow down the interior sides and back up the middle — but they can’t escape. So they build this wonderful, creamy head on top. It’s like an architect building a strong foundation.”

Step Five: The Top-Off

“Once it settles, you want to fill up the glass and top it off. You allowed it to settle, you created a domed effect across the top of the pint, and now your head is looking proud over the glass. That’s the perfect vision of the perfect pint.”

Step Six: The First Sip

“You drink with your eyes first. The cosmetic look of the pint is critical to the Guinness experience. We don’t want anybody just putting liquid in a glass. And finally, drink responsibly.”


Now, all this might be dismissed as a whole load of marketing baloney but not if you drink Guinness, particularly in Dublin. Or Ireland. But you can get a bad pint, anywhere. In the end, it depends on the pour.

Take the three pints at the top of this article. The first one was poured in a pub in Roscommon, beside the Shannon river. The second was poured in a Dublin city centre pub, The Long Hall and the third and a ‘bad pour’, was slopped up in a pub that carries the name of the beer and brewery’s founder, Arthur Guinness and stands on the corner of the same street where the famous black beer has been brewed for more than 200 years.

I could say, if you have to ask what’s wrong with it, you’ve no business drinking it or you’ve got what you deserve. But it isn’t what a true pint of Guinness deserves. This pint was poured in a hurry, not allowed to settle and then topped off, badly. Look at the head; it’s flat at the top of the glass.

Which brings us back, neatly, to our friend who walks into a bar scanning the pub for signs of pint pour activity. What’s he looking for?

New pints with good heads, plenty of them and a few, half drunk, that’s what. This will give him most of the information he needs, short of watching the pour, him (or her) self. And the half drunk pint? That can be the real giveaway because, y’see, as every pint drinker will tell you, a good pint, poured well, in the right glass, will hold its head intact for the length of the glass, leaving a trail of concentric circles of residue, right to the end of the glass.




Annoying things people ask in bars…


Mindful that barwork is a service industry, then ‘service’ is the business of the bar employee. That said, there are other criteria or ingredients, that make good service, not only possible, but a pleasure, to give and receive.

Good manners, consideration, respect and logic are four that spring to mind, immediately. Personally, good grammar and diction are required, too.

Any bar worker will tell you, when asked, a list of things they get asked, that customers do or say, every day and night, in every bar in the world. Not all of these things are, by any means, offensive or irritating, but some are.

So I’ve made a casual list, derived from conversations with bar workers in several Dublin bars.

But first, I own personal bugbears, creeping Americanisms.

The American version of the English language has crept into our lives and daily argot through film and television and these days, by even more common inference, through the internet and YouTube.

But when people persist in prefacing their request for a drink with ‘can I get…?’, my immediate reaction is ‘no, you can’t, because y’see, that’s why I’m here…to ‘get’ it for you. On the other hand, if you ask me, ‘may I have?, then all becomes clear and order, proper English and good grammar is restored.

The other ‘Americanism’ that has taken a niche in Irish conversation occurs when a customer is asked, when their glass or their plate is almost empty, ‘may I get you another or something else? is ‘I’m good.’ What does that mean, for God’s sake? I haven’t made any inquiry regarding your moral disposition, so why tell me if you’re good? Like I care?

But that’s me. I’m a writer. So, shoot me.

But here’s another few of those nonsense irritations:

abbreviations, like cabsav (Cabernet Sauvignon), or heino (Heineken) or what about ‘sauvignon blanc white wine’, eh?

Then there’s the customer who saunters in and orders ‘a pint.’ Well, a pint of what, exactly? Sure, there was a time, now almost forgotten, when a pint, meant a pint of stout and the other three taps in a pub, lager, ale or cider, were the secondary alternatives. Now most pubs have multiple choices in stouts, ales, lagers, even ciders and wheat beers. So think specific or ask advice, it helps and everyone’s willing to help, if you ask.

Then there are the drinkers of a particular American beer (Coors) who assume, when you name the brand, you will know exactly what they want. Unfortunately, ESP (extra sensory perception) is no longer a requirement for bartenders, although, in the case of a good customer and an experienced bartender, it can be a useful asset.

I worked in a bar, once, where the oldest member of staff was close to retirement age and most of the customers were a third of his age. He was, not to understate this, intolerant and fools, in his mind, would never be suffered, gladly or otherwise. So when an unsuspecting misfortunate approached the bar and asked for ‘a Guinness’, he got our man’s gimlet eye and question, barked, ‘d’ye want a pint, glass or a bottle, I’m not a fucking prophet, y’know?’

So I caution those who ask for a beer to be specific, in quantity and product, ‘a Coors’ can mean a bottle, a pint or a glass.

And that brings me then to every bartender’s greatest bugbear, an English customer. Don’t get me wrong, this is nothing against English people, per se. It’s just that their bar rules are very different to ours. Having worked for years in English bars, I have first hand knowledge of their drink ordering technique. First, they order one drink at a time.

Now that’s just wrong, especially to an Irish bartender. We have memories and we pride ourselves on our ability to remember long, complex orders and to deliver the drink in the most efficient manner possible, given that knowledge. So, please, don’t order a drink at a time and, above all, never end your order with ‘and a pint (or multiple pints) of Guinness.’

And finally, while saying this list is by no means conclusive, let me add just two more caveats. There is a saying, ‘it’s nice to be nice’ and a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ can go a long way. Most bartenders remember a customer by their drink but a small gesture of recognition and respect with a gracious request and a word of gratitude, will lay a ground mark that will be remembered and reciprocated.

Which brings me, neatly, to my final bugbear, the customer who demands that you ‘smile.’ Why? because you’ve bought that with your drink? I don’t think so. I do believe and agree that a happy, smiling bartender can make your visit to a bar more interesting and make the whole experience more pleasurable, for all concerned. But since you don’t know the circumstances of the frown or grimace, why interfere with an inane and insensitive demand that they ‘smile.’ Give them a reason, tell a joke, give them a tip, say please, smile at them first, say hello.

It goes a long way.IMG_1542

What’ll ye have?


cropped-img_0880.jpgI chose this title carefully although my first choice was ‘over the bar’, but, unfortunately, that was taken. What’ll ye have? is a question put to people countless times a day, the length and breadth of Ireland.
It’s a greeting, an invitation and a specific enquiry. First, since the first to ask it on stepping in to a public house or lounge bar, has declared their intention to play host and buy the first round.
Second, it’s an invitation to their guests to name their poison, so to speak.
And thirdly, it’s a request to inform the bartender or curate of your choices so he, or she, can set about lining them up.
None of these priorities are named in any sense of preference although, as we shall see, there is a certain logic applied, particularly in an Irish bar, but more of that later.
I’ve worked in pubs, on and off, all my life. An uncle owned a pub and guest house in Sligo and I used to spend two or three weeks of my summer holiday there, every year for five years, between the ages of 5 and 10. During that time, to while away the summer days, I collected eggs from the hens in the barn behind the bar, every morning. Then, I’d be dispatched to stock the ballad lounge bar with soft drinks and bottled beers. Back then, we’re talking the mid-’60s here – pubs bottled and labelled their own bottles of stout, provided in barrels from Guinness’s James’s Gate brewery in Dublin. Our job was to fill the bottles and cap them, using a hand yanked stamp press and then apply the labels from a tray of a milky adhesive substance, mixed by my uncle. It was great fun and whiled away the afternoons, after which we were rewarded by a glass of cold lemonade.
I pulled my first pint of stout there, a progression that was considered a rite of passage in my informal apprenticeship. I remember it well. I was ten and it was in the main bar or public house, at the front of the building. On one side there was a bar, about six foot long, that curved at one end. On the other side, nearest the front door, there was a grocery counter that sold household essentials like milk, butter, sausages, bacon and sliced ham, cigarettes and matches, sugar, flour, salt, jelly and custard.
On the left of the door, opposite the food counter, there was a small room, a snug, with two bench seats and a small table and a hatch that opened at the end of the bar.
The snug was for ladies who, while, by custom, were not welcome in the male only bar, could take their ease with a glass of stout or sherry, while they waited for their grocery order to be filled. Ladies were always welcome in the Lounge bar but that didn’t tend to open until late in the evening, after the evening tea had been served and the children washed and put to bed.
This is said by way of observation of the times, without comment or judgement. Bars tended to have their own etiquette and rules, some common to all and some peculiar to the house you were in. On a first visit to a pub, a person was best advised to keep their head down, order their drink and respond, with geniality, to the colloquial openers, such as the state of the weather or one’s thirst. This way, one could ease themselves into the company without challenge or offense and then learn the pub’s own customs by acute and silent observation.
Sport, of course, was another good topic of conversation and a working knowledge of the top contenders in Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and football, enough to interject intelligently and occasionally, but never enough to invite contention or challenge.
Horses, too, were an essential ingredient in an interloper’s pub argot. To speak form and recent results could put one in good standing; to tip a winner could put you in prime position and the toast of the company.
Politics was avoided, unless it was among friends and fellow travelers, although a well informed acquaintance with the day’s headline stories, was always a good icebreaker. Jokes, too, were always good, as long as you didn’t start with one. Get the foot in the door, first, so to speak and, once people are smiling , throw in a joke.