Thursday, 30 August 2012

IRELAND: IF YOU VISIT ONLY ONE PUB IN DUBLIN ... NEARY'S



WINDOW SEAT: The view from Neary's upstairs lounge
and, below, the bar's famous cast metal arm lanterns

Two zombies walked into a bar in Dublin (sounds like a joke, but it isn’t). The male zombie, a well-spoken and polite young man, ordered a Guinness for himself and a gin and tonic for his girlfriend.
“Sorry, I’m not serving you,” said the barman after poking his eyes back into their sockets.
“What do you mean, you’re not serving us?” demanded the male zombie.
“Regulars only,” said the barman.
“But that’s ridiculous!”
“Sorry. House rules.”
I’ve been a Neary’s regular (some would say resident) for six years, and as far as I knew there were only four house rules — no music, no television, no gaming machines and no singing. But no zombies? That was news to me.
After they left, muttering angrily — they were more livid than living dead — I told the barman they’d been taking part in a big charity fundraising event.
“What! Why didn’t you tell me?” he said. “I thought they were a couple of messers.”
I hadn’t told him because I’d been too busy chuckling behind my Irish Times. However, following that little misunderstanding, zombies will be happy to know they’re more than welcome to eat and drink in Neary’s whenever they want. As long as they don’t go biting big chunks out of the hand that feeds them.

DAILY DELIGHT: Chicken salad sandwich is the top seller
To bite a big chunk out of one of Neary’s famed freshly-made sandwiches you’ll need a detachable lower jaw like a python, because they’re among the highest man-made structures in Dublin and, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, there’s a lot more inside them than the outside would suggest.
My favourite, and the top seller, is the roast breast of chicken salad on white which, I must confess — with apologies to magician Mary in the kitchen who makes them — I’ve often passed off as my own creation when eating one in the office. It’s wrong, but you should see the admiring glances from my colleagues when I remove the foil. They’re thinking, now there’s a guy who knows how to make a sandwich.
Also on the menu that’s available Monday to Saturday from 10.30am until 2.45pm are fresh salmon which is poached every morning, rare roast beef which comes out of the oven as pink as a bride’s cheeks, smoked salmon, ham and Cheddar cheese, all from Irish suppliers and served on white or brown bread.
Which reminds me of the American customer from a visiting cruise ship who ordered a fresh salmon salad sandwich, but without the bread.
“Certainly, sir,” said the barman. “And would that be without the white bread or without the brown bread?”
SALM AGAIN, PLEASE: Try the fresh salmon salad
 A recent and controversial addition to the menu which drew gasps from customers of 20, 30 and even 40 years’ standing and just stopped short of outraged letters to the editor is the toasted special containing cheese, ham, tomatoes and onions. The significance of this seemingly innocuous snack will be lost on the general public, but for nearly 50 years onions were not allowed on the premises, except in the shopping bags of customers. Try as I might, and just stopping short of having a whip-round to hire a private detective, I’ve been unable to get to the bottom of the half-century-long ban and its equally unexplained lifting earlier this year.
That earth-shattering innovation, though, was nothing compared with the day when, horror of horrors, a flat screen TV appeared on the back wall of the downstairs main bar. It was there for no more than two hours, the duration of a Heineken Cup rugby match and the pundits’ post mortem because the TV upstairs was on the blink, but word leaked out and it was the talk of the town.
Next day, as soon as the bar opened, the first person in the door was a radio reporter hot on the trail of a scoop. And who could blame him? This was big news. Neary’s, lauded in guidebooks and on websites worldwide for being the real McCoy of Dublin pubs and which for generations has maintained the old-school qualities and standards eschewed by so many of the city’s brasher bars had, it appeared, sold its soul to Sony. But it was a false alarm, the newshound left with his tail between his legs and neither he nor the TV have been seen since.

TOUCH OF GLASS: Scenes from downstairs snug
 
You never know who you’ll bump into in Neary’s, which is in Chatham Street, just off the top end of Grafton Street (Dunne’s Stores and Monsoon corner). It’s the hang-out of visiting film stars, because while they might get a second glance or an acknowledging nod they’re never pestered by over-zealous fans seeking autographs or photos. Such indecorous behaviour would result in an invitation to drink up and take your custom elsewhere.
Mind you, it recently took a monumental effort on my part to avoid making an idiot of myself and sending a couple of drinks over to actor Lisa Edelstein and her new fella, artist Robert Russell, who dropped by for a Sunday afternoon snifter. I’ve had a thing for Ms. Edelstein since first seeing her in my all-time favourite TV show, The West Wing, in which she played Sam Seaborn’s (Rob Lowe) high-class hooker friend Laurie ‘Brittany’ Rollins, though she’s better known for her more recent role as Dr. Lisa Cuddy in House.
Other big-name customers when they’re in town are home-grown talent Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Jonathan Rhys Myers. David Soul and Jerry Hall were in just a few weeks ago; Glenn Close fell in love with Neary’s while filming Albert Nobbs in Dublin and made it her local; and Hollywood funny guys Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly had the bar in stitches last year when they staged an impromptu comedy routine.

STOUT FELLOW: Neary's regular Liam Manners
The back door of Neary’s opens on to Tangier Lane, a narrow alleyway where the stage door of the Gaiety theatre is also located, so the bar has a long association with those who tread the boards.
During a 1987 production of HMS Pinafore, Dublin actor Alan Devlin — a long-time Neary’s customer — was playing First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Sir Joseph’s big number comes near the end of act one, and as the orchestra launched into the first few bars all eyes were on Devlin, who was supposed to sing: “I am the monarch of the sea/The ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” Instead, he said “F*** this for a game of soldiers. I’m going to the pub,” and stormed off stage. Two minutes later, the back door of Neary’s flew open and Devlin, resplendent in his admiral’s uniform, drew his sword and called for a pint.
That was bad enough, but his radio mic was still on, and the stunned audience in the Gaiety were treated to a curse-filled critique of the operetta he’d just deserted while the frantic stage manager tried to grapple the uniform from him. He later told an interviewer: “The fact of the matter is I was drunk, realised the task ahead of me was too much and I couldn’t hack it, and I just panicked.”
Devlin’s trademark drunken behaviour eventually got him barred from Neary’s, but that didn’t stop him trying his luck.
He walked in one day and demanded: “Gimme a pint of Guinness.”
“There’s the door,” said the barman. “You’re barred.”
He left, but 10 minutes later a man walked in with a brown paper bag over his head, with two eye holes torn in it.
“Gimme a Guinness,” he said.
“Get out, Devlin,” said the barman. “I told you, you’re barred.”
“Ah, Jaysus,” came the reply. “How did you know it was me?”
In later years the actor conquered his chronic alcoholism (“Alcohol was a poison to me,” he admitted), but he never fully recovered from heart surgery and died in May 2011, aged 63.

LOUNGE WIZARD: The upstairs lounge and barman Liam
 
Going back a few decades, Neary’s was a haunt for many of Dublin’s literary giants, including Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, a pair as scarily cranky as they were supremely talented.
Kavanagh, who drank there in the mid-1950s, was sitting at the bar one day revising his latest poems when a trainee barman spilled a pint of Guinness all over them. A collective gasp was followed by a deathly silence as the staff and customers awaited the expected eruption. But Kavanagh was in a rare mellow mood and fixed his eye on the ashen-faced apprentice.
“Son, you may not make much of a barman,” he said, “but you’re a f***ing brilliant judge of poetry.”
John Ryan, the publisher of Envoy magazine for which Kavanagh wrote a monthly diary, was another regular. In his book, Remembering How We Stood, he tells the story of an afternoon spent drinking in Neary’s with the partially-sighted English poet John Heath-Stubbs. After several pints the pair adjourned to a bookies in nearby South Anne Street where Heath-Stubbs, hearing the noisy chatter of the punters and smelling the boozy atmosphere, thought he was in another pub, leaned on a counter and called for a couple of drinks.
Veteran actor Eamon Morrissey, who plays lovable old rogue Cass Cassidy in RTE’s Dublin soap Fair City, is a passionate admirer of Flann O’Brien and has been performing his one-man show, The Brother, based on the author’s novels and newspaper columns, for nearly 40 years.
Morrissey recalls being in Neary’s in the early 1960s and spotting O’Brien drinking on his own. Star-struck by seeing his hero, he went over and congratulated him on his novel, At Swim Two Birds. Big mistake.
“I told him how much I’d enjoyed it and he almost ate the face off me,” said Morrissey. “He said it was ridiculous of me to be praising such a silly book.”
Thankfully, the encounter didn’t sour him, and The Brother sells out every time it’s performed.

A-DOOR-ABLE: The view from the smaller downstairs bar
Most of the international visitors, especially Americans, who drop by Neary’s are following in the footsteps of friends or relatives who’ve been there on previous trips to Ireland. Word-of-mouth recommendations are what bring them through the door, where it’s never been necessary to post a bouncer. For me, a bar that employs doormen is a bar that needs them, not so much to keep undesirables out as to deal with potential trouble inside. Voices are often raised in Neary’s, especially when it’s busy, but never a fist.
The Dublin Neary’s is not related to the Irish bar of the same name owned by County Sligo man Jimmy Neary in Manhattan’s East 57th Street, which he opened on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1967. However, customers from both establishments make a point of visiting the other on their travels — a case of arms across the water. That’s appropriate, because the most recognisable features of Neary’s in Chatham Street are the two beautifully-crafted cast metal arms that support lanterns bearing the pub’s name beside the main door.
Inside, the red carpet, red velvet curtains, red stools and green upholstered banquettes, marble-topped mahogany bar and gas lanterns on polished brass columns lend a comforting feel of yesteryear to the main bar, whose mirror-panelled walls reflect the comings and goings. There’s a smaller bar to the left of the entrance with a three-person snug, and upstairs is the cocktail lounge, with some great paintings on the walls depicting scenes from the bar and the street.
While the splendid interior is an attraction in itself, it’s the staff who make Neary’s the treasure it is, so take a bow James, Dave, Martin, Paddy, Pat, Garret, Liam and Dorota who epitomise all that’s good and admired about a genuine, historic Dublin pub.
If you want the sound of bodhrans being belted and tin whistles being tooted, there are plenty of places in the city that provide traditional music, but in Neary’s it’s all about traditional values and the sound of convivial conversation. Mind you, the sooner the one-tune, guitar-murdering busker who deafens shoppers in nearby Grafton Street gets electrocuted by his own amplifier, the better. Then he, and everyone else within half-a-mile, can rest in peace.
PS: I've just discovered there was one exception to the 50-year onion ban. The late, great Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners who was a Neary's regular used to bring his own onion whenever he fancied a sandwich. He'd take it out of his pocket, hand it to the barman and it would be sent up to the kitchen in the dumb waiter. He was the only customer ever afforded the privilege.

*Donal Lynch’s 2011 article about Jimmy Neary in the Irish Sunday Independent is well worth reading (type both men’s names into your search engine and you’ll find it).

PAT'LL DO NICELY: Barman Pat in the main downstairs bar