There is a pub on Merrion Row in Dublin called O'Donoghue's. If you've been to Dublin then surely you've been there. If you've been to Dublin and not been through that door then I'm afraid you need to return immediately and do exactly that, because you've rather missed the point of Irish pubs if you've neglected to visit O'Donoghue's. O'Donoghue's has been around since 1934, and is considered one of the homes of traditional Irish music, and Irish musicians play there nightly.
Now, that's the dry, understated version of what this pub is. What can't be said but can only be experienced is being inside this pub. I recently enjoyed a couple nights there, and those memories will forever be with me, stamped in my mind indelibly. That sounds rather grandiose for a small Irish pub, doesn't it? It seems non-descript enough from the front, and when you go inside it's no more fancy than any other Irish pub - a bar, some stools and tables, and some pictures on the walls (the pictures are of musicians who have visited the pub, from The Dubliners to more recent, more famous in North America, names). But it's not the decor that makes this pub, and the booze is booze you can get anywhere. No, what makes this pub what it is is the people inside it.
The first night we visited we opened the door and realized the front room was already quite full, and a small group of musicians was already at play. We decided to head further back, and settled on a table in the back room. Soon a tall redheaded man sat at the table next to us, and we began to chat a bit, as you do in pubs. He introduced himself as Connor, and indicated that the music would be starting soon (never letting on that he was part of the music). Two other musicians arrived, with guitar and banjo in tow, and after settling in the music began. You see, in this kind of pub the musicians don't stand on a stage and play for you - they sit at the table beside you, and play to you, and occasionally play with you. They played and sang many traditional Irish melodies - "Rocky Road to Dublin", "The Auld Triangle", and others (if you've ever been to a North American St. Patrick's Day party you may have heard these tunes). It was quite an experience, and for me brought back many memories as this was how I first experienced music, when my father and his family would sit in our basement and play guitars, banjos, and accordians, with music flowing more freely from them as the rye flowed into them. The musicians in Dublin weren't playing "You Are My Sunshine", but the feel was exactly the same. That night we left rather early, having another day of touring ahead of us, but the musicians encouraged us to return two nights later when they would also be back, and we said we would certainly consider doing so.
Two nights later we did indeed return to O'Donoghue's. The saying goes in Irish pubs that the first time you visit you are a stranger, and the second time a regular, and this felt very true when we walked through those doors a second time. We sat down at the same table we had sat at before, and soon enough our new musical friends arrived. This time, though, there were introductions all around (including our 11-year old daughter who joined us in the pub briefly, as the joy of Irish pubs is that you can bring children in until 9 pm in winter and 10 pm in summer - is it any wonder the pub is the heart of their social life?). We had met Connor, and now we met Kieran and Tommy, who had played to us before and now would play to us again. However, this time they dedicated songs to us, their "Canadian friends", and we shared rounds of drinks and stories and laughs. I sang with them as the words to many of the songs are easy to learn and the melodies so catchy that you can't help but sing. Finally, as they began to play their final song we told them we would have to leave soon as we had an early morning flight home, and this was our final night in Ireland. After they finished there were hugs and handshakes, words of gratitude from both sides, and a strong feeling that we had connected on a very real level. They seemed genuinely sorry to see us go, and we were genuinely sorry to leave them. Suddenly, as I was about to leave, Tommy, the very quiet musician who hadn't really spoken at all, popped up and shouted across the table, loud enough for the entire pub to hear, "You're gorgeous, you are!" at me. I was flattered, and touched, and pleased beyond words. It was just the final touch of an experience I'd always remember, and a place I'd always feel at home. As we left they were enjoying their toast and sandwiches (as an Irish friend with us that night said Ireland is a wonderful place, where in pubs after the musicians finish they don't give them beer as they've likely had enough, but rather toast and sandwiches to thank them for their contributions).
I walked back to our hotel on a cloud of happiness, and satisfaction, and pure joy. It was like all my experiences in Ireland had culminated in this final moment, and it was quite utterly perfect. I left Ireland early the next morning, quite hung over after one too many gin and tonics, and entirely in love with a country, culture, and people that I'd never even before given much thought to.
So, if you ever find yourself in Dublin head straight to O'Donoghue's. If you happen to be there on a night when there are three musicians named Connor, Kieran, and Tommy, give them a quick squeeze for me and settle in for a night you'll never forget - I promise.