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02nd Jan 2019

A tale of three pubs – A visitor’s guide to the nightlife of Doolin

James Fenton

“I just wanted to tell you that this is the best dessert I have EVER tasted,” announces a Canadian tourist with glee. “Grand, thanks,” is the reply before the waiter busily collects the plates and sashays off again.

A fine example of that deadpan Irish charm that I can’t get enough of. We’ve just arrived in Doolin, Co. Clare and are now in Gus O’Connor’s pub getting a feed after our road trip. Located facing the river, just in front of our accommodation, it seemed like the sensible option when it came to filling up on this nippy October evening. The Canadian group are all smiles as they chat with some locals and every five minutes or so, the door swings open and visitors take a few moments to warm up by the roaring fireplace.

It’s about 6pm and the spot is already heaving with enthusiastic tourists anticipating a live Irish trad session which a poster on the wall promises will take place later on. We managed to get a seat right next to the fireplace and as if that wasn’t going to warm the cockles enough, I ordered the beef stew. I notice that in our section of the pub, every inch of the walls was covered with dollar bills and currency from other places, all signed by people who had passed through O’Connors’ doors over the years. This just adds to the sense that we were in tourist central but with Doolin being one of the closest spots to the Cliffs Of Moher, that was no real surprise.

About 10 minutes after ordering our dishes, we were tucking into our hearty pub grub and it’s fair to say it hit just the right spot. Next up was dessert which in our case was s sticky toffee pudding to share.  While reluctant to echo the resounding sentiments of our aforementioned Canadian friend, it was pretty damn tasty. With the trad music starting up around the time we were licking the last remnants of deliciousness off our spoons, we saw no reason to hit the road just yet.

Over the next couple of nights, we would come to learn that trad music is a major attraction for those visiting Doolin. While we certainly weren’t inclined to give up our fireside haven, we had a good view across the bar as dozens of people were mesmerised by a combination of the tin whistle, the banjo and the good old-fashioned human voice.

It was after a gorgeous acapella rendition of The Auld Triangle that we decided to call it a night but with another evening in Doolin ahead of us, we knew we’d make it back to Gus O’Connors before the trip was out.

Strolling around the picturesque village of Doolin, you couldn’t feel further away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The air is fresh, the views are stunning and the people are as easy-going as they come. Another aspect that separates Doolin from the Big Smoke is that you won’t find any Supermac’s, kebab shops or takeaway pizzas here. The options for dinner don’t stretch much beyond a hotel dinner or pub grub and on our second night, we opted for the later once more.

Caught out in one of Co. Clare’s regular rain showers, and wanting to discover more of the town, we decided to get behind the wheel and drive a bit further up the road, where we came across McDermotts. Self-proclaimed as ‘Ireland’s cosiest pub’ (see below pic), we concluded that it would have to be a half-decent spot to spend an evening. We shuffled in, took off our raincoats and settled into a little booth just across from the bar. McDermotts seemed considerably smaller than Gus O’Connor’s but had the same proportion of tourists amongst its clientele. After the previous night’s winter warmer, I was in more of a fish and chips mood this time around and it wasn’t long before a massive breadcrumbed cod was sitting in front of me.

As our plates got emptier, we noticed that we had found ourselves sitting amongst Irish radio royalty. Above our heads, we noticed a sign that said Dempsey’s Den, next to a framed newspaper article of Zig & Zag’s original bessie AKA Ian Dempsey. Craning our necks for a closer look at the piece, we learned that Ian loved nothing more than stopping in McDermotts for a pint in his spare time. If it’s good enough for Iano, it’s good enough for me.

Just like O’Connor’s, McDermotts was advertising that some trad music would take place later on and while the place was just as cosy as its sign suggested, we decided not to stick around after finishing our dinner. Friends of ours, whose upcoming wedding was the main reason we were in Clare in the first place, had messaged us to say they had set up camp in McGanns across the road so we paid our bill, thanked the friendly McDermotts staff and made tracks.

Less than a minute later, we walked into McGanns, the third stop on our impromptu two-night tour of Doolin’s pubs. Greeted by the bride and groom and some family members, we pulled up a couple of stools and joined in the craic. Now, if you search the word ‘trad’ in this piece, you’d probably be getting close to double figures at this stage. But, sure enough, a trad band had already set up by the time we got into McGanns and we were beginning to understand how important music is to people in this part of Ireland. While the tourists obviously love it, all of the performers we had seen appeared to be in their element, with an obvious passion shining through. Whether you have a front row seat to catch every chord or you’re happy enough to sit away and enjoy it from a distance, there’s no night out in Doolin that won’t be enhanced by the live music.

A little while later, we bid our temporary farewells and told the happy couple we were looking forward to seeing them on their big day. It was still early enough in the evening as we got into the car and drove back down the road towards the B&B. Passing by O’Connor’s, we could hear that the music was in full flow and it didn’t take much to conclude that it wasn’t time for bed just yet. Living in a world of alarm clocks and deadlines, whenever you manage to get away to more remote parts of Ireland, you should milk every bit of it because you don’t know when you’ll get the opportunity again. We left the car at the B&B and made the short hop back into the spot that gave us our first Doolin pub experience. Sure, it would have been rude not to.

Doolin is a place well-known for its postcard-perfect scenery but when the winter starts rolling in, you can rest assured that you’ll find everything you need in the village’s cosy pubs. In each of O’Connor’s, McDermotts and McGanns, we were greeted with a smile, some wonderful entertainment as well as excellent food and drink. And the desserts aren’t bad either.

(header pic: Charles Monod)