It was one of those long days with a nap in between that makes one day feel like two, and thus a late night out began with the same energy one might bring to the morning, after a coffee. The sun had been down for some time, having set in the late afternoon. The sun was also down when we arrived on the Aer Lingus red-eye from New York in the morning, driving our rental car through the moon-shadowed landscape to reach Kilkenny in time for breakfast at the 9:00 a.m. dawn.
Back on the cobblestone streets sheened from the day’s rain, we followed High Street to a “laneway” — a lowly lit, medieval alley leading to a closed black door illuminated by one naked bulb. An 18th Century tavern awaited, housed in the oldest surviving townhouse in Ireland—the 1582 Archer Inner House. Aptly named Hole in the Wall, the open door flooded us with light, warmth and Christmas joy. About the size you might expect a pub of its name to be, it was cozy. You could probably lay down two full mattresses to indicate the area for patrons. The barman by night and medical doctor by day, trim and small somehow filled up the area behind the bar. He had just enough space to turn around and grab a bottle. I’ve no idea where the glasses were stored. It couldn’t have been the ceiling, for that was covered with dollar bills carrying messages scrawled with sharpies by travelers from around the world.
Our group of four had set foot inside around verse two of The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” being belted cheerfully and harmoniously by the drinking men and women while the bartender held a large easel sign bearing the lyrics, turning the page to keep up with the record playing along with us and giving us our beat. We immediately chimed into the four-minute long song. Like perfect acoustics of an empty car or shower, the Irish bar carried our tune. New Yorkers in Kilkenny singing a song about Irish immigrants in New York singing about Galway Bay. It was magic.
With the 12 days of Christmas begun, we chatted later with our impromptu choir partners bedecked in Santa hats and elf accouterment. A rotund man announced his age of 44, he explained tonight in Ireland they were celebrating with a game called the 12 Pubs of Christmas. A drink at each with some rules and shots mixed in. He added he’d never made it passed bar six.
Our crawl continued and I wondered if I should turn back to New York, knowing I’d just had the most incredible, decidedly Irish experience and I’d been in the country for less than 24 hours. Before leaving, I scrawled some cheery words onto a dollar bill for our engaged friends and drinking partners and someone taller than me stuck it to the ceiling.
Rather than turn back, we continued to a pub further along on High Street at Cleere’s Bar. The house was full but the chatter calm and quiet. Four of us sat elbow to elbow around a small circular table sipping wine, beer, and whiskey. To my right, a crew of musicians sat nonchalantly, fingers splayed on their instruments and filling the bar with sweet Irish music. They did not command silence, nor even an attentive audience. This is simply how it’s done here. Music played between generations, pipes, and violins in chorus together and shared amongst themselves and for all to hear.
It was a prelude into a beautiful tradition of a constant presence of instruments with your pint or gin. As we ventured west over the next several days, Galway’s High Street and Killarney’s Main Street filled with carolers, including singing “Christmas in Killarney”. Up the Wild Atlantic Way, we cozied by fireplaces with warm meals and stringed duets and quartets in Doolin.
Our reason for traveling through Ireland was the wedding our Irish-American friends with whom we’d belted The Pogues in Kilkenny, and so we slot Dublin into the middle of our itinerary which began and concluded with a road trip up Ireland’s Atlantic coast. We’d arrived at the Dublin airport, not to catch a flight but to change rental cars. The signs for the rental car offices seemed to all be pointed in the wrong direction and a hanger (read: hungry + anger) took over me. That brief moment where you believe your destiny might be to amble linoleum corridors toting a rolling bag, wafting in the smell of foods made with preservatives. But as if on cue, a children’s choir sang in the midst of the airport one of my own favorite Christmas songs: Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone”. Ireland had melted my heart again.
Christmas Eve was finally upon us in the wild landscape of Donegal. Our hotel’s bar crowded in as we all sat to enjoy the music of two uber-talented guitar players/vocalists: Paddy Malone and Ryan McCloskey, the latter of whom played in the Irish band, Little Hours. Cheerful and friendly, the two took requests through the night engaging in funny banter with the most charming of Ireland’s accents. The evening ultimately concluded with all of us joining in with Paddy and Ryan to sing The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”