Shamrocks. Corned beef and cabbage. Dancing a jig. While the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday honoring their patron saint for more than a thousand years, the spiritual celebrations took a more festive turn in the 1970s when Ireland lifted its mandate that the country’s bars be closed on March 17.
Ireland’s government took things a step further in 1995, using the annual holiday in an official campaign to encourage the celebration of Irish culture around the world. Cue the Irish whiskey, green beer, and even green rivers that began flowing around the world every March.
St. Patrick’s Day also became a reason for tourists to visit Ireland so they could chase leprechauns and pots of gold to the source. And over the years, the unofficial headquarters of St. Patrick’s Day has become Dublin’s Temple Bar.
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at The Temple Bar could be compared to celebrating Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street in New Orleans — it’s completely overwhelming. And while both Dublin and The Temple Bar are worth a visit at other times of the year, here are our recommendations for finding a more traditional St. Patrick’s Day experience in Ireland.
Sean’s Bar, Athlone, County Westmeath
While it may not be the most well-known pub in Ireland, Sean’s Bar has the distinction of being the oldest in the country. In fact, it may be the oldest continuously operating bar in the world. Officially dated by the Guinness Book of World Records as having opened in 900 AD, a portion of the building’s original wattle and daub construction was uncovered during renovations in the 1970s and remains encased in a display opposite the bar.
As Sean’s regulars tell it, the city of Athlone wouldn’t exist without the bar. A man called Luain Mac Luighdeach established an inn at the crossing of the River Shannon and acted as guide to those who were traversing the torrential waterway. A settlement called Áth Luain (later Athlone) grew around the river crossing, and it became so important that King Turlough O’Connor built a castle there in 1129 to protect Athlone — and the pub.
And if that wasn’t enough of a claim to fame, the very origins of distilling are rooted in Athlone. During the 6th century, whiskey itself was born on the nearby islands of Lough Ree and in the small monasteries located just down the River Shannon. In fact, the earliest recorded mention of whiskey was in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405.
History collides in a glass when you sample Sean’s Bar’s own single malt ‘Clonmacnoise’ in tribute to the original whiskey-making monks or the ‘Luain Edition’ blended Irish whiskey, named after the original innkeeper who established the bar over eleven centuries ago.
The Original Durty Nelly’s, Bunratty, County Clare
There are countless Durty Nelly’s pubs around the world; after all, her name has become symbolic with Irish hospitality. The lady herself was the keeper of the toll bridge over the River Owengarney, and according to legend, she was the ultimate businesswoman. Everyone who wanted to cross the bridge was required to pay the toll, and “those who could not pay in cash paid in kind with the presentation of a chicken, a few eggs, a piece of home-cured bacon or even a bit of ‘comfort’ for the lady herself.”
The original Durty Nelly’s pub opened in the bridge house next to Bunratty Castle in 1620. Nelly was known for her poitín, a homemade whiskey that could purportedly cure man and beast alike. While her moonshine may not be on the menu these days, you can pull your own pint of Guinness at Nelly’s bar and join in the pub’s nightly singalong, or you can choose to spend an afternoon enjoying oysters and whiskey on the outdoor patio with a view of the medieval castle over your shoulder.
Jameson Irish Whiskey Distillery, Midleton, County Cork
At Jameson’s Midleton distillery location, which was established in the early 17th century, you’ll find the world’s largest pot still. It holds 75,000 liters of the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey — times three. That’s right, there are three of these behemoths, along with three column stills containing 50,000 liters of whiskey apiece. And after the on-site whiskey taste test that earns you the title of “Qualified Irish Whiskey Taster,” you won’t bother (or be able) to do the math.
While touring the grounds and Jameson’s official archives is enjoyable and interesting, perhaps the best part of a visit to the distillery is the opportunity to purchase hard-to-find and limited editions of the company’s whiskey. In fact, when we asked for something that wasn’t available in the United States, we learned that they save their best for Ireland. And we don’t blame them one bit.
Kelly’s Bar, Cobh, County Cork
One of the most delightful experiences we had on our most recent trip to Ireland was in the town of Cobh. We were there to see the colorful “house of cards” houses that line the steep hills leading down to Cork Harbour, and we decided to pause for a moment to enjoy the afternoon sunshine with a beer at a charming waterside pub.
Just down the street from the Titanic experience — site of the ill-fated vessel’s last port of call — is Kelly’s Bar. The Irish use the word craic to describe a feeling of camaraderie that comes from a pleasurable social atmosphere, and there are few places in the country we’ve felt it more than we did at Kelly’s. Locals gathered on the sidewalk for a pint and a few minutes of catching up on the day’s news. Grandparents met children who were dismissed early in preparation for the town’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which was taking shape in the park across the street. Everyone we encountered at the bar greeted us and chatted for a minute, sometimes telling us a joke, other times giving us suggestions for things to see and do while we were in the area, and occasionally forgiving us for not knowing the football score. And once the live music starts, you can’t help but be swept up in it all.
Honorable Mention: Ireland’s Second-Best Toilet, Portmagee Village, County Kerry
While the 2002 runner-up for Ireland’s Top Toilet is a destination unto itself, it may be a particularly handy one after you’ve imbibed all of the aforementioned Irish whiskey and beer.
And once you’ve made it to Portmagee Village to check out the award winner, you’ll want to refill your tank at The Bridge Bar at The Moorings.
Just around the Ring of Kerry from the famous Skellig Michael of UNESCO and Star Wars fame, this charming pub offers delectable fresh-caught seafood to soak up the local beer, whiskey, and wine. Every Tuesday evening you can also catch Irish Night at the pub showcasing area talent in song and dance.