What would be a nice collective noun for a large number of Irish bars? A racket? A heap? A diddly? Well there’s a diddly of Irish bars in Bilbao. But which Irish bar is the most authentic? They’ve all got appropriate names (The Donegal, The Molly Malone, Doyle’s…), Guinness on tap (roughly €5 a pint for that just like home feeling) and paraphilia on the walls (maps of Ireland, old Guinness ads). But such window dressing won’t draw the discerning Irish punter. An essential, but often overlooked, component of a good Irish bar is the All Ireland football and hurling championships.
Back in late August, new to Bilbao and anxious to catch the business end of the GAA season (and make a connection with other Irish folk living in the city) I asked Google where I could find such an Irish bar. The search engine told me ‘The Molly Malone’ had what I was after. I scrawled down some directions, grabbed a tourist map and took the Metro to Indautxu. After a few wrong turns I saw a premises with a rustic look. Excited, my pace quickened. The sign above the door spelled ‘The Molly Malone.’
It was closed. Nevermind; there was still an hour to throw in. I had a coffee in a place around the corner. It was three o’clock – a slow, sleepy time of day in Basque region. I checked messages from home for match updates. Time killed, I went back to the Molly Malone. The doors remained stubbornly shut.
What now? Throw in was imminent and I had no plan B.I was walking down the road cursing the so called Irish bar when I spotted a bunch of girls with white legs. Their movement was slow and ponderous. I was trying to figure out if they were Irish and found confirmation when I spotted a Mayo jersey. They were looking for the Molly Malone – the fecking eijits – they had just walked past it. I would have to break the bad news; the pub was closed and they hadn’t a sense of direction between them. As I approached they moved with a new decisiveness, crossed the road and filed through a doorway. I followed them. The faces inside were craned towards the corner. Irish accents filled the air. On the TV was the fresh green sod of Croke Park. I had been looking for The Molly Malone but found myself ensconced in The Wiclow Arms. The girls were no daws.
It’s a cosy pub with two screens. There’s a small bar stationed by the amicable, mild mannered English bar-owner. The Guinness is good. A large window lets in ample light and banishes any cave-like feel. Outside there are tables and chairs for one to sip and smoke. This is an ideal place for the casual GAA-fan; you can enjoy the delightful warm breeze that snakes through the city streets and then duck your head every time you hear a yelp from within to catch the action on screen.
Curious locals walking by peer in. Que pasa?
I ordered a pint. There was no chance of a stool so I found a standing spot near the wall. As the men toiled in Croke Park I passed remarks to a huge Cork-man beside me. A Limerick-man next to him started chipping in with his opinion. The three of us batted it back and forth, rarely dragging our eyes off the screen. We tittered with recognition when the camera picked up a Mayo fan waving a Basque flag in Hill 16. After the game there was plenty to talk about. Alcohol and sport; terrific social lubricants.
The two lads were known in the bar and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to others. There was James, the cockney English man- 20 years in Bilbao. Fiona from midland Ireland – 9 years teaching English and the girls I had followed; Erasmus students, fresh off the plane like myself. I was really beginning to relax and enjoy myself when I heard the barman call my name. I manoeuvred the short distance to the bar. He was holding aloft a pint of Guinness; ‘ Your welcome to Bilbao pint,’ he said with a smile.
I was touched by the gesture, all too aware of the fact that my local in Ireland never offered me a free pint despite many years of my steady custom.
‘He knows he has you in the net now,’ said the Cork-man.
One week later I returned to The Wiclow Arms. I was greeted with a warm ‘Hello’ from the barman and quickly fell into conversation with the same folk as the week before. ‘How was your first week at work?’ the Cork-man asked. We started chatting about teaching English, obtaining the NIÉ, flights home at Christmas and learning Spanish. Problems shared and pints sipped I felt my mind break free of its worries and obligations.
This, I thought, is what locals were like when my father was my age. There was no social media messaging. You just walked into the bar on your own and there would be somebody familiar to talk to.
The next week the barman wanted to know if I was interested in playing for the local ex-pat football team. The week after a Dublin man offered me a position in his English Academy.
It’s been a few weeks now since I’ve been to The Wicklow. Three things happened; I moved to Portugalete ( 30 minute metro ride away), the All Ireland series came to an end and my colleagues at the Academy introduced me to a local group of warm, friendly people so my social hours were spent trying to ingratiate myself to this new group.
But I am eager to return to the warm embrace of the Wicklow Arms. It was a crucial place for me in those first, sometimes lonesome weeks.
I remember hearing a radio broadcast from an Irish pub in New York. The broadcaster, Matt Cooper, spoke with the Irish diaspora and they mentioned how the Irish bar was far more than just an alcohol dispensary – it was a place for social and professional networking, a place to catch up on news from home and share the frustrations and joys of living and working abroad.I couldn’t agree more.
The Irish bar – a feckin’ great place to get pissed!