Winning tip: Tin Pub, Ahakista, Co Cork
On a good night, the Tin Pub on the Sheep’s Head peninsula is a dangerous place. The name comes from the sheets of corrugated iron holding it together around a concrete floor and a small wooden bar that serves Murphy’s and a cocktail called Cormac on the Beach, named after the red-headed barman. The garden runs down to the sea and a view to the hills of the Mizen. That good night can be a few men playing guitars and then some singing starts, and suddenly it is an early morning walk home.
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Beach Bar, Aughris, Co Sligo
A picture postcard thatched Irish cottage perched on a lovely Atlantic beach with stunning views of the distant mountain ranges might sound like the stuff of fantasy. But it exists in the Beach Bar. Inside the original cottage, eccentric trinkets line the walls, from old fishing paraphernalia to Irish cottage dioramas. This family that runs the bar and restaurant also runs the campsite next door. But the real draw of the Beach Bar is its location, in west Sligo, an area steeped in history, with castles, holy wells and megalithic monument.
JJ Hough’s Singing Pub, Banagher, Co Offaly
I took five friends on a week’s boat trip on the River Shannon, and this was our most memorable stop. Trees and vines grow in and out of the windows. The wall decorations have accrued organically over three generations and range from campaign posters from the 1970s to items promoting now-defunct beer brand Merch. On our first visit I asked the young lad behind the bar if I could borrow his bodhrán and play with the band. He gladly obliged and played the spoons while pulling pints. His elderly aunt was on the piano. I’ve never seen a family business quite like it.
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Bridge St bar, Castlebar, Co Mayo
My cousin brought us straight to her “locals’ local” in Castlebar shortly after we flew into Knock. On a Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t expecting to find a pub that would genuinely rival the best in the world, hidden behind an unassuming front door – with an acoustic music session in full flow. The decor in Bridge St bar is simply fabulous. The attention to detail is incredible (Castlebar Comedy Club was upstairs that night and there was a pint holder on the mic stand!). Castlebar aims to be Ireland’s gin capital and Bridge St is one of the pubs on the town’s gin trail – we loved it.
Powers Thatch, Oughterard, Co Galway
This is a wonderful pub in delightful Oughterard, a town right on Lough Corrib, the largest lake in the Republic and not far from Galway. The food is really fabulous with amazing homemade Guinness and honey bread. There’s quirky decor, live Irish music, but best of all the friendliest customer service the best I’ve had anywhere ever. The landlord says his staff should treat you as if you were visiting your grandmother who has cooked you your favourite Sunday lunch and is overjoyed to see you. And that’s how it was during every visit.
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The Quays Bar and Restaurant, Galway
On our cycling tour of Ireland’s west coast we fetched up in the 400-year-old Quays Bar in Galway’s vibrant Latin Quarter. It’s a striking place, with stained glass, inlaid wood, Gothic arches and church pews. During the summer there’s live music seven nights a week. We caught excellent local folk band Caltra. The Quays also hosts the filming of Glór Tíre (a very popular TV country and western talent competition). Friendly, with a real buzz and a top notch à la carte menu, it was just the lift that two rain-bedraggled, saddle-sore visitors needed.
South Pole Inn, Annascaul, Co Kerry
Despite having a glacier and a mountain named for him, Tom Crean’s most enduring legacy is surely the South Pole Inn, which he opened in the early 1920s. The blue and orange pub is a perfect pitstop on a trip around Dingle, the inside is covered with maps, photos and all kinds of polar memorabilia in celebration of the three-time Antarctic explorer (with Scott and Shackleton, with whom he made the astonishing small boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia), and former landlord. Drink Expedition Ale Irish Red, which is made by Tom’s granddaughter Aileen. A life-sized statue of the man himself holding two husky pups stands in a park across the road. Though further afield Shackleton and Scott will always be more famous, in Annascaul Crean is king.
Murphy’s Bar, Brandon, Co Kerry
This traditional family-run pub sits at the end of Brandon pier, where the mackerel seem to jump towards fishermen’s hooks. The view of the bay is beautiful and the outside tables allow visitors to take in the sea air while enjoying a perfectly poured pint of the black stuff. The food menu is short but in content only. Try the delightful crab sandwich with a good old packet of Taytos. Don’t forget your swimming gear and enjoy a dip in the sea before your drink.
Ned Natterjacks, Castle Gregory, Co Kerry
On holiday on the Dingle peninsula we used to go here for lunch and for evenings out. The pub’s name is taken from the natterjack toads found in the area. The interior is stone and beams, and the atmosphere was terrific, with locals and visitors mixing. The music and service were excellent. It’s not far from the coast, with excellent walks and views of mountains. When the drummer said the band was known as the Chippendales because they looked like furniture, I knew we were in the right place.
Charlie’s Bar, Cork
Live fiddlers and flute players seem to turn up out of thin air at Charlie’s Bar, next to the waterside on Union Quay. Ireland’s rogue rebel spirit is captured in a few hours here, whether you are cranking up the atmosphere with the friendly locals or having a morning coffee alone with the bar staff. Guinness and local beers flow once the sun sets and free folk music, with traditional Irish bands on Sunday evenings, attracts a lively crowd. The traditional coal fire warms up the atmosphere too – dancing, with linked arms, often spills out on to the streets in summer – just be careful you don’t fall into the water.
The Marine Bar, Pulla, Co Waterford
On the fringes of the Ring Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area), the Marine Bar has been keeping the locals watered for more than 300 years. Nowadays the pub is known across the sunny south east for its traditional music sessions, led by owner Christy O’Neill. Hunker down for some ballads (participation welcomed) after a day’s exertion on the wild Copper Coast or cycling the excellent Waterford Greenway. Friday night fireside sessions are the most popular, but there’s music throughout the week. The black stuff optional, but highly recommended.
The Meetings, Vale of Avoca, Co Wicklow
“There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet, as the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet.” The old folk song accurately describes the glorious setting of The Meetings pub at the confluence of the burbling Avonmore and Beg rivers. We enjoyed a traditional seisiún with bodhrán, whistle and fiddle, in the company of friendly regulars. One, seeing us scrabble our few remaining euros together for a bar snack, beckoned us over, opened her capacious handbag and doled out ham sandwiches and bananas. “Save your money for the Guinness,” she said.
The Old School House, Swords, County Dublin
If you’re close to Dublin airport, check out The Old School House, five minutes away, which has great food and regular music evenings. The place is popular with locals and always packed. It’s on several levels and many small alcoves add to the cosy atmosphere. The place is steeped in history, with the building dating from 1846, directly across from a round tower dating from 512AD – all that’s left of an early Christian monastery – and a short walk from a Norman castle. A must for people looking for an authentic experience.
Between Tara Street Dart station and the Screen cinema on Poolbeg Street, this boozer is pretty much unchanged since James Joyce’s time. It’s the place to visit if you want to see a traditional pub (no jukeboxes, no musak, no pool tables) that sells what could be the best Guinness in Dublin (and therefore the world), where the pints are kept on trays while going through the various stages of being pulled.
Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
Before I was old enough to drink I was aware that Blakes of the Hollow in Enniskillen was a special place – the red and black-painted front, gaslights dim in the high steamed-up windows, chatter and laughing and the lovely smell I knew from my father’s beer at home wafting from the door. I’m gone from Enniskillen now but going back brings a visit to that narrow front bar, the marble top, the old barrels behind the bar, fire, photographs and, of course, one of the finest pints of Guinness in Ireland. The little Victorian bar remains in a building now hosting several bars and restaurant and yet retains its character – it’s the place for a drink for any visitor to Fermanagh.
The Belfast Empire, Belfast
On Botanic Avenue in the university quarter, this historic bar and music hall is on one of the main thoroughfares of Belfast nightlife. Its attraction lies in its authenticity, the sense of history and the soul of a long-loved bar that was decorated long before Instagram came around. Weekly blues bands, comedy nights and sport on the big screen. Local crowd and students. No fuss, no need to shout over acoustic covers of pop songs (the plague of many Belfast bars). Pours a good Guinness. The beneath-street-level outdoor area is a must in the summer.
The Spirit Store, Dundalk, Co Louth
The Spirit Store at George’s Quay in Dundalk bay overlooks the mythology-steeped Cooley mountains. A 19th-century port merchant’s house lovingly restored and reopened 20 years ago, it is a place for conversation, characters, chess, local beers and whiskey, roaring fires, and imbibing by the harbour’s edge when the sun eventually peeps through. To top it off, upstairs is one of Ireland’s leading live music venues, loved by musicians and comedians alike for the sound system and the warmth of the crowd. Sunday afternoon trad sessions are legendary, as were the late night lock-ins with Glen Hansard of The Frames.
Packies Bar, near Lettermacaward, Co Donegal
On a leisurely amble toward Corr Point, we stumbled on an incongruous-looking place called Packies Bar, resembling more someone’s home than a pub. There were no signs outside to suggest whether it was open, only the solitary old bartender’s matter of fact statement: “Is the door open? Then I’m open.” We were sent to sit down while, with meticulous precision, he poured us the creamiest Guinness we’ve ever had. Simply delicious. We drank black nectar in his “living room” overlooking breathtaking Gweebarra Bay. What a find!
The Seaview Tavern, Malin Head, Co Donegal
This pub is passionately run by the Doherty family and frequented by a loyal clientele for over 30 years. A picturesque setting in and out: traditional Irish décor – now dotted with Star Wars paraphernalia after its shooting nearby – and a stunning view over the Atlantic. It serves as a dining pub and three-star hotel with reasonable prices. The northernmost point in Ireland is known for drinks being so cheap that people leave them behind untouched; the £15 main courses may seem pricey, but come with a stuffing range of sides. Either for a full meal, a drink in the salon or a decadent pint in “the wee bar”, it’s certainly one of the best spots in the country.
Dawros Bay House, Rosbeg, Co Donegal
This must be the pub with the best view in Ireland. It’s got a spectacular location looking out over Loughros Beg Bay to the striking Tor Mor rock. The pub’s delicious fare draws on the best of the (very) local seafood – those crab claws on your plate were probably in the bay that morning. In high summer there’s a popular pub quiz every Thursday night, where some teams have a 20-year-long rivalry. It’s a hidden gem on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
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