No visit to Dublin is complete without exploring its literary history. Combine the love of everything literary with Dublin’s beloved pubs in a Dublin literary pub crawl. Read on for the highlights.
Dublin, a city steeped in literary history and rich cultural heritage, has long been a haven for writers and artists alike. From the eloquent prose of James Joyce to the poignant poetry of W.B. Yeats or the bawdy words of Brendan Brehan, the city’s streets seem to breathe life into the written word. A visit to this city is incomplete without delving into its literary tapestry, and there’s no better way to do so than by embarking on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl.
“You can take the writer out of Dublin but you can’t take Dublin out of the writer.” —Anonymous
Our second evening in Dublin lands us a booking on the evening tour of literary giants and their stomping grounds, thanks to our tour guide, Cairin O’Connor of Ireland Less Traveled. This unique experience takes us on a journey through the city’s iconic pubs, where the spirits of famous writers seem to linger, inspiring both the old and the new generations of wordsmiths.
The Literary Heartbeat of Dublin
Dublin’s literary legacy is palpable. The city has been a muse to countless writers who found inspiration walking its streets, revisiting its history, and writing about its people. As we set out on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, we are not simply visiting pubs but tracing the footsteps of these literary luminaries. ( We join the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl on a spring evening and find ourselves not merely visiting pubs but tracing the footsteps of these literary luminaries.
The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl is the brainchild of actor Colm Quilligan. He and his group of players began meandering the streets of this fair city in 1988. It is more than a tour of pubs; it’s an immersive experience that allows participants to walk alongside the ghosts of literary greats, bringing their stories and history to life.
As we traverse the streets, we realize that Dublin’s literary heritage is alive and thriving, a testament to the enduring power of words. From the sparkling wit of Wilde to the introspection of Joyce, these writers continue to shape the city’s identity and inspire generations of storytellers.
The Role of Pubs
For many generations, the pub served as a comforting refuge, offering a place for men to enjoy affordable drinks and alleviate hunger. As time progressed, regulations were implemented to manage the proliferation of pubs within the city. Presently, Dublin is home to approximately 850 licensed establishments, each possessing its own unique ambiance and attracting a distinct clientele. Particularly renowned is the concept of the ‘literary pub.’
A Bit of Literary Pub History
The year 1929 saw the implementation of the Censorship of Publications Act, which posed significant obstacles for Irish writers attempting to see their works in print. Many found themselves unable to publish within these confines of what James Joyce called the ‘Island behind an island’, referring to the crown of England. Rejecting subservience to both the Church and the state, these writers sought alternative paths. Some sought refuge in foreign lands, while others departed for England. A few remained.
The pubs played a pivotal role within this small, close-knit, and sometimes acrimonious literary scene. Pub crawling became a way of life, as Quilligan says in his book Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, “The pub was also where men went to get a job—as a docker, a painter, or a bricklayer. They also got paid in the pub at the end of the day.”
This became even more emblematic of the writers who remained taking to establishments such as the Duke, the Palace Hotel, McDaid’s, Mulligan’s, and the Bailey, where meetings with journalists and literary editors from the Irish Times and the Irish Press unfolded over a pint in the pub.
Retracing These Literary Steps
In this context, the idea emerged to Quilligan to retrace the steps of literary giants like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, and Patrick Kavanagh and the pubs they frequented. Guided by Quilligan and his troupe of actors, each tour group embarks on a journey from one bar to another, encompassing four pubs and a special entrance into Trinity College. The pub crawl lasts 2.5 hours.
The actors “tell the story of the pub, the poet, and the pint.” The performance is raw and stripped of embellishments, holding no props, lights, or makeup—relying solely on the actor’s voice and personality, engaging the audience from a close vantage point.
We Begin at The Duke
Upstairs at The Duke, in the crowded pub room, people sit shoulder to shoulder, some on stools, others at long tables, all with pints and glasses in hand.
A hush encompasses the room as the wooden doors close with a low thud behind us. A few people take a pull from their pints, shift in their seats to find that comfortable spot, and settle in.
Quilligan and his fellow thespian Finbar don Bowler hats and take to the stage, not as themselves, but as the two tramps Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”.
Listening to the existential dialogue of Beckett’s words and his deeply thought-out writing style, it is easy to imagine him pondering life’s questions in a corner of this cozy pub or one very similar.
The Duke’s Literary History
The Duke is a pub that boasts an impressive literary lineage. It sits slightly off Grafton Street, an affluent shopping area known for its pedestrian walkways and corners filled with “buskers” playing the city’s music. Many of the buildings in this prosperous neighborhood are of Georgian architecture, with The Duke housing itself in an eighteenth-century building. It also holds the second-oldest license in the area.
One writer who frequented this pub was Oscar Wilde, known for his razor-sharp wit and flamboyant personality. For two years, he attended Trinity College, located steps away from the Duke, leisurely spending much of his free time at these tables.
Before leaving the stage, the actors remove their hats and address us in real-time. Informing us with a nice segway that our next stop on the crawl will be to the Trinity campus via a special entrance. But before we go, due note there is a quiz at the end of the night if we care to take up the challenge. The first prize is a Dublin Literary Pub Crawl t-shirt with a follow-up second prize of a 50 ml bottle of Tullamore Dew.
Let me say I am up for the challenge!
O’Neill’s: A Hub of Creativity
After a brief walk at Trinity College, we head to O’Neill’s, a pub that embraces its role as a haven for artists and writers. At the intersection of Temple Bar and Grafton Street, this pub is a mere stone’s throw from Trinity College, making it an easy jaunt on this spring night.
Negotiating the maze of rooms in this popular pub, we find our way to the front, where there is a snug with its own entrance and serving counter. This harkens back to when it was not customary for women to drink in bars. The ‘snug’ offered women a place to enjoy a tipple in privacy without fearing judgment.
This establishment has witnessed the birth of countless stories and poems, with many patrons being students and faculty from Trinity, including poets Michael Longley and Brendan Kennelly.
With its spectacular Victorian exterior, cozy ambiance, and warm wooden interiors, O’Neill’s offers a space where creativity can flourish, much like the city.
Leaving the warm glow of O’Neill’s for the dusky, dim light of evening, we gather around the nearby statue of Molly Malone. The next act in the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl begins as Finbar recites the bold words of Brendan Behan. Behan was imprisoned at sixteen for smuggling arms across the border of Northern Ireland. His first memoir reflects on these years. Here is a snippet.
The stuff had been caught with me, and as a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I refused to recognize the court. This made the clerk enter a plea of “Not Guilty’ after it had been established that I was not a deaf mute, but mute of malice.
Behan called himself “a drinker with a writing problem.” He profusely wrote and frequented many of the Dublin pubs, calling his crawls “the stations of the cross”.
Another rebel and leader for Irish independence could be found, or not found, regularly inside our next stop on the crawl.
The Old Stand
The Old Stand is a traditional pub that boasts of being in business for the last 350 years. Once a grocery store, it became a full-time public house in 1885, yet it maintains its neighborly convivial nature. The most famous patron to enter through these pub doors was Michael Collins. He is known primarily as the Irish Republican Army leader who signed the treaty, creating the Irish Free State and eventually ending the Civil War.
As Quilligan writes in his book, “He was renowned for his disguises and could pass in and out of pubs without being apprehended.”
As pubs were the hubs of society and places to do business, Collins used The Old Stand to gather information and learn the whereabouts of the British Secret Service.
Davy Byrnes: The Place of Pensive Reflection
Michael Collins and Brendan Behan favored this spot in their day, but Davy Byrnes’s most notable patron was James Joyce. Considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Joyce may be best known for his work Ulysses and The Dubliners.
Davy Byrnes is a literary landmark for any Joyce fan like me. Located on Duke Street, it welcomes us with its refined elegance, much as it would have in Joyce’s time. This pub served as a backdrop for his masterpiece, Ulysses. Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist, famously stops at Davy Byrnes for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy. Here is an excerpt from Ulysses, where Joyce describes Leopold Bloom enjoying his sandwich.
Mr. Bloom ate his stripes of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate. Not logwood that. Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off.
Nice bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves.
It is a thrill to sit under the low lighting at the counter and imbibe on a cool drink while images of Joyce and Davy Byrne observe from their places on the wall over the crowd. This pub’s retro charm and contemplative atmosphere pay homage to the intricate storytelling that Joyce was known for. No wonder it is a pilgrimage stop for Ulysses fans on Bloomsday (June 16) and a fitting culmination for The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl.
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All Good Things Must Come to an End
Our evening on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl winds to a close with one last task remaining: the quiz! Huddled against a brick wall outside Davy Byrnes, Colm and Finbar fire off their questions. They stretch our literary knowledge to its seams. In the end, I did not walk away with my t-shirt. But I did enjoy the Tullamore Dew.
Pro tip: For further reading on the history of pubs in Dublin or more information regarding the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl check out the book by Colm Quilligan of the same name,Dublin Literary Pub Crawl; The story of Dublin pubs and the writers they served.
A night devoted to the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl is a literary journey that takes us into the core of Dublin’s history and its writers. Each pub is a chapter in the city’s literary narrative from The Duke to The Old Stand to Davy Byrnes. As we raise a glass in these establishments, we are not simply toasting great authors but immersing ourselves in the spirit of Dublin—a city that continues to inspire, challenge, and celebrate the written word. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more things to do when you visit Ireland.