February 6, 2019

Something to consider on your next literary pub crawl


O’Neill’s is steeped in history and gets a shoutout in Joyce’s Counterparts. Photo by Laura LaRose via Flickr.

When Dublin is mentioned, I tend to think of two things: the books and the booze. The city’s heavyweight literary tradition is equally matched by its renowned drinking culture, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that a few students from University College Dublin—the alma mater of some hack named James Joyce—organized a pub crawl based on Joyce’s first short story collection, Dubliners.

Writing in The Irish Times, James Patterson (not that James Patterson) reflects on how he and his friends launched the now-defunct “Publiners” tradition, in which literarily-inclined UCD students would spend the night of February 2—Joyce’s birthday—visiting many of the bars Joyce name-checked in his now-iconic book.

“It was a boozier Bloomsday organized by the cast of The Inbetweeners,” he writes. “It would keep up its pretense of being a literary event by including readings in each of the pubs, and at the end of the crawl, we’d put some money behind the bar to buy a drink for whomever was left standing.”

For those who are interested in sipping on a Guinness and soaking up some Irish literary history, Patterson’s article contains a blow-by-blow account of the crawl complete with brief write-ups of each bar along the way. And if you’re outside of Dublin and still want to drink as your favorite writers drank, you’re in luck: several other cities offer similar, if more corporatized, tours through famous literary watering holes.

For those exploring Manhattan, there are a number of tours that will guide you through the literary hotspots of the city, particularly in Greenwich Village. Eater’s Robert Sietsema put together a good roundup of the most famous locations, such as the Minetta Tavern (a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and others) and the White Horse Tavern (where Nobel laureate Bob Dylan drank to emulate his own literary hero, Dylan Thomas).

Similarly, companies in London will take you on a journey through the haunts of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot, featuring trivia games and actors who impersonate the city’s literary giants. Writers famously love their alcohol, so chances are if the city has a strong literary tradition, you can find a tour that will walk you around the bars that fostered its arts scene.

But as you’re downing a Joycean whiskey or a Mojito a la Hemingway, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the force that drives interest in these tours: a love of literature, yes, but also a tendency to romanticize the drinking habits of our favorite writers and their characters.

For instance, while it sounds like the Publiners event was good fun for all involved (bartenders excepted), it must be noted that it seems a bit queasy to build a pub crawl around a story collection that paints a grim portrait of alcohol abuse and Irish drinking culture. (Anyone who reads Counterparts, the story that inspired most of the stops along the crawl, is more likely to consider a conversion to teetotaling than a pint.) Similarly, several of the literary figures hanging around Greenwich had their own struggles with alcohol abuse, a fact that is sometimes ignored but more often feeds into their artistic legend.

The relationship between writing and drinking, including why people sometimes lionize writers’ drinking habits—especially those of the “macho” dudes of 20th century U.S. letters—is a topic on which smarter people than I have spilled plenty of ink, so I won’t bore you here. (Olivia Laing is a good place to start, though.) And to be fair, there’s undeniable fun to be had in visiting the haunts of beloved writers and characters, looking for scenery that made its way into the pages or trying to imagine what these authors saw and felt as they drank the night away. At their most basic level, events like Patterson & Co.’s rollicking pub crawl are a fun opportunity for people to come together and pay homage to the books that made an impact in their lives.

But as you’re wandering around the bars of Joyce’s Dublin’s or raising a martini to Dorothy Parker in New York City’s Algonquin Hotel, you might want to take a minute and dwell on what it is that fascinates us when it comes to writers and their drinking. Writers are supposed to be pretty discerning and self-reflective folk; it’s what they would have wanted.



James Collier is an intern at Melville House.