Hey, Writers: What's Your Favorite Bar?

by Meredith Turits

Writers and bars — sure, they're separate entities, but with their storied history as a pair, they might as well be considered as one. I mean, think about it: When you conjure images of Fitzgerald and Berryman, or Jean Rhys (because there were plenty of female writer-drinkers, too), it's hard to do it without sticking a glass of something in their figurative hands. I'm not much of a drinker, but I too have a love of bars, even if I'm nursing a club soda — there's something about them that makes a person (a writer, especially, it seems) feel at home.

That's why I was thrilled to see Come Here Often?: 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar (October 14, Black Balloon Publishing), a book of essays from an incredible range of writers including Elissa Schappell, Kate Christensen, Benjamin Hale, Joe Meno, Susan Choi, Alissa Nutting, Darin Strauss, Andrew W.K. (!), and... OK, you get it. The line-up is rockstar-esque. And the anthology is everything I hoped it'd be: intelligent, funny, and emotionally resonant, diving well beyond simple stories about watering holes — and it makes me want to get in a car and road trip to every place in its pages, from New York to Missoula, from Zagreb to Hirakata.

One name I was thrilled to see among the contributors was Rosie Schaap, who's an expert both behind the keyboard and the bar. Schaap is a bartender herself, and she's also the author of the memoir Drinking With Men about her days spent chatting on barstools, plus she writes the Drink column for the New York Times magazine. Her essay about The John Hewitt in Belfast (her second-favorite bar in Northern Ireland, technically) is fantastic, as you'd expect — and there's an excerpt from it right here for you to read.

Before you get to Schaap's piece, one more thing: If you have a great story about your favorite bar, Black Balloon has set up a microsite for Come Here Often? on which you can submit your own piece. Do it should your writerly, drinker-ly self feel so inspired.


The bars I love best are never the ones I’ve read about in travel books or magazines, and rarely the ones someone or other tells me I ought to check out. They’re the ones I come across instinctively, or am led to by a stranger, with no expectations. This is the way it should be. Sometimes one bar leads to the next, and even maybe to a third, in a great chain of pints and tumblers of whiskey, a chain of the people who drink them, and of the stories they tell, until you arrive at the one where you’re supposed to be.

So let’s start in The Spaniard, my favorite bar in Belfast, before we get to the John Hewitt, which is my second-favorite bar in Belfast, but the one I really need to tell you about.

It was October, 2010, a cold and damp night, and I was not well. I squeezed into a space near the front corner of The Spaniard, and as soon as the barman heard me try to speak — the fluey thing I had made me croaky — he didn’t wait for me to order. He nodded and said thoughtfully, “Right. Hot whiskey for you.” Prescriptive, perfect.

Still, something was off. There was a rotten smell in the place (many subsequent visits to The Spaniard have assured me that this was a fluke) and I must have twisted up my face. The woman to my right noticed.

“Awful,” she said. “Awful. Some plumbing problem. Lucky your drink smells so good.”

We both laughed.

“What brings you to Belfast?” she asked.

With that question, I flashed back nearly twenty years to the summer of 1991, the only time I’d been to the Northern Irish capital before.

The bars I love best are never the ones I’ve read about in travel books or magazines, and rarely the ones someone or other tells me I ought to check out. They’re the ones I come across instinctively, or am led to by a stranger, with no expectations.

That summer, I lived in Dublin, where I was enrolled in an Irish Studies summer program for American students. In a grave in loco parentis spirit, one of the faculty members warned his charges not to go to Northern Ireland. He suggested that not only was it dangerous, but also, with palpable condescension, that there was nothing to see there anyway. I hadn’t considered a Belfast excursion until I was told not to take one. I did some perfunctory research before catching a bus north. I would have a look around, visit two famous old pubs, and return to Dublin not long after I’d downed a pint in each.

I felt uncharacteristically shy there, and disoriented. And scrutinized — like a stranger blowing into a saloon in a Western. Normally, pubs are where I feel most at ease, most welcome, most open to strangers. But the professor’s admonition had gotten to me. A Belfast pub was no place to make small talk, I told myself. Maybe I’d say the wrong thing, whatever that was. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact. Was it really hostile, or had merely being told it was hostile been enough to make it so? In retrospect, the latter is likely — but I was relieved to return to Dublin, and especially to Grogan’s, the pub that had become my local there.

I would not encounter the poetry and prose of one of Belfast’s greatest writers, Ciarán Carson, until years after that first visit. His poem “Last Orders” — its title a fine, grim double entendre — is set in a bar where “you never know for sure who’s who, / or what / you’re walking into.” The poem ends, so to speak, with a bang:

. . . how simple it would be for someone

Like ourselves to walk in and blow the whole

place, and ourselves, to Kingdom Come.

The tension I felt in the pubs on that 1991 visit didn’t compare to this, but at its core the anxiety was the same: How was I to tell who was who? How could I know what to say, what to withhold?

I had little idea how to read the city, how to read its bars, how to read the signs and signifiers, layers of them built up like coats of paint. The weight borne by signifiers of many kinds, I would gradually come to discern on further visits to the city, was heavier in Belfast than anywhere I’d ever been.

But by 2010, things had changed. The Good Friday Agreement was more than a decade old. Tensions still flared up from time to time, certainly, but the city felt so much more open, calmer, happier.

Ciarán Carson, I told the woman next to me at The Spaniard that October night in 2010, was in fact my reason for being in Belfast, or at least the reason that made it possible for me to justify the cost of the visit. I was there to interview him, and to build an essay around that interview for The Poetry Foundation website.

“Well, since you’re a writer, you should follow us. We’re going to the Hewitt. That’s where writers drink. We can’t stay here another minute.”

Her name was Kerry, and, as it happened, she was an off-duty Belfast constable. I followed her and her friends to the John Hewitt, only a few blocks away. Uncertain as to whether I’d been invited to drink with them, or if they were only leading the way, and not wishing to crash their party if the latter was the case, I thanked them for bringing me there, and stood at the bar.

I’d only just ordered my first pint when the guy to my right struck up a conversation. The first thing he told me (really, the very first thing) was that he was a Catholic and went to mass daily. I doubted this was something anyone would’ve announced to a stranger in a Belfast pub even just a decade earlier. Then he leaned in closer.

“Well, since you’re a writer, you should follow us. We’re going to the Hewitt. That’s where writers drink. We can’t stay here another minute.”

“So what are you?” he asked. “Catholic or Protestant?”

I thought about how that question might’ve made me feel in 1991. Terrified, no doubt.

“Neither,” I said. “I’m Jewish.”

Under the circumstances, my answer, and it was an honest one, felt pretty safe (even if it might also be true that announcing one’s Jewishness seldom feels totally safe, outside of New York, anyway, but that’s a whole other story). He didn’t seem sure what to make of this, and neither commented nor turned away. I thought of another Carson poem, perhaps his best known, “Belfast Confetti.” This is how it concludes—

What is

My name? Where am I coming from?

Where am I going?

A fusillade of question marks.

—testifying to a time when the answers to any of these questions might have put a person in very real danger, when questions themselves were, in their way, acts of war. The questions in “Belfast Confetti” are only marginally less direct than “What are you? Catholic or Protestant?” Anyone who really knew Belfast, really inhabited it, would have been able to tell from a name, from a neighborhood, what it was that you were.

And there I was, in Belfast in 2010, in a cozy, busy pub that rightly prided itself on its excellent variety of craft beers and real ales, from Ireland and England and elsewhere; where young, sweet-faced musicians played old traditional airs and reels on a small stage just beside the front door; where a soft fire burned in a small hearth; in a pub, I learned from reading a brochure tucked inconspicuously into a corner, that was owned and operated by a local nonprofit agency, The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, which was founded by the bar’s namesake, a Belfast poet and outspoken Socialist named John Hewitt (whom I’ve also heard, in a small comic irony, was a teetotaler). There I was, in this warm, welcoming place that existed largely to benefit programs and services for unemployed citizens of Belfast, being asked directly: What was I? Even though I felt unmenaced by the inquiry, it was a shock to have been asked. I wondered what it meant to the asker. My sense was that he was luxuriating in the freedom to declare who and what he was, which, as my contemporary, I figured he hadn’t always been able to exercise, and wanted to extend the same to me. Even if my answer threw him a little, he was open, and curious.

The Hewitt felt like a very safe space, and a brilliant model, too: Why didn’t more nonprofits run pubs, instead of writing one little grant after another? It didn’t seem to shout its agenda at anyone; but then, I was less equipped to read the signs than locals were.

The daily communicant — I regret that I cannot now recall his name — and I stepped outside for a smoke. It was raining less now but late, and Donegall Street was dark. An older man approached, brandishing a copy of that day’s Belfast Telegraph, the major local newspaper. He walked right up to my new drinking buddy; they knew one another.

“Did you see the news?” the older man asked the younger.

The news wasn’t about a bombing, or a plot, or politics at all. The news was that, in a poll, readers had chosen The Undertones’ punk anthem “Teenage Kicks” as their favorite song.

“It’s one of my favorites, too,” I said.

The older man looked at me skeptically. “Oh, you know it?”

“Of course I know it.” I probably rolled my eyes. “It was John Peel’s favorite.”

“Oh, you know who John Peel was, do you?” He seemed even more doubtful.

I was exasperated. Did any music lover not know who John Peel — the great English DJ, the champion of many of the best bands of my youth, and before, and after — was? I’d encountered this strain of condescension before, in Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe: the ready assumption that Americans know nothing. Much as I’d often rather let it go, it pissed me off, and still does. The older guy and I had a brief, terse argument, and as he stepped inside the Hewitt, I’d written him off as prick.

Sometimes true friendships start in skirmishes outside bars.

My smoking companion told me that the man’s name was Terri, and that he was known as the godfather of Northern Irish punk rock, that he ran an indie record store in the city, and that it was he, in fact, who had sent the demo of “Teenage Kicks” to John Peel. Well, I was impressed, but I still didn’t like him.

The following day, as I walked around the city, I happened upon Terri’s record shop, Good Vibrations. Of course he recognized me.

“Last night at the Hewitt,” he said, narrowing his eyes.

Within an hour, we were laughing and talking about music in the back of the store. I bought a copy of his memoir, Hooleygan, which had recently been published, and in which he inscribed his name and drew a flower. The next day on Facebook, he proposed. It was only later I’d learn that Terri addresses most every woman he meets as “the future Mrs. Hooley”— a running joke around Belfast, at least among those who know him, and most people seem to know him. Still, I knew it meant we’d reconciled.

The impulse to scrutinize is hardwired in the people of Belfast. They want to know what each of your tattoos means (even if they mean nothing, and are mostly just sailor flash you like the looks of). They want to know who you are. Where you’re from. Where you’re going. They want to test you. They want to figure you out. Let them try. I learned this from Terri, who has been kind and generous and great fun in my subsequent visits. Sometimes true friendships start in skirmishes outside bars.

Excerpt from Come Here Often edited by Sean Manning, courtesy of Black Balloon Publishing

Images: M. Sharkey; thejohnhewitt/facebook (4)