Being a journalism student studying abroad on the Writers Program, my class material overlaps uniquely with my major, especially Immersion Writing. This class affords me the opportunity to remember my Irish experiences more closely because it pushes me to engage more fully and take everything in so that I may let my writing tell my story here and share that story with others. If you are a prospective student thinking about enrolling in the Writers Program, please enjoy an example of a travel log I wrote for class. Hopefully, you'll see how my time as a student and my time as an explorer of Ireland interact and feed each other for me to have the full experience abroad.
On January 22, 2022 the 8 P.M. pub curfew was lifted, and the citizenry of Dublin, Ireland’s capital city, flocked to the streets to enjoy a night of freedom after so long spent indoors and without a drink.
I led my new classmates to The Merchant’s Arch, a pub on the south side of the River Liffey, which bisects the city center, knowing I would find my friends there. People who would look after us and usher us into a night of revelry.
When I arrived at the packed pub, its manager, Frank, stood at the entrance. His glasses sitting low on the bridge of his nose and his eyes magnified to welcome all back to his pub. Perfect.
“Frank,” I said pulling down my mask, “I brought my friends.”
Two weeks ago, my mom and I had to get into a place quickly so we could catch the kitchens before they closed for the evening. The 8 o’clock curfew was messing with what we had expected to be a few free days exploring the city before I headed to classes and she headed back to the States.
As fresh-faced tourists, we searched the Temple Bar section of Dublin for our authentic Irish night out. This side of town was known the world over for its historic pubs and over-priced drinks, a perfect place for unknowing travelers to flock to for a pint of Guinness and a bite Sheperd’s Pie.
In an effort to get away from the packed restaurants, we left the main cobbled street and like a Van Gogh painting, the side doors to The Merchant’s Arch were thrown open and emitting a soft yellow glow and the siren call of live music.
At the door stood a hulking man, head to toe in black. He looked like a boxer or bodyguard with his shaved head and thick nose.
“Is there food here?” My mom asked, already trying to peek past the blockade of a man and into what she was quickly deeming the perfect place to stop in.
“There is,” he answered back shortly with a sly smile. I laughed, I bet he gets that question all the time and it’s a form of Irish humor to answer the question directly without providing any context, explanation, or sensing the intent of the inquirer. Obviously, we were here for food if we were asking, but he stood in front of the door, blocking our way still until we made it clear we wanted to come in. A sentinel on duty, protecting the three other patrons inside.
“Can we come in?” I added for his gratification and because my mom still tried to side-eye around him for the view of the performer.
“Do you promise to have fun?” He stepped back from the door and motioned to a table beside the bar and facing the music.
The whole room was empty except for two other tables, the employees and the musician. I suppose COVID restrictions that have been in place since December to halt the spread of omicron were continuing to hurt restaurant attendance and with the curfew looming not an hour-and-a-half away, it was already considered quite late to be out.
High-top tables and low booths lined the walls, and all pointed to the stage or, more romantically, the River Liffey. Dark wooden tables and red leather booths seemed to drip with a history of spilled pints and shared chips. A cozy feeling despite how empty it was. Above our heads, hung photographs of every sort of scene imaginable—black and white wedding pictures, old sports teams, vintage ads—they crawled up the walls and clung to the ceiling as if they’d grown like plants from the roots of the pub.
We sat on the same side so we could both take in everything. I was tired and feeling a little short with my mother, still trying to adjust my internal clock five hours ahead of my home and exasperated that it took us so long to find a place to finally sit down.
As if on cue, she said “Picture!” Ridiculously big and bright red iPhone already mere inches from my nose.
Deep breaths, I reminded myself, get a drink.
A table of one that was seated close to us left. Now we and two other people across the floor represented all the attendees. Collectively, eight ears listening to the musician sing Jolene in a burly voice.
“Welcome in, girls, will it be food or just drinks this evening?” said a man, who stood about a foot lower than myself seated at the high-top. He had a balding head with a ring of white hair about his ears and a matching mustache under his nose. His eyes were made larger by thick glasses. He was lean and slim and moving perpetually—swaying when standing, rubbing his hands together, grabbing coasters or passing out menus. He looked about 70. A 70-year-old garden gnome come to life, minus the pointy hat.
After ordering, I turned to watch the music and awaited my Irish coffee.
“Are you going to miss me?” My mom suddenly asked and when I turned to her, she was crying.
“Oh, mom,” I said and hugged her in lieu of an actual reply. Of course, I was going to miss her, but I was also extremely excited to get away after so long stuck at home because of the pandemic. She kissed my cheek and thankfully our drinks arrived before we had to discuss the impending Atlantic size commute that was about to separate us.
“What’s your name?” my mom stopped our slight mustachioed waiter before he could move on.
He let loose a genuine smile and saddled closer, “I’m Frank.”
“Well, Frank,” my mom placed both of her hands on the table and put on one of her more serious faces, “This is my daughter Sammi. She’s about to be living here. By herself. For months.”
Embarrassed, I introduced myself.
“She’s going to be away from me for four months,” Mom set down her pint of amber-colored ale, Smithwicks, and snatched my shoulder close to her.
“Now, not to worry,” said Frank in equal seriousness to my mom. “She can come here anytime, and I’ll look after her. I’ve got two of my own. I know, I know.” He comforted her with another drink and fished calling cards from his pocket. Turning to me, “Now, you just call this number anytime and tell them you’re coming in, and that Frank said you should. No matter how busy, even if there is a line out the door, we’ll get you in.”
His glasses sat low on his nose and he looked over them at me. A grandfatherly look of a confidant and conspirator. He patted my hand twice and disappeared with a quick, “Oh.”
He returned with a pile of postcards, “This is Merchant’s Arch. An old guild building.” That made sense to me, it looked like it had been around for about a hundred years, more if some of the pictures were to be believed.
“It didn’t use to look like this though,” he continued. “Tom, the owner, paid to have it all fixed up to make it like it’s been here forever. I’ve been here for ten years.”
It’s funny—the idea that a place that is actually old needs to be dressed up and aged to be distinguished among the other equally old buildings along an ancient street. As if the fact that the pub was a place filled with history would mean nothing without the artificial stain glass over the front door or copper gilded fixtures.
The last table left, and we were left alone to finish her Guinness pie and my chips before we needed to be booted out. 20 minutes.
Frank wandered back to us, and the doorman and the other bartender on duty came close. An intimate gathering of friends not yet made. I felt like I was part of the closing club, the staff of the bar, as we chatted about everything there was to see in Dublin, my program, how I should definitely come back and talk to them all, and on Saturday there would be the best musician Frank had seen in the entirety of his tenure behind the bar.
“Wait a second,” said the stringing-haired extra bartender. “Are you saying we’re your first friends here? What a sorry lot for you!”
Only 5 minutes left until curfew.
“Come on, girls,” Frank said before even letting my mom put down her fork after the final bite. “Let me show you the bar upstairs too.” He led us back, to a spiraling staircase that hugged a circular tower. Pictures growing here too, all the way up, up, up.
We tried to quickly climb the stairs lest we get turned into pumpkins by the magical deadline as the clock crawled to 8. But Frank “bahhhed” and had us stop for pictures on the stairs. Various poses and angles and degrees of flash.
“Ok now, girls,” He sprung ahead of us and unlocked the door at the top of the landing. Inside was dark, and the lights of the street below served as the only illumination of the abandoned space. Stacked bar stools silhouetted by the glow reflecting off the river.
Frank turned on the lights, “Usually this place is full, but with COVID we had to close it.”
From the tall ceiling hung an old two-person airplane. There were two bars and countless tables, more than downstairs. This seemed like the younger, hipper cousin to the pub we just exited. Green glass signs and fully stocked pint glasses collected dust.
“If you look out there you see Hapenny Bridge,” said Frank showing us the ends and outs of the upstairs space as if it was his third child. He gestured to where there usually was live music, he mocked pouring a drink, and said, “It’ll be open again. It’ll be full up here just like it used to be.”
And so it was. Packed shoulder to shoulder, drinking Guinness and shooting Jamerson, revelers flooded back to Merchant’s Arch after the dead winter of eight o’clock cut offs. Frank presided over them all the same, still a grandpa, welcoming his family back after a long absence.
More Blogs From This Author
<p>Sammi Bilitz is a junior at Indiana University enrolled in the Writer's Program in Dublin, Ireland. She is studying journalism and international studies and is so excited to explore what Ireland has to offer. In her free time, you can find her huddled up in some bookstore with a steaming cup of tea in hand.</p>