Start with a pub with a bar that is no more than four metres from an open fire. You cannot claim to know what Christmas feels like until you feel the warmth of an open fire in an Irish pub. If the pub you choose has a large dog sleeping next to the fire, you have arrived in a special place. If you lick your lips and it tastes of the wind-blown Atlantic breeze, you will be hard-pressed to erase the memory of a wonderfully authentic Irish experience.
I recommend finding a Scottish barman and asking him to recommend the finest Irish whiskey in the house. He should have to stretch to reach the bottle. It often hurts a Scot to recommend an Irish whiskey so you should offer the poor man a pour of his own. If your head still allows you to ask for a second drink, be brave and get some Bailey's Irish Cream, but not the traditional Bailey's. Go for one of the seasonal Bailey's creams.
I think part of the festive Christmas spirit in Ireland happens where people walk elbow to elbow outside in a pedestrianised zone. I put Grafton Street in Dublin at the top of that list but you can duplicate the experience near Shop Street in Galway or in the English Market of Cork. This is a powerful Christmas moment, complete with colourful windows and all the snippets of conversation. It took me 10 years--an entire decade of living in Ireland--before I could understand more than 80% of the slang I heard in Dublin, Limerick, Galway and Cork. I still cannot comprehend more than 80% of what I hear on the crowded streets of Galway because more than 10% of those conversations are in Irish.
I always make a point of ordering more than EUR 30 of food from a Chinese takeaway in Ireland during the Christmas season. That way I get a big Chinese calendar and a generous helping of prawn crackers for free. I also duck into Polish food shops for chocolate bars with labels I have never seen before. Both of these things add to the spirit of Christmas now felt all across the multi-cultural fabric of Ireland.
The Irish Christmas dinner is more generous than anything I have eaten at home or on the farm in the States. To do it justice, I try to fast the day before. Then I take my fasting state to the outside of any Irish Catholic church on Christmas Day and watch the men standing outside to smoke and chat. Mass in Ireland can be like a pub chat. When living in Greystones, I saw two men outside the church holding a deep conversation while finishing their pints of Guinness. Their extended families were inside dressed in their Sunday best.
Apparel changes during the Christmas holidays in Ireland. Clothing in my local moves up into the Brown Thomas range as the days tick closer to the 25th. That's because so many college students and Irish emigrants return home to share stories and success is often measured in the cut of your clothing.
American friends who visit Ireland during the Christmas season are often surprised by how much of the country shuts down between the 23rd of December and the third of January. In these fiscally trying times, some restaurants and hotels shut down for an entire week to save on heat and labour costs. Not to worry--there are plenty of small cafes around to test the taste of proper pots of tea. It took me more than one week of tea breaks to distinguish between Bewleys, Lyon's and Barry's tea. Now my mother in the States knows the difference and asks that we send her Barry's tea bags with Cashel Blue cheese, not only in a Christmas hamper, but once every six weeks. That's mom sorted then.
I don't claim to be an expert on the Irish festive experience and I know the advice I'm dispensing here could be the source of a long argument over the dinner table with my Irish relatives. But that's the point, isn't it?
If you want to share your opinion with me, I'm good for a pint in Feehan's of Cashel, behind me in the the shot I snapped for this blog post.