Getting a flavor for the language

Times Staff Writer

THE pubs here are as much a literary institution as a social one. Even if you don’t drink, it’s a place to immerse yourself in the speech from which so much that is distinctive about the city’s literary life springs.

Like all Irish restaurants and bars, Dublin’s pubs now are smoke-free, so the sensitive can enjoy them even in the evening, when they can be very crowded. I think, however, that they’re best experienced in the afternoon, when the pale light coming through the windows burnishes Victorian woodwork, lending the foam along the inside of your pint glass the beauty of Gothic tracery and the reflective air makes whatever’s being said around you sound like profound philosophy.

Dublin has pubs for many moods, occasions and fashions, but here’s a selection of my favorites that will maintain your literary focus. (To call from the U.S., dial 011-353-1 and the number.)

Talk politics: Though it’s a guidebook staple, Doheny & Nesbitt, 676-2945, around the corner from the Merrion Hotel on Baggot Street Lower, is not to be missed. It has a devoted local following, particularly among politicians and barristers. Choose the front bar, which is an untouched piece of Victoriana with its pressed-tin ceiling, burnished woodwork, pair of snugs (very small, private rooms) and glass dividers along the long bar to facilitate private conversation.

Poetic hangover: Just off Grafton along Harry Street is McDaid’s, 679-4395, a small Victorian establishment that was much favored by Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien. Nowadays the nighttime crowd is young and trendy, but in the afternoon you can catch snatches of that malicious Dublin conversation O’Brien captured in prose, which Graham Greene said “fills you with the kind of glee you feel when people smash china on the stage.”

Young crowd: There are two city center pubs that are most popular with younger Dublin writers and poets, who gather there for drink and talk. One is Neary’s on Chatham Street, 677-8596, a beautifully preserved turn-of-the-last-century place whose distinctive, torch-flanked entry is a local landmark. It also serves a good lunch at a reasonable price.

Lively chatter: The other spot is Grogan’s, 677-9320, around the corner on South William Street. The atmosphere is seedy bohemian, but the conversation fairly crackles, whatever the time of day.

Theater folk: If your taste in conversation runs to theater, actors and others involved in the Dublin drama scene, drop in at the Flowing Tide, 874-4108, near the Abbey Theatre, and the Sackville Lounge, 874-5222.

Hunker down: Doyle’s, 671-0616, across College Street from Trinity College, is popular with journalists, especially those from the Irish Times, which is around the corner. The place is comfortable and nicely traditional, and the lunches are good.