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The Late-Night Secret Ireland's Pubs Don't Want You to Know About

Former Dublin resident Jessica Colley Clarke details the cheeky, illegal, but somewhat common tradition of the lock-in

When you’re in a lock-in, you won't know it at first.

The changes in the pub are subtle. You might look up between sips of your pint to see the blinds drawn tight. The barman, usually standing upright and busying himself behind the bar, might be leaning his elbows on the worn wood talking to regulars, a fresh pint settling in front of him. The music has been lowered or isn’t on at all (was it ever on?). The lights have been lowered. There is no attention called to the deadbolt dropping, the announcement for last call never comes. To the outside world, the shuttered pub looks closed for the evening, but inside conversation is still flowing, pints are still being poured. It all feels a bit lawless.

Many of my best memories in Ireland revolve around the great cultural tradition of the lock-in. Legal drinking hours may be up (in Dublin, last call in pubs is at 11:30pm on weekdays and 12:30am on Fridays and Saturdays), but locals don’t just finish their drink and go home. The barman pours another pint, because you have the look of someone who isn’t going anywhere. You don’t know where your jacket is. You have been in this pub long enough to find yourself in a prime position, whether that be the coveted snug (the separate nook in the pub where, historically, women were separated from the main room to have a drink without being seen) or a central spot at the long wood bar. If you stick it out (this is not an inpatient person’s game), there might be some music and singing, especially if someone brought a guitar or there’s a violin somewhere in the pub. 

The best lock-ins occur on the coldest, rainiest nights when there is no reason to leave the warm confines of the pub. One of these frigid evenings, when I lived in Dublin, I dragged my sister visiting from the States to my local pub after dinner. We pulled up our hoods—umbrellas are useless on Dublin’s windy, rainy days—and marched the few blocks to the pub. Musicians were playing in the back, and we stood in the crowd for our first pint. When instruments were placed in their cases, the crowd started to thin, and we found ourselves a couple seats at the bar. This is one of my most treasured lock-in memories, because I didn’t even know it was happening. We lost track of time. We looked down at our watches and for a moment, wondered if they were broken. I never ordered another, but my glass was always full. 

When a lock-in begins, you’re usually in the heat of a deep conversation. The fluffy chat about work and family and whatever great TV show is captivating audiences at the moment is done, and the conversation turns to life. At this time of night, you’re trying to make sense of the world. Or perhaps we leave problems aside and talk about nothing at all, because it simply feels good to be with friends.

Is it the effects of the alcohol? Maybe. But regardless, hot political topics are debated. The best stories are saved for the end of the evening. A camaraderie develops between neighboring groups that didn’t even nod hello earlier in the night. If there are no instruments, people may sing anyway. Soulful songs. Or none of this may happen at all, and small conversations may continue without interruption, until people begin to let out big, insuppressible yawns, and head for the door. You must pop the lock, open the door slowly, and look both ways (who are we always looking for? Police don’t typically wait outside neighborhood pubs) before raising the collar of your coat upright to guard against the wind and walk the few blocks home.

Every year around St. Patrick’s Day (Paddy’s day, please, not Patty’s Day), I am asked an inevitable question: what’s your favorite thing about Ireland? My answer probably varies each time I’m asked. Sometimes I might say the food traditions—the brown bread and farmstead cheddar and smoked salmon and bottomless pots of tea—or sometimes I might say the rich literary and storytelling heritage, the way with words, the craft of each sentence or joke that is such a norm in Ireland. I might simply say the Irish themselves.

But the hours in the pub behind locked doors may just top the list. No matter how blustery or rainy it is outside, that’s a worry to worry about later, because inside, behind the drawn blinds, it’s warm, the last embers of a peat fire still glowing. 

How to Find a Lock-in When You're in Ireland:

1. Lock-ins are more common in neighborhoods (or country pubs) than in city center locations. Get outside of the heart of Irish cities and explore the neighborhoods where locals live.

2. Evaluate the exterior of a pub. If it has large, open windows—this is not the kind of place that will host a lock-in. It needs to be able to look closed to the outside world with blinds drawn tightly.

3. Choose a weekday (such as Thursday) over a Saturday night. Lock-ins are for locals, and they happen naturally. If a barman is fed up with drunk college students on a Saturday night, he is likely to close the pub at the proper time.

4. Do your research. Any time you encounter locals—your waiter at a restaurant, a shopkeeper—ask about their “local” pub. Lock-ins are not the norm at trendy bars, but they are common in traditional pubs.

5. Don’t ask the barman if there will be a lock-in that evening. The question looks suspicious—and remember that lock-ins aren’t technically legal and pubs don’t want to be questioned by authorities.