This Sort of Thing Can Only Happen in Ireland

The story of a graveyard, Guinness, and what happens when two music legends walk into a historic Dublin pub.

This Sort of Thing Can Only Happen in Ireland

Eddie Vedder, rock star and drinker of Guinness

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was one of those fine gray days in Dublin where anything felt possible. Spits of rain, but enough brightness between cloudbursts to guide my visiting American friends, Erin and Ty, to Glasnevin Cemetery. A few miles north of the city, Glasnevin was Ireland’s first graveyard to bury people of all faiths, and over a million Irish men and women, including many famous freedom fighters, rest here. Our guide, Niall, takes us to the graves of those who built the Irish Republic—Daniel O’Connell, Maud Gonne MacBride, Michael Collins—all larger-than-life figures, but here, undeniably mortal. “We’re only human,” Niall says. “All of us.” Around 4 p.m., the showers turn on. It’s just the excuse we need to grab a pint at the pub. “We’re only human,” I repeat.

Sharing a wall with the cemetery since 1833 is the John Kavanagh “Gravediggers” pub. Legend has it that cemetery workers used to pound their shovels against the thick concrete wall to get a fresh pour of Guinness delivered to the grave site. The watering hole is dark and quiet when we enter, with a low, shiny ceiling and wood floors too worn to creak. For the sake of good conversation, the place forbids music and dancing and once even stopped a singalong by U2, The Chieftains, and members of the Dubliners after their lead singer, Luke Kelly, was buried next door. I push through the saloon-style door to the back bar and picture myself as part of a two-century-long parade of mourners and merrymakers who have all done the same.

The plank walls are two-tone, dark brown and cream, like the Guinness that flows through the hand-pulled taps. Dubliners, who have a sixth sense for distinguishing the great from the merely good of the black stuff, claim it’s the best in the city. We order three and slide into a long table beneath an illustrated guide to Dublin’s best pubs. No more than 10 minutes later, a man with a newspaper folded into his black jacket appears through the saloon door. I immediately recognize his blue stare, that reddish-white beard, and the shamrock pendant that sits just below his throat. He looks me straight in the wide eyes and nods a silent Irish hello. It’s Glen Hansard.

Now, this would be a stroke of luck for just about any visitor to Dublin, but for me, it’s nothing short of an Irish fairy tale. My husband, Kevin, introduced me to Glen’s impassioned music and live performance before I ever saw Once, the cult Irish film that earned the former busker and lead character an Oscar for the theme song, “Falling Slowly.” Since I first saw him perform in 2012, I’ve been falling for him. Kevin, who is arguably a bigger fan than I am and even looks a bit like Glen, spent our first five months in Dublin only half joking that Glen was the reason we were there. And now, he’s here.

The interior of the "Gravediggers" pub in Dublin

The interior of the “Gravediggers” pub in Dublin

Photo by Lucy Rabbitte

“Are you okay?” Erin asks, snapping me out of my swoon.

“Do you know who that is?” I gesture over my shoulder to the Irishman at the bar. Erin shrugs.

“Glen Hansard, from the movie Once?” I offer. “Kevin and I are obsessed with him.”

Standing next to Glen is a clean-cut, surfer-looking guy with dark hair to his ears. I register today’s date—June 8, the day before Glen is scheduled to play a sold-out arena show here in his hometown with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. I scan the surfer again. He’s wearing a gray T-shirt with the words SAN JUAN printed across the chest; a black trucker hat stamped with the eagle logo of a record label I can’t read. Could it be? Ciaran Kavanagh, the seventh-generation owner and acclaimed chef of this pub, comes over and shakes Glen’s hand. Glen introduces his mystery friend: “This is Eddie.” Be still. My. Beating. Heart.

I text Kevin. “You’re never going to guess who’s at the Gravediggers pub RIGHT NOW.”

“Glen? Really?” He fires back on the first try.

“Yeah, and he’s with Eddie Vedder. Get in a cab.”

Ciaran takes my two music heroes to a wall behind us, where a wood board is studded with hooks numbered one through 13. I overhear it’s a traditional Irish game called rings; the goal is to land the rubber rings on the highest-numbered hooks. One by one, Ciaran, Glen, and Eddie try their best shots, while I try to sneak peeks over my shoulder between pretending to still care what Erin and Ty are saying. Ty notices and calls me out for being immature and star-struck. “They’re just two normal dudes,” he says, sounding a bit like Niall from the cemetery. “I’m gonna go play with them!” My six-foot-four friend, with an equally long arm span, asks if he can play. His first few shots smack a 10, 12, and a 13. Glen and Eddie look impressed, which is my cue to move in. Be cool, be cool, I tell myself, taking a few photos—of Ty, of course—which I promptly text to Kevin.

“Stuck in rush-hour traffic,” Kevin responds after a curse. “Beg him to wait for a big hug and a pint from a friend.” If only I could speak.

Before I can exchange anything more than a knowing smile with Eddie, a security guard walks in and escorts him out. Glen lasts another five minutes, then he too disappears behind that storied swinging door. Why didn’t you say something? I berate myself. But what would I have said?

“I often go to sleep listening to you?”

I head outside to the grassy square that fronts the pub and there, to my left, Glen is standing against the graveyard gate. Game. Not. Over. I turn right back around and order another pint. Guinness, please give me strength. Tossing back some of the cool, creamy beer, I finally conjure the courage to walk over. Glen appears to be texting on his phone. “Hey, sorry to interrupt, or if this is awkward. . . .” I sputter. Clear blue eyes shoot up and laser into my soul again. “My husband and I are just huge fans of yours. . . . I really love your music. It’s so exciting to see you here!”

“Tanks, tanks, ’preciate that,” Glen says, graciously offering a handshake.

I feel the need to justify. “We saw you play earlier this year in Dublin and in Cork, and we’ve seen you twice at the Sydney Opera House, the first time on St Paddy’s Day.”

“Ah, with Lisa O’Neill,” Glen says, a hint of nostalgia in his voice.

A conversation about Irish music ensues: Lisa O’Neill, Lisa Hannigan, Lisa Hannigan’s ex-partner Damien Rice. I’m just barely keeping up when I blurt out: “We tried to get tickets for your show tomorrow, but you’re playing with Eddie Vedder, and, it sold out in 15 minutes.” I laugh, awkwardly, and regret saying that.

But Glen flashes a look of sympathy. “You know,” he says, looking back down at his phone. “I just put the barman on our guest list. There’s no reason I shouldn’t add you.”

My heart double beats again. No reason? How about the fact that I just accosted you at a pub in your home city? Or that you might know a few thousand people you’d put on that list before me? Or that my American friend beat you, an Irishman, at rings? “No, no, no, no,” I push back. “That’s crazy. That’s not why I came over here.”

“No. really, why shouldn’t I? What’s your name?”

Before I know it, Serena (“like Williams”) Renner is typed into Glen Hansard’s iPhone, followed by the number 4. A bartender thankfully saves me from kissing the man. “Hey Glen, your ride is taking ages. How about another pint?”

“Can I please buy this one?” I insist, wanting to do something to repay his generosity. I also want to buy more time for Kevin.

We return to the bar, where I back Glen into one of those quiet conversation corners, and we chat about the Irish language, Trump, recent terror attacks in London, how Jeremy Corbyn is tipping the power scales in the U.K. general election. He asks what my favorite Ireland experience has been. This moment, obviously, but I say, “County Cork,” adding, “we went to Connolly’s of Leap.” It’s a legendary music venue where I know Glen has played. In fact, I know he’s responsible for the cross-hammer banner that hangs behind the stage; he stole it from Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s house in England. “Ah, that’s grand,” Glen says, growing increasingly animated. “Did you meet Sam, the owner with the mustache?” I nod, feeling increasingly Irish.

Glen’s ride walks in. As I put my drink down to say good-bye, a figure rounds the corner, rain clinging to his orange raincoat, big goofy smile cracking across his face. It’s Kevin. Glen reaches out his hand. “Can I just give you a hug?” Kevin asks, almost in tears. “Sure,” Glen laughs and goes in for a warm one. After I pry Kevin off his hero, I point out their resemblance. Glen agrees: “You could be my brother!” He then hands Kevin his half-full pint and says, “See ya tomorrow.”

The John Kavanagh "Gravediggers" pub; graveyard entrance at left

The John Kavanagh “Gravediggers” pub; graveyard entrance at left

Photo by Lucy Rabbitte

The scene on the cobblestones outside 3 Arena is wet and chaotic. The Ariana Grande concert bombing in Manchester was only a few weeks ago, and security guards are dumping the contents of purses into clear trash bags. But nothing can crush my cool tonight. “Where do we go if we’re on Glen’s guest list?” I ask at every opportunity.

When we reach the ticket window, we’re nervous. We’d be the first cut, Kevin has been reminding me all day. But I’m handed four white envelopes with my name scrawled in sloppy red pen. Inside each is a ticket and a VIP entry pass to the 1878 members club, the name Eddie Vedder printed at the top of the plastic card.

Just as Glen is starting his first song, we take our position in the dead center of the 9,000-seat arena. Ty raises his free members-club beer to our new friend on stage. “Thanks, dude,” he yells. Glen’s set is only eight songs, but it’s political and emotional, spanning his career from the Pixies-style rock jam “Revelate” to a wailing piano number he wrote for his mom. She doesn’t get to see his gigs much, he says, but she’s here tonight because “she fancies Eddie.” By the end of the song, he’s wiping tears with his forearms and lifts his hands up in surrender. He’s only human.

Glen not only put us on his guest list, but he also welcomed us into his guest box, alongside friends and family and the artists and musicians shaping modern Ireland today.

The audience screams, picking him back up for his last, and I think best, three songs. In between, he shares stories about how his brother took him to his first Pearl Jam concert at this arena in 2000 and about the drinking adventure with Lisa O’Neill that inspired the Irish ballad “McCormack’s Wall.” He ends on a political note with “Vigilante Man,” which Woody Guthrie wrote in the 1930s about his New York slumlord, Fred Trump. “Like father, like son, man he’s rotten to the core,” Glen belts out. “Oh Trump, sent the sheriff to my door.” The crowd erupts. He closes with his bluesy migration-themed “Way Back in the Way Back When,” dedicating it to anyone who’s ever had to leave their home for a better life. It ends in a well-deserved standing ovation.

At the set break, we spot Lisa O’Neill a few seats over, and Sam, the mustachioed owner of Connolly’s of Leap in County Cork, two rows down. Glen not only put us on his guest list, but he also welcomed us into his guest box, alongside friends and family and the artists and musicians shaping modern Ireland today. I realize that even in this era of xenophobia and terrorism and Trump, there are good people doing good deeds who are going to get us through.

When we claim our seats again, Ciaran Kavanagh from the Gravediggers is in the chair to my right. We exchange a giddy hello; I know by now he’s a huge Eddie Vedder fan. The lights go down and a solo Eddie takes the stage, earning standing applause before even making a sound. He sits amid battered suitcases, a vintage tape recorder, and a rug on a set that looks like a basement and unleashes a whirlwind opening of five Pearl Jam hits—including “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter” and “I Am Mine”—mixed with covers of Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd, and The Who.

Once he’s fully fired up, Eddie starts making parallels between Ireland and his hometown, Seattle: “the Emerald Isle and the Emerald City,” he says, “two well-watered places that are so good for music.” Then he recounts his trip to the Gravediggers. I can hear Ciaran inhale. “There’s nothing like drinking the best pint you’ve ever had next to a graveyard to make you feel alive,” Eddie says in his velvety baritone voice. I turn to Ciaran; his bulging eyes tell me he could happily be buried in that graveyard right now. I could too.

The colossal 32-song set mellows out into a couple ukulele tunes before bringing the audience back to its feet for a speedy string quartet version of “Jeremy.” Eddie dedicates the song to Jeremy Corbyn, who pulled off a huge upset in the U.K. election, announced this morning. He tweaks the lyric “Jeremy spoke in class today” to “Jeremy spoke about class today,” and Dublin goes apeshit. I scan our section, and six seats away, Glen is singing along to his friend’s song, arms raised in a “V” just like all his Irish brethren.

The show ends an hour over schedule—for a rumored fine of 25,000 euros gladly paid by the headliner—with a powerful Glen-Eddie, Irish American encore. And then we’re back in the red-walled 1878 bar waiting for the two musicians to make their final curtain call. Eddie comes out first; he walks straight up to Ciaran. “Now there’s a face I recognize,” the legend says to perhaps his biggest admirer in the room. Kevin, mildly drunk and standing next to Ciaran, then regales Eddie Vedder with a rambling recap of his quest through city gridlock to get to the Gravediggers to meet his hero: Glen. “Well, I’m glad you met your favorite,” Eddie deadpans. “Me, too!” Kevin beams.

Finally, the Dubliner we’re all waiting for appears after one of the biggest shows of his life. He moves from table to table, checking in with friends, family, and fans. When he reaches our group, I throw my arms around him and thank him for the best night of my life. He turns to Kevin and surprises him with a brotherly pat on the back: “You made it.”

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Serena Renner is the former editor of AFAR’s Wander section; previously she was also the travel editor at Diablo magazine. She caught the travel bug during a study abroad trip to Granada, Spain.
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