Modern, prosperous Dublin constitutes the slaphappy, barhopping part of the Gay Grand Tour, when you swap the high culture and haute cuisine for some giddy nights on the town. Thankfully, you probably won't remember much of your spree. And since this is Dublin you'll be protected from yourself, because no one is better at seeing its tipsy home safely than the Irish.
This comes from years of practice and a local pub culture that is indistinguishable from the city's high culture. Local artists from James Joyce on down found their slightly slurred poetic voice in Dublin's pubs, and the Irish binge is an almost spiritual one, a way of invoking the inspired, exuberant state of craic, which loosely defined means having fun in an abandoned way. But it also means working up a lyrical rhythmic stream of Gaelic barroom chatter that lets a man tell his whole life story over a few pints of Guinness without ever sounding boring (maudlin is another story), and that's the voice you'll hear rattling away in authentic, don't-miss Dublin pub hot spots like Ryan's and Kehoe's.
It's also the voice you won't hear in the new hipster clubs of the Temple Bar area that, in their anti-craic way, offer a sign of Dublin's new global status. In fact, the city that once felt like a provincial, back-roads village, causing many natives to flee, has suddenly experienced an economic boom, swapped the Guinness for some exotic fruity cocktails, and lurched to life. And just as suddenly those who left are pouring back in and bringing half the world with them. Even better, the boom, known locally as the Celtic Tiger, has unleashed its queer little brother, the Pink Panther.
"Everything happened overnight," says Brian Finnegan, editor of Dublin's Gay Community News. "Homosexuality was only decriminalized in Southern Ireland in 1993. So when thousands of people suddenly poured out into the streets and marched in the 1993 gay pride march it was symbolic; the gay scene went from being backwards and underground to open, popular, and fully recognized as part of city life."
If that meant a near-deification of local bad boy turned favorite son Oscar Wilde (a sign of his new status: a sculpture of a louche-looking Wilde sprawling on a mattress-size rock in a local park, hungrily cruising every passerby), it has also meant the distinctly Dublin phenomenon of the gay superpub. "Because the number of pub licenses is limited," Finnegan notes, "it makes more economic sense to open up a very small number of huge complexes that blend club, bar, dance floor, lounging areas, and smoking decks."
That makes a gay night out easy. Start at the sprawling Front Lounge, punctuated by red velvet settees, for pre-drinks. Then head to the original gay superpub, the George, for post-pre-drinks. If it's a Saturday night, make a beeline for the Temple Bar Music Centre, which goes queer on Saturday nights with indie and offbeat playlists, a mixed gay, lesbian, and straight boho crowd, and lots of arty club personalities. And then, inevitably, end up at the Dragon, the newest, trendiest, most sumptuous double-decker club, which unleashes an explosion of chandeliers, funky mosaics, plush red velvet, a mezzanine overlooking the crowded dance floor, a snaking list of cocktails and wines, a smoking terrace, and a revolving set of DJs (most popular: DJ Paddy Scahill on Fridays) and homegrown drag acts that are more art-school performance piece than Lypsinka throwback.
That's where, chances are, you'll meet a man named, say, Sean, who will tell you all about his recent vacation in Majorca and his collection of first-edition Dickens. But you won't mind. "Dublin," says Finnegan, "has rejected that global body-culture thing. You don't get the level of competition you get in Chelsea, the 'take off your shirt to shake your tits' kind of backroom scene. Instead there is still a sense of friendly innocence to the gay scene in Dublin, and no one ever stands alone in a gay club here. Irish people talk to anyone."
And that, in the end, is what makes Dublin the best party town. Almost every other big city has more gay clubs and a more consciously stylish take on nightlife. But no other place offers so much of what's missing from those trendier hot spots: all the people talking for the love of it, fueled by a playful, infectious freshness and the purest sense of craic.