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‘I went to the ‘best Irish pub in the world outside of Ireland’ on St Patrick’s Day and nearly drowned in Guinness’ – Anna Highfield

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“A lot of places try to be Irish, the Shil doesn’t have to,” wrote reporter Conor Goodman for the Irish Times in 2015. His simple description of The Auld Shillelagh in Stoke Newington, North East London, might have been written the better part of a decade ago, but the sentiment is as true of the pub today as it was back then.

This unassuming pub is an institution, treasured within London’s Irish community – as I found out when I visited for a taste of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations today (Thursday, March 17). A quick Google before I set off tells me the pub has now been owned by the same family, the Leydons, for a whopping 30 years, after they took it over in 1991.

Taking the overground to the pub from Central London, I sat opposite two very tipsy English men who had clearly had the same idea as me about visiting the pub – and were equally as ignorant about Irish culture. “London is actually bigger than Ireland,” said one of the men earnestly, then proceeded to spout a string of further dubious facts about the country to his drinking buddy.

READ MORE:What is the true history of St Patrick’s day?

The tiny entrance to The Auld Shillelagh conceals a Tardis-like interior

The pub, in Church Street, is a 10 minute walk from Stoke Newington Overground, and I suspect easily missable on an ordinary day. But this was no ordinary day, and the Shillelagh was impossible to miss. Squeezed between Stokey Wines on one side and Church Street Food and Wine on the other, the tiny pub was bedecked with balloons in green, white and orange, and already swarming with customers from as early as 3pm.

Entering was like walking into a fairytale world; despite the pub being barely a handbreadth across, an impossibly large and jolly crowd was already bouncing around inside, somehow managing to let all new customers squeeze to the bar to acquire a pint from a growing pyramid of re-filling Guinness glasses.

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They hadn’t scrimped on the decorations

Lively Irish music, played by two musicians who had set up further in the depths of the pub, rang out loudly across the crowd, creating the rhythm for a girl who occasionally parted the crowd to impress onlookers with the impossibly high-kneed movements of Irish dancing, while the ceiling itself wasn’t even visible past a sea of colourful balloons and garlands.

Then there was the Guinness – pint upon pint upon pint was poured of the dark, creamy Irish drink. Waiting staff toppled back from the beer garden towards the bar with terrifyingly high stacks of empty Guinness glasses, piled high above there heads. I had never seen so much Guinness in my life – I think I only spotted one other drink the entire time, a lonely glass of white wine looking feeble and sickly in comparison.

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Staff pouring Guinness pyramids on the bar

Handing me a pint of Guinness with a wide grin, Tomás Leydon, who has owned The Auld Shillelagh along with his brother Aonghus since 1991, gave me a run-down of the pub’s history, describing how it was “just a run down room” when they first set out. But it wasn’t long before a regular crowd was flocking to drink there.

Tomás, whose family are from County Roscommon, said customers who met here then “got together and had family’s, and now their kids come and drink in here”. This St Patrick’s Day is extra special for the pub, as it is the first since it was forced to close the night before the big day in 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak. “Everything was ready to go, all the food and everything,” said Tomás, looking crestfallen at the memory.

This St Patrick’s Day is back with a bang though. Staff were in the pub until 4am this morning getting all the decorations ready, and as well as traditional Irish stew, the Shil has been serving up endless live music and live dance throughout the day. “Then,” said Tomás, “after that we just ram up the Irish music and usually by midnight they’re swinging from the chandeliers to be honest.”

He added: “It’s a chance to talk about home and old times and all the years we spent here and the craic we’ve had. Everybody’s on great from they’re on a great buzz. The Irish like to party don’t they [laughing].”

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Irish music and dancing in the pub

Tomás thinks people love the pub because it’s simply authentic, and avoids falling into the trap of being “gimmicky” to please tourists. “It’s kind of the real deal in here,” he said, adding, “it’s brilliant because for an awful lot of Irish people who come in it’s their home form home.

“It’s a bringing together of Irish in London – but not only Irish in London, we have a great mix of customers here – English, Welsh, Scottish, Asian – I think everyone gets along really well.”

There’s one other thing which draws in the crowds though – the incredible Guinness, a particular point of pride for Tomás. The pub orders in double the amount of Guinness ready for St Patrick’s Day. “And we do a heck of a lot of Guinness here on a normal week,” he added. As to whether the pub ever runs out of their prized pint, Tomás assured me it’s, “very rarely. But it does happen of course it does.”

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Asked if it’s true they pull the best pint of Guinness in London, he replied: “I think so yeah. I think it’s the care that we take with it. You have to treat it with a lot of care and love.”

Tomás described how his family treat the entire process as sacred, right down to letting the Guinness settle. Temperature is important, he explained, as “sometimes Guinness doesn’t travel well,” so the Leydons make sure the beer rests in coolers at the right temperature for a couple of days before they serve it.

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The best Guinness in London?

“We clear our lines once a week, religiously, using the correct glassware,” added Tomás. But it’s not over there. “The pull of the pint and the finish of the pint is very important, in how it’s presented,” he continued. “It takes work, but it goes a hell of a long way if you get it right.”

“But a pint of Guinness isn’t the only thing that’s important,” added Tomás. “There’s a lot more to it than that – friendly faces, and smiles, and good craic, and good atmosphere.” Well the pub certainly has all of those by the bucketload – perhaps the only thing it actually has more of than any of them, is Guinness.

I’m Anna, a north-east London based News Reporter with a special interest in immigration, social equality, and social housing issues. I’ve been with MyLondon since January 2021. You can follow my Facebook page here.

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I love London for its rich history, iconic areas, and incredible diversity. When I’m not writing stories I can usually be found exploring new areas of the city.

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