The Irish Heartbeat
At Home or Away, the Pub is About Its People
Walk through The Front Door in Galway and the ear-splitting volume of the music and the size of the fashionable crowd spilling between the first and second floors might deceive you into thinking that you have stumbled into a nightclub in Manhattan.
Walk into The Kinsale in Boston and the faded Celtic murals and beer-battered fish and chips might dupe you into thinking that you have wandered into a cozy pub in the port town of the same name on the coast of West Cork.
Do not blame globalization for your disorientation. The fact is that traditional pubs in Ireland are courting extinction even as their prefabricated replicas are proliferating all over the world. Nostalgia for all things stereotypically Irish is booming just as the Emerald Isle’s robust economy is transforming what were once quaint local pubs into giant entertainment venues.
Pubs for Export
The irony is not lost on Brian McMullan, whose family opened a pub at a crossroads in Country Antrim in 1908 that is still in operation. In 2000, McMullan became the representative in the United States of the Irish Pub Co., a Dublin-based design-and-build exporter of ersatz Irish pubs. The firm has shipped hundreds of prefabricated pubs to such unlikely locales as Singapore and Kazakhstan, peddling humble Irish “authenticity” at the very moment that Ireland itself is transitioning from one of the poorest countries in Europe into one of the richest.
“The truth is I think that you sell more Budweiser in Ireland today than you do Guinness,” says McMullan, an exaggeration perhaps but an indication that the Celtic Tiger, as the roaring Irish economy is known, is threatening old habits even as it produces new jobs. Prosperity has not made the Irish drink less; one study, in fact, suggests that consumption of alcohol increased by 41 percent in the last decade of the 20th century, despite the abstemious who still take “The Pledge” to never let alcohol pass their lips.
But a younger, more cosmopolitan (and international) work force in a country of 3.9 million people has fueled demands for a livelier bar scene. A rush to renovate and expand has swept through tiny rural pubs and historic Dublin taverns alike, stripping many of the distinguishing features that made them Irish originals. Such “superpubs,” are designed to accommodate as many as 1,000 patrons at a time. Karaoke machines and pool tables and large screen, high-definition televisions are competing with the humble hearths, cracked leather stools and sawdust-covered stone floors that have long been the natural venue for the spontaneous fiddle sessions and animated conversation associated with Irish pubs.
Just as the Celtic Tiger began to roar in the early 1990s, the Irish Pub Co. partnered with Guinness Brewing Worldwide to market “the Pub Concept” to the world. In Atlanta or Houston, Sydney or Singapore, you now can slake a thirst with a pint of Guinness to live Irish music or the recorded sounds of Celtic fiddles and tin whistles. The would-be publican can pick the style best suited to his personality and his location: a country cottage pub, perhaps, or an ornate Victorian tavern. The Irish Pub Co. will build to the measurements provided and ship the theme pub in pieces, a prefabricated kit that can include everything from the bar’s brass rail to the faux whiskey kegs to the reproduction Guinness posters.
“We don’t have to do any marketing at all; people come to us through our website (www.irishpubcompany.com) and my job is to separate out the people interested in a hobby from those ready to run a demanding business,” says McMullan. “Running a pub can be either the happiness or the nightmare of your life. It is not in our interest to let it be a nightmare.”
McMullan tells the supplicants who came streaming to his cyber doorstep that money alone will not guarantee success. “If you have a dynamic personality and $100,000 you can do better than $2 million with a bore running the place,” he says, but a stone floor, some brass taps and a polished mahogany bar built in Ireland will not compensate for a lousy location in Minneapolis or Denver.
“I ask them a series of questions to drive them away. ‘Do you know that 95 percent of food and beverage businesses collapse?’ ‘Do you know how hard you are going to work?’” Most of those who persevere do succeed, he insists. “Only two of the 70 pubs we’ve opened in the United States have failed and that was because the partners had a falling out,” he says. “People just seem to love Irish pubs.”
The Genuine Article
Still, the appearance of an Irish pub is one thing; the actual ambiance is another. All the reproduction Gaelic street signs and Irish bric-a-brac cannot replicate the experience of a real Irish pub, that most iconic symbol of communal life in the Emerald isle. For that, there is no substitute for the genuine article. From Dublin, whose gas-lit pubs were immortalized by James Joyce in Ulysses, to small towns whose entire populations could not fill a superpub, there is some spirited resistance to the new, homogenized pub scene (the Irish Pub Co. has even opened some of its faux Irish pubs in Ireland) and stubborn holdouts who prefer preservation to renovation.
The Irish government estimates that 88 percent of an estimated 11,000 pubs in the Republic of Ireland are family-owned taverns, many with the surnames spelled out in colorful block letters above the front door. First licensed in 1635, Irish pubs now answer to the more than 80 laws that regulate a drinking trade that began when ancient agrarian societies first figured out how to ferment wild barley. In Ireland, specifically, historians trace ale-brewing back more than 800 years to St. Francis Abbey, the ruins of which can still be seen on the property of Smithwick’s brewery in Kilkenny.
Until recent years, most pubs in Ireland provided patrons an opportunity to shop as well as to drink. The local pub might peddle groceries or farm tools, might sell hardware or fishing lures. More than one local undertaker had his mortuary in an adjoining room; several still do.
Whether they do or do not sell burial shrouds or bicycles along with their beer, traditional pubs remain as much a fixture of Irish life as the parish church. Metal kegs have replaced the wooden casks that once were suspended above bar. Snugs, the enclosed rooms where women were consigned to drink out of sight, are an artifact of an earlier time. At Ma Murphy’s in Bantry the snug is used for storage. At Hargadon’s in Sligo it is used for parties. The door to the snug in Hargadon’s provided privacy from the rest of the pub and small opaque windows that turn on pivots move noiseless back and forth, allowing the bartender discreetly to slip a drink across the marble countertop into the snug without ever coming face to face with the drinker.
Pubs were men’s clubs until the 1960s when it became more socially acceptable for women to imbibe in public. It was not until the year 2000, however, that the Equal Status Act made it illegal in Ireland to refuse to serve someone “on the grounds of gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller Community.” (“Travellers” is the name given in Ireland to the shrinking band of itinerants who wander the countryside.)
The shame attached to women for drinking in public was a modern phenomenon, stoked by the heavy hand of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Middle Ages, it was women who brewed ale for family and for social consumption and women who distilled whiskey for medicinal uses. Whiskey was called uisce beatha in Gaelic, the water of life. Females were as likely as men to be visitors to the local shebeen, the rural drinking dens where poitín, the local moonshine, was distributed to revelers from illegal stills.
Women are now welcome, and a decent meal and a glass of French or California wine can be had in addition to a pint of lager and a toasted sandwich. The proliferation of supermarkets has been the death knell for most grocery-pubs. But the ambiance of a traditional Irish pub, the warmth that embraces a patron upon entry, is undiminished by time.
A Pub in the Family
In 1980, the Green family in Kinvara, a fishing village in southern County Galway, finally stopped selling groceries, 120 years after Michael Green opened his pub on the first floor of a three-story building opposite the harbor. The shelves now are stocked with a mind-boggling variety of liquor bottles but otherwise the place is little changed. Michael’s son, Martin, ran the pub after him, necessitating no alteration in the name that still hangs over the door: M. Green. Mary Green runs the pub, now, moving tables around to accommodate the traditional music sessions that erupt spontaneously year-round but especially in summer when everyone congregates as the harbor fills with old sailing ships for an annual festival celebrating Kinvara’s maritime history.
Mary lives above the pub and, for the life of her, she cannot imagine living anywhere else. “It suits me,” she says of pub keeping. “It must be in the blood. I love the people and the conversation and, of course, the craic,” a Gaelic word with no precise English translation. “Fun” is as close an approximation as any to define the expression commonly heard among patrons leaving Green’s after an evening of traditional music. “The craic was mighty at Mary’s tonight!”
The traditional craic might well endure longer than the superpub phenomenon. A poll by The Dubliner magazine this year set out to name the most popular pubs in the capital city. Traditional pubs captured the top five spots of the 1,200 patrons who cast a ballot.
The American television producers who dreamed up “Cheers,” the fictional Boston bar “where everyone knows your name,” could have found the real thing in any Irish town. Pubs embrace strangers—tourists often count the memory of a favorite Irish pub the highlight of a trip to the Emerald Isle—but it is the locals who are every publican’s livelihood.
The Oldest Pub
Sean’s Bar, which advertises itself as the oldest pub in Ireland, is a happy mix of local patrons and travelers. In Athlone, County Westmeath, in the center of Ireland, Sean’s sits alongside the Shannon River. Its sloping floors are less a design feature than a sign of age. In the not unprecedented event of flood, the waters of the Shannon simply roll through the back door and down into the rain-swollen river.
Renovations at the pub in 1970 uncovered construction that dates back to the 9th century. A piece of the exposed clay and mud wall has been preserved under glass and put on display to give patrons a sense of just how old the place is.
Sean Fitzsimons, for whom a stool is permanently positioned at the end of the bar, owns the place, one of 86 pubs in Athlone. A brass plaque informs the uninitiated: “This seat reserved for Sean.” Old photographs and older artifacts decorate the walls. Above Sean’s stool is a clock from the Dublin General Post Office, the site of the doomed Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland in 1916. The rebellion failed but the high-handed decision by the British to execute the leaders in Kilmainham Jail enraged the populace and elevated the rebels to the status of martyrs, paving the way for future battles and, ultimately, the Irish Free State.
The history attracts the tourists, but it is the craic that draws the locals in after Sunday Mass to watch young and old shake off the morning sermon and pull stools up to the pub’s piano for an impromptu session of traditional music. Sean’s has a well-earned reputation as a social gathering place for fiddlers and other local musicians. The scene is especially lively in summer, when the players spill out into the beer garden behind the pub to take inspiration from the Shannon flowing nearby.
Traditional music is as integral to the Irish pub scene as porter and whiskey. The indigenous culture never vanished during centuries of British rule, despite the best efforts of Ireland’s occupiers to wipe out its language and its music. Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, The National Organization for Irish Traditional Music and Musicians, began the revival in the 1920s, as soon as the country obtained its independence. It has helped ensure a robust music scene ever since.
Brian McMullan knows what makes a pub work, here or across the sea in Ireland. It’s the people, not the fake butter churn in the corner or the walls of sepia-toned photographs of sheep on an Irish hillside. “People like the atmosphere, but they come for each other’s company,” he said of the patrons who fill his McMullan’s Irish Pub in his adopted American city. “I don’t get many tourists here; I don’t really want them,” he says. “This is a neighborhood pub.”
Fittingly, that neighborhood is a little more than a mile from the Las Vegas strip, the world’s largest adult theme park. He appreciates the comparison. “We aren’t Disneyland, although I think Disneyland is wonderful,” McMullan says of the faux Irish pubs his company is marketing to the world. “But we are trying to transport you to another world.”
Even if that world is only a fading memory.
Eileen McNamara is a Professor of the Practice of Journalism at Brandeis University. Formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Boston Globe, she is the author with photographer Eric Roth of The Parting Glass: A Toast To The Traditional Pubs of Ireland (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2006).