Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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SAD DEMISE OF THE RURAL PUB LEAVES US ALL POORER

Turtle Bunbury remarks on the latest figures from the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI )in the Irish Examiner on 21 August 2009 and the story is picked up by Valerie Cox on RTE1's Morning Ireland. It also coincided with a radio interview on 20th August, hosted by Tom McGurk on 4FM, with Turtle and Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the VFI .

How can it possibly add up? That’s the question rural publicans have been asking themselves for years. How can they afford to keep their pubs open? Well, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that they can’t. Indeed, if figures issued by the Vintners Federation of Ireland yesterday are anything to go by, the immediate future for our legendary pub culture is looking decidedly grim.

The VFI held a crisis meeting in Dublin to halt the downfall of the rural pub after the 4,000 of the 5,000 pubs on their books claimed their profits are down by between 10% and 20% this summer. Consequently over half of those pubs have been obliged to let staff go. The VFI maintain that 4,800 pub workers have lost their jobs in the last twelve months. They also warn that a further 5,000 will be lost between now and next summer unless immediate action is taken by the Government.

The Irish country pub has collapsed at a sobering speed. It was not so long ago that the publican was second only to the priest on the rural hierarchy. In market towns particularly, the pubs often doubled up as hardware stores, shoe shops and undertakers. The late Eddie Somers operated as an accountant for the coal-mining families of Clogh, Co. Kilkenny; his clients sat on one side of the bar and he served them from the other. If you found yourself yawning in Brennan’s of Bundoran, you could purchase a bedroom upstairs for the night.

In the wonderfully colourful grocery bars, patrons drank alongside tins of canned fruit, reels of bailer twine and tubs of sheep dip. Such places were often replete with snugs and back-bars, discreet hideaways where revolutions were plotted and romances lit. However, I recently enjoyed a nationwide pub crawl and am sorry to report that there are now several counties where no grocery bars survive at all. But the most endangered type of pub is the simple, no-nonsense, one-room watering holes, often found at cross-roads, where the drink is served from dusty bottles and the newspapers are yellower than a duck’s bill.

The causes of the demise are manifold. First and foremost, the traditional pub culture of the 20th century does not fit easily with the new priorities of our increasingly cautious age. One of the VFI’s demands yesterday was to ensure that there are no further changes to the current permissible blood alcohol levels for drivers. It was necessary, for sure, but the clampdown on drink-driving is the main cause for the dwindling trade in rural pubs.

Take the village of Borris, Co Carlow, for example. It boasts seven pubs, six of which are still family-owned. In the good old days, these pubs were swamped by sheep-farmers who came down from the mountains, night after night, drank four or five pints and then motored back up the rugged roads to their lonely farmsteads amid the yellow gorse and woolly sheep. The smoking ban may have ruffled a few of them but at least it led to the invention of the Irish ‘beer garden’. The drink-driving laws put the fear of God into them; the mountain men of Borris rarely come down to the pub anymore.

In the neighbouring village of Newtown, Michael Smyth’s pub was one of the most acclaimed music lounges in Ireland during the 1980s. But, again, the drink-driving laws drained Smyth’s of its vital clientele. The fearless huntsmen who gathered in the days of the Kellistown point-to-point dared not stay long. The peaky hated farmers who frequented during quieter times also vanished.

‘It’s a tremendous pity because the people who come here are very civilized,’ says Michael. ‘None of them are ever drunk and that’s a fact. It was a great help to people who lived down lanes and in farms that they could come out here and talk and hear the news about what’s happening’.

Creaky old country pubs do not immediately appeal to a younger generation brought up on i-phones and Facebook. One hopes and prays that these brave young souls will not fall victim to the giant multi-storey theme bars, rumbling with ear-splittingly dull music, a dozen giant plasma screens showing matches between English soccer clubs that you’ve never heard of, and bar-staff who scowl. Some of these new places are of course tremendous, others downright scary. The fact is they're often jammed to the rafters at least three nights a week and that brings in a whole lot more cash than six auld lads in peaky caps playing a game of 45s over a few glasses of stout.

Moreover, since nearly every garage and newsagent in the country is now permitted to sell wine and beer, there has been a huge shift towards ‘stay-at-home’ drinking at every level of society. Unlike our tribal elders, who never had a choice, we are inclined to spend our money sipping Merlot at home or guzzling cocktails on a distant beach rather than blowing it all down the local. For any publican faced with diminishing returns, there is a great temptation to sell the license, often at considerable profit, to one of the insatiable discount supermarkets stomping across the land.

‘Paying rates, electricity, heating, public liability insurance, the long hours … it just doesn’t add up’, says Michael Smyth. That is presumably why the VFI’s salvage plans yesterday included a call on the Government to cut VAT rates to 15%, to reduce local authority charges and to appoint an ombudsman to help pubs get credit from banks.


Turtle Bunbury is the author of ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008).

1. The Concept.
2. On the Road.
3. The Chosen Pubs.
4. Conclusions.
5. Personal Qualifications.

6. A History of the Irish Pub
.
7. Acknowledgments.

8. Media Coverage.

9. Bibliography.
10. Places to Stay.

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