Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Turtle Bunbury ponders the fate of the Irish pub on the launch of his new book. The story was accompanied by a six page photographic spread of James Fennell's wonderful photos in the Oct-Nov 2008 edition of Cara, the Aer Lingus flight magazine, which is one reason why if ever Turtle was feeling glum in those weeks, all he had to do was look up in the sky and wait for an airplane to appear.

‘You’ve been sitting there since my grandfathers time’, says Paul Gartlan.

‘Aye, I’ve been coming here a long time’, concurs Dick. ‘Once a day, regular as clockwork, hey?’

‘But not as long as old Paki Gargan’, points out Joe.

‘Paki was brought in here the day he was christened’, explains Paul. ‘And he drank here till he died aged 94. He put nearly a century into the place’.

Gartlan’s is a traditional Irish grocery bar on the main street of Kingscourt, Co Cavan. The crack has been mighty here ever since Paul’s grandfather first opened the thatched pub in 1911. The doorbell jingles as you enter, prompting those along the bar to about turn and give you the once over. The shelves on the back-bar are piled high with bric-a-brac from another age. There’s an element of the fantastical - horns for summoning princely chariots, gourds for poisoning step-daughters, padlock keys for giant treasure chests. In the shop sector, more shelves are crammed with Brillo Pads, Barry’s tea, sugar, sardines and other non-perishable goods. In one corner are the kitchen chairs and foot stools upon which the musicians sometimes assemble, their feet tapping on the old tile floor, their pints balanced on window ledges between oil lamps and pretty flowers baskets. Whiskery men in Tommy Makem jumpers wheeze with laughter at each others wisecracks. Their fathers were men who walked amid cabbages and potatoes with pony, cart and whitethorn stick. Gartlan’s is a dark and mellow sanctuary where such memories of the past are pickled and pickled again. There aren’t many like this one still going.

In the last few years, few aspects of Irish society have changed more than the pub. First it was the smoking ban and the invention of the Irish ‘beer garden’ for outdoor smokers. Then it suddenly, and necessarily, became deeply unsexy to drink and drive. Such crackdowns came at a cost to the Irish pub. Drivers and smokers found themselves inclined to stay at home and perhaps avail of some of the alcohol now widely available at shops and garages throughout the country. The insatiable pub chains and supermarkets began tempting smaller publicans to exchange their alcohol licences for handsome checks. In the countryside, the unthinkable happened. The old pubs and shebeens began closing down.

Let’s fast-forward to 2050 when my imaginary granddaughter sits me down and asks what made a good Irish pub. I will say this.

‘Sweetheart, back in the old days, a good Irish pub was a place where you could gather your senses and then let them go again. The air was thick with tobacco smoke, the floor as dark as coal. We’d sit on mismatched chairs, by an open fire, and let the banter roll. Giddy fiddles and rattling tongues would light the darkest shadows, as we dug in deep and lit the night and forgot about the morrows. Along the bar, perched high upon stools, toothless old men, both genius and fool, guffawing and snoring and drinking too much, supping stouts and gold whiskeys instead of their lunch’.

And she, quite rightly, will probably wonder what could have been remotely charming about being in a confined space with large numbers of sozzled, chain-smoking old men. It’ll be a hard one to sell.

But there are many who will understand the magic and allure of these endangered establishments. They are now a seriously scarce species. Indeed, the statistics suggest that by the time this flight lands, yet another Irish pub will have shut down. And for every pub that has closed, a dozen more have been hurriedly ‘modernized’ with salt and pepper canisters on every table, homogenous fitted furniture and giant plasma screens above the bar.

At its peak in the 1990s, there are said to have been over 10,000 pubs on the island of Ireland. That’s a faintly ridiculous number but there was a time when even small villages had five or six pubs. Besides which, a lot of pubs weren’t simply pubs. They doubled up as hardware stores and undertakers, as groceries and shoe shops. In Gartlans and O’Shea’s of Borris, Co Carlow, the patrons drank their pints alongside tins of canned fruit, reels of bailer twine and tubs of sheep dip. 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. Alas, it is these country pubs that are in the greatest danger of extinction. Grocery-bars have been dwindling for some time and today there are several counties where there are effectively none surviving. Also on the line are those fundamental, one-room watering holes, often owned by the same family since time began, where the drink is served from dusty bottles and the newspapers are yellower than a duck’s bill.

The towns and cities are weathering the current revolution better than the remote country pubs. The drinker is always at ease when the bed is just a walk away. And there are many fine taverns upon the streets where the interiors are every bit as pristine and elegant as they were in Victorian and Edwardian times. Dublin boasts many of the best pubs in the world. The Crown in Belfast is surely the most fabulous in existence. Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny are all favourably well stocked in old pubs. So too are some of the bigger towns like Sligo, Wexford and the remarkable seaside enclave of Dingle.

There are some who feel that the old style Irish pub has simply had its day and that a new age is therefore necessary. One hopes and prays that this brave new age is not solely comprised of giant multi-storey theme bars, rumbling with ear-splittingly bad 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 all 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.

That said, there are also some very successful new pubs in Ireland which have firmly kept to the traditional, with no flashing TV screens or nerve-pounding sound-systems. Indeed, Geoff’s is the most successful pub in Waterford, with queues down the street at weekends, and not a single television within.

‘I poured my first pint when I was 6 and I drank my first when I was 5’. With such breeding in his vein, Paul Gartlan is a barman who makes his visitors feel wanted. He provides them with excellent drink and considerable humour. He must be commended for that is the very essence of a traditional Irish pub. God gave us these pubs to get away from it all. Yes sweetheart, within such walls, we’d drink deep into the night and raise our glasses to powerful men and fine-looking women and our fathers who begat us.

According to the legends, the first feet to walk on Irish soil after the biblical Flood were those of a brewer and an innkeeper. We’ve had a booming pub culture ever since, etched in the Norman taverns and illegal shebeens of history, fanned by our reputation abroad for mighty stamina, musical high jinks and nights of spontaneous hilarity. Every city on the planet has an Irish pub these days. It’s a global institution, like Chinese restaurants and American fast food joints. It doesn’t take a lot to become an Irish pub. I’ve been to one in Cambodia where all they had of the Emerald Isle was a tri-colour and a bottle of Jameson. But I urge you now to think about coming days and maybe set aside some time for an evening in a pub of good renown near you. It may be that the pub you chance upon will be one of those timeless gems that has remained unchanged for many, many moons. And to strike lucky upon such a place is to strike very lucky indeed.

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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