The following thoughts, originally penned in 2008, are an expansion on topics raised in the book itself. They have not been published.
In Ireland, the traditional Irish pub is under serious threat. Figures released in a joint statement by the Licensed Vintners’ Association (LVA) and the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) in October 2008 revealed that 1,500 pubs had closed since 2001. Alternative figures suggested that at least one pub closed down every day in 2007. By May 2008, over 100 bars in Northern Ireland – or 7% of the total number – had closed since the introduction of the smoking ban just over a year earlier. As we went to print with ‘The Irish Pub’ book, many more pubs were being hurriedly converted into café bars, buffet restaurants and motel-style lodgings to meet changing demands.
The trend has been something of a downward spiral ever since. Between 2005 and 2022, almost 2,000 pubs closed in the Republic of Ireland, giving a closure rate of 22.5%. In 2005, there were 8,617 seven-day pub licenses in the Republic. By January 2023, that number was down to 6,800 or one for every 738 people in the country. The vast majority of the pubs that closed were in rural Ireland. Limerick was the worst hit county, losing nearly 28% of its pubs during a 13-year period between 2005 and 2018.
Conversely, County Dublin’s 2018 tally of 776 pubs is only ten less than it was in 2005. As of 2022, Dublin City accounted for 251 of those pubs.
Causes of Decline
The economic realities are too complex for most old style pubs to survive in the new world. The reasons are manifold. A fear of the breathalyser brought on by the government’s dramatic clamp down on drink-driving. The ban on smoking in public places. The temptation to sell one’s licence, at considerable profit, to a Dublin pub chain or European hypermarket. (Many of the 1,545 pub licences that went up for grabs between 2005 and 2018 were snapped up by supermarkets for conversion to off-licences.)
Many of those who might have ventured out in the past cite the high cost of drink and escalating danger on the streets after dark as reasons why they now prefer to stay at home with a carry out; in 2008, they had DVDs and videos to link up with their televisions but now we are all hopelessly lost in the choices offered by Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Now TV et al.
There has been a general decline in per capita alcohol consumption. Young people in Ireland don’t go down to the pub with their weekly wages anymore. They invest their money in houses, cars and leisurely holidays. They communicate via WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook and mobile phones.
The upshot is that if you want to see what a traditional Irish bar looks like, you might have better luck visiting Chicago, Sydney or Cairo than you will in Dublin, Galway or Tipperary. And meanwhile, in village after village, the pubs are closing down.
The authorities were clearly correct to clamp down on drink-driving in terms of taking irresponsible young hooligans like my younger self off the road. However, they never quite managed to rectify the immense aftershock the drink-driving ban had on the older community. Random breath tests put the fear of God into old people. It’s all very well putting young people off the road; they can relocate to a city and start all over again.
But older people are stuffed if they can’t drive. The breathalyser marked the end of freedom for many farmers and country people for whom the pub was their principal refuge. A place where they could perch upon a bar stool, supping upon creamy stouts and golden whiskeys, puffing tobacco, cackling and snorting, exchanging gossip and falling in love again. The pub was an opportunity to drop in unannounced, to make acquaintances with people you might otherwise never meet, to learn something you might not have known. It was a haven from the worries beyond, offering palette wetters and unexpected inspiration, essential solitude and unstructured hilarity, unforced confessions and private celebrations. It was a safe haven, away from braying wives, bawling children, barking bosses and bleating priests. Yes, there were a few drunkards knocking about but there were also a lot of people who simply went to the pub because it was the only place where a community spirit was alive and well.
The Smoking Ban
Our children will never believe us when we say that some of the best pubs consisted of fifty people chain smoking in the one room for seven hours straight. When the ban on indoor smoking came, there was much murmuring of rebellion in the four provinces. In the end, people accepted the new law without much fuss. For smokers, it was deeply irritating because, at day’s end, the law made perfect sense and was good for them. I chain-smoked for donkey’s years and consistently failed to quit back in the days when everyone was constantly sparking up in pubs.
Within a year of the ban, I quit again and I haven’t smoked a cigarette since. The smoking ban started in Ireland so we knew what that meant long before it happened to England. Some felt we were pioneering an all new pub culture increasingly devoid of craic. On the plus side, Irish pubs were obliged to make outdoor smoking areas appealing and warm. There was also been a marked increase in social interaction amongst those who popped out for a smoke. For all that, many publicans insist the smoking ban started the downfall of the pub.
It’s said that Charlie Haughey won an election when he dropped the price of a pint. Certainly, everyone loves a cheap pint and the publicans take a good deal of rapping whenever they raise the cost. There may have been a method to this madness back when pubs worked hard at creating their own whisky and supporting local breweries and distilleries. But now it’s all giant monopolies like Pernod Ricard, Diageo and Heineken running the show. Moreover, in recent years, publicans have realised they can get their drink cheaper from the likes of Tesco and Lidl than they can from the traditional wholesalers.
This has a knock on effect that, at day’s end, is only good for Tesco, Lidl and Aldi. Not least because it’s made a reality out of the once dreaded prospect that people would prefer to stay at home with a cheap carry out and watch the telly. Hand in hand with this has been a massive rise in the consumption of wine in Ireland and wine is a classic stay-at-home drink.
There was a time, not so long ago, when every town and village in Ireland was ruled, absolutely, by publicans. Not only did they provide everyone with life-saving refreshments but their premises frequently offered further wares. A fistful of ham, a pair of leather boots, a battery, a bucket, a pump. Such items dangled over both counter and stool, hypnotizing malleable eyes at the very moment the head was tilted backwards to complete the downing of a glass. In the fuzzy silences that come between drinks, there is plenty of scope for splashing out on some perks. One wonders how often the bubbling tempers of frustrated wives were quelled by the sight of their husbands toddling through front doors, victoriously clasping a new loo brush or curtain rail as the clock struck midnight.
A great deal of modern Ireland’s economy depends on tourism. During the 1990s, the vast majority of Ireland’s ‘traditional’ pubs felt a need to expand their premises in order to accommodate the growing numbers of tourists. The general and rather frightening trend was to refurbish in a manner closely resembling the synthetic, fabricated ‘Irish pubs’ more often found outside Ireland. Many classic pubs were simultaneously given bogus names and kitted out with silly pseudo-Celtic wall-hangings, glossy bar counters and the sort of grotesque colour schemes you get when you rub your eyes too hard.
Serving food is of course a way forward. It doesn’t have to be difficult either. Rather than face the hassle of chefs, ovens and extractor fans, you could simply try selling some of Cully and Sully‘s six readymade frozen meals. All you need is a microwave and your punters can thrive on fine portions of seafood linguini, Irish stew, risotto and curry.
O drink your porter, tinker man, and wipe your creamy mouth,
The dust is white upon the roads, the wind direct from the south.
Sigerson Clifford, Ballads of the Bog Man.
Clubs not Pubs
Younger drinkers prefer clubbing to pubbing. That should come as no surprise. Even teenaged ancient Greeks probably preferred hanging out in noisy wine cellars than lounging around gentlemen’s clubs.
But it’s the 18 to 30-year-old population who spend the most cash on drinks and, by 2008, the industry had acknowledged that fact with the evolution of multi-storey theme bars, rumbling with loud music, flashing lights, funky décor, scantily clad beauties and bar-staff who just didn’t give a hoot what your name is. Some of those places were tremendous, others downright scary. The fact is they were all jammed to the rafters three nights a week and that brought in a whole lot more cash than six auld lads in peaky caps playing 45s over a few glasses of stout.
In old Ireland, an individual pub could rely on perhaps a dozen regulars to fill the stools along his bar. They were the die-hard loyalists, the old guard, who talked politics and played cards and grumbled their way home many hours later. These were men who could put away upwards of fifteen pints of stout in a single day. When these old codgers fell from their perches, they were not replaced. One by one they fall and their peaky caps pile high in hospitals and nursing homes across the land.
In a pub in County Meath I entered in 2008, the publican told me he was selling a keg less of Beamish every year because new Beamish drinkers just weren’t coming in. With times changing and everyone flat out trying to earn as many Euro’s as possible, it was small wonder that so many of these more laid-back rural establishments had decided to shut the doors. If the publican actually lived in or above the pub, then perhaps that was a better reason to open. However, if opening the doors involved a trek from afar, then it was all too easy to think, not today, why bother? Or at least, not until the evening. A lot of country pubs won’t open until 8 or 9 in the evening. Increasingly large numbers don’t open until the weekends. McCusker’s in Clones only opens every third Sunday!
And then, presumably, there was that back-of-mind knowledge that might make €170,000 if you sold your pub licence to Aldi, Lidl or one of the big pub chains. But when local pubs close, they can leave a massive gap. Often the pub was the only social option for anyone living in the community. Without the pub, what were all these new homeowners living around the villages to do for social life? Thus, they stay in and drink at home and never get to know anyone.
Cead Mille Faulty
While making ‘The Irish Pub’ book, we visited countless pubs where the staff failed to raise so much as a welcoming smile. The ‘Cead Mille Failte‘ seemed to have gone faulty. Too many bars were staffed by surly souls who didn’t care tuppence for the customer. We encountered many overseas visitors who were greatly disappointed by this lack of interest. And for those who argued that it was because many staff were dour East Europeans, I can assure you that Irish staff could be every bit as awful.
Perhaps the charm factor has improved since 2008. In any event, the onus must be on the publican or manager to ensure staff are as warm, welcoming and polite as possible. The person behind the bar is absolutely vital to the ambience. A good barman, according to one of our publicans, is streetwise and enjoys serving people. They should be your host, your friend and, if possible, your shrink. And it doesn’t matter what country they came from.
‘The public house is dark and comfortable with a feeling of scholarship’
There can be little doubt that Ireland became a less friendly society in the first decades of this century. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that we were ever a friendly nation but, while making ‘Vanishing Ireland’, we learned that the older generation really were as open and honest and kindly and welcoming as we’d been led to believe. Prosperity brings about its own curses, not least with the whole country driven demented by bumper to bumper traffic from Nassau Street to the Conor Pass.
The upshot is that by 2008 we had become a more aggressive society and with a new depth of wariness that converted some otherwise charming country pubs into those unnerving places where everyone goes silent as a stranger enters. The new generation of drinker does not sit up at the bar. He or she prefers privacy and tends to sit away from possible interaction with strangers, hidden, aloof. They are from a more chary generation. They don’t make friends so easily. They almost certainly have a smartphone in their hand, ready for scrolling. So the barman gives up and turns on the TV, ‘the divil in the corner‘.
Modern men are way more inclined to stay at home and help manage the children than they were in time’s past. It is no longer acceptable to pick up your paycheck and swan off to the pub, leaving your good lady to do all the housework and change the nappies. I’m told one of the successes of Jim Larkin’s Dublin Lock Out in 1913 occurred when the Temperance Movement put a halt to a common practice by which foremen paid the men’s wages as they sat in their local pub. The foreman would be rewarded with a cut from the publican as the helpless men began to blow all their hard earned money on rounds of drink.
The same concept fuelled the so-called Holy Hour, or Holy Two Hours, a daily occurrence until 1988, which was a strategy to get these men out of the pub. On Sundays, traditionally, the only person permitted to drink in a pub were those who could prove they were travellers which presumably led to a considerable passage of persons from one parish to the next. Sunday drinking became acceptable with the introduction of the seven day licence in the 1950s, complete with the Holy Hour.
The declining presence of married men in pubs is tempered only by those who have craftily pledged allegiance to a sporting team, who they can passionately follow every Saturday. Hence, the growing swell of televisions in pubs.
‘It’s a good thing and a bad thing but it can give a bit of atmosphere too’, said one barman. He may be right. I’m of the view that television may create the illusion of banter but in the context of a pub, I hold that TVS are, by and large, utterly charmless, irredeemably wrong and, occasionally, ear-splittingly offensive. Televisions don’t sparkle; they buzz and crackle and kill intelligence atoms.
In 2008, we called in to The Tower, a classic Victorian bar of Clones, County Monaghan. It had two televisions, perpetually on, blasting out two different channels. Three old men perched at the bar were driven so demented by the racket that they could no longer even mutter to one another. So they read the same page of the newspaper over and over again, looked at their own sad reflections in the mirror opposite and muttered to themselves. The barmaid didn’t seem to notice or care.
This is appalling carry on and very bad for Ireland. This is not the wonderful Irish pub we all dream of. Sure, fine if you want to have a television room. Yes, its grand if you call yourself a Sports Bar and show matches and horse racing. But if you want to be an enchanting pub, then understand that an ill-placed television can and will destroy all creative intelligence and maybe you should seriously think about turning the damned thing off.
In a way, we are the creators of our own illusions. By 2008, the Dublin-based Irish Pub Company and its competitors had fabricated and installed close on 2000 ‘Oirish’ pubs in more than 50 countries. Bord Failte – the Irish tourism board – also spent a fortune promoting Ireland’s pubs as places where overseas visitors, particularly Americans, could be sure of an excellent night of laughter and fiddle-de-diddle music, colcannon and champ washed down with lashings of Guinness.
The whole concept of music in Irish bars was also fictional, a brilliant invention of Hollywood quills and the tourist board that kicked off in about 1960. In truth, it was a rare pub where people actually stood up and started singing. North Monaghan, for instance, didn’t have a singing bar until J & Wright’s of Glaslough opened in 1966.
Nor did Irish pubs serve food in times past save, perhaps, a bowl of soup and a ham sandwich if you were very lucky. Few people had even thought of crisps yet. But, of course, food is now a vital aspect of the business and should be encouraged for any pub that seeks economic survival.
‘In Dublin there’s a beauty that has no match,
It is brewed in St. James’s then thrown down the hatch‘.
Frank Holt, ‘In Praise of Guinness’
Republic of Gangland
One of our most depressing conclusions of all these various trips around Ireland was that a gangland culture of some shape had become rampant in just about every town. Many villages had been turned into towns over the course of the Celtic Tiger with horrible, cloned housing and such thoughtless planning that it is inevitable chaos will reign and the next generations will have little option but to mope, grumble and resent. There’s nothing for anybody to do which also invites trouble.
The further north you go, the more boy racers you find. There are huge gulfs between people, a lot more suspicion, hostility and aggression, amplified by concerns about right wing extremism. There is no apparent order or discipline. Even the Gardai are scared because they can be beaten up too, or have their families threatened, by people who just don’t give a monkeys about anything.
Another factor that seemed to repeat itself, particularly in the bigger towns, was the increasingly sinister side to binge drinking. Now, as I say in my personal qualifications, I have done more than my fair share of irresponsible binging in times past and loved it. But the essence of why I drank was to have fun.
For a lot of the publicans we met, they felt the essence of 21st century binge drinkers was much more intimidating. There’s an underlying edge of violence that frequently erupts into bloody noses and, increasingly, knife, machete and gun attacks. The streets of many towns are extremely unsettling places to be, particularly after dark. Even ostensibly tough barmen confessed to being unnerved by the crowds gathering in and around their pubs at weekends.
It’s not that more drink is consumed now than ever before. It’s more the intensity of the consumption and how it’s all packed into Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. We heard of several pubs where the owners have been mugged in the middle of night, like Miler Gormans on the Kells Road outside Kilkenny or, just after we visited, the Smyth brothers in Newtown.
Another well-known pub felt compelled to close its doors on 15th August, the day its village held its fair day. This traditionally merry occasion had lately been soured by more aggressive elements. ‘If you open, you face the consequences‘, explained the owner. ‘You get a lot of hassle, taps are broken, fights break out, things are stolen. You need all hands on deck but you can’t keep an eye on it all‘. When the Gardai were consulted, they replied: ‘Our advice is don’t open tomorrow because we won’t be here to help you‘.
I became so alarmed by these tales that I emailed these observations to Brian Lenihan, Ireland’s then Minister for Justice, advocating the legalisation of drugs as a logical step by which one could at least terminate the raison d’être of this island’s drug barons. And boy racers should be pilloried in stocks.
I also advised that publicans were feeling hard done by because they are frequently blamed for creating all these social ills – for the marriage break ups, rampant alcoholism, drunk drivers and so forth. I received no reply of interest but perhaps I did not word my letter with sufficient clarity.