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The Irish Pub – The Concept

Turtle and James at the launch of The Irish Pub in The Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin.

Return to Contents of The Irish Pub

The following words were not published in the book.

A Cunning Plan


When James Fennell and I were researching ‘Vanishing Ireland‘, we assumed we’d find many of our portrait sitters sinking pints at the bar in rural pubs. We soon discovered the pub was the wrong place to find them. For one thing, our chosen subjects did not all drink. And those that did tended to be on their guard against strangers in pubs, or were too embarrassed to pose amongst their friends. Tom Frawley of Lahinch was the only publican in the book and Doc Morrissey of Portlaw the only man we photographed in a pub.


Nonetheless, the very notion of Irish pubs had planted a seed in James’s mind. One day he proposed that the pair of us put together a book on Irish pubs. We would focus on the old style pubs, the ones that were starting to close down and fade away in every town, village and crossroads we passed through. The sort of pubs where, in the immortal words of one man, you could happily drink a ‘dirty great big black pint in the middle of the day‘.


These charming places were being rapidly annihilated and overshadowed by the darker side of the 21st century – disinterested staff, flaccid seating, glossy counters and obscenely big TV screens. We envisioned a book that would be part of the whole ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ project, but we would also allow for the more charismatic traditional and Victorian bars found in Dublin and the main towns.


We’d also have a section about contemporary Irish pubs that styled themselves on these hallowed sanctuaries. The book would focus on the interiors, the intrinsically Irish old-world style. Many pubs were not built with design in mind and yet there was an innate charm in the utilitarian function of providing the community with a base. We sought places where somebody had done something imaginative, where the building had an inner sparkle. Everything would be shot with natural light, where possible, to create maximum moody, dark ambience. Most of the pubs we photographed were symbolically empty but, truth is, we didn’t want people in the shots. The whole idea was to show the interiors rather than the ‘craic’. A good pub should be able to swell with personality long after everyone’s gone home.


The Deal is Struck


By January 2007, the first print run of ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ had sold out and our publishers informed us it had been the best-selling coffee table book in Ireland over the Christmas period. A nomination for Best Irish Published Book of the Year from Eason’s and Hughes & Hughes promised further successes. Our position was strong. We recruited Richard Morris, literary agent, of Janklow & Nesbit (New York) to help us find a publisher for ‘The Irish Pub‘.


As it happens, the publisher found us. Thames & Hudson had already published ‘Living in Sri Lanka‘, the first book James and I worked on, in 2006. To their immense regret, they had declined ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ but they were now game on for ‘The Irish Pub‘. James sent sample photographs of the seven pubs he had already photographed – The Long Hall and The Stag’s Head in Dublin, Morrissey’s of Abbeyleix, Butterfield’s of Ballitore, O’Shea’s of Borris, O’Shaughnessy’s of Glin and PJ Guerin’s of Castleconnell. Thames & Hudson viewed the shoots, read the blurb and green-lighted the project.


The Selection Process


Over the next six months, James and I would pop our heads into perhaps 700 pubs across Ireland. James photographed 70 and, in due course, we selected 39 of the finest for the book.


All four provinces showed promise, although we must bow our apologetic heads at the people of Leitrim for we never managed to visit the county, despite hearing of several classics. Day after day, we were to be found peeking through windows and tottering through doors, trying to gauge whether such-and-such a pub fitted the bill. Of course, much of a pub’s soul can depend on what it’s like by night so who knows what gems we missed!? Many of the pubs we entered were of the type where everyone turns around to see who’s just walked in. If we didn’t like the look of the place, we tended to nod at the bartender and leg it. One or two places were too intimidating to even chance the nod. Many suspected that I was ‘Pub Spy’ from the Sunday World. Others were convinced we were salesmen.


On the plus side, ‘Vanishing Ireland‘ had put us on the map for many more. ‘You’ve a grand job, haven’t ye?’ was a frequent remark. ‘Do you need any help with the research?’


With projects like this, you just have to go with the flow and realise you can’t be everywhere. We gave up the notion of photographing a pub in every county after struggling to find anywhere suitable in Longford and Fermanagh. For instance, Blakes of the Hollow in Enniskillen was a contender but it is had now grown five storeys high and I counted seven plasma screens on one floor. I stress that this was back in 2008 – the pub landscape has changed a good deal since then.


We aimed to find places that were imaginative and continued to show charm without resorting to televisions, even if that was a faded grandeur like Smyths of Newtown, which has since closed. We also passed scores of pubs that suggested great potential from the outside but were either greatly modernised or closed for business. Some were overwhelmed with tourists, others inundated with mourners. When the book comes out, we will probably be flayed by many who feel wronged that their establishment – or even county – was overlooked. But this was never meant to be a ‘Best of’ book. It was simply designed as an insight into the fading world of the old style Irish pubs and a cautionary tale for anyone who still takes them for granted.


Ready & Set


When we first started, there was much laughter from our nearest and dearest. James and I had both married within the previous couple of years and here we were now being commissioned to embark upon a nationwide pub crawl. It seemed too good to be true. But, jests aiside, word was already spreading across Ireland that at least one old pub was closing down every day. The more we talked to people, the more we heard of great classics lately closed. I emailed a large number of contacts in April and asked them to recommend any fine old-style pubs and other neglected beauties which they might have come across. The response was formidable.


By June 2007, I had a list of some 400 pubs across Ireland which was continually expanding as we went along. Over the next few months, we were constantly on the road, about which you can read if you follow the link. The 39 pubs that ultimately made the book are listed here.