THE SLOW DEMISE OF THE IRISH PUB:
WHAT WE’LL MISS AND WHAT WE WON’T
A version of this rumination first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in August 2018.
Whether we like it or, ever use it, or not, the pub has long been part of Irish life. In some communities and for many people, the pub has actually been central to existence.
And the Irish pub – the ones we grew up with – is unique. It’s not the English pub with its slot machines and ploughman’s lunches, nor the French bar au coin with its shots of Calvados and hard-boiled eggs, nor the Spanish kind with copitas of sherry and plates of Iberico ham.
And it’s an endangered species. Last year there were almost 1,500 hundred fewer pubs than we had in 2005. That’s a lot of jobs, a lot of pints and, no doubt, this trend has left a hole in many rural communities. Because it’s rural Ireland that is turning its back on the pub. Dublin has more pubs and bars than it did ten years ago but they are certainly not licensed premises as we used to know them, and as they still exist in many villages and townlands around the country.
The big towns and cities have enough population to sustain big bars, the likes of which you will find in London and Lisbon, Sydney and Singapore. Bars where there’s a cocktail list the length of the M7, bars that are created as “concepts”, bars that become interactive spaces, bars, you may have noticed, that have stopped calling themselves pubs. Although, that is what they are.
The modern pub, spoken of by all and sundry as a bar, has seen massive investment. The bar itself will be enormous, staffed by attractive young people, the music will be carefully chosen and dead cool, even the lighting will be specially programmed, costing a fortune. This is the pub, sorry, bar, as entertainment, a space for much more than just boozing.
It breaks with the ancient Irish tradition of a pub being an establishment dedicated solely to the intake of alcohol. Heretically, the new bars are designed, very cleverly – to get people in for pre-meal drinks, then they feed them some form of new-fangled food, and then, instead of the traditional “going on to the pub” these places hang to their customers all evening long. No wonder the investment in such places is both huge and justified.
This is the way that the world is going. Big bars with big money in the bigger population centres, traditional pubs dying off like flies in the suburbs and in rural places. It’s an unstoppable decline with no respect for pub quizzes nor darts leagues nor ham sandwiches and crisps.
But we’ll miss the traditional Irish pub when it’s gone. Actually we’ll miss some parts of it and say good riddance to others.
WHAT WE’LL MISS:
The pace. In a proper, traditional Irish pub, the kind our grandparents knew, there was always time to pull a pint of stout with care and skill. And time for a chat. There’s a reason why Dublin barmen were traditionally known as “curates”. Many of them heard secular confessions and dispensed sacramental pints. The pace, or lack of it, has much to do with the peace of a traditional pub where there was no room for the noise of a television or the piped irritant that is muzak.
THE TOASTED SPECIALS
You won’t find it in the Larousse Gastronomique and it may be a stranger to most urbanites under the age of forty, but the toasted special, a sandwich of mythical significance, is a form of food that, every now and then, those of us old enough to be familiar with it, actively crave. It comes in a cellophane packet and comprises two pieces of sliced pan, plastic ham, plastic cheese, some tomato and some sulphurously oxidised raw onion. It is toasted until the cheese melts and the bread browns; opening the cellophane container releases a rare aroma. Full appreciation of this Irish gastronomic totem is only possible after what is known as “a feed of pints”.
Smithwick’s Barley Wine was killed off when Guinness was swallowed by Diageo. It has not been seen for two decades or more. It was a very strong kind of ale with a powerful, slightly sweet malty character. Even when it was still being made, the sight of a bottle of barley wine was a sign that you were in a pub with no pretensions and a customer base of a certain age.
The traditional Dublin barman was not just a pourer of pints and pusher of optics. He was also a psychologist, a counsellor and a marriage advisor. And he occasionally spoke in a kind of code, when required. He features in a very old Dublin Opinion cartoon where he is saying to a customer “Our friend was in earlier, Mr B, but he didn’t say anything about the other thing…”
THE SPONTANEOUS PURCHASE
We’re not talking about drink here but solely about proper Irish pubs that sell much more besides. When I was a student, I bought pipe tobacco in Gaughan’s in Ballina and I vaguely remember, more recently, purchasing a bag of seed potatoes in Dick Mack’s in Dingle. There’s even a pub in Co Clare when you can buy the best of Bordeaux wines en primeur (i.e. before they have been bottled).
WHAT WE WON’T MISS:
THE GENTLEMEN’S LOOS
The traditional Irish pub has never set much store by the notion that cleanliness is next to godliness, and the authenticity of the establishment could, in many instances, be gauged by the potency of the stink from the urinals.
BEING TACITLY ACCUSED OF “NOTIONS”
The raising of the publican’s eyebrow when you wonder if you could have some ice and lemon with your gin and tonic. The shock expressed when you express a preference for a glass without thumbprints. Or wonder if there’s any gin other than CDC.
THE OVERALL AROMA
The new kind of trendy bar smells of many things – the mint for cocktails, the polish for all that brass, the leather of the bar stools, to mention but a few – but it doesn’t smell of pub. The definitive aroma of pub was isolated in 2004. Literally isolated, because before then it was masked in stale cigarette smoke. Ingredients include beer slops, decaying lemon slices, crisps, flatulence, hair oil, sweat and, in some instances, mice.
PEANUTS ON A CARD
This is a symbol of how the traditional Irish pub regards food and, indeed, even the act of eating, as somewhat indecent, to be indulged in solely in private and, ideally, at home behind firmly closed doors. The packs of peanuts displayed on a card is a declaration of intent: thus far and no further in terms of solid sustenance. In the newer kind of establishment this area is reserved for the back-lit Campari bottles and the burnished cocktail shakers.
THE RECEPTION OF STRANGERS
This is where, like a parody of synchronised swimming, all the pint drinkers at the bar, in one movement, stop the glass half-way to the mouth and turn around, as one body, to stare, in silence, at a person unknown who has just entered the pub. That, and the sudden and persistent silence.