The New Inn thing
An Irishman’s Diary on the fetishised revival of an old-style Irish pub
A recent addition to the pubs of Dublin, visitors may have noticed, is one called Mary’s in Wicklow Street. It’s just across from the side of Brown Thomas, where the Hermes and Louis Vuitton stores are located. And this is not inapt, because it’s essentially a designer bar: based on the concept, once commonplace in Irish towns, of a pub that is also a grocery and hardware store.
It does actually sell some hardware, as well as drinks. If you get taken short for a packet of Brillo pads, they can probably oblige. But as a tribute to the real thing, I suspect its main aim is to charm tourists, some of whom may fall for the notion that it’s a genuine relic of old Ireland.
Certainly, everything about its interior is lovingly crafted to look aged. All that’s missing is one of those signs stating the distant year in which it was “established”. Perhaps the proprietors could use the day-month-year format, eg 1-8-14, and just make the hyphens very small.
The juxtaposition with Louis Vuitton may be doubly appropriate, because the genuine pub-cum-grocery is a piece of socio-historical baggage in Ireland, and as such, until fairly recently, was sometimes an embarrassment.
Down in Dingle earlier in the summer, for example, I happened to read Michael Tanner’s book about the making of Ryan’s Daughter 45 years ago, when even the considerable charms of that Kerry town were stretched thin by the long periods Hollywood stars had to spend in it.
Many took refuge in drink, including Robert Mitchum, whose fondness for a certain premium-brand Scotch meant that (according to Danner), Dingle accounted for “half the Chivas Regal imported into Ireland that year”.
But not even the anaesthetising effects of alcohol helped Trevor Howard apparently. Back in London afterwards, confiding the misery of his Dingle experience to the News of the World, he complained of having counted “52 of those grocer shop places that sell pints of Guinness”. Repelled by their appearance, he stayed indoors and went to bed early.
The local Chamber of Commerce called his estimate a “lie”, and it surely had a point. According to another count in the book, Dingle’s total number of pubs then was only 49. And they can’t all have sold groceries.
There are not many left now, in any case, although one of the originals, Foxy John’s, has survived to become a tourist attraction, while retaining its credibility as a purveyor of both drink and hardware to those in genuine need of either.
Elsewhere, in Co Mayo, I’m told that another famous example of the genre is also still very much alive. Leonard’s of Lahardaun has been a hostelry for more than a century and a grocery and general store - shoes and boots were a traditional mainstay - since the 1940s.
When they renovated it some years ago, it was because the interior was suffering the rigours of actual old age. But they were careful to restore it in the original style. And it remains today exactly what was. As in the classic version of these businesses, it even includes an undertakers, catering for 40 funerals a year.
This last service is not available in the Wicklow Street bar. Even so, I suspect Mary’s will set a trend among the fashion-conscious tourists who cross the road to it. Henceforth, if it’s not happening already, Irish pubs in Paris, and New York will be expected to accessorise with at least a small hardware section, and maybe even some leather goods of the non-Vuitton variety.
But speaking of interesting juxtapositions, I was looking down the Liffey towards Dublin port one recent evening, when the dramatic relationship between the harp-shaped Beckett Bridge and the barrel-shaped National Conference Centre struck me for the first time. It’s an optical illusion, in that the structures are not exactly opposite.
Yet they seem so from a distance. And it reminded me of how, a decade ago, when a 32-storey skyscraper was planned as part of a development opposite Heuston Station, the idea being to make a visual statement: suggesting a new “Saint James’s Gate” that, just as the medieval gate did, would announce arrival in Dublin to visitors from the west.
Well, the skyscraper never happened. But we seem to have got the new St James’s Gate anyway, albeit at the other end of the Liffey quays, where visitors to the city of Guinness are now welcomed by twin, semi-abstract pillars: a harp and a tilted keg.