Vomit and flying fists? Doesn’t sound like an Irish pub to me

Australia’s Irish bars have been getting a bad rap. But on a recent crawl in Sydney, from the Cock’n’Bull, in Bondi Junction, to PJ O’Brien’s and Scruffy Murphy’s, in the central business district, the most frightening thing was a sticky floor

Taste of home: “The type of customers we appeal to are interested in food, traditional music and getting a pint of Guinness served to them by someone Irish, without a shamrock on the top,” says Patrick Gallagher of PJ Gallagher’s, in Sydney. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe

Taste of home: “The type of customers we appeal to are interested in food, traditional music and getting a pint of Guinness served to them by someone Irish, without a shamrock on the top,” says Patrick Gallagher of PJ Gallagher’s, in Sydney. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe

Sat, Aug 17, 2013, 01:00

Irish pubs in Australia have been getting a bad rap. A journalist with the news.com.au website, Anthony Sharwood, wrote an article in which he declared them “full of raucously drunk backpackers who travel halfway round the world to behave even worse than they do in Cork and Dublin”.

The piece opened: “Irish pubs are great. Who doesn’t love dodging vomit and flying fists? Seriously, what’s better than a place to drink yourself so utterly senseless that the 66-year-old barmaid and the chair in the corner become objects of immense sexual desire?”

I call Sharwood to find out what his beef his. He cheerfully tells me he hasn’t “set foot in an Irish pub in years. In fact, the last one I was in was New Delhi”. He says he was taken aback, even upset, by the strength of the reaction he got to the piece online.

“Look, it was basically Friday-afternoon journalism. All the fresh news had run out and I had an hour left in the day, and I wrote it. To those who took offence, I’m sorry, but all I can say is that I wrote it from a place where I felt there was a kinship between the Australians and the Irish. We have an understanding.”

We do, I agree. “We do,” he says. So what prompted the vitriol? “About 12 years ago I finished a three-year stint as a Sydney cabbie. Without question, the drunkest passengers I saw on a recurring basis were the Irish. They weren’t aggressive, but I had them slurring in my cab, I had them spewing in my cab, and I had them make me despair at the state of humanity, and I suppose I may have some vitriol left from that. But I’m definitely not racist.”

Patrick Gallagher, who runs five Irish pubs under the PJ Gallagher’s banner in Australia, takes a few minutes out from opening his sixth to dismiss any link between Irish pubs, drunkenness and violence. “Truly authentic Irish pubs are about family, comfort and safety. The type of customers we appeal to are interested in food, traditional music and getting a pint of Guinness served to them by someone Irish, without a shamrock on the top. We get all nationalities, and our pubs are trouble-free.”

Are they still as popular as ever? “In the last 18 months we’e gone from one to three, and now soon-to-be six Irish pubs all called PJ Gallagher’s – all genuine and authentic, down to the tradesmen who paint the walls. So, yes, the demand is as good as ever.”

Nonetheless, Sharwood is not alone in making the connection between Irish pubs and bad behaviour. Bale out before 8pm is the advice one backpacker gives on TripAdvisor on the best way to enjoy Scruffy Murphy’s pub, in Sydney’s central business district, while another suggests that if you want to fit in, “get pissed”.

Are Irish pubs in Sydney really all that bad? I decide to investigate – which is how I come to find myself in the Cock’n’Bull on a Friday evening.

The Cock’n’Bull in Bondi Junction is one of Sydney’s most notorious Irish pubs. Two years ago it featured prominently in a special report by A Current Affair, on the the Australian TV station Channel 9, about the violent behaviour of “foreign backpackers” in Sydney.

The first thing you notice about the Cock’n’Bull, aside from the less-than-authentic name, are the beefy security men on the door, all dressed in high-visibility jackets and looking braced for confrontation.

What greets us as we walk through the door, however, is not a 66-year-old barmaid or an atmosphere of pent-up aggression but the heady scent of Lynx deodorant and chips. A poker game is setting up in the deserted back lounge, and the live band is playing Take Me Home, Country Roads. We pay $17 (€11.70) for a pint, a glass of beer and a packet of cashew nuts . A quick scan of the premises reveals more Hollister shirts than GAA jerseys, and no evidence of vomit or flying fists.

Aside from the alarmingly prominent security, it could be any pub in any county in Ireland. There’s nothing twee about it, but there’s not much character, either. In the women’s toilets I ask a lounge girl about the security men who keep circling the tables. “There can be a few fights later on – you know, people get drunk.” She shrugs. “Friday’s quiet, though. Sunday’s the big night.” We move on.

By 9.30pm we are in the central business district, in PJ O’Brien’s. Here the atmosphere is livelier and the crowd smartly dressed. Judging by the understated tans on the people around us, it is more international than Irish. There’s a corporate race night upstairs, and The Lumineers are on the sound system. A few bodhráns are nailed behind the bar, but no shillelaghs hanging from the ceiling. We hand over $18 (€12.40) for a pint, a glass of Shiraz and a packet of Tayto. Once again, the pub seems vomit- and 66-year-old-barmaid-free.

At 11pm we take a cab down to Scruffy Murphy’s, which seems to serve as the inevitable conclusion to all Irish pub crawls in this part of the world. Scruffy’s is in a part of the business district that has accommodation offering beds in dorm rooms for $12 (€8), Korean kebab shops and adult stores.

The nightclub is spread over three floors. Navigating them is difficult, not because the crowds are so thick but because our shoes stick to the floor. Upstairs is the Goose Garden Restaurant, which serves $7 (€4.80) meals and turns into a sports bar after 10pm. Downstairs is the Vault nightclub, a heaving, throbbing mass of bodies squelching and gyrating to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). One of the single ladies has already put her feet up and is sound asleep on a stool near the front door. We have, we conclude, found Sydney’s answer to Copper Face Jacks.

We decide that the most frightening thing about Sydney’s Irish pub scene are the sticky floors in Scruffy Murphy’s. We’re in the cab on the way home before we notice that one of our mobiles has disappeared. Still, the craic was mighty.

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