The pub loses its pulling power

 

THE IRISH PUB, says the Lonely Planettravel guide, is the country’s number-one attraction. Yet it is also doomed, according to leading food writer John McKenna. Health campaigners have its products in their cross-hairs, but the truth is that many of us are increasingly indifferent to its long-standing charms.

It isn’t all that long since the pub held a society in thrall. Birthday, Communion and funeral ceremonies would eventually make their way to its darkened interiors. Family members would be despatched to drag reluctant drinkers out of their locals. Early risers joined all-nighters for a pint on the way to work. People boasted about being locked into small, dank rooms for the night with a set of beer taps.

Now pubs are closing at a rate of one every two days – more than 1,100 since 2005. Their decline has frequently been cited as yet another example of rural decay, but pubs in all areas, and of all types, are calling time.

Only last week, some of Dublin’s trendiest watering-holes – the Odeon, Pod and Crawdaddy on Harcourt Street – closed their doors, as did the downstairs venue at the Lower Deck in Portobello. North of the Liffey, the traditional “12 apostles” pub crawl from DCU to the city centre is now reduced to 10 after a brace of bars on the route – the Red Windmill and the Botanic House – failed to reopen after Christmas.

The capital’s publicans are now begging for business. “Dublin Does Fridays,” runs the promotional slogan on their latest campaign, with more than a touch of desperation in its call for Dubliners to “prove we’re the most sociable city in the world”. Cut-price promotions and other enticements are the norm, and pub quizzes and comedy nights multiply to pad out the week.

Many of the remaining pubs are shut for half the week.

Chains such as Thomas Read and Capital Bars have been hit hard. Though some of their venues are still trading or have been sold, Capital Bars had a receiver appointed in 2009, and Thomas Read went into voluntary liquidation the same year.

“The biggest publicans in the country today are the receivers,” comments barrister and licensing law expert Constance Cassidy.

VARIOUS REASONShave been put forward for the collapse of the sector. For much of the past decade, publicans griped about the smoking ban and changes to drink-driving laws. Yet these changes took place some time ago – the smoking ban was introduced in 2004 and the first changes to drink-driving laws date back to the introduction of random breath testing in 2003.

Others say something wider is happening – a radical change in the way we live and, in particular, how we spend our leisure time. “There seems to be a fundamental lifestyle change going on here,” says Mary Lambkin, professor of marketing at the UCD Quinn school of business and the author of several studies on the drinks industry. “As people got richer and more sophisticated they weren’t prepared to sit in a dirty pub any more. Young people in particular wanted newer, brighter, more modern places to meet in.”

“It’s easy to blame the smoking ban or drink-driving laws, but they’re not the problem,” says Conor Kenny of Conor Kenny Associates, consultants to the pub and hotel trade. “The greatest tragedy about pubs is that they have become irrelevant to a generation.”

Lambkin likens the situation to a shopper returning to the drabness of a local haberdashery after visiting the glitz of a new mall. “Consumers are now well travelled and well educated, and they’re not going to spend their lives watching an auld fella in a cloth cap holding up the bar in a dingy local.”

While recognising the importance of pubs for tourism as well as the existence of good bars, she is unrelenting in her critique. “There are still nondescript pubs with nothing special to recommend them. Many, with their dark, dingy interiors and grubby counters, look like they haven’t been done up since 1954. These places are not going to survive the recession and they probably don’t deserve to survive.”

Publicans see the changes as much cultural as economic. “People were cash-rich and time-poor; now they’re cash-poor and still time-poor,” says Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, which represents 4,500 country publicans.

He says it’s not worth some of his members’ time to open off-peak. “It has gone part-time, a bit like farming 20 years ago. Some pubs are staying closed until eight in the evening, or until Wednesday comes around.”

Geraldine Lynch, a second-generation publican who runs the Cuckoo’s Nest in Tallaght, has seen weekday bar trade fall by two-thirds as a result of the recession and other factors. But at least this was predictable and could be handled through tighter management.

Then something alarming started happening; the weekend started shrinking. “In my day, the weekend started on a Thursday evening, but the recession saw that off,” she says. “Then Friday started to go. People stopped coming in after work, or they’d come in for one and disappear.” It was a case of TGIF, RIP.

Lynch sees customers with ever-busier lives, for whom Saturday is increasingly their single treat of the week. Saturday morning might be allocated to family activities or a run, so Friday is now a stay-at-home night.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, a receiver took control of Colman Byrne’s pub in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, ending Byrne’s six-year struggle to make the business pay. Byrne built the Lir Cafe Bar on the site of his family’s former pub in 2006, well after the smoking ban and drink-driving laws were implemented.

Business ticked along for a few years before going into a tailspin for a number of reasons. The recession and emigration were factors, but there were also objections to late-night licences from neighbours, killing the crucial Saturday night trade.

But along with the economic factors, Byrne spotted the same cultural shift remarked upon by others. “That element of Irish character – sociability – is slowly dying out. People are not doing that same social thing that they used to.”

In place of regulars communing at the bar about local matters, Byrne says his customers were more likely to be “young people who got hammered at home on cheap vodka and beer”. Some who did make it to the pub would arrive with naggins of spirits taped to their thighs.

Immigration has also had an impact on patterns of alcohol consumption, says Lambkin. “The immigrant community has not embraced Irish pub culture as much as a socialising at home tendency, including a preference for different alcohol products.” She points out that sales of vodka, for example, have risen significantly.

Conor Kenny also queries our self-image as sociable and company-loving. “The generation from 26 down is completely different from what went before.”

The result, he says, is a generation with little appetite for a quiet evening spent sitting in the one place in a quiet pub. They work hard, drink hard and go out at a time when their parents might have been returning home to their beds, according to Kenny.

As a result, the pubs weathering the recession best include late-night venues. In Dublin, Copper Face Jacks nightclub made a profit of €7.5 million last year; the Bailey reopened last October after spending €200,000 on a revamp; and the Pod complex nearby is set to reopen as another nightclub.

Kenny has followed the ups and downs of the trade for several decades, having previously worked for the Irish Pub Company, which was largely responsible for selling an ersatz version of the Irish pub around the world. In his work as a consultant, he delivers home truths that sometimes run counter to received wisdom.

People often think of alcohol as a social drug, but as he points out: “You don’t have to be with people to drink.” Home drinking is as likely to be solitary as much as sociable, says Kenny.

This is the other big change affecting the pub sector. The consumption of alcohol has dropped by about one-fifth in a decade, but it still plays a central part in Irish life. The problem for publicans is that more and more drink is being consumed at home, and not in licensed premises. According to research by DCU economist Tony Foley for the Drinks Industry Group Ireland, a decade ago, up to 80 per cent of drink was sold in the on-trade (pubs and other venues); today, it accounts for less than half of all sales.

Vintners say the abolition of the groceries order in 2006 triggered this change. Freed from the ban on below-cost invoicing, supermarkets turned into drink warehouses, using alcohol as a loss-leader to tempt shoppers through the door. “There was an explosion in availability and a collapse in price,” says Donall O’Keefe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners’ Association, which represents Dublin publicans.

Constance Cassidy, who has specialised in licensing law for more than 20 years, says: “In the beginning, it was all about pubs; now, my business is mostly about off-licences.”

Irish licensing law is a complex beast but one fundamental rule applies; you have to extinguish an existing licence before you can create a new one. This means that if a convenience store owner in central Dublin wants to sell beer, they have to get hold of an existing licence, mostly likely that of a dying rural pub.

UNLIKE TAXIlicences, the market for pub licences hasn’t completely collapsed; a licence still costs €65,000-85,000, because it can be converted into an off-licence. This cost acts as a significant barrier to entry and is another reason why so few new pubs are opening.

The job of a publican has changed greatly from the days when someone could be warming a seat in the Dáil backbenches as well as holding court behind the bar counter. The vast majority of pubs are still family-run, one-bar operations, but the introduction of longer licensing hours forced many owners to employ more staff rather than keeping it in the family.

“I don’t work as hard as Mum and Dad did when they opened this place after getting married,” says Geraldine Lynch, whose parents raised six children in the rooms above the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The recession has seen many pubs cut back their opening hours and reduce staff. “As business has contracted, we’re more hands-on again. We’re constantly minding costs, and the family is picking up the slack,” says Lynch.

So while the pub was once a well-defined institution, with a central place in the community, today its purpose has been lost. Kenny says the challenge for publicans is to make themselves relevant again. “It’s all about reinvention, about looking after the basics. Pubs have become poor at creating a market, about emphasising points of difference. During the Celtic Tiger, money was easy, and they forgot how to go out and sell to their customers.”

“Blaming the Government won’t do. Governments don’t run pubs; publicans do,” he adds. “Price isn’t a factor. It was always dearer to buy drink in a pub. People will go there if it’s relevant to them.”

Lambkin foresees further closures and a wave of consolidation as an economic version of “survival of the fittest” plays itself out. “Every town has well-known pubs that stand out. It’s still a viable business for the good ones and they will survive.”