The place of the pub

Tue, Feb 21, 2012, 00:00

IRELAND HAS an alcohol misuse problem that is getting worse, not better. People are drinking too much and starting at a younger age, with the result that Ireland now leads the international league table of heavy drinkers.

So, to suggest the pub – where so much alcohol is consumed – may be part of the solution to a national drink problem, seems somehow counter-intuitive. Yet, that may well be the case.

The National Substance Misuse report, published this month, argues that pubs are well placed to encourage responsible drinking, as they “may provide a more controlled environment for the consumption of alcohol”. For, as the report also points out, the sale of alcohol has greatly changed in recent years. Pubs have lost out to off-licences and to supermarkets. There, alcohol, which is sometimes sold at below cost, is cheaper to buy, widely available, and less subject to social control.

The future of the Irish pub, which is closely examined in a series of articles in this newspaper, is increasingly in question. More pubs are calling time, closing at the rate of one every second day. Rural areas have been hit hardest. There, renewed emigration has accelerated the rate of pub closures. A wide range of factors has adversely impacted the pub trade, most notably, economic recession, which has depressed demand. Pub customers with less to spend have – in response to high drink prices – altered drinking habits, while tougher drink-driving laws and a smoking ban has helped to reduce customer numbers.

Pubs have struggled to adapt to changed economic and social conditions, and to the changing lifestyle of their customers, for whom the pub has lost much of its former appeal – as meeting place and social centre.

And yet the Irish pub remains for tourists a key visitor attraction; the country’s number-one attraction, according to the Lonely Planettravel guide. However, if pubs now hold less appeal to Irish people, then how will they retain their appeal to tourists for whom the social informality of pub life remains a large part of their attraction? The economic future of the pub trade may well be greatly influenced by how the Government implements the National Substance Misuse Report. Whether in controlling alcohol misuse it decides that pubs are a better alternative to supermarkets and off-licences – which sell cheap drink with an obvious appeal to vulnerable young people, and to those dependent on alcohol.