Too early to call last orders

 

The drinks industry is arguing strongly that legal and economic pressures are a threat to the very survival of the Irish pub. But a closer look at these claims shows that the glass may be half-full rather than half-empty, writes Catherine Cleary

A PUBLICAN SCANS his empty pub. "Have ye no homes to go to?" he asks the air. "Suppose they do now," he mutters, putting the last stool on the bar. He drapes the towel over the taps and locks the door behind him for the final time.

This was the image evoked by the drinks industry last week when it claimed that 1,500 pubs had closed down since 2001. The news followed reports during the summer that pubs were closing at the rate of one a day.

It looked as if pub-going was the new Mass attendance, something we don't do in our droves any more. The pressures on the pub business cited by the industry ranged from the cheaper supermarket six-pack to the newly affluent populace spurning the local to host see-my-new-kitchen dinner parties.

Commuting, mortgages, the smoking ban and drink-driving laws were all also conspiring to call last orders on the local, according to the industry. Comedian Dara O'Briain was drafted in for a series of radio ads to lure drinkers back to the Irish pub. A fundamental part of our national social life, we were told, was being lost as we sank into our easy chairs in front of new plasma screens with a takeaway and a can at each elbow.

It is true that the trade is changing, but a closer look at last week's figures shows that reports of the death of the Irish pub may be exaggerated. There are stories of publicans struggling to keep pace with new developments, but what also needs to be borne in mind is that the most powerful lobby in the country is working to persuade the Government to keep its hands off the pint and the short in next week's Budget.

The drinks industry has cited figures from its "on-trade accounts", claiming that the number of these accounts - which include pubs, hotel bars and nightclubs - has fallen from 11,000 in 2001 to 9,500 now. The impression given was of a steady decline, of a business that was slowly dying on its feet.

But why did the drinks industry choose the year 2001 to start the clock? Did the decline not start with the smoking ban, which began in March 2004, or more recently, with the economic downturn? If the industry had counted pubs a year earlier, they would have had a good news story. And if they had chosen a later year, the figures would have been a lot less dramatic.

Every pub in the country is licensed by the Revenue Commissioners to sell alcohol. According to the Revenue Commissioners' annual reports, in 2000 there were some 7,500 pub licences in existence. So if the graph starts in 2000 the good news is that the number of pubs in Ireland has grown by 2,000 in this millennium.

The fact is that 2001 was a gold-rush year for pub licences. New laws relaxing licensing regulation came into effect in July 2000. The Intoxicating Liquor Act abolished the "mile rule", whereby a new licence could only replace another that had become defunct within a mile radius. The result was that, by the end of 2001, there were more than 11,000 pub licences issued by Revenue. And this statistical spike is where the industry starts to chart the decline in Irish pubs.

A spokesman for the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) defends the figures, saying they "do stack up". "These were named accounts that companies supplied into and were invoicing. And it's a like-for-like comparison of the change that's happened over the years in those accounts."

The primary source for the figures was accounts from Diageo, the spokesman says, and the data has been "interrogated" for accuracy. Separate figures, he adds, show that, since the 2001 peak, consumption in both the pub and off-licence trade is down 7 per cent.

But if there has been a sharp drop in the number of pubs in Ireland, it probably has more to do with the market settling back to average numbers than it does with any great or catastrophic permanent decline. After the peak of 2001 there was a steep fall-off, and by the end of 2002 more than 1,400 pub licences had disappeared from Revenue figures.

So when the Revenue graph on licence numbers is drawn, it is clear that six years ago, at the height of the economic boom, before the smoking ban and in the space of 12 months, the country lost 1,400 pubs, on paper. Yet, despite the plummet, there was little talk of a catastrophe in the pub trade in 2002.

BEHIND THE NUMBERS are the people. The selective use of statistics by the industry is not helping individual publicans who are having to find new ways to bring in customers as society changes. PJ Kavanagh became the fifth generation to take over the running of Kavanagh's family pub in Portlaoise, Co Laois, after the death of his father, also called PJ.

"I started working with my father in the business," he says. "In 2000 we demolished and rebuilt the pub, and then Dad passed away. We always had a regular customer base in the older pub and it was very busy for a few years after we did the work. The old customers took to it very well and we brought in new customers."

After that, it became harder to attract what Kavanagh calls "the leisure pound". Large numbers of commuters working in Dublin were willing to base their social life as well as their working life in the city.

"Dublin is so close, and people were doing the meal and the pub or club, getting the night out," he says. "People were also spending a lot more money on their own homes."

The time pressure of the town's commuting culture was a major factor.

"People have 12-hour days, taking trains to Dublin and not getting back till 7pm or 8pm," he says. "By the time they have something to eat and see the family, the idea of a bit of a spin to the pub is not something most people are going to do."

Kavanagh was finding that his trade could fall to one or two customers on nights early in the week. In 2002, he started doing pub food, soup and sandwiches, which are a major backbone of the business today. Then he opened up meeting rooms free to local groups, "everything from the musical society to the gun club to the local Amnesty group". And that got "footfall through the door" on week nights. Later on, he started the town's first comedy club.

"I think at the time we were only the third in the country," he says. "There was the International in Dublin and one other in Limerick. On the first night we were completely sold out and then on the second night there were only 10 people there."

Despite the early wobbles, the club took off and Kavanagh now hosts a monthly comedy club and has organised the town's first comedy festival, the Halloween Howls, for the bank holiday weekend.

The coming months will show whether Irish pubs are as recession-proof as some experts say. The decline in pub numbers may not be as dramatic as the drinks industry might want us to believe, but in the era of the superpub and the 88-cent supermarket can of lager, there is pressure on smaller pubs as belts are tightened. Members of the building trade have always been staple pub customers, and with job losses biting in the sector, there will be fewer spare euro to spend in the pub.

Excise receipts already show a dramatic fall in total beer excise receipts from €48.6 million in August 2007 to €40.3 million in August this year, a drop of 17 per cent. The September figures will be published later this week, just in time for a last bit of lobbying before Budget day.