Forget plush, forget bicycles, the real Irish pub has stone floors and a dodgy lav
Opinion: Gastro pubs are fine, but some of us still long for the orange cellophane sandwich
Irish playwright and poet Brendan Behan (1923 - 1964) having a final drink in London before going back to Ireland. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
This week, a charming new film called The Irish Pub sets out to celebrate one of Ireland’s greatest gifts to the universe. Like all successful inventions, it has been perverted, parodied and misused. Those shamrock-bedecked hell-holes in Boise, Bangkok and Brisbane make no appearances in Alex Fegan’s documentary. Nothing seems so depressingly inauthentic as a conspicuous yearning for authenticity. Anywhere that blasts this much Riverdance, scatters this many rural signs and sells this much Bushmills Irish Honey (I ask you!) has got to be a little unsure about its own Irishness.
Nor does the film spend much time in disco bars, themed bars or faux-velvet cocktail saloons. Fegan focuses on the classic pub – often dating to the 18th or 19th century – that has resisted the various waves of modernisation. You know the sorts of places. They have heavy wooden bars, stone floors and impressively scruffy lavatories. Piped music is not to be heard. The television is turned on only for important sporting events. (Some of these places do allow annoying people with guitars and banjos to disturb conversations. But those of us intolerant of such revelries are probably in the grumpy minority.)
It is sad to relate that the film has a somewhat mournful feeling to it. Thirty years ago, in the aftermath of the great purple-velvet assault, such establishments were already being referred to as “old man pubs”. That demographic imbalance is now more pronounced than ever. Away from the tourist traps – wall-to-wall Fields of Athenry and Irish stew by the bucket – the traditional Irish pub has increasingly become the preserve of senior drinkers.
Indeed, the whole business of pub-going looks to be drifting out of fashion. Every week brings another story about a crisis in the business. The smoking ban, stricter implication of drink-driving legislation and the lowering of prices in off-licences have caused pubs to vanish almost as quickly as high-street travel agencies. Nothing is as it was. Here’s the question. Has the continuing modernisation (or should we say vandalising) of the great Irish pub accelerated the decline or has it bought the business a bit more time?
Few drinkers retain much affection for those notorious renovations of the 1970s. Thinking back, it’s hard to tell what the interior designers were up to.
Patterned carpets were laid down. Largely pointless brass railings sprung up beneath the bar. Speakers were installed from which orchestral versions of Scarborough Fair oozed over studded purple seating. The pub no longer looked like a pub. But it didn’t look like an American cocktail bar either.
The effect was more that of a mid-market hotel lobby or the waiting area in a pretentious brothel.
Part of the impetus was to draw more women into pubs. I have yet to meet any woman who preferred these gauche livingrooms to the traditional yellow-ceilinged tavern. But the market researchers obviously cornered a couple in their travels.
That regime continued its reign of terror throughout the 1980s. In the decade that followed a slightly less ghastly campaign kicked off. The carpets were stripped away to reveal stylish bare boards. Black and white photographs of generic jazz musicians crawled up the walls. A wider range of beers was introduced at the pumps. The attempt to draw in returning immigrants – and younger folk who craved noise and busyness – had much success during the Tiger years. The rest of us may have decried the arrival of decent food and longed for an orange toasted sandwich swerved in cellophane. But the quasi-hip cafe bar was not an entirely awful place in which to hang.
It was, however, worth noting how many renovations aped the traditions of the classic Irish pub. A company in Armagh made fortunes flogging rugged artefacts for publicans to hang over their pumps. The unmatched tables and chairs often seen in the current generation of gastro pubs speak of a desire to reappropriate those values. Contemporary opera composers may invite performers to wear dustbins and wield neon chainsaws, but the touchstones are still the Italian compositions of the 18th century. The Irish pubs featured in The Irish Pub could be seen as a class of architectural and social canon to which all subsequent publicans should show proper respect.
Many such gems may survive when more gimmicky establishments have been turned into electrical substations. But the old school of pub culture has vanished. Maybe there are upsides to this. Writers, painters and recreational thinkers are now more likely to spend Tuesday afternoons at the gym than soaking up hours in the stained-glass snug. They’ll live longer I suppose. But will they produce anything as lively as the work of such professional pub-men as Francis Bacon, Flann O’Brien or Patrick Kavanagh? It suits my case to pretend they won’t.