‘The Irish pub is a status symbol. With unrest in the world, everything Irish is seen as safe’

There are almost as many Irish pubs abroad as there are in Ireland, where the number has fallen by 10 per cent in a decade. What can Irish publicans do about it?

 

‘Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub,” mused Leopold Bloom on an early summer’s day in 1904 but, more than a century later, a better puzzle might be to cross the world and not pass through a country that has at least one pub with a shamrock over its door.

The Irish pub has never been so popular – at least outside Ireland – but closer to home it is a different story and, if current trends continue, it won’t be long before there are more Irish pubs outside the auld sod than within it. In fact, we are already dangerously close to that tipping point.

Right now, there are more than 7,000 Irish pubs from Austria to Zambia and it is virtually impossible to visit any city of any size without stumbling into – and then perhaps out of – a Molly Malone or a Wild Rover, or whatever you’re having yourself.

By comparison, there are about 7,300 licensed premises in the Republic and that number is falling, down nationwide by more than 10 per cent in less than 10 years, with the decline in Dublin 6 per cent.

Lifestyle changes

In some areas, the fall it is a lot more dramatic. Take Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon. It once had the highest per capita number of pubs of any town in Ireland. In the 1960s, there were 77 pub licences there for a population of about 1,500. Today, it has eight for a population of 1,822. Even the eight still standing in the town are struggling.

Industry analysts say permanent closing times are set to continue for the foreseeable future because the local demand for a local is no longer there. According to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) there was a decline in the volume of on-trade nationally in the four years from 2008 to 2012 of 34 per cent.

The market has stabilised since with slight growth reported in some urban areas and in popular tourist spots, but it has not been enough to really reverse the trend. It started more than 10 years ago and can be attributed to a combination of lifestyle changes – people are drinking less – the smoking ban, changes to drink-driving laws and cheap drink in supermarkets. Brexit and the impact, reduced numbers of visitors from the UK, is likely to make things worse.

From September 26th to 28th, pub owners, operators and staff from the Irish pub sector at home and abroad will come together in Dublin for the fifth Irish Pubs Global gathering. The theme of the event is “Creating A Destination Pub” and the topics to be discussed will range from the perfect pub grub to the latest trend in trendy craft beers.

Ahead of the great gathering there was a smaller gathering in The Two Sisters Pub in Terenure, south Dublin, where three publicans sat down to talk about the state they’re in and their future.

There was Gary Pepper, who owns the pub that bears his name in Feakle, Co Clare. He knows a thing or two about creating a destination pub, having built one of the best and most popular trad music festivals in the world around his pub nearly 30 years ago. He has also kept his pub’s doors open for 363 days a year – for more than four decades – in a town with a population of less than 70. Then there was David O’Grady, the manager of Tigh Neachtain, one of Galway city’s most beloved institutions and one which has a substantially larger drinking public to draw from. The pub has been in the same family since 1894 and has scarcely changed since the Neachtains first hung their name above the doors. There is no TV, no wifi, no hens or stags – just tiny snugs, tobacco-stained nooks and crannies, and some of the most best stout you will find anywhere. (For the sake of full disclosure, it is also this Galway city-born and reared journalist’s favourite pub in the whole world)

Playing host to the mini-gathering was fourth-generation publican Deirdre Devitt, owner of The Two Sisters Pub. When asked how it is that the Irish pub has become so popular all over the world, Devitt suggests it is because Irish people are full of craic. It is a cliché, for sure, but maybe it is a cliché because is true. Pepper has a slightly different take. “The Irish pub is a status symbol,” he says. “With the unrest in the world, everything Irish is seen as safe. It is a brand in its own way.”

He is upbeat about the prospects for Irish pubs abroad, but more downbeat when discussing their future at home. “The fun has gone out of it in a lot of pubs now. I’m not talking about my own pub but, in general, I think the fun has gone out of it. People are so obsessed with the problems in life and the problems in relation to drinking,” he says.

“Basically, what has happened is people are only coming out for occasions now: birthdays, funerals, and whatever. But, in general, they are not coming out just for the pub any more. It is only for food or music or events.”

Responsible drivers

Over the course of the conversation, he references drink-driving and, while much of what he says will not rest easy with teetotallers, law enforcement officers, responsible drivers and urban dwellers with easy access to public transport, much of what he says may resonate more with rural dwellers. “You really have to live in the country to know how tough it is,” he says. “I wouldn’t condone drink-driving but, in rural Ireland, you have to have some bit of comfort for old people.”

He says the pub is attacked from every angle “directly and indirectly” and he expresses concern about “a certain percentage of the population that you don’t see from one end of the day to the other. I am not just talking about in the pub. They are lonely and they are resorting to drinking at home, probably looking at the internet and the telly and staring at the four walls and that is not healthy.”

He says when he started out in the 1970s “there was no such thing as drink-driving laws or the smoking ban or that sort of thing. People did travel out and people did drink and they weren’t afraid to drive home. There was no fear in those days but nowawdays everything is about fear.”

The impact very strict driving laws have had on rural pubs is hard to deny but even hints that they should be relaxed must be challenged. As drink-driving laws have tightened up, road deaths have fallen and everyone is safer as a result. But, Pepper stands his ground. He tells a story about two “lads in their 80s”, from his area, who failed a breathalyser test.

“The effect that had on the whole community was incredible and it did a lot of damage,” he says. “These were guys who drank their three or four pints and did no damage to anybody. It is like a dagger in the heart of the community when something like that happens. I am not condoning drink-driving at all but you have got to be realistic as to your situation.

“That is why I always believed in the local Garda station where the garda had a bit of common sense and if he thought someone was doing something wrong, he would speak to him, get him to see his ways are wrong or whatever in conjunction with the publicans. Most publicans are responsible and know if a guy is drinking too much and will take his keys off him.” Pepper is not one for simply giving out. He has also been proactive in tackling obstacles. He and his wife routinely drive people to and from the pub; he in a purpose-bought eight-seater bus and she in the family car. It takes time but it is, he says, vital. “You have to work at it nowadays. You are either driving people home are or upstairs doing books to keep the tax man happy.”

Over-regulated

Devitt is less vocal when it comes to the laws, but she still nods in agreement.

“We are highly over-regulated and, at every turn, there is something we can’t do and it is very negative. But, here on a Friday evening, it is brilliant. People come out to meet people and converse and have the craic. And what is wrong with that? We are Irish at the end of the day.”

She, too, drives local people home and says a taxi “even around the corner” can cost over €7. But, she does more to make her suburban pub a destination for locals than offer a casual taxi service. There’s Tapas Tuesdays and Flamenco dancing and even bra fitting in the lounge on International Women’s Day. “It keeps me interested. I need something to keep me busy. On some Tuesdays, in the recession, we could have closed it was so quiet. So, we started Tapas Tuesdays. Juanjo comes in to play the guitar and the food is amazing.”

Food is, she says, hard work but it is essential. “We are family friendly, we are the pub at the hub, the centre of the community.” She is full of praise for her head chef, who is from Mauritius. Apparently he makes “the best Dublin coddle you have ever tasted”. Devitt is president of the Licensed Vintners Association – the umbrella group representing Dublin publicans – rural publicans are represented by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland. The LVA is 200 years old next year and she is the first female president in its history. “My dad is very proud. I am very proud.”

It is far from that she was reared. When her family took over the pub in the late 1980s, women played second fiddle to the menfolk. “Years ago, a woman would not have been served a pint at the bar. They would have been given two glasses. And that was in the late 1980s.”

Adapting

As the manager of Tigh Neachtain, O’Grady arguably has the easiest job of the lot. His pub is in the heart of Galway’s Latin Quarter with a huge volume of passing trade. And it has a reputation stretching back generations. “There is a lot more to it than just opening the door,” he says. “You have to adapt while not losing the essence of what you are. You have to innovate.” He points to the popularity of craft beers and coffee.

Then there are the locals. They don’t miss a trick. “When I started working in Tigh Neachtain there was a clock in the front bar. And one day it was taken away and I still hear about it.” What happened to the clock? “It broke. The fact that people cared so much about it highlights the feeling of ownership people have. There are very few pubs like that”.

Neachtains also has a strict no stags or hens policy. “We get criticism from the parties sometimes . . . but some people can get quite vocal. But it is a very small pub, a confined space, and you have a lot of regulars and when you have a large group, it can get very overbearing.”

Is it tough to manage the blend of tourists and locals? “Now and again, people can be protective of their space and during the summer, when it is full on, they can get frustrated and you see at this time of year people are saying ‘ah great it is coming back to our place again’.”

Pepper’s locals are “delighted to see the tourists coming in. They come out in their droves for the nights we have the music and the tourists are in town.” And what else do publicans need to do to make their pubs destinations? “You are actually performing when you go out there,” Pepper says. “The publican has to engage with customers and get the craic going because it has to be about entertainment for the customer at the end of the day. Otherwise they are sitting there with long faces.”

The publicans we spoke to are fighting and winning but it is tough for them and tougher still for others. And we will lose our pubs at our peril. A Fáilte Ireland survey of visitor attitudes from 2013 declared that the thing tourists most love about a visit to Ireland is live music in a pub, while tasting Guinness is the third most beloved thing. Take the pub out of the picture and Ireland will lose much of its allure to tourists. And if the local that is the social glue binding many communities melts away, our local people will be a lot worse off, too.

Global gathering: Publicans will discuss ‘creating a destination’

On September 26th, more than 600 pub owners, operators and staff from the Irish pub sector at home and abroad will gather at the CityWest Hotel in Dublin for the fifth Irish Pubs Global gathering.

The three-day shindig will be made up of a conference, an exhibition and the Irish Pubs Global Awards in which the great and good of the pub trade will be honoured by their peers.

The event will be opened by Billy Lawless who, in June, became the first Irish emigrant to be appointed to the Seanad. The US-based pub owner is no stranger to the pub trade back home, having served a term as president of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland.

The theme of the event is ‘Creating A Destination Pub’ and topics to be discussed include authenticity, profitability, pub design and how technology can help the pub sector. The importance of food – and, obviously, drink as well as trends and entertainment will also be discussed.

Delegates will also be a given a guided pub tour (they’re probably not allowed to use the word crawl) and tastings culminating in a “gala dinner” to celebrate success across the sector.

Among the categories up for grabs will be the Irish Pub of the Year, Best International Irish Pub Food, and Marketing Campaign of the Year.

See irishpubsglobal.com

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