Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Una Mullally: Since 2005, nearly 2,000 Irish pubs have closed. It’s time to declare them a cultural asset

There’s a strong case for seeking Unesco recognition of the uniqueness of Irish pubs

January presents a month-long version of a saying my grandfather, Pesh, used to reach for, looking out across the fields of Ballaghanea being drenched with cold rain: “‘Tis a day for the high stool.”

You know the kind of day he was talking about. It’s one that demands the confines of a cosy snug, or the languid peace of a worn wooden counter. You don’t even need to drink alcohol, just enjoy it: no television, no phones, just ambient chatter and the hiss of taps. Why is this desirable atmosphere so specific in Ireland? And does it matter?

I recently wrote about the hastening rate of restaurant closures in Ireland, but there’s another quite serious trend ongoing, and that’s the rate of Irish pubs closing. Since 2005, 1,937 pubs have closed across Ireland. Limerick accounted for 32 per cent of these closures. In 2019 there were 358 pubs in Limerick. By 2022, there were 325. Since 2019, an average of 152 pubs have closed every year in Ireland.

There’s also something strange happening in Cork. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the stories about various restaurants in Cork closing in recent weeks. Things are much more severe when it comes to pubs in the county. A total of 365 pubs closed across Cork since 2005. It’s getting worse. Remarkably, 50 per cent of all pub closures nationally in 2022 were in Cork, 54 out of 108 closures that year.


We all understand the issues with alcoholism in Ireland. It’s about addiction, a permissive attitude around drunkenness, and it’s about trauma. The Government’s approach to this health issue has been to make alcohol more expensive to the point where we have the second-highest alcohol excise duty in the EU. The excise tax on a glass of wine is 80 cent in Ireland. In France, it’s one cent. If the Government really cared about alcohol abuse, our addiction and mental health services would be world class. But if we also accept that traditional pubs mean more than just a place to drink in, what is to be done about these mass closures?

Last year, Fianna Fáil TD, Niamh Smyth, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Oireachtas Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, floated an interesting idea. There exists a Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage. Every year, Ireland has an opportunity to add to it. In 2017, we picked uilleann piping, a fine choice. In 2018, hurling. Excellent. In 2019, Irish harping. Bang on. All three of these are unique to Ireland, and therefore no other country has them on their lists. In 2021, we joined the 23 other countries that include falconry on their lists. For some reason, Irish entries for 2022 and 2023 are not listed, but other countries were on the ball; Belarusian straw-weaving, Spanish manual bell-ringing; France nominated the artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread.

When the Oireachtas committee published a report last November on developing rural tourism in Ireland, one of the recommendations was that the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media “conduct an audit of rural areas and of rural assets, with a view to identifying potential candidates for application to be inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and on the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

At the launch of this report, Smyth said pubs should have their cultural value recognised. I spoke to Smyth about this last week, and she expanded on that idea. “The atmosphere in a traditional Irish pub isn’t tangible,” she said, “but we all know it. We all feel it. It’s different from a modern, newly built pub or bar… There is an argument to be made to protect Irish pubs . . . We’d be foolish to take them for granted. They are diminishing.”

Smyth is correct about the existence of an intangible atmosphere in an authentic Irish pub, be it rural or urban, that one recognises. This is especially the case if they are also home to traditional music-playing. I’m not sure what difference it would make to pubs closing across Ireland if the intangible culture that exists within them was added to a Unesco list, but perhaps it would encourage us to reflect on this aspect of Irish culture, and place a value on it that might even go a little way to stem the flood of closures. Nowhere else on this planet does the authentic Irish pub exist in the specific form that it does on our island. If that matters, why don’t we officially declare it so?

In 2010, France added the “gastronomic meal of the French” to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In 2016, Belgium added “beer culture in Belgium”. In 2013, the Republic of Korea added kimjang, the making and sharing of kimchi. In 2022, China added tea as a symbol of identity, hospitality and social interaction. That same year, Cuba added the “knowledge of the light rum masters”. These all feel like loosely comparative precedents for the ascension of the unique, specific atmosphere within traditional Irish pubs to join their ranks. I’ll let the civil servants argue over the wording.