Time to support the troops on tourism's frontline
A single Irish pub is a cottage industry, but if we harvest our reputation for hospitality it could be a billion-euro behemoth, says Enda O Coineen
Whether more high-minded people on our island like it or not, the Irish pub is the frontline of our North Atlantic island around the world. You may have Italian fish-and-chip shops and Chinese restaurants – but for the Irish, it's the pub.
Yet we have done little to connect, recognise or support these 'frontline troops'. In a way, we have been almost schizophrenic. It's a lost business opportunity.
From The Michael Collins in Brussels, to Bubbles O'Learys in Uganda, Molly Malones in Shanghai, The Porter House in New York, Kildares in Westchester Pennsylvania and Nepal in India, they are everywhere.
When good, they are amazing ambassadors. When bad, they are a gross embarrassment. When visitors to our country are asked what do you like most about Ireland, the pub ranks number one. Indeed the Guinness Storehouse is our top tourist attraction and amazing.
In our quest to present a modern hi-tech Ireland – and wipe out the curse of alcohol abuse – many right-minded people find the drink culture appalling and want to run a mile.
Likewise when we go to other countries it's to be part of that country and culture, not to bring our own with us.
In truth, this perhaps reflects an Irish immaturity contrasted with Germany where they take beer-drinking very seriously, and in France where alcohol consumption per capita is in excess of Ireland.
And who are these Irish pub owners and managers abroad, and who are their customers?
In fact it could be the tail wagging the dog in that the industry is declining in Ireland and the number of Irish pubs outside Ireland exceeds those here.
How is that for a bizarre concept?
And you might also ask what is an Irish pub? Individually it's a cottage industry, together it's a billion-euro industry.
When does a Chinese restaurant – that puts a shamrock out front and sells Guinness – become Irish? I know a Croatian lady who had an Irish boyfriend and they opened an Irish pub in a Czech country town. He broke it off, but she still runs the pub.
On the other hand there are incredible five-star restaurants, Irish-sourced food and drink, amazing service, Irish bar staff, music, atmosphere, community and downright fun. Better than anything you will find at home. The customers are generally local as well as some with Irish 'aspirations'.
By and large, the owners of these pubs are entrepreneurs and unique personalities. They are highly individualistic, some are eccentric, they make a lot of money and bringing them together is like herding cats.
Many pubs are not Irish- owned. One time at a resort abroad I made a beeline for an Irish pub advertised only to find an owner who knew nothing about Ireland, and what's more did not care. He got his suspect Guinness (for credibility) through a friend on a ship from Greece. The pub was a massive disappointment. However, the shrewd owner knew this was a way to make extra money – at Ireland's expense.
When we entered the Green Dragon in the Volvo Ocean Race and brought the race to Galway, for marketing purposes I set out to communicate with Irish pubs around the world to promote our project – under the umbrella of Let's Do It Global – now the Pride of Ireland Trust.
"No, it's not possible," was the response when I talked with management of Diageo, Irish Distillers, Tourism Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia. It's not that they did not like the idea, rather there was no infrastructure to do it.
For no personal economic gain – simply because no one else would do it – I set out to form Irish Pubs Global five years ago.
It's now gaining momentum. We have over 20 chapters/branches around the world, and a database of more than 4,000 real Irish pubs.
I elected myself honorary president. It is my hope to be deposed, which would be a mark of success.
Spurred on by the Irish Diaspora Global Forum in Dublin Castle two years ago, we decided to organise a historic Gathering of the owners and managers of Irish pubs around the world in less than four weeks. If Italian fish-and-chip shop owners made a success of fish-and-chip shop day in Dublin, surely Irish pub owners in the main cities of the world can come together for common benefit?
For Sunday Independent readers with connections abroad, we ask for your help to get the word out to every Irish pub owner or manager abroad to come back to Ireland for the event. It will be chaired by disapora specialist, Kingsley Aikins. And for those who cannot make it, the event will be webcast.
It starts with a historic welcome joint reception with the LVA and VFI, and runs from September 29 to October 1.
The programme will focus on using social media, digital marketing for pubs led by Jerry Kennelly of Tweak, Irish food menus and a food forum chaired by Michael Carey of Bord Bia. There will also be craft beer and whiskey from the Porterhouse.
With keynote speakers such as Pearse Lyons, of Alltech, and Paul Mangiamele, CEO of the Bennigans group of over 70 Irish pubs, it's a brilliant programme. Pat Shortt, a pub owner, will add some sparkle on the lighter side.
There will also be hard questions in defining what an Irish pub is. How can Ireland connect and support them for jobs and the supply of Irish products and selling tourism? It will focus on the next generation of Irish pubs' reinvention.
There is a lot that those in the declining Irish pub trade can learn from those reaping the harvest abroad.
Please spread the word and bring any Irish pub owners and managers you know home for the Gathering.