Sunday 18 March 2018

Raising a glass to the ultimate icon of Irishness - the local pub

Our reviewer on a book that toasts the local

Calling time: While the Irish pub thrives abroad, custom in this country has slumped.
Calling time: While the Irish pub thrives abroad, custom in this country has slumped.

Damian Corless

The Irish pub. It's part of what we are, an icon of Irishness known and loved from Boston to Beijing, from Alaska to Australia. But what is the essence of the Irish pub? The simple answer is that there's no simple answer. A fascinating new book charts the evolution of this unique social forum over the course of 1,500 years. Have Ye No Homes To Go To? by Kevin Martin takes us from Breton licensing laws to the birth of the gay bar, showing by way of endlessly surprising examples how this moveable feast has managed to make itself all things to all men over the course of centuries.

Women have been less well served. Indeed, when lounge bars sprung up to cater for ladies from the late 1960s, Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan (Charlie's dad) denounced them as dens of vice heralding the collapse of civilization. But more of that later.

In the 1960s, as from time immemorial, publicans held a thoroughly unhealthy sway over politicians, and over their customers, commanding levels of unquestioning loyalty that seemed rooted in old tribal ways. Tyrants were legion in the trade, such as the north Dublin woman who, on a whim, would call closing time and turf out her regulars at any time of the day or night. And yet, despite her flagrant breech of her licensing obligations, they would troop obediently back the next day.

That same decade the Vintners Association attacked the abolition of the bona-fide rule which permitted drinkers who had travelled three miles or more to continue ordering long after closing time. Not only did this move not take drunk drivers off the roads, they argued, it actually generated "more road accidents". The publicans said there was no point in blaming drink for road deaths when some drivers were just "mentally prone" to causing accidents.

The vintners continued: "Lack of consideration, bad roads, badly lighted roads, scooters and pillion riders, cyclists riding more than one abreast and without reflectors - all play a greater part than drunken driving."

They lost the bona-fide battle, but the publicans' lobby group remained powerfully effective in shelving drink-driving restrictions and generally snuffing out all forms of competition.

By the close of the 1970s, no longer merely tolerated hived off in the snug, women found acceptance in the lounge. Designed to look like a suburban living room, the main concession of this new space to the fairer sex was a carpet that started out with an orangey-brown floral design. After months and years without a clean, the carpet became a featureless, sticky, squelchy morass. Even in the upmarket lounge, there was never any need to ask directions to the loo, you just followed your nose to the part of the premises where it seemed most likely something had died. It was common house policy to refuse females pint glasses for fear their unladylike appearance would lower the tone.

The bar itself remained stubbornly set in its ways. Drinking was a manly pursuit, carried out in dank, grubby dens smelling of stale booze, mildew and smoke, where pub-grub meant stale sandwiches garnished with dead bluebottles. 'Men Only' signs still hung outside many bars. Choosing a drink was easy. There was one tap for stout (Guinness or Beamish), one for ale (usually Smithwicks) and one for lager (Harp). Lager was generally considered suitable only for women and underage males sporting a preposterous bum-fluff 'moustache'.

Such was the domination of Guinness that when the same company (via Smithwicks) launched Phoenix, a light ale, the ad agency came up with the slogan: "Phoenix - The Bright Pint". This was nixed by the MD of Guinness, who informed the agency that "pint" was a Guinness word. The slogan was changed to: "Phoenix - The Bright Beer".

So "a pint" meant stout and stout only. All through the 1970s ale and lager remained distant also-rans, as Britain's drinks revolution left Ireland largely untouched. Across the water, a new class of package sun-seeker was importing a taste for wines and mixers, while real-ale pubs boomed. That change did come in the 1980s, gradually. Heineken and Carlsberg vied to wrest the lager market from Harp. Rugger types called "Moine's a point of Heino", while hipsters yelled "Two pints of Fursty" (Furstenburg) over the ear-splitting din of Duran Duran in new 'Real Irish Pubs' with tractor parts hanging from the ceiling. As these young guns quaffed Mexican beers and tequila slammers, the pubs their parents considered 'real' - dank, chipped Formica counters, racing on TV - died a slow death. Even the abolition of the Holy Hour in 1988, which had closed pubs from 2.30pm to 3.30pm each afternoon, didn't help.

Since then, we've had themed pubs, superpubs, gay pubs and craft pubs, yet while the Irish pub thrives abroad, custom here has slumped. Popular publicans' excuses include the smoking ban and drink-driving restrictions, but cost is key. The publicans killed the golden goose. Well-founded accusations of price gouging became a major topic of public debate in the 1990s and the people voted with their feet, strolling to the offy and back home for a night in front of the telly, or throwing a house party. Once viewed as deviant behaviour and the sure sign of a problem, tanking up before going to the pub has become normalised, with the publican's till the loser. That's how it is on the home front, and how it seems set to continue, but as Martin's admirable book demonstrates, the Irish pub is the David Bowie of the global booze trade, capable of the most stunning feats of reinvention.

Have Ye No Homes To Go To? by Kevin Martin is published by Collins Press

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