My dad tells me a story of something that happened 40 years ago, although it’s so animatedly imprinted on his memory it may as well have happened last week. When he was in his 20s, a new man was introduced into their social circle. He was the new boyfriend of a friend of one of their girlfriends. He was English, a doctor, had been educated privately over in That London. Given that they were rough-around-the-edges men from Donegal who had mattresses in the back of their work vans, they thought of him as a bit cosseted. A bit sheltered about the ways and means of life.
Then they got to the pub.
Their new friend ordered a sherry. Their 20-year-old selves found this vaguely entertaining, in among the pints of Bass and Harp and Smithwicks and whatnot. But he really blotted his copybook when he shirked his round, not once, but twice. He happily supped the sherries proffered to him by everyone else, and probably thought this was a very welcoming and generous bunch of people altogether. Whether the doctor didn’t know he had to stand his round or whether he simply chose to overlook his own end of the deal remains a hotly contested topic to this very day. In the end, he was promptly brought up to speed on the rounds system in the pub — that one accepts the drink under the implicit agreement that you buy the next drink in return for them.
The doctor married the friend, and so he stuck around for a long time. He eventually began to embrace the humble pint. He even got the rounds system right in the end. But his initial faux-pas has barely been forgotten. For better or worse, it remains a blot on his very character, some four decades after the fact.
These may just be carved in stone in my family, but there are golden rules to round-buying in a pub. If you are first to the bar, the unspoken onus is on you to instigate the rounds system or not. With that in mind, you offer a drink to everyone (although admittedly, this presents problems of its own. If you’ve bought seven people a drink, do you stick around to get one back from everyone?) You can get away with not buying a round if you are young enough — there’s a blessedly grey area, post Leaving Cert, where your older relatives are only delighted to buy you a pint out of sheer novelty — but if you’re working full-time and earning, you get the round in and stop carrying on like you’re getting sweets at your granny’s.
If you are in a couple, both parties get the round in as individuals, as opposed to the couple being one round-buying entity. And when it’s someone else’s round, you don’t suddenly switch from Carlsberg to single malt whiskeys or double G&Ts. Drinking more slowly than everyone else, while no doubt the responsible and healthier thing to do, puts a slight kink in the rounds system. That’s the unfortunate part of the pub round — you are pulled into a way and pace of drinking by everyone else. You tend to drink as quickly as the fastest drinker. And if you don’t drink, the expense of a pub round is slightly problematic, and only getting worse.
Perhaps because I’ve heard the story of the sherry doctor and others like it, I’ve long kept a constant fear about not getting the round in whenever I’m out. A few weeks ago, I did it quite by accident. I was gearing up to leave a pub, coat on and everything, when a friend asked me if I was completely sure I wasn’t going to stick around for a last drink. Well, my rubber arm wasn’t long in twisting, and after that round, we all headed home. In the back of the taxi, I did the maths and realised that I’d let my two friends pick up the last couple of rounds. I was mortified. When I texted them an apology in the morning, neither seemed to remember or care.
I got to thinking about the rounds system, and why we might feel the need to be demonstrably, performatively generous and hospitable around others (is this just in my family?). We want to be seen as being up for the craic. We do this outside of the pub, too. When visiting a house, most of us will bring something — biscuits, flowers, wine — to avoid, as my mum used to call it, ‘having your hands hanging down by your side’.
Much of this can be put down to culture. We Irish people are fairly averse to being thought of as tight-fisted or ungenerous. This could probably be put down to a collective psyche that abhors the idea of ‘taking more than one’s fair share’. Perhaps it’s a hangover from a time when keeping up fiscal appearances around your nearest and dearest seemed important.
A friend of mine takes a much more sensible approach. Everyone contributes to a ‘kitty’ for the night, allowing everyone to imbibe at their own pace, and once the money is gone, it’s gone. Yet, if you do insist on rounds in the pub, there’s only really one rule to note. If you’re wondering whose round it is, or indeed, if someone else is saying aloud, ‘Whose round is it?’ it’s almost definitely your turn.