The State of the Pub

by NJ McGarrigle

We Irish take great pride in our idea of what makes a good boozer and how we can spot a shabby one at a hundred paces, so that we never need darken its door. Our pub culture is the best in the world, without parallel for its warmth and conviviality, and draws on long tradition.

A fine hostelry is as close as one will come to glimpsing into the very soul of an Irish person.

But now, just like in the UK, pubs are closing their doors – at a rate of one every two days, more than 1,100 since 2005 – and the debate surrounding the malaise is on what more they can do to survive. Yet I’m inclined to put it another way – pubs, both in Ireland and the UK, must strip back to get punters in through the doors again. The main problem, as I see it, is that traditional pubs are now trying to be all things to all people. However, publicans should focus on what made them popular in the first place: traditional values and the offer of sanctuary; we need to rediscover the spirit that makes a night’s supping so enchanting.

(It should be said that these suggestions would not apply to many of the ‘entertainment jukebox’ hostelries that can be found around Ireland nowadays.)

So, remove the modern emphasis on all the things that one can get at home – and at a third of the price – and revert to traditional ideas that make drinkers want to leave the comfort of their sofa for the pub.

Abide by these principles:  No music.  I wish to hear the rolling wave of chatter and discourse around me while having a drink. It provides a reassuring tide of emotion that we can all be swept up in, pouring out our hearts and minds to one another, so that when we are washed back on to reality’s frothy shore at closing time, we feel refreshed and reinvigorated. So don’t drown this out with middle of the road music, or the inane chattering of some DJ. And if the pub is quiet, so be it. Leave the soft air in peace; let it hang over us “like the rainbow’s lovely form” and allow it to colour our thoughts and imagination.

Quietude is at a premium in the modern world. A pub should always have space for the sounds of a newspaper rustling; wood creaking; a soft cough in the corner; sheets of rain slapping at the window; ideally a fire crackling; the discreet, almost whispered conversation between two drinkers, as though they were stood at the back of Mass. Kingsley Amis put it succinctly: “we pay the piper, so we ought to be able to call the absence of tunes”.

Another suggestion would be to get rid of the ubiquitous sports or celebrity programmes on TV. The past decade has seen every pub rushing to offer wall-to-wall sports (establishments that don’t do this now probably make up one per cent), but go the other way to stand out from the crowd – turn the telly off. There will be the odd exception to this rule naturally (All-Ireland finals, big Rugby matches etc), but publicans should no longer allow the room to be controlled by the large, flashing eye in the corner: as Jack London once wrote, we drink “for the brain effect”; so leave us to our own devices.

“…there is society where none intrudes”

Recently, I went for a quiet pint and to read the newspaper one afternoon in one of Ireland’s ‘literary pubs’. To my disillusionment, incomprehension, and no little despair – as I had already ordered – I found the television showing an Andy Murray tennis match, on mute, taking place in some far off corner of the globe, while the barman then turned on the insipid droning of The Red Hot Chili Peppers on the stereo. I wondered whose benefit all this was for, as the scattering of punters paid no heed to either, such was their remarkable restraint. However the music and glare of the TV screen registered just enough on the senses to be a distraction, and ultimately became a nuisance. I drank my pint swiftly and hastened to another premises guaranteed to be peaceful: sometimes “there is society where none intrudes”.

Upon leaving, I felt a sympathetic understanding that this ‘entertainment’ may have been for the benefit of the staff, who perhaps were bored with slow trade, but that still doesn’t make it right.

A few other points: one, draught stout is much too cold nowadays – perhaps as a soft soap to lager drinkers to switch from beer – and consequently it has lost its complex thickness. Storing stout in the cold cellar along with lager simply does not work.

Secondly, many pubs are too brightly lit – can we have soft lighting please (with the exception of reading spots) so the drinker can see that long hour before dusk, when the light decomposes, and the anger goes out of the day.

And finally, can there be anything worse than to be sat at the bar and to smell a cooked dinner? If we are to have some form of soakage, let it be nothing more complex than a toasted sandwich.

We all have our own ideas as to what makes a great pub. If England is still a nation of shopkeepers, Ireland must be a nation of publicans. And if they are to serve the nation, then publicans should find out what their punters want, and more importantly, don’t. Something as simple as a suggestion box at the bar might work. We could write our ideas on the back of our receipts. The more receipts you have, the more you care about the place, naturally.