Let’s face it, over the past twenty or so years the Irish Pub has become a global phenomenon. From Cairo to Chicago and from Stockholm to Sydney, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be sure to find an Irish themed pub.
Like French restaurants or Italian pizza parlours, the Irish pub has become a worldwide marketing entity. But! And it’s a big but; many of these far-flung bars are just that — foreign, marketing ploys designed to cash in on what is quintessentially Irish and can only be Irish.
In this feature, journalist and occasional pint drinker, Ger Leddin looks at ten things that make an Irish pub special for the visitor and locals alike.
1. Age and experience
The Irish have been drinking alcohol since Adam pulled his first pint for Eve, or thereabouts. In fact, rumour has it that the apple with which Eve tempted Adam was intended to be shipped to Ireland to make cider.
But seriously, the oldest pub not only in Ireland — and there are a few which make that particular claim — but on the continent of Europe is reputed to be Sean’s Bar in Athlone.
Well, that’s according to the Guinness — familiar name — Book of Records. Sean’s dates back to the year 900 AD. While the bar staff has changed occasionally since then, it’s not often you can sit and sip in a bar which is almost two-thousand years trading. In fairness they must be doing something right, mustn’t they?
2. A Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Where Everybody Knows Your Name is the theme song from the nineties American sitcom, Cheers, staring Ted Danson as barkeep Ted Malone — Malone, now there’s an Irish name — in the Irish ‘parish’ of Boston Massachusetts. But it’s true; all regulars of a true Irish pub will be recognised and called by their first name.
Even if you’re a first-time visitor most good Irish barmen will do their level-best to recognise and salute you on any future visit.
From O’Donoghue’s one of the oldest and busiest pubs in Dublin to Joseph McHughs in the tiny seaside village Liscannor in West Clare, a good Irish barman will have your name the next time you visit.
As Ripley said, “believe it or believe it not.” During the early part of the 19th century, Ireland had an active temperance movement. Founded by the Catholic priest Fr. Theobald Mathew in 1838 the Teetotal Abstinence Society did its best to rid Ireland of the ‘Demon Drink’ this growing temperance movement and the subsequent decline in alcohol sales forced many Irish pub owners to diversify their business slightly.
Many pub owners chose to combine the selling of alcohol with the selling of groceries, in order to make up for lost revenue. This resulted in a unique Irish pub architectural genre known as the long-bar, with fifty-percent of the width of the premises behind the bar allowing for the display of both alcohol and groceries and fifty-percent allocated to customers. Many pubs in Ireland still maintain this feature, The Long Hall pub in Georges Street Dublin would be a fine example of this traditional design.
4. Spontaneous Traditional Music Sessions
Stay a while in any traditional Irish pub and you’re bound to witness that little bit of magic when somebody produces a fiddle and starts softly playing. Lo and behold, the next thing you see is someone else starting to strum a guitar.
Then from out of his pocket a big hairy chap will pull a tin-whistle and before you know it you’re listening to the best of music; music that can be as diverse as The Beatles to a few jigs and reels. While Siobhan sings a few songs you take a few sips from your pint, order another and soon you too are singing along in what you hope is perfect harmony. That’s part of the magic, just go with the flow.
5. The barman as a Father Confessor
Not many people are aware of this but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You see all Irish barmen are subject, priest-like, to the seal of the confession. Basically, this means if you tell them something, that’s it, it won’t go any further. If you go into any real Irish pub at about three in the afternoon, when it’s quiet and not busy you’ll notice the barman quietly hearing the confessions and innermost thoughts of one of the regulars. They will most probably be huddled, heads close together, one on one side and the other on the other side of the bar, and with muted voices, sins are confessed and penance dispensed.
Then a drink is bought and the age-old incantation of “sur you’ll have one yourself,” is muttered and everyone is happy. This ceremony is not to be confused with the traditional Cheltenham racing festival week, when of an afternoon and upon wandering into a pub, you might come across barman and customer huddled in the same conspiratorial position. Only this time they will likely be whispering racing tips, with no thought of sin or penance.
6. The black-art of pouring a good Guinness
We have already discussed the role of the good barman as Father Confessor — I include female bar staff in this gender neutral description, for I have heard of the existence of a few females filling this role; though I’ve yet to witness this myself.
But what makes a good barman great is his proficiency in the ancient and noble art of the two-part pour. The two-part pour refers to the delicate and refined task of pouring a pint of stout.
For any visitors to Ireland perhaps an explanation is needed here. You see stout is the generic term for the black beer-like nectar with the creamy head; Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish being considered the holy trinity. It takes years and years of practice to achieved proficiency at this skill.
After learning at the feet of a master pint-puller, the now trained barman will be awarded the accolade of “Your-man there pulls a good pint.” Many Irish pub regulars have often witnessed the tears of joy emanating from a newly qualified barman when he hears this for his first time.
To watch an expert two-part pour satisfies all the senses. First a clean and polished pint glass, proudly bearing the name and logo of the particular stout, is offered to the tap.
Then the glass is tilted to the perfect angle (45°) and the tap pulled to the horizontal, there might be a slight tuning of the flow at this stage.
The glass is filled three-quarters, then the pint is left stand to slowly turn from cloudy brown to the deepest black.
While this transubstantiation is taking place — Guinness recommend a standing time of 119.5 seconds — the good barman will not engage the customer in conversation, but will instead allow his client the privacy to enjoy that special moment of solitary contemplation while gazing into a glass of heavenly clouds as they slowly become engulfed by a rising tide of purest black.
A magical moment indeed; only to be outdone as the pint is topped off with a creamy head and presented gently to its proud recipient. Hah! And they talk of the Japanese tea ceremony — that’s not a patch on the pulling of a decent pint.
7. Sports and racing on TV
The 31st of December 1961 saw the first broadcast of Ireland’s national broadcasting station; since that date, the debate on whether TV’s in Irish pubs is a good thing or not has been argued the length and breadth of the country.
Some hold the opinion that the pulsating box on the shelf is nothing short of the work of the Devil. They would say that television and the blaring of “foreign” music and sit-coms inhibit the natural flow of the “talk” and craic to be found in a true Irish pub.
Those who hold with this opinion are not only in the majority but they are also so, so, right, it does. The true Irish publican in a true Irish pub will always get the balance right.
Yes, you will have a — normally a substantial flat-screen — television, or perhaps two or even three strategically placed sets on the walls. But these will be muted and with rolling subtitles in order that the afternoon clientele may keep abreast of the running order and odds of the cross-channel racing, watch how these sports addicted sippers nip in and out to the always adjacent bookies.
A good Irish pub will usually have a betting office as a neighbour. On big match days, especially in Munster and Leinster, the muted TV’s come into their own as the sound is turned up and the atmosphere becomes electric when the game kicks off. With the roars and shouts as an anxious crowd spur on their home team, some say and they are probably right “it’s better than being at the match.” Well, at least you’re warm and sipping a pint.
8. The Smoking Ban and its legacy
Ireland was the first country in the world to ban smoking in pubs. As the clock struck midnight on the 28th of March 2004, that was it. Most people said that it would never work, that the Irish would flaunt this new law as they flaunted many others in the past.
“It’s not workable they cried, who’s going to enforce it?” they asked. But it did work, nobody smoked in pubs. And from that moment on a new subculture was born; that of the smoking area. The Pub Smoking Area is not just particular to Irish pubs, in fact
as more and more countries followed the Irish lead they too incorporated smoking areas into their bars. But the Irish really excelled at it.
Perhaps it’s the cold or too much of the Blarney, but the Irish pub’s smoking area is one of the best locations in the world for meeting members of the opposite sex and — well basically chatting them up. Many lasting relationships have started as complete strangers, temporarily separated from their pack are forced to unite and battle against the elements in half-roofed outhouses.
Relationships often begin when thrown together for a quick smoke, conversations continue, taxis home are shared and love stories begin in an Irish pub’s smoking area. Thank God for the Public health (Tobacco) act of 2004, and that’s all I have to say on that subject.
9. The Snug
The snug, unfortunately, is a quickly disappearing feature of Irish pubs. Although many city center establishments still proudly maintain these small intimate rooms normally located just inside the front door and accessed from the porch or lobby.
These private little rooms — room is too strong a word — came into existence to cater for those who wished to imbibe privately or even perhaps secretly. During the fifties and even well into the sixties it was frowned upon for women to enter pubs and drink. In fact, many pubs, even those owned by women wouldn’t serve females.
The Parish Priest and local guard were also among those who might wish to nip into the snug for a quick-one without the world and its mother knowing their business.
Snugs were a cleverly designed feature. As I said they were traditionally accessed from a vestibule, would have had frosted glass windows to the street outside and a small serving hatch to the bar from where one could order a drink in anonymity. Nowadays the need for surreptitious drinking is long gone and you will find the snug used for the committee meetings of the local chess club or perhaps by the hard-pressed university student trying to cram for an exam while quenching a thirst. Fine examples of the snug can be seen in many Irish pubs, notably: The Crown in Belfast, Ryan’s of Parkgate Street Dublin and my own local South’s of Limerick.
10. To eat or not to eat
When I began my love affair with the Irish pub — way back in the eighties — you would have been lucky to find a pub that served much more than drink and the odd packet of Taytos (potato crisps if your either young or foreign,) or occasionally a toasted ham and cheese sandwich grilled in a plastic bag then thrown at you by a surly barman, and that’s if you were in an upmarket and classy joint.
Those days are gone. Now the Irish pub is recognised as one of the best locations to be served up a scrumptious lunch or a gourmet dinner. But all is not lost, however, there still is a cohort of hardened aficionados of Irish pubs that hold hard to the belief that “eating is cheating,” and takes away from quality drinking time. And in fairness they may have a point… or should that be pint!