Eileen Lehane @Fitzpatricks Kilcrohane, Co. Cork, Ireland ©ejcarr/ejcphoto.com 2015
The Lost Art of the Irish Pub
By STEVEN KURUTZ
For a half-Norwegian guy from Long Island, Bill Barich knows a thing or two about Irish pubs.“A good pub is a place devoted to conversation, with drink as the lubricant,” Mr. Barich said oneevening last week. “In an American bar, the minute you finish your drink they say, ‘Do you wantanother?’ You’d never see that in a good pub.”
As it happened, he was drinking a pint of Bass and holding forth on the topic at the Kinsale Tavern, an Irish pub on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Mr. Barich, a writer, spent much of his adult life in California and set several of his books there,among them the horse racing classic “Laughing in the Hills.” But for the last eight years he haslived in Ireland, and the Kinsale felt like familiar turf.
“A great many pubs in Dublin would look like this,” he said, noting the numerous TVs tuned to soccer and the piped-in music. In fact, Mr. Barich has been in a great many pubs in the last two years, researching his new book,“A Pint of Plain” (Walker, $25), a rumination on Irish pub culture, if not a travelogue by way ofthe barroom. The book, his eighth, grew out of Mr. Barich’s own search to find a good local pubnear his home in Dublin, a personal goal that might seem to rank low on the difficulty scale in a country that has nearly 12,000 pubs and where Guinness was once promoted as a source of nutrition.
But finding a pub with the same low-key atmosphere and traditional décor as Pat Cohan’s, the country pub in John Ford’s film “The Quiet Man,” proved elusive. An early candidate, R. McSorley & Sons, had “a musty dignity that spoke of permanence,” as Mr. Barich writes, and antique bric-a-brac on the walls. But soon after he became a regular the pubwas sold and given a slick makeover by new owners, who told Mr. Barich that the old decorations were phony anyway — purchased for nostalgic effect.
And so it went. Some pubs were unresponsive to foreigners, or “blow-ins.” Others doubled as pickup spots or resembled sports bars, with 24-7 TV coverage replacing the joys of idle banter, pickup spots or resembled sports bars, with 24-7 TV coverage replacing the joys of idle banter.
Mr. Barich’s fascination with what he calls “fairy tale Ireland” surely complicated matters; the interior of the fabled Pat Cohan’s, which for many represents the quintessential Irish pub, was built on a Hollywood soundstage. But his hunt also revealed how Irish pub culture is changing with the society around it.
In years past, a pub was a family-run business, and the publican more than likely lived upstairs—an arrangement that created an intimacy across the bar. “A good publican is a person with character, concerned about the welfare of patrons,” Mr. Barich said. That a barman could aspire to one day own a pub himself made for a system of dues paying that also resulted in better service. But with trophy pubs now commanding as much as $8 million, a shift has been made to partnerships or corporations that may own and manage several bars. At the same time, more Irish are drinking wine, and drinking at home or in restaurants, chipping away at the socialrelevance of pubs.
The changes are most pronounced in the countryside, where verdant fields gave way to suburban sprawl in a period of rampant economic growth (now considerably tamed) known as the Celtic Tiger. The farmers who once treated rural pubs as community centers are selling off their fields, or else being frightened away from the barstool by strict drunken driving laws. “The loss of those country pubs signifies a huge change,” Mr. Barich said.It’s a transformation other Irish natives have noticed. Larry Kirwan, who sings in the New York based Irish rock band Black 47, said his hometown, Wexford, 85 miles south of Dublin, has more than 50 pubs, “and there’s only one where I can find that old tradition.”
The pub, Mary’s Bar, is basically one room and was run until recently by a now-deceased publican who was known to break out a harmonica and lead impromptu sing-alongs. In pubs like Mary’s, Mr. Kirwan said, “there’s almost a Talmudic sense of rules and conventions to be observed.” Chief among them is not getting overly plastered. “Nobody wants drunks in Irish pubs because they’re boring,” he said, “and the last thing you want to be called is boring.”
Instead, traditional pubs foster warmth and fraternity.
“For the couple of hours that you’re in there,” Mr. Kirwan said, “you mesh with this communityand your personal troubles are shed.”It’s these qualities that have made the Irish pub such a popular global export. You can scarcely goanywhere without seeing a Paddy Reilly’s or a Flann O’Brien’s, the shamrocks on the walls aspredictable as the Guinness on tap.
Some pubs model themselves on the Irish Pub Concept, a program sanctioned by the beverageconglomerate Diageo-Guinness USA that offers tips for authentic replication — for instance,adding “& Sons” to a name to convey history.
After many pints drunk on many barstools over the course of many evenings, Mr. Barich did turnup a few watering holes to rival Pat Cohan’s, notably a pub in Dublin north of the Liffey River andfar from the tourists called John Kavanagh, but better known as the Gravediggers.
Stepping inside, Mr. Barich was met by a wood bar that has been there since the 1830s, and apublican, Eugene Kavanagh, who lives above the business and is so devoted to his pub’s continuedexistence that he had been prepared to put it in a trust if none of his children wanted to take over.(It was unnecessary.)
“It’s not my job,” he told the writer. “It’s my life.”Naturally, Mr. Barich sat down and ordered a pint.
Originally published in the New York Times 2009