A new book documents the history of the Irish pub, how times have changed it, and emerging challenges. Author Kevin Martin talks to Noel Baker
During our student days, not many of us got away with the line about how going to the pub was “research”. Not so for Kevin Martin.
The Westport man has just written a new book about the Irish pub called Have Ye No Homes To Go To? and explains that 20 years ago he actually wrote a master’s thesis on the cultural role of the pub in Irish society. Looking back, he didn’t feel his academic study did justice to the subject, and so he set off on his travels to right that wrong, write a book, and sup some Guinness (his preferred tipple) from a selection of the nation’s high stools.
“I just love pubs, as the centre of storytelling and Irish culture,” explains Martin, admitting that in his Canterbury Tales-style jaunt to different pubs, he was not necessarily looking at our relationship with alcohol, but more at the place that the pub occupies in communities, in towns and cities, and in our culture and society.
The book is an enjoyable romp through the ephemera and facts surrounding that most Irish of institutions, taking in the history of the temperance movement, special exemptions for early houses, the role of music in pubs, representations of bars in popular culture and even, in this year of years, the pub and its part in 1916 and all that.
It also looks at how, pre-Famine, the pub was as likely to have been patronised by women as by men, yet afterwards the Church exerted greater influence, meaning that up until the 1960s the Irish pub was overwhelmingly a male preserve, with women possibly permitted in the ‘snug’, if they were lucky.
In the beginning, it seems the Irish pub was homegrown. “What the Irish pub is predicated on historically in my argument is not the anglocentric model,” explains Martin. “In ancient Ireland, in Brehon times, every king had to have a brudan or a hostel, where people could get drink, food, and lodgings. It predates the English version of pubs. Then the next influence was the Normans, who had stores to store wine to bring to various lords, which in time became meeting places and taverns, tavern being a Norman word, from which we get Wine Tavern St in Dublin.”
Of course, over the past decade we have heard numerous warnings from vintners that the Irish pub is in danger of falling out of existence altogether, with the ravages of the recession, competition from off-licences, and changes to the law combining with the result that there are now fewer pubs than in previous decades.
“It has stabilised now,” says Martin. “There is an argument that publicans killed the goose that laid the golden eggs, that the prices were undercut by supermarkets, that the economy reflects that, but now the indications are that things are getting better.”
As for the pub at the rural crossroads, he says, “that day is gone — the rural pub will never regain its former glory”.
The changes in the laws on drink-driving, the smoking ban, issues over rural transport, and the increased urbanisation of Irish life has put the squeeze on the quintessential village bar, although some will still survive, believes Martin. “I travelled around the country and those doing best are the ones serving food, gastropubs. I spoke to one local publican and he said he now serves 60% food and 40% alcohol and that is a direct reversal in the last five years.
“But then Matt Molloys [a rightly famous pub in Westport run by the titular Chieftains member] does no food whatsoever, just teas and coffees, and is hugely popular.”
Experience tells us pubs with a ‘unique selling point’, to use that awful term, will always do well. Martin remarks how the era of the ‘superpub’ came and went, in what many predicted would be a short-time cycle, and that trends always emerge within the bar trade while others fall away.
Currently the explosion in craft beer production and consumption has resulted in some specialised bars opening up and changes to what is on offer in other established pubs, but only time will tell if it has longevity.
Martin admits to being “old-fashioned” about his own preferences when it comes to pubs, namechecking the superb and legendary Mulligans in Dublin as the type of bar in which he likes to spend his time. Elsewhere in the conversation he namechecks the equally legendary Cork City establishment the Hi-B, a hallowed room that has not changed all that much over the years and with a back story tied up with its owner, the great Brian O’Donnell.
Martin is quick to point out that while conducting his research, “I was not casting a critical eye on pubs, more on the people there and how they interacted and the role the pub plays in their lives”. Just as pubs have changed, so has the way in which we use them. We discuss how, in Coronation Street, the Rovers Return still seems to be the venue for afternoon lunch and pint just as much as it is the scene for evening time revelry and recrimination. This might not accurately reflect the reality of life in northern England, but the era of lunchtime pints in this country is certainly a thing of the past. “A lot of publicans would tell me that ‘it’s not worth my time opening during the day’, so they only open in the evening. The only people who might come in during the day tend to be the old timers.”
And yet, as our relationship with the drinking house morphs, the ‘Irish pub’ has become an international trope. No matter where you end up, chances are there’s an Irish (or not-so-Irish) bar in the vicinity. “It’s become a commodity, you can commodify anything,” says Martin. “There are good and bad versions of Irish pubs, a lot of them are sold as total products almost as though from factories. But you can’t argue with success — people in other countries still enjoy them.
“It’s largely set to date from a Guinness initiative from 1990 in North America to promote pubs, and one of the main specific points was Italia 90. There were so many Irish over there but few Irish pubs and they were completely oversubscribed. It was a good marketing strategy by Guinness.”
Pubs are a broad church, Martin argues, with “a place for everything”, including the old-style spirits and grocery bars that, for many, are the unchanging gold standard and one we cling to when we think of the faithful Irish pub.
But back to Martin’s studies. He references sociology and the discipline’s ideas of Mediterranean-style ‘integrated drinking cultures’ and our ‘ambivalent’ approach. “Ireland is generally called an ambivalent culture and in that culture we tend not to drink outside, not like Spain or Italy. we’re away from prying eyes, with small or half-covered-up windows.”
That sounds about right, particularly on the days when our Irish weather delivers something other than summer sunshine. Yet if Martin’s book proves anything, it’s that we have little ambivalence when it comes to affection for the pub.
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