Bar closures - Pubs are a part of our social capital

TIME was that inheriting a pub was nearly as good as inheriting a farm — though neither was as enviable as inheriting a Dáil seat.

Farmers have endured a few very hard years though things have improved. Projections surrounding the world’s growing food needs suggest that farms of a certain scale might provide good incomes though the sector’s ongoing battle with major retailers is still a cause for concern across rural Ireland. However, the future of the small family farm is as uncertain as it ever was.

The February election saw a few political dynasties come to an abrupt end even though many political representatives can point to forefathers who once sat in the seats they fill today.

Of the three groups publicans have faced the greatest change. In very many cases inheriting the family bar is now almost a liability. Obligations to family or community make inheritance a heavy burden for very many reluctant publicans. Recession, the smoking ban, supermarkets using alcohol as a loss leader and a new attitude to drink driving make that challenge more than daunting, especially for a small, family-run pub. Very many publicans have thrown in the towel, still more are struggling to keep their doors open. Only a tiny minority earn incomes commonly enjoyed a decade ago.

Every high street, town and parish has its ghost pubs, shuttered and empty shells that once anchored the social life of the community that lived or worked around it. They are almost a metaphor for our times; once so lucrative we thought they’d never see a bad day but now closed and becoming dilapidated eyesores.

For all the terrible tragedy they brought to those — and their families — who could not control their drinking the pubs of Ireland played a huge role in the lives of so many of us. It was where we met acquaintances and turned fleeting relationships into lifelong friendships; it is where the kernels of great community ideas were first aired and later consolidated. It is where many of us met our partners. They may not have been central to our lives but if used responsibly they usually enhanced it.

Now the survival of the Irish pub is not at all assured and the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) is leading a campaign to make our pubs as alive and viable as they once were. This is a response to a 10.5% fall in bar sales last year, bringing the fall since 2008 to 25%.

Even if we have become more alert to the threat of alcohol it would be a tragedy for our culture, a culture that so celebrates social interaction, if we continue to lose local pubs. The consequences of this can be seen all over rural England or France where meeting places once taken for granted have vanished to the detriment of the community. So much so villages have often come together to try to save what is seen as a part of the community’s social capital. We may not be at that point just yet but we’re not far off. Though they are run as businesses, and despite the ravages of alcoholism, Ireland would be a far poorer place without the local pub. They are worth saving.

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