A lot of lyrical waxing has been done about the Irish pub, about the intangible qualities that make it a superior night-time venue.
The word ‘craic’ is mentioned a lot. Before I write the word ‘craic’ again, I know there are people who maintain that the reverse-Gaelic spelling of the English word ‘crack’ is an abomination that should be punishable by near ‘Saudi’ methods, but for the purposes of this article, it will be spelled ‘craic’.
Anyway, people who moan about the spelling of craic are ‘no craic’ — it’s axiomatic.
But it’s not just about the craic. The trad session, a man in the corner hunched over a squeeze box with a pint on the table and another stored somewhere in his beard, playing Planxty’s ‘Modem’ and the ‘Ghost Estates of Tullamore’, has its place, but it is not integral.
It’s three other things.
The first two are lighting and seating. Irish pubs are dark, thus allowing the kind of anonymity you need for the shared experience. You see pubs and cafes in places like Spain that are so bright, drinking in them feels like sneaking a few sups out of a bottle of harp in a grand-aunt’s kitchen, after a removal on a summer’s night in 1988.
The seating is generally comfortable. Some English pubs will have too many high chairs or eschew seating completely, perhaps to facilitate fights between squaddies and supporters of a football team from a grim North Sea town. I generalise, of course, but it’s always good to generalise.
The third element may surprise you: the television. People underestimate the importance of having a telly in an Irish pub. Not too many, mind. American bars have so many it’s like drinking in Curry’s.
The optimum amount of televisions is two or three. If there are no televisions, then the place will be invaded by millennial types, like me, seeking ‘authenticity’. But what you need to know about authenticity is that it’s really rare and when you go looking for it, past experience tells it to retreat in fear, like a corncrake.
We take our pub television-watching seriously here. I was in one of Dublin’s saltier pubs, years ago. A shouting man burst in holding six cans of some brand of an awful, laundered ethanol concoction called the Hound’s Hole, or something. The man was wearing a coat with nothing underneath it. He was told to whisht by the patrons, as they were watching The Late Late Show.
But there are also beautiful moments. At some point last Wednesday night, in my local, six or seven ould lads paused and watched the music — not a fella in the corner with a creamy moustache, but the Best of Top of The Pops, 1964-1975, on BBC Four. If you’re not familiar with BBC Four, it’s a TV station for adults who still have attention spans. There are no text-polls or reality-TV shows. They seem to show admirable lack of interest in what the public thinks. It shows programmes and expects you to watch them.
As the music from their childhood filled the place, the ould lads were lost in quiet reverie, mouthing the words of The Kinks, Queen, or the Three Degrees: “When will I see you, agaiiiin?” and looking at Mick Jagger mourning the fact that “they don’t make them like that any more.”
Occasionally, an ould lad would break the spell. Stealer’s Wheels came on. “Here I am, stuck in the middle with … youse two bollixes” said one ould lad cackling. But mostly they were silent. The craic was not mighty — just right.
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