Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Praise of the Irish Pub

An Spailpín Fánach discovered a very beautiful coffee table book in Hodges Figgis' very beautiful bookshop on Dawson Street, Dublin, this afternoon. It’s called The Irish Pub, it’s written by the gloriously named Turtle Bunbury, the photographs are by James Fennell, and the book is a tripartite paean, homage and lament for the traditional Irish pub.

They once were everywhere, and now they’re slowly winking out one by one, as lifestyles change with the times. Gaughan's was the greatest I ever knew, and it's only a memory now for drinkers of the sweet, strong porter in the great town of Ballina.

However. An Spailpín notices something that Turtle and James have not. They have left out one vital feature of the Irish pub, a feature so vital that An Spailpín Fánach would even go so far as to suggest it disqualifies the pictures from being representative of an Irish pub at all.

The pictures are nearly all empty. There are no people in them. What earthly use is an empty pub?

The late, great folk singer Frank Harte contended that a song only exists in its singing. When it is written down or recorded it is a record of the song, but it is not the song itself. The song’s essence is missing.

So to with the pub. James Fennell’s photographs are beautiful and Turtle’s prose suits the style of the pictures but dear hearts, gentle people, these are just rooms. They could just as easily be photographs of the clean room at Intel or the statues at Easter Island. Beautiful rooms, beautifully photographed, but my God, you couldn’t associate them with anything we associate with actual pubs.

What is a pub without people? It’s just a room. It’s the combination of good people and strong booze and maybe a bit of music and that ineffable, inexplicable something called – hateful but expressive word! – craic that makes pubs.

A pub isn't architecture or Atlantic spray or celtic mists. Irish pubs are people. Without the people, there are no pubs. And that’s why the pubs are dying. Because people are not going to pubs as they did before, and that whole pub culture is dying out.

An Spailpín has stood at the counter of five of the pubs listed in Irish Pubs. The Long Hall or the Stag’s Head I can take or leave alone. Neither is a particular favourite.

An Spailpín was in Dick Mack’s in Dingle – opposite the church – only once, on the best organised stag night in the history of gentlemen on tour. I would gladly go back, and ever time I hear Philip King on the radio talking of the south wind blowing down there I feel the need to get in the car and follow the flight of the sun.

Galway Tigh Neachtain’s is a bar I was often in. The late Ronnie Drew bought a friend and me drinks in there, once, when all the world was young. I get teased about it but the teasers can bite me. A memory to take to the grave, to warm the cold clay. Tigh Neachtain’s is a great bar.

And Leonard’s of Laherdane is another. I don’t think I ever drank in it myself, but I remember being in there with an uncle once, experiencing a vignette of the Irish pub life that is now gone. As soon as we came in the door my uncle was hailed by another old man.

“Warrior with the thresher!” said the man at the bar, for my uncle was just that, and had a brother who lost a finger to the same thresher as they toured the roads of Mayo threshing for the neighbours. They sat at the bar, smoking woodbines and drinking whiskey. I salute them, and their memory, for their likes will not be here again.

FOCAL SCOIR: In the light of foregoing, people may have the impression that An Spailpín favours the opening of the bars in Limerick on Good Friday. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The bars opening in Limerick is a disgrace.

An Spailpín likes a drink, but he knows when to stay home too. This country is drowned in drink, and to have two days in the year when the bars are closed doesn’t seem a whole lot to ask. These publicans, in Limerick and elsewhere, who will be open on Good Friday sound like men that would park a chip van at the foot of the cross, and sell Hawaiian burgers to the Roman legion. They all ought to be ashamed of themselves.

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