Friday, September 13, 2013

The Irish Pub

First published (PUB-lished - ho, ho) in the Western People on Monday.

The trailer for a new documentary film about the Irish pub has just been released online. Movie trailers can often flatter to deceive, but this one looks like a gem.

The movie, called The Irish Pub, will be released on the fourth of October, and it documents and celebrates that cornerstone of Irish life that is the local pub. If we were Italians, we would perhaps drink thimbles of coffee while meeting our neighbours and discussing events of the day. France is noted for its street cafes, where the impossibly chic drink the impossibly expensive. But the Gael goes to the pub, for better or worse.

There are those whom drink doesn’t suit and are well advised to stay away from it. But for those who know that all things have their season the pub is a place of enchantment and wonder. If its time has passed, due to changes in culture, legislation or whatever else, we will have lost something of ourselves.

What is a pub, anyway? Is it just a place that sells drink that can be consumed on the premises? We have a notion that pubs in Ireland have been the same since old God’s time, but this isn’t true. The pub is like Gaelic football – always changing, and yet always remaining the same.

The lounge bar of the 1970s was the equivalent of the handpass in the football of that era. An interloper from another culture, designed to make the ancient pastimes more modern and appealing but interlopers that appear very strange now when we look back on them, either on TG4 Gold or bootleg boxsets of The Riordans.

In the 1970s, the lounge was as linked to the pub as the fig in the fig roll. You were very unlikely to find the one without the other. The lounge was for women or men who had washed themselves before the last full moon. The pub was for the rest of the populace. You turned left or right, according to your station in life, and drank fancy lager or old-fashioned beer and stout according to where you were.

Evolution has seen the lounge bars wither and die, and they are little mourned. The mixing of the sexes is to be encouraged and celebrated – we understand each other so little in the first place that we can’t get to know each other well enough, and a soft touch of the hard drop is great social lubricant. Unfortunately, the lounge bar, that used to be part of a pub, has mutated into an entity of its own.

It would be an insult to bars to call these places bars, as opposed to pubs. It would be more accurate to call them venues. And they’re all very well, if you like eating your dinner off a board, standing up with your arm curled around your drink to protect it, and my Lady Gaga blasting out of speakers in every blessed corner of the rom.

But don’t tell me you’re in a pub, because you really aren’t. Venues have their uses – not least of which is mopping up people who wouldn’t be much fun in a place that didn’t have enough mirrors for their needs – but pubs they’re not.

The establishments featured in The Irish Pub movie are not like this. Drawn from all over the country, including our own most excellent Leonard’s of Lahardane, with the bar on the left and the groceries on the right, the movie celebrates all that’s best about the Irish pub.

The trailer, which is only ninety seconds long, features soundbites from barmen and bar owners talking about their pubs. And they all understand that one fundamental thing about pubs that so many people don’t understand. Drink is important in a pub, of course, but it is the company that’s paramount.

There was a coffee-table book published a few years ago about the Irish pub, with lovely pictures of Victorian architecture in places like the Stag’s Head in Dublin or The Crown in Belfast. And that’s all fine, but you can’t really call a pub a pub unless there are people in it. Otherwise, it’s just a room, like any other.

For rural people, getting to the pub is an issue. It’s hard to get there and harder to get home but there is no good in sitting by yourself when the long winter draws in. We read soft chat in papers about buses for rural areas, but people don’t always realise just how expansive a route that would be. A helicopter might cover the catchment area, but I wouldn’t like to be the man or woman who has to valet the chopper after it’s been spinning people full of porter around Erris in the black dead of night, buffeted by winds from the broad Atlantic.

So why not try a bit of lateral thinking and introduce a bike-to-pub scheme, along the lines of the bike-to-work? The government pays half the price of the bicycle provided the buyer commits to using it for getting to and from the pub, where he or she may enjoy the social interaction that is unique to the culture. It would apply only in otherwise isolated rural areas where a reliable taxi service is an impossibility.

Of course, there are certain dangers inherent in cycling under the influence. The M4 is no place to be full of pints up on a bike with articulated lorries whizzing past. However, if a person were to keel over on a country road, the whitethorns and whins would first ease his fall, and then sober him up a biteen as the bushes did their thorny work. If anything, he or she would be better for the experience.

The bicycle, once so much a part of rural life, can return to the country lanes once more as the nation tops up with a few creamy ones after a hard day’s work and then cycles merrily home, bell tinkling all the way.