A Pint of Plain

Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub

by Bill Barich

Walker, 242 pp., $25

There are lots of reasons people go to pubs: to get blotto, watch sports on TV, find someone to date. But the best reason to be in a pub is that you're with your friends.

Those of us who enjoy a good pint know that moderate drinking--say, three pints in an evening--makes you happier and eager to start up discussions with someone who would be a stranger if he wasn't sitting on the next barstool. I've had all sorts of conversations, with everyone from archaeologists to film historians, that I never would have had if I didn't like beer.

The Irish have long understood that conversation is the best reason to go to the pub. They even have a term for it: craic (pronounced "crack"). When you're spending the evening sitting next to a crackling fire having a really good discussion, with hand-pulled pints of Guinness fueling the argument, then the Irish would say that you're having "good craic." Throw in a band playing traditional Irish melodies, and you've had a really fine evening. Craic, however, is something that is easy to want and hard to find. Bill Barich, an experienced American author of books on horseracing and California who now lives in Dublin, has spent an entire book trying to discover the perfect Irish pub. This excellent, elegiac book shows that far too many Irish pubs aren't what they once were. The city pubs have succumbed to tourism and tackiness. And stringent drunk-driving laws, he argues, have doomed nearly all Irish country pubs to closure.

Barich explains that, when he was in college, he survived the winters in upstate New York by heading to Manhattan as often as he could. There he "wallowed in the beery charm of such iconic spots as McSorley's Old Ale House or P. J. Clarke's, and pretended I'd fetched up on the Auld Sod. The word 'Irish' soon acquired a special meaning for me. It stood for talk, drink, laughter, fun, and a release from ordinary cares."

The Irish pub, Barich explains, is an international marketing concept that you're as likely to find in Dubai or Shanghai as you are in Dublin or Cork. You can't bottle or export craic, but all the pieces of an Irish pub are available for sale. Diageo, the corporate parent of Guinness, can't actually sell you a pub, since in many countries (including the United States) it's illegal for breweries to own bars. But they're happy to sell the "Irish Pub Concept Business Plan," a $500 marketing manual that includes handy references to companies that can supply everything from Irish bric-a-brac to visa-approved Irish workers. And once you're ready to build your pub, Guinness will happily send you to the Irish Pub Company, which builds pubs in every style from Country Cottage to Victorian Dublin to Traditional. (Their most successful outlet, Barich reports, is the Nine Fine Irishmen pub in MGM's New York-New York Hotel in Las Vegas, which has grossed as much as $14 million a year.)

But what of the original pubs which have spawned these global copies? Barich spends much of his book visiting pubs both in Dublin and in the country. The better-known ones in Dublin, he found, were more often than not filled with tourists, many of whom were sent by the energetic authors of the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide travel books who steer the traveler to bars offering "authentic Irish experiences." But these pubs, too expensive for most Irish drinkers, are about as authentic as Mama Leone's or Sardi's in Manhattan. The tourists, says Barich, often end up just seeing other tourists, and then consume Guinness at five euros a pint.

These downtown Dublin pubs, says Barich, often boast of their tenuous connection with great Irish authors. They love to festoon their walls with portraits of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, even though Yeats rarely drank and Joyce switched to red wine as soon as he could afford to. A better role model for the literature-loving drinker, writes Barich, is Flann O'Brien, who wrote such comic surrealist novels as The Third Policeman, a zany tale whose sales soared after the castaways on Lost were seen reading it. You can still visit most of O'Brien's haunts but you probably won't run into any struggling writers in them.

Barich also spends some time discussing country pubs. Of course, the most famous Irish country pub was the imaginary one featured in John Ford's classic film The Quiet Man. According to Barich, Ford convinced the money men to fund his project when, on an exploratory trip to the remote village of Cong, Ford saw an ancient thatched-roof cottage and began bawling like a baby.

"This is the house where I was born," Ford cried, and got the financiers to open their checkbooks. (Ford, of course, was actually born in Maine.) The Quiet Man, Barich writes, is emblematic of "Fairytale Ireland," the remote country villages many of us dream about living in. These villages still exist, says Barich, but the pubs are ailing because of Ireland's drunk-driving laws, which are far tougher than comparable American laws. Since you can't drive to a pub any more, Irish country pubs can only sell beer to people who can walk home--which, for remote villages, means not very many potential customers. Many Irish country pubs have closed, and the survivors have severely limited their hours of operation.

So is the Irish pub now just a marketing concept? Not quite, Barich says. There are still a few worth going to, but they're hard to find, and very far off the tourist trails. A Pint of Plain is an elegy for a vanishing Ireland.

Martin Morse Wooster, senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is the book reviewer for Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and American Brewer.

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