Alex Massie

The Decline of the Dublin Pub

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The Long Hall: photo by Flickr user inaki_naiz. Used under a Creative Commons License.

An important article in the New York Times on the decline of the traditional Irish pub. This is a serious matter and one that merits pondering. If there's any upside to present economic difficulty it lies in the hope - faint but real - that it may do in property developers and hucksters before it gets the rest of us. That is, that it may reduce the number of once-great pubs vandalised by ill-considered refits designed to attract a wealthier class of punter. The sort that drinks wine. And cocktails.

Temple Bar in Dublin was once a quaint little maze of record shops and independent clothes stores, speckled with interesting and honest boozers. Then Ireland became rich and Temple Bar became a "Quarter" and "Dublin's Left Bank" don't you know and everything was swanked up and trendified to appeal to tourists and present a dashing, sophisticated, modern Ireland to visitors. As a result every pub in the place was ruined. Sturdy, reliable boozers such as the Norseman and the Temple Bar itself were, in the former case, refitted as a hymn to cliche and, in the latter, extended to the point that a once charming, small bar lost all its character and charm. Others, like the Oliver St John Gogarty became hellholes, populated by packs of tourists there for the craic and conned into thinking raucous entertainment connoted authenticity.

Across the city the idea of the Irish pub began to change. One by one Dublin pubs began to reinvent themselves as facsimiles of the sort of ersazt-Irish pub you can find at Frankfurt Airport or in any one of a thousand cities around the world. The fake began to be seen as the real - hell, that's what the tourists were used to, right? - and so began to become the new real. There can't be a rusty ploughshare left on the island that hasn't been stuck up on a pub wall; likewise there's now an entire industry devoted to manufacturing all the paraphernalia you'd need to create your own plastic paddy pub. What began as a cute con - selling some bogus sense of Oirishness to foreigners - has rebounded upon the Irish as they've succumbed to this poison too. A cautionary tale, I dare say.

Even some of the best, grandest booze palaces have succumbed to the supposed demands of modernity, adding televisions or, worse, music. This is bad enough in the evening but utterly deplorable during the afternoon. Those are the times when one appreciates a degree of cathedral-like calm. A time for a quiet pint and a ham sandwich while one reads the newspaper. The lunchtime rush has faded, happily, leaving a moment of peace and quiet as the bar relaxes before girding its loins for the post-work crowd and then, later, the evening jam when it's cluttered with boisterous amateurs.

The afternoon session is the sweetest because it exists as stolen time; a kind of boozy twilight in which time seems both suspended and fleeting. It's too good to last but must be savoured, and delighted in, while it does.

So where's left? Well, despite losing some of its charm since it came under new ownership, the Stag's Head remains a prince amongst pubs. So too, in a different sense, is Mulligan's. And the Long Hall. And Kehoe's on South Anne St. Plus, as the NYT notes, the Gravediggers. It's been some time since I strolled down Baggott St, but I doubt Dohenny & Nesbitt's can have changed much and I hope Toner's has not. Back in the centre of town, Neary's on Chatham St remains one of the most under-rated pubs in the city and there's Grogan's of course, while I trust that Fallon's in the Liberties retains its simple charm.

But that's about it. So many of the others have been ruined. Sic transit gloria mundi and all the rest of it.

UPDATE: Commenter Seannachie observes, correctly, that Grogan's decor dates form the 1970s. True, but there's something odd and charming about the place anyway. It is, in its own way, a time capsule. And as he says Dublin pubs have fared better than, say, Galway bars. Also, he points out that, unaccountably, I failed to note that the NYT article is "unbelievable tosh, riddled with sentimental whimsy." That would be correct.

UPDATE 2: And yes, the smoking ban has had a terrible impact too.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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