Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Irish Pub
Paddy Foley´s Irish Pub. Schandauer Straße 55, 01277 Dresden, Germany

I'm just back from a trip to Ireland, which was wonderful in a lot of ways and a bit worrisome in some others. One worrisome thing was the state of the Irish pub.

The Irish pub is something of a cliche here in America. Literally thousands of corporate and not-so-corporate bars play to the image of the Irish pub as the beating heart of the community; the center of boozy sociality and fun. I once worked for a man who made a fortune supplying bric-a-brac for these and similarly themed bars.

But there was a truth behind the stupid cliches: pubs in Ireland were often vital social centers for the communities in which they resided. Being in and participating in the din of conversation in a smoky, too-warm pub with a pint in front of you was always one of the highlights of any trip to Ireland.

But Ireland and its pubs have undergone many changes since I was there last in the mid-nineties. Ireland is, decidedly, part of Europe now. The economic boom I saw happening then has busted, and there has been a further boom and bust in the real estate market. Ireland is no longer a country remarkable for being mostly empty and is no longer remarkable for the number of its younger people working abroad. Those younger people stayed home in the nineties to take advantage of the economic good times, and after that prospects elsewhere were hardly sunnier than prospects at home.

The population, which had stayed at about three million for decades, is now steadily closing in on five million. The change is most obvious in Dublin, which has become a truly expensive cosmopolis, but every county in the Republic is seeing substantial rises in population.

I've lived in and visited many bustling towns--New York City, Philadelphia, London--but today's Dublin may well take the cake as the most harried-feeling of them. This is indicative of some great changes in Irish culture, but also of some lingering elements of the old Ireland.

One reason why Dublin is so harried is that the people seem to want to live up to their self-image of Dublin as a modern, bustling "world city." But another reason seems to be that the Irish feel that their current economic difficulties and austerity are their just deserts for having so enthusiastically embraced Mammon. Guilt is a far stronger current in Ireland's response to the economic travails of the last 15 years or so than America's. To be harried and hurried is a sort of ritual penance for having enjoyed wealth, for having central heat, for having borrowed money, for having used a credit card, for having eaten pate.

This guilt, played upon pretty nakedly by the government's "get working" campaign, shows how, in some ways at least, the new Ireland isn't so different from the self-hating Ireland of the past. (Irish self-hatred, while not a big part of the cliche-Ireland we see so often, is an absolute fixture of Irish literature and cinema.)

In the pubs, though, change is obvious. Older locals--the former beer-soaked, urine-smelling centers of neighborhood sociality--are now beer-soaked, urine-smelling centers of not much. Young folk don't frequent the locals as their elders did before them. This is partially because there are so many young folk around (the 15-30 cohort is significantly larger than, say, the 35-50 cohort), that they have developed a pretty strong generational consciousness. This big cohort also coincided with a number of great changes in Ireland--the growing realization that Ireland could be part of Europe, and not just a former part of the decaying British Empire; and the growing realization that Ireland need not be poor and backward, that Ireland could be a place where others came seeking opportunity, not the place that supplied cheap labor to construction crews in London and Irish-themed pubs in America.

Forgoing the traditional pub is, apparently, part and parcel of becoming the new Ireland. But the new Ireland is a bit soul-less, and, in many ways seems to partake a little too strongly of the guilt and self-hatred of the old Ireland. Slavishly becoming more European or more American upper-middle-class is really little better than slavishly becoming more English. In fact, in some respects worse.

The old Irish pub that I knew--with Guinness and strong lager as the near-exclusive beverages, with damn-near everyone smoking, with windows shut against fresh air (known in Ireland as a "draft) with a universal and absolute determination--was hardly a paradise. And it wasn't really "traditional" if what you mean by that is unchanging. The lager of the 80s and 90s was a change made in response to changing consumer preferences, as were the video game machines, the televisions, the formal music events, etc. etc.

The pub as vital social institution always meant that the pub changed with the society around it. And while Irish society pre-1990 changed more slowly than it seems to now, it was not unchanging. But the rate of change does now seem to be overwhelming the old institution, and some of the changes happening inside of pubs seem to be mitigate against its social role in a way that, say, the introduction of lager did not.

Can a genuine & distinctive entity know as an Irish Pub survive when the TV is omnipresent and always on? Can it survive when loud music makes conversation impossible? Can it survive when there is so little distinctive or communal about it? Can it be reinvented to fulfill more or less the same social role in a new social setting?

I've ordered a (seemingly pretty pessimistic) book called A Pint of Plain by Bill Barich on the history & decline of the Irish pub to help me along toward answering some of these questions and I'll be posting more here as soon as it arrives.