The Irish Pub, The English Pub, and The Working Man’s Bar

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James rang the doorbell of the Hacienda. It had been three years and 3000 pints of Guinness since he did so last. He waited, wondering if it was too early. The Hacienda opened on the dot of eight. He watched as a cloud of dust escaped from the canvas duffel bag he dropped on the floor, too tired to hold it one more second. 

As the dust was swallowed by the air and then his breath, Callum opened the door. It had been three years and 3000 pints of Guinness since he’d last seen Callum. His dark glasses poked out first from behind the door, followed by a genuine, wide smile. The smile lasted a few seconds. The back slapping embrace lasted longer. James took his last look at the fading daylight. The Hacienda’s Spanish finish, its stucco wall plastering, brown sash windows, and tiled red concrete, and lean-to pitched roof all twinkled invitingly as the sun went down and the yellow street lights switched on. James took a breath and stepped in. 

It was already beginning to fill up. He’s forgotten that if you were a regular, the 8pm opening time was merely a suggestion. Callum would open the doors at 11am if he thought you needed it. Margo sat in the corner arguing about the last pool game she played. She always argued. This time, James had no idea who she was arguing with. 

Connor, Jack, and Drew sat at the bar, pints in hand, laughter in full swing. There were two other people standing with them, nodding along. He also had no idea who they were. He started his greetings, knowing each one would take up a large part of the night. He knew he had to do it, but tonight he just wanted to listen. It had been a long time since he’d heard the soft rumblings of the intro to Molly Malone. The Stooges were playing on the jukebox, remixed with the sounds of a pool cue making quick contact with a stripe or a solid. 

He thought his first pint would feel like taking a breath after being underwater for a few seconds too long. He was wrong. In that first breath, there’s urgency, fear, and an instinct to take in everything. In his first sip, there was comfort, familiarity, and the desire to enjoy it slowly. 

His next stop would be Johnnie Fox’s, where he’d order a seafood chowder - the best seafood chowder he’s ever had in his life, despite trying many others in the three years he’d been traveling. After Johnnie Fox’s, he’d go to The Gravediggers. He’d sneak into the snug and enjoy the best damn cheese toastie before calling it a night. 

Throughout his journey - from the grey-paved streets of Columbia that sparkled with four-floor apartment buildings on either side that still, somehow, appeared quaint, each painted a different bright color - blue, yellow, pink with mandala patterns - to the dusty, gravelly township streets of Cape Town, he’d longed to end his day off in a pub. 

He didn’t always know everyone, not here in Dublin. His Da knew everyone in his village of West Cork. When he walked into O’Regan’s Pub, he could greet everyone by name. They would have been together just a few hours ago, beer in one hand, fishing rod in the other, boat underneath them. They would have been together at the weekend too, camped out on the shores of Chleire Haven.

In Dublin, they had more options. Maybe he’d also go to The Brazen Head tonight. Some say it had been a tavern house all the way back in 1198, although nobody has been able to prove this. For now, he’d listen, talk, drink, and then go get his chowder and toastie. 

For the Working Man, Irish Pubs Were Another Hearth and Home.

In Ireland, pubs, short for public house, are a pillar of the community. It’s where you meet your neighbors, your friends, and strangers. It’s where you eat some of the best pies you’ll ever try, where potatoes are a staple in nearly every dish. It’s where you’ll talk, a lot, and drink even more. The beers and Jamesons flow freely. In some pubs, the songs will only come later in the evening, in others, the songs start the evenings off. It’s like this every night too. There is no weekend at the pub. They’re all here, all the time. Like your family that’s sure, secure, and unwavering. Been here since before you were born, will stay when you head off to find yourself, and will be there long after you’re gone from this place too. Maybe. 

If you asked Beckett, Joyce, or Wilde, they’d tell you that they could only draw inspiration when they were in pubs. Maybe Bono, Dolores O'Riordan, and Sinéad O Connor would say the same, albeit in a later era.

Pubs were meant for working-class folk, and many people had two or three locals that they go to regularly. In rural Ireland, the church, the football club, and the pub were the cornerstones of social life. For hundreds of years, pubs only served alcohol. In the 20th century, when the British decided to outlaw pubs, owners turned to creative ways to keep their establishments open. They became grocery stores, restaurants, hardware stores, and even undertakers. Some country pubs still wear this jack-of-trades hat. 

1000 years. That’s how long they say Irish pubs have been around. Sean’s Bar, in Athlone, County Westmeath, is said to be the oldest pub in the country. Some architectural investigations state that it was established around 900 AD. Antique coins and wattle and wicker found in the walls date as far back as the 17th century, but nothing has yet been found to indicate that it’s been around for more than a millennium.

From the Snug to the Bug, Traditional Irish Pubs Have Evolved, But the Future is Uncertain.

Pubs have had to change with the times often, having been through world wars, revolutions, successful fights for independence, and feminism. For most of the pub’s existence, women couldn’t enter one—or they were relegated to a section of the bar called the snug. Before the 1960s, Irish pubs were for men. Not a damned woman in a sight, and let’s keep it that way, people thought. Out of sight didn’t mean out of the bar, though. When you walk into a pub in Ireland, have a look at the bar. You see that small, screened off room attached to it? That’s the snug. It’s where the women drank. Out of sight, but drink in hand. The locks gave the patrons inside total privacy. The small window allowed them to order drinks without being seen.

Fast forward to March 2004. Women are now a staple of pub life, but something else is about to change. The Irish government will ban smoking indoors. This law, along with drunk-driving laws, high taxes, higher VAT, and local regulations left many pubs with few options but to shut their doors for good. The more popular pubs stayed afloat, but with developers knocking on their doors, even those are threatened. Especially now, with large scale lockdowns throughout the country.

The city pubs would be okay. Dublin’s population would keep them in business. Outside of Dublin, more than 1500 pubs closed between 2007 and 2015. In 2020, pubs were shut for most of the year, for obvious reasons. To stay open, pubs in rural areas need to be making around $9,000-$10,000 a week. Before the pandemic, there were around 7000 pubs in Ireland, with over 750 of them in Dublin. When all this is over, many of these pubs too will have shut their doors for good. 

We don’t know what the future holds for Irish pubs. The Republic went into the new year in lockdown and since the number of Coronavirus cases continues to increase, it doesn’t look like the pubs will be opening anytime soon.

England’s Pubs Have Experienced a Renaissance, But Also a Changed Definition.

Surprisingly, the situation in England is slightly different. The financial crisis saw the number of pubs fall almost 25% from 51,000 to only 39,000 between 2009 and 2019. However, after 2019, for the first time in a decade, pub numbers started rising. Microbreweries have gotten more popular and, while supermarket and flat developers have been scouring the streets trying to lure pub owners into selling—with big cheques and various promises, many have remained steadfast in their desire to maintain a semblance of the old pub culture. 

After 2020, it’s all going to look vastly different—possibly akin to the financial crash. We won’t know until things start fully opening again, but the back and forth between the feast and famine of cities opening up prematurely and going back into lockdown is like a tug-of-war. Pubs stock up to reopen and have to let go of the stock when things close again. 

Despite the 2009-2019 drop, the number of jobs in pubs actually increased. In the 70s, pubs started adding food to their menus—pies, fish and chips, and sandwiches. When the financial crisis upended the world, pubs in England evolved again—adding more food options to their menu. 

They employed chefs and more staff, and essentially, pubs became restaurants/bars. These days, pub food isn’t just on-the-go-grub. You can get tasty, restaurant-quality food without leaving a bar stool. 

This extends all the way to the countryside, for example: to a Terry Pratchett loving pub in Huby, York. The Mended Drum was first called The Star. In 2009, it was about to be demolished and turned into a block of flats or maybe a mall. One of those gentrified pieces of real-estate. A concerned citizen purchased the building and started the renovations, which took more than two years. 

The goal was to preserve that history and feel of an old pub but modernize it to attract new people and keep the regulars. The pool table, dart board, and dominoes attract the gamers, the restaurant attracts the families, and the community vibe attracts everyone in the village.

We’ll still have the chains of Sam Smiths running through the country—filled with university students drinking cider and dipping their fingers in scampi fries and pork scratchings. Can we still call the contemporary-designed, shipping container bars popping up in Birmingham, South London, and Bristol, pubs? What makes a pub? Is it the sense of community and familiarity? Is it the age of the building and how long it’s been around? 

The Mended Drum isn’t one of those, but it’s not the pubs they talk about going home to in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, which were filled with cigarette smoke, hours of banter, and only three different beers to pull—each of which had a tribe of loyal patrons. There are more options now, a different clientele, and some might say the pub—the real pub—is gone. Others will say that it’s just changed - like it did 1000 years ago and 200 years ago and 70. The pub has always changed—it’s part of what a pub is. That’s what’s kept it alive for so long. 

And you, my friend?

Many Americans remember Sam Malone’s Cheers bar lovingly, even as they remember how it started downhill after Sam sold it to the Lillian Corporation which put it under the management of that gold digger Rebecca Howe. It was a place where ‘everyone knew your name’. Where a working man, of any profession, could go to think, rest, and exchange ideas after putting in a shift. The warm, refreshing dream of the pubs of Ireland and England migrated to all corners of the world. 

Do you have a local? Is it still there, or do you remember its passing with sadness? Has it changed much? What’s the story of your pub, or the best thing you remember about it?

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Cael Woolward

The days are filled with research, the dark nights with terrors—or at least the terror of writing. It started in Cape Town, but now happens in Danang, where a journalism graduate brings stories to life, one phở chay and cà phê đen đá at a time.

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