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raising the bar

The secret of a perfect pub: How bars in Ireland are designed to create great nights out

We spoke to the people behind some of Ireland’s most distinctive nightspots.

BACK IN 2006, Paul McNulty was visiting Paris when he popped into Black Calavados, a restaurant-slash-bar owned by the late Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden.

Everything in the bar was black. Black ceilings, black tables, black chairs. “I was thinking, ‘Jesus, this looks cool,’” says McNulty.

The restaurant’s minimalist, pared-back look was reportedly influenced by Soundgarden concerts.

“Cornell’s idea was that when Soundgarden play, everything is a black backdrop and you just concentrate on the music, the lyrics and the show,” explains McNulty. “There’s no bells and whistles.”

A publican by trade, McNulty found himself influenced by Black Calavados. When he bought Cassidy’s and P Mac’s, two well-known pubs in Dublin city centre, he employed a similar look.

“I decided I wanted everything to be black and to have chunky tables and mismatched chairs where people could congregate instead of separate,” he says.

Over a decade on from that visit to Black Calavados, McNulty now operates four pubs in Dublin – Cassidy’s, P. Mac’s, Blackbird and P Mac’s Dundrum – with a fifth on the way.

Each has a clearly defined aesthetic, something McNulty has worked on over the years. Think your granny’s house if it was populated with gothic candelabras.

You see, McNulty is one of a new breed of bar owners who place a heavy premium on design. That means creating striking interiors and coming up with unique concepts that will distinguish them from the rest of the pack and resonate with patrons.

“I design everything,” says McNulty. “Every candelabra, every table, every chair.”

“What I do is I shop around. I did up the bar in Dundrum recently so I spent six months in a van going around to different places buying a table here, a chair here, a dresser here.”

He describes himself as “obsessive” and draws inspiration from a variety of sources. For instance, recent viewings of The Shape of Water and The Assassination of Gianni Versace have already got him thinking about his next pub.

“I’m actually thinking of painting the whole place pink and just keeping it really simple. Like something you might see in Miami.”

Like McNulty, the owners of Drury Buildings looked further afield for inspiration.

Owners Declan O’Regan and Ronan Richardson wanted to bring a slice of the Big Apple to Dublin and traveled to New York to source pieces for the bar.

“We trawled the salvage yards to find big pieces and features,” explains Ronan Rogerson.

“The bar counter downstairs came out of a neighbourhood bar in Brooklyn. The brass windows and doors on the shopfront came from a house in New York.”

“The bar in the restaurant and private dining room are made from an old set of elevator doors, and the furniture was made from old church pews from Wales.”

They also invested in a slick beer garden that can make customers forget they’re even in Dublin.

“It’s more like you’re on holidays,” says Rogerson.”Sipping Spritz in a nice small Italian garden. That’s what it feels like.”

These features now serve as conversation pieces.

“There have been numerous occasions when we have been asked about the bar itself, the tiles, the name of the artist that did the front mural of Drury Buildings,” says Rogerson.

 In January, they gave the bar a facelift. This entailed changing the colour scheme, tweaking the lights, and investing in artwork from Irish and international artists.

“Building a place yourself means it’s a long term project,” says Rogerson. “We’re constantly trying to upgrade the venue experience for our customers”

This theme of evolution comes up with Trevor O’Shea, too. As founder of Bodytonic, O’Shea operates five venues in Dublin – The Bernard Shaw, Wigwam, MVP, The Back Page, and The Square Ball.

“Everything changes,” he says. “What worked for a space five years ago might not now. For example, 5-10 years ago we might have only thought about music and dancing space. Now it’s more so food, drinks, table service, what areas are for dancing, what areas are for talking, baby changing facilities.”

As such, O’Shea puts great thought and consideration into each space.

“I have a lot of ideas all of the time. Tonnes of notes, tonnes of bits and bobs around the place. Beautiful Mind-style.”

“Some ideas – the best ones – come to you really fast. Others take time. You mull them over, let them fester and breathe a bit.”

These ideas can strike from anywhere.

For instance, the idea for MVP’s interiors came after O’Shea happened to hear an interview with one of the founders of the blog Come Here To Me.

The Back Page, meanwhile, was only ever supposed to be a sports talk festival before it grew legs and was developed into its own venue.

Each of the pubs have their own distinct remit, but they each share a common look and feel, something O’Shea has honed and refined over the years. Just call it the Bodytonic aesthetic.

“I hope our style is very Irish. There’s a lot of fun in there, a bit of mischief. There’s a lot of thought and heart in there, too. We think about it a lot, or sometimes we don’t think about it at all, just do it.”

“Above all, there’s a lot of perseverance and patience. I know we won’t always get it right, and it takes time for our designs and ideas to make sense sometimes. I’ve lost count of the amount of times people tell me, ‘I don’t get it…’ at the start of something, but they do in time.”

Over the years, O’Shea has worked with designers like Trevor Finnegan and Rachel Fingleton to bring his visions to life. But he’s not averse to changing things up if they’re not working.

“My approach is to constantly experiment and try different things. I’m okay with getting things wrong or making mistakes, once we learn from it and try again.”

For O’Shea, the winning formula for a good pub comes down to a good crew and good design. Both inform the other and help create something special.

“Nothing will replace what people create in a space. Your crew, your customers, the special vibe people create – that’s number one always. You can create that on a beach, in the Berghain or the Guggenheim. That said, design plays a crucial role in creating that atmosphere, in communicating a mood or feeling or mindset.”

“Design for us goes further than furniture and signs. It’s about the music playlist, the smells, the acoustics of the space. All those little details play a part in the design for us. If you create a fun environment and you design it well and evolve it when necessary – that’s what keeps people coming back.”

We’ll drink to that.

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