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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland/archive Portrait of the man enjoying a pint in his local in 1999

Lisa McInerney Time might be up for the rural pub - but I'll miss it

Changing consumption habits – driven by economics or social change – are shutting our locals. Should we care?

I WAS OUT the other night.

If you’re Irish, and you probably are, you’ll know there are different levels to going out in our fair land.

There’s ‘out’, where you pop along to the local hostelry for an alcoholic beverage and a game of pool on a listing table, and there’s ‘out out’, where you do exactly the same thing, only with make-up/’good shoes’ on. It was the latter for me.

A disclaimer: I’m from rural Ireland. So when I talk about ‘going out’, assume it’s to a small pub, the kind where everybody knows your name (or at least your father’s name) and where the jukebox  provides a generous choice between The Wolfe Tones and Metallica. While our urban cousins may have an array of artisan pubs, snazzy clubs and hipster hangouts to choose from, those of us left down the country have little in the way of options. To head out for the night may mean to the same establishment your parents frequented, and with the alternative being more along the lines of ‘Father Reilly’s Saturday night vigil’ than ‘bowling and a movie’, you see how important one’s small town local may be.

To state the obvious, Ireland has a drinking culture. We’re not unique in that sense, but even today our propensity for ceol agus craic defines us on the world stage. Many of us were brought up in the lounges of our locals, fed on packs of King or Tayto and purple snacks and bottles of Club Orange with four straws wedged in to sate as many siblings.

Pub culture of the 1970s and ’80s

There was a certain smell to the local, too. Not the one you’re smirking about, not the collective bowel complaints of every farmer in a fifteen-mile radius, but a kind of warm, fizzy smell (again, not the farmers), a kind of potent whack of hops and dregs, KP peanuts, Pledge and fraying upholstery. I remember walking past one of the pubs in Cork a couple of years back and being taken aback by that old smell, something of my childhood that I’d quite forgotten. However far we’ve come now – or however we’ve regressed – the pub culture of the ’80s and ’90s was something worth remembering.

Back to my recent night out. We made for one of the old haunts with the expectation of a few scoops, a few games of pool, and a few rounds of A Nation Once Again/Enter Sandman.

The place was practically empty. Not only was it lacking in customers; it was lacking in fundamentals. One of the fridges behind the bar was empty and switched off, the toilets had no seats, the selection of drinks was meagre, and all in all the place gave off more a stench of grave recession than that wonderful, weird aroma of old.

My town used to have about fifteen licensed establishments, including two nightclubs; this for a community with barely three thousand inhabitants and a hinterland as dotted with drinking establishments as any other. I remember nights out planned with meticulous starting times so as to ensure a decent seat in the bar, pubs crammed with a mix of revellers, served by busy staff in a great atmosphere. The number of licensed establishment in my town has dipped dramatically, and none have come near replacing that turn-of-the-Millennium buzz.

Any country mouse keen on socialising will have noticed the same trend over the past few years or so. The Irish aren’t heading out like they used to. The publicans can’t afford the upkeep of their establishments, feeling the pinch as any small business would, but with the added challenges inherent in running a pub – licence, extensions, sports broadcasting, long hours, security… Our local pubs, in short, are dying.

The loss of our locals might seem a fair trade

We could hypothesise that that’s a symptom of the cure, not of the disease. After all, we drink too much. Though we drink less often than our European neighbours, we drink more units when we do indulge, and at a quicker pace, too. reports that we’re drinking less than we were at the height of the boom, to which there’s really no mystery, and if that comes at a cost to our social landscape, it’s undeniably good for our physical wellbeing. The loss of our locals might seem a fair trade.

Alcohol was once thought of as a tongue-loosener for the real meat of the evening – the conversation. Now our focus is on getting value for money, being lathered well before we hit the town, and hobbling our VISA debits buying trays of shots no one wants. The pubs are empty because people are convinced inebriants shouldn’t cost them, that ten beers at home are better than four beers on the town, that it’s not worth leaving for a public house until an unquenchable thirst for Baby Guinness swoops upon those gathered.

The trend towards purchasing value alcohol to imbibe in a private setting isn’t essentially negative, although there’s plenty of room for abuse when alcohol is made so very cheap, something the Vintners Federation is keen to check. Meanwhile, HSE research suggests that we don’t drink as many units when we’re not in a pub or nightclub. The time limits imposed by our licensing laws must surely have played their part; blaming cheap supermarket alcohol makes sense, but only alongside the existing rigidity of our laws.

Now, it’s not just budding misanthropes who prefer getting gently sozzled in the company of his or her close friends, being able to smoke without getting rained on, and not being hounded by amorous louts or cleaned out by desperate vintners.

Dusty shells

Maybe we don’t need the pubs anymore. Ireland’s changing in so many ways, and largely for the better. Public houses, once the focal point for rural communities, have become dusty shells fit only for hosting people too drunk to notice the lack of lime/ice/soap/Metallica.

All the same, there is something very special about the Irish social landscape, and though time and tide waits for no… uh, publican, it seems rather a shame to lose something so integral to our identity.

Any great number of factors might be responsible: the public’s perception of vintners’ greed, changing attitudes towards drinking, the recession, the availability of cheaper options, an Irish population for once in its history more interested in maintaining private group friendships than community structure.

It’s too far gone for us to get it back, even with due regard for small business, the craic, and our livers.

I miss it, though. I’d say we all do.

Lisa McInerney: Pornification of teen sexuality – but we can’t just blame porn>

Where has your local gone?>

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