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Snug life: How Ireland fell in love with the pub snug (and 5 of the experts' favourites)

What is it about snugs that captures our imagination? We talked to the people who really know.

A doorway at the Crown in Belfast, with snugs on either side
A doorway at the Crown in Belfast, with snugs on either side

IT’S A UNIVERSALLY accepted fact that there is nothing better than going to the pub and successfully getting a seat in the snug. “We’re in the snug.” There’s no greater sentence in the English language.

But what is it about these secluded areas that we delight in so much? And how did they come to be such a beloved feature of the Irish pub?

“They were very much a product of the Victorian era,” says Kevin Martin, pub historian and author of Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish Pub.

“Towards the latter part of the 1880s, 1890s, the Victorians said that pubs should be more respectable than heretofore. Before that, pubs weren’t particularly beautiful places.”

One of the features that were introduced around this period was the humble snug. It served a number of purposes, says Martin. For one thing, it was a place where members of the upper echelons of society could go for a drink away from prying eyes. Guards, clergymen, anyone who wanted a modicum of privacy.

“They were to hive off people that wanted to be hived off,” he says. “People who didn’t want to be seen among the common men.”

Likewise, they were enjoyed by women. While there were no laws or stipulations saying that women couldn’t drink in the bar, pubs were still very much viewed as a male-only domain and women weren’t always welcome. The snug, therefore, provided a place for women to enjoy a tipple in peace without fear of judgment.

Elsewhere, they were used by people wanting to conduct all sorts of business, including the buying and selling of animals. He cites a study conducted in Co Clare in 1930 that cites another important social function.

“The main thing they noticed in the pubs was the use of snugs for matchmaking,” he says. “That wouldn’t be a city phenomenon because you didn’t have matchmaking to the same degree in an urban environment.”

In rural Ireland, these snugs tended to be far less ornate than their urban peers and were commonly referred to as “shuts”.

“They would have been very, very basic,” he says. “I saw a couple of old ones that were literally just a partition nearly.”

Couple of pints in the snug #thepalacebar #snug #pints #dublin

A post shared by Jae Brown 🇮🇪 (@jaebrown_dublintown) on

In Dublin, however, the snugs were much more elaborate. Martin estimates that there are still sixteen Victorian-era snugs in Dublin. Many others were ripped out during the 1970s when snugs went out of fashion.

“The 1970s was the greally grim era of snugs being torn out in Dublin,” he says..”There were hundreds of snugs. For example, McDaid’s was supposed to have one of the beautiful snugs and it got ripped out.”

They came to be considered as a waste of space, he says.

“Basically pubs are shops if you like and their object is to sell the maximum amount of product in the minimum amount of time and I suppose they just took up too much room,” he says.

Among pub patrons, however, snugs have never gone out of style. Take Dublin Snugs, for example. For the last two years, Mark Fallon and David Fanagan have been documenting their favourite snugs around the capital and sharing photos on Instagram. The decision to start an Instagram account dedicated to snugs was a no-brainer.

“We realised pretty quickly through many pub visits together that we both had a common love for the traditional Irish snug,” they explain. “One of our mates would often slag us as with any pub visit we would always go searching to see if they had a snug. It would always prove to be a massive bonus if it did and in our heads made the pub in question a small bit better.”

We thought it would be a great idea to document the various snugs that we visited and give them a unique review.

So what is it about snugs they love so much? The privacy and the history, they say.

“Firstly, it’s the cosy atmosphere a snug gives you. In the hustle and bustle of a busy pub, a snug is a more intimate spot where you can have a good chat over a pint and catch up with friends,” they say. “The sense of history also appeals to us in a big way, as others have sat and drank in these very snugs for generations before us and will do so for many generations to come.”

Since 2016, they have visited many of Dublin’s most cherished snugs and assigned star ratings to them. Some of their favourites include Ryan’s of Parkgate Street, Kehoe’s on South Anne Street and Slattery’s in Rathmines.

“They tick all the boxes and give you a real sense of heritage,” they say.

For his part, Kevin Martin says The Palace houses one of his favourites. (He notes you can even book it in advance.) Another favourite is The Crown in Belfast.

“They have a whole series of eight elaborate snugs down along one side of the pub,” he says. “It really is something else.”

Like the lads behind Dublin Snugs, Martin says it’s the privacy and ability to have a quiet chat that has helped the snug endure. There’s also the thrill of nabbing the snug before anyone else.

“There’s a novelty of being able to say, ‘We got the snug, great seats,’” he says. And that’s something that will never get old.

More: ‘I think I came out of the womb with a bag of chips’: The people behind Ireland’s old-school chippers>

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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