“You can walk into a pub abroad and people will ignore you, you walk into a pub in Ireland and they’d go up in your arse to find out who you are,” exclaims pub owner Paul Gartlan in The Irish Pub documentary. Irish poet Yeats phrased it a bit more eloquently when he said “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met yet”.
Both sum up the lure of the Irish bar, rather being lonely drinking holes, they offer banter and the craic, imitated worldwide, you have to visit a bar in Ireland to really understand its secret.
Director Alex Fegan gives you that experience without the airfare in his documentary The Irish Pub which delves into the heart and soul of traditional pubs throughout the country whose establishments have been handed down through generations.
Speaking to FFG, Alex explains why the local bar has become one of the greatest institutions of Irish society.
What inspired you to make this documentary? The inspiration was a desire to tell the story of Ireland and its people in a really fun, non-analytical or structured way and the Irish pub seemed like the perfect vehicle to achieve this. We filmed 35 pubs, each at least three generations in the same family and the owner had to stand for the interview. There are so many aspects of Irish society connected to the pub; from literature to religion, from history to music, from art to anecdotes, from the Irish propensity to enjoy life to our equal propensity to sometimes over do it, I think the Irish pub touches each of these points of ‘Irish-ness’ and the aim was to hold a mirror up to them, warts and all, and let people decide for themselves whether it’s good or bad.
What’s your favourite memory from making the documentary? I recall filming the owner of Gertie Browns pub in Athlone. There was a portrait of a man on the wall smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of beer. The owner told me that the gentleman in the portrait still comes in everyday for the same glass of beer, which the pub generously gives him for free. Apparently, he loves to sing opera in the pub and everyone is delighted to see him coming in. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the said man from the painting entered. The owner gave him his glass of beer and the man duly sang Santa Lucia in front of his portrait.
What makes Irish pubs so unique? The story above is what the pub is all about. It’s not about drink. It’s about the people, the pub owners and the characters that frequent these hostelries. These are what create an atmosphere. In an Irish pub you can have an eighty year old discussing politics and sport with a twenty year old. It’s about respect. I remember about six months after filming Butterfield’s in Ballitore, I had to return to film a few pickup shots, which I missed the first time around. Everyone in the pub were sitting exactly where they were when I left six months earlier. In such a fast paced world, that was a delight to see but I don’t quite know why. Perhaps the Irish pub is a last stand against the tide of change, where the owner has the same name as what’s above the door. Every country has their unique selling point. The Italians do architecture very well, the French do food, the Germans do cars, the English do pomp and ceremony. However, the Irish do the pub well. It’s that combination of chat, politics, sport, religion, history, poetry and respect that make it unique. It’s really about the chat though. As Paul Gartlan in Kingscourt, Co. Cavan said, “you can walk into a pub abroad and people will ignore you. You walk into a pub in Ireland and they’d go up in your arse to find out who you are.”
What’s your favourite Irish pub and why? At the risk of sounding diplomatic, I have many and for different reasons. If I’m I am in the mood for a music session, you can’t beat Clancy’s in Athy where there might be 40 musicians in a tiny room, aged 9 years of age to 90 all playing different musical instruments in perfect harmony. In Dublin, I love the Gravediggers and the Palace as well as Mulligan’s. Paul Gartlan’s pub in Cavan is unique because Paul himself has such incredible wit. I could go on and on.
Why are pubs so important to the community in Ireland? Irish villages were often small and pubs were often the heart and sole of those villages. The pubs didn’t just supply porter and whiskey, they were also the grocery shop, the undertaker, the hardware store, the shoe shop and even the barber. People would come in and meet their neighbours and sing songs over a drink or two. Also, since people were poor in Ireland pre-independence and for along time afterwards, people also frequented pubs because they had fires lit and were warm. Over generations, these taverns became essential to the wellbeing of a community and the hub of social activity. Some people argue that the pub and the mollifying influences of the odd drink contributed to Ireland’s literary and poetry renaissance. My father recalls seeing Patrick Kavanagh, Brandan Behan and Flan O’Brien enjoying a pint while intellectualising the events of the day. Whatever the faults of the Irish Pub, as one famous Irish poet wrote, “there is nothing more unassuming yet captivating than a pint of plain on a wet afternoon in an Irish pub.”
Are the traditional, family-run Irish pubs dying out or are they here to stay? The biggest threat in recent times to the family run pub in the country has been the smoking ban and the introduction and enforcement of strict drink driving laws. However, throughout the filming process, I heard some brilliant ideas to help pubs overcome these threats. In Lahardane, Mayo, local businessmen and the pubs share the cost of a minibus that takes farmers to and from the pubs at various days of the week. Initiatives like this really help. I think the Government could also reduce alcohol tax served in a pub and increase the tax on drink sold in the supermarket. Another threat is that the latest generation in these families are extremely well educated and sometimes don’t need or want to work in the family business. Fortunately, there are exceptions to this but only time will tell where the future of the pub lies.
Every city you go to around the world has an Irish pub, why do you think this is? I suppose the Irish Pub is a bit like the Italian restaurant. Both Italians and the Irish emigrated in high numbers in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to famine and poverty and liked to take their respective cultures with them – as most people would. There is no doubt that for many generations, the Irish pub was used by emigrants as a bridge between the old world and the new, where people could forge new futures through the pub while remaining connected to their past. Over the years since, the Irish pub has perhaps adapted and evolved to fit in with the cultures it has inhabited. For example, food is definitely much more important in the Irish Pub in the US than it is in Ireland. TVs also, as the Irish pub is seen as a sports hub there. It would be interesting, in fact, to do a documentary on Irish pubs all over the world. Hmmmmm……