The Irish theme pub has been one of the most successful marketing phenomena of the past decade. Brash, noisy and ostentatious, it began its ascendancy in Britain around 1994 – the year in which Jack Charlton’s Irish football team qualified for the World Cup, an event that engendered a great deal of enthusiasm (and drinking) in Britain. More crucially, it was the year of the first Provisional IRA ceasefire. Not only was Ireland now peaceful, but the Irish were seen as life- affirming, fun-loving folk whose lifestyle, as depicted in such stage and small-screen successes as Riverdance, Father Ted and Ballykissangel, we wished to imitate.
The Irish theme pub was not to everybody’s taste. The manner in which British breweries such as Allied Domecq, Scottish & Newcastle and Bass mass- manufactured these pubs – in the guise of Scruffy Murphy’s, Finnegan’s Wake and O’Neill’s respectively – distressed real ale enthusiasts who were fearful of the erosion of the genuine local boozer. And for cultural purists, the outright distortion of the real thing grated heavily. The pubs with their accordians, road signs to Galway and whiskey mirrors – all mass-produced in a factory in Atlanta, Georgia – were not, they moaned, like real Irish bars, but were kitsch, commodified representations.
The bad news for fans of authenticity is that reality has caught up with the fantasists. The fake Irish pub, having conquered the world, is now making a belated appearance in, er, Dublin.
In its most outlandish manifestation, the Irish theme pub in Britain features loud, relentlessly piped “fiddle-dy-dee” music, bags of grain, overenthusiastic bar staff, “traditional” food, pints of Guinness with shamrocks etched into the heads, and walls plastered with posters of Dublin’s Georgian house fronts, Oscar Wilde and cottages in the barren, scenic west.
Pubs in Ireland bear scant resemblance to their British imitations, having had no need to proclaim their Irishness. Instead, they are rather sedate and modest, with minimal decor – normally cream-yellow walls and red-cushioned chairs or black, wooden stools. The only synthetic noise will come from a television. During the day, you will be treated not to raucous merry-making, but more likely to the abject silence of solo drinkers. Only at night will a pub come to life, though bar staff or landlords will never, never, get up and dance a jig for you. Similarly, their real Irish counterparts in Britain, before the theme invasion, went by such unostentatious names as the The Kingdom or The White Hart, and were grim, tobacco-stinking places with sticky carpets.
After years of exposure to the Irish theme pub in Britain, English visitors to the real thing in Ireland often feel disappointed. Their expectations are dashed; landlords seem rude and cold. Perhaps, they suspect, it’s the fault of the Black and Tans or Cromwell. But it is not. What they are experiencing is the gulf between the real and the represented.
So now Dublin provides tourists with the only authenticity they recognise. Pubs in the capital that are being “redecorated” to meet expectations include The Duke, a fake Irish Victorian pub that used to be Tobin’s, a straight-forward cocktail lounge and, more tellingly, Doheny & Nesbitt’s in Baggot Street. The latter is fascinating in that the genuine article, the main front bar with old snugs featuring merely the sound of talking, has had added to it a slick, back bar with gleaming mahogany and polished mirrors, loud music and live English Premiership coverage. Pure London. In Doheny & Nesbitt’s, you can step between the real and the fake.
Further out west, catering for American expectations, Murphy’s store in Cong, Co Mayo, which features in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), recently became the “Pat Cohan” bar. That was its name in the film, and it now sells memorabilia from the movie.
A similar fate has befallen James Joyce’s old haunt in Dublin, Davy Byrne’s, which is now a Joyce theme pub. Like “Pat Cohan’s Bar”, it has become an imitation of itself.
For every Castle Inn or Long Stone – two other recent bogus intruders in Dublin – there is still your O’Donoghue’s or the exquisitely dingy Grogan’s. In London, too, you can see the genuine article such as The North London Tavern in Kilburn or The Old City Arms near Hammersmith Bridge, distinguished only by their lack of Irish display and the accents either side of the bar.
But the growth of Irish theme pubs in Dublin has a curious counterpart in the land of their birth. Back on the mainland, Allied Domecq has put a freeze on building any more Scruff Murphy’s, while Scottish & Newcastle is in the process of “debranding” chains such as the Rat & Parrot. The trend is towards more women-friendly bars, leaving the future of the Irish theme pub looking shaky.
Which leaves us with a strange prospect, worthy of a Borges novel or the musings of Baudrillard. As the Irish theme pub replaces the genuine article, might we in Ireland soon be left only with false pubs – a copy without an original?
Good craic for cultural theorists.