What’s the story…with pubs?

From Barcelona to Budapest to Banglore to my hometown in Basking Ridge, New Jersey – there are Irish pubs. And furthermore those Irish pubs feel the same. There is a strange consistency to the Irish pub from the cozy layout, to the wood panels and leather decor, to the offerings of Guinness and hearty food. But what is more confusing is the supposed decentralized nature of this consistency. For example, McDonalds corporate office in Chicago spends countless hours and dollars trying to align their brand across continents while still playing into local tastes and markets. Pubs seem to manage to do this organically. Second, there are many other venues for drinking alcohol that could challenge the Irish pub for world domination. For example Mexican cantinas, German beer gardens, and Japanese izakayas all fulfill the basic tenets that Irish pubs do. I’ve chipped away at an intriguing story behind the Irish pub, its modern evolution, and its global ubiquity. 

The term ‘pub’ originates from ‘public house’ which were opened as an alternative for working men to private drinking establishments that required payment for entry in the late 17th century. Mitchell scholar Sam and I found ourselves at ‘the oldest pub in Ireland’, Seáns Bar in Athlone, County Westmeath, established in the 10th century, where manager Timmy Donovan enlightened us. In the sixth century, Irish Brehon Law codified that every local king was mandated to have his own brughaid or brewer who operated a public house that would welcome anyone who entered at any hour of the day. The law continued that all travelers were entitled to a drink at a public house if they were more than three miles from home but they needed to prove they had traveled for a reason other than a beer. 

During the 19th century, the temperance movement in Ireland forced publicans to diversify as revenue from spirits declined. Many combined their pub business with other ancillary business, such as butchery, post, hardware (Foxy John’s in Dingle), grocery (L. Mulligan Grocer in Dublin) or even as undertakers (McCarthy’s in Fethard). The remains of the ‘spirit grocery’ exist in pubs today with expansive shelves and bar counters taking up the majority of space leaving little room for customers. The arrival of supermarkets and grocery chains closed most spirit groceries and spurred the offering of food with drinks, something seen in many pubs around Ireland today.  

So back to it, two questions lingered since my Dublin debut 1) What are the features of a good Irish pub? And 2) Why have Irish pubs traveled so well around the world?

In order to assist in answering these questions, I enlisted the help of my pub philosophers: the lads Frank and Rory. 

Both lead with efficient service as a key. Frank mentions the lack of table service unless food is being served. Rory states that good service is “not from a spotty face, tweedle-neck 18 year old”. 

Live music, a proper Guinness pour, and cozy rooms come up as must haves as well. A unique Irish pub experience that is worth mentioning are lock-ins. Lock-ins are when the pub has officially closed for the night but the good times keep going after the doors have been locked and the windows have been shuttered. The idea is that once the pub is closed for the night it becomes private property. While the legality of these loopholes is gray, I had the opportunity to experience one with Mitchell scholars Abby and Ali in Galway. 

In response to the second question about pub’s global success. Both credit the widespread reach of the Irish diaspora but I think Rory summed it up best, “The Guinness is always woeful, even crossing over 100km to England. Irish culture is everywhere because we’re at every corner of the world. The British tried to kill us off 150 years ago, which only backfired into spreading us around the globe and bringing us to light through what unites everyone; drink.”

While I wish the story could end there, this is just the beginning. The real answer to my two questions is centered around the partnership of a young Irish architect and the global corporation that produces Guinness stout, Guinness Brewing Worldwide (now Diageo). 

In the 70s Mel McNally, a final year architecture student, studied the design of Irish pubs to understand what makes them work. From that work McNally developed three principles:

  1. That you should be able to see the bar as soon as you walk into a pub and from almost anywhere in the pub. 
  2. Within the larger umbrella of pubs, there are six district styles that define pubs (I borrow descriptions from a 2017 Eater article by Siobhán Brett because they really make sense).
  • 1) Modern: the hipster iteration, the furniture sleek and the setting more contemporary, one conducive to nu-Irish pursuits like craft beer and artisanal gin tasting.
  • 2) Brewery: related paraphernalia, cobblestone, and slate to get at the historical version of its name.
  • 3) Shop: riffs on the rural pubs that doubled as general stores — or the general stores that doubled as pubs – playing homage to the spirit grocery.
  • 4) Country: woody, closer to a kitchen, and liable to feature wall-mounted crockery and/or an open fire.
  • 5) Celtic: plays up ancient folklore and mythology.
  • 6) Victorian: makes distinctively liberal use of brass accents and plummy tones.

3. A range of seating options between privacy and socialization. Pubs should include snugs and barriers breaking bar counters but also common spaces conducive to meeting new people. Rory nails it, “Quiet enough for a drink with the missus but not so quiet that you and the boyos can’t pop in for the evening.”

With these insights, McNally founded the Irish Pub Concept (IPC), a company that offers a service that will design and construct pubs with Irish materials and original memorabilia to create the authentic experience of an Irish pub anywhere in the world. 

Simultaneously, between 1985 and 1995, Guinness’ market research discovered that each time an Irish pub opened anywhere in the world, there was a noticeable spike in sales of their beer, both because of the pub itself, but also as a result of other bar owners adding Guinness to their offerings to compete with the Irish pub. Furthermore, this trend held across a very diverse group demographic, socio-economic and geographic regions. 

The bottom line was McNally’s IPC model drove stout sales. Guinness’ financial backing allowed McNally to expand into continental Europe and eventually world wide by subsidizing new operators and marketing. IPC would offer aspiring pub owners the design plans, a shipping container of Irish made prefabricated materials and locally sourced trinkets to line the walls, as well as the business plan to get off the ground. And as of 2020, some 6,500 pubs have been opened around the world as a direct result of this partnership and numerous more have developed independently. 

While at the onset of my research I hoped to find one story, I found an even better one. The Ireland I am experiencing is one being pulled in one direction by tradition and the other by globalization. And pubs themselves see this after the ‘08 recession, COVID, and increasing costs have made it harder to stay afloat. Authenticity is not sticking with tradition but instead molding and reinventing for the challenges of the day with a nod to the stories of the past. The Irish pub lives on, guided by a few basic design principles, Irish tenacity, and the ghost of Arthur Guinness. 

* I would have loved to be able to cite things for you but 1) these facts and stories have been crowd sourced after a few pints in pubs across Ireland and 2) you can see my academic writing in August when my thesis drops. 

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