‘Irish pubs abroad can be tacky and twee. But somehow as an expat, I grew to love them’

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17 March 2018 |Aoife O’Riordain | The Independent

“I vowed I’d never become one of them. Those Irish who moved abroad and became more Irish than they’d ever been before. The type who spent weekends crammed into an Irish bar, listening to diddly-eye music, sinking pints of the black stuff, and getting misty-eyed while crooning along to Christy Moore.

Except, then, I did. I’ve jostled with green jerseys while watching a rugby match (I’m not a fan of the sport, really, but you can’t beat the atmosphere). I’ve watched open-mouthed as, in the early hours of Christmas Eve in The Swan in Stockwell, a band of leprechauns stormed the dance floor and stripped to their shamrocked skivvies (and beyond). I’ve even gone to a Christy Moore gig. And crooned along, misty-eyed.

Inflatable leprechauns and Celtic bric-a-brac

But stick me on the Costa del Sol, or in darkest Peru, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in an Irish bar. Many are tacky or old-fashioned, and in no way resemble the “Irish bar” I would frequent back in Dublin or Cork. On times I’ve popped in (to use the loo, I swear!), I normally encounter an inflatable leprechaun or three vying with generic Celtic-style bric-a-brac, and the unmistakable smell of stale Guinness and despair.

Revellers pose for pictures as they take part in the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland (PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Many of my Irish friends agree. Yet Irish bars have endured around the world, some in the most far-flung reaches, from Mongolia to Nepal to Uganda. When Irish bar and restaurant Nuala opened in trendy Shoreditch in London late last year, it was an instant sensation. Who is drinking in them? Irish holidaymakers? The (admittedly large) diaspora? Or everyone else who is charmed by that elusive magic of “the craic”?

Irish pubs are on the map

“​Ireland ​may have a population of just under five million, but there are millions upon millions more of Irish descent worldwide, due in part to the Irish diaspora that peaked in the 1800s,” says Nancy Hoalst-Pullen, professor of geography at Kennesaw State University. She and her colleague, Dr Mark Patterson, have written the National Geographic Atlas of Beer – and they say Irish pubs are very much on the map.

“​It’s really no surprise that with the mass migration of the Irish over the centuries, cultural aspects of home came ​​with them,” says Professor Hoalst-Pullen. “This included the local pub, which for many was a place not only to have a pint, but to celebrate life, mourn loss, talk politics, and share gossip and news.

A place where you can eat and drink and feel at home

“And while the legacy of the public house has been at times commodified, there is reason for that -​ people want to experience a place where they can eat and drink and feel at home… a place with a particular look and feel that is welcoming, friendly, comfortable, and even reminiscent of a better time.”

No Irish bar is complete without a ‘Guinness is good for you’ advertisement (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Irish pubs often have a few things in common. A “Guinness is Good for You” poster with the traditional toucan image; an olde-worlde till that no one knows how to open.

There’s a good reason they all feel a little familiar: you can order your style of Irish bar in its entirety. Like the Ikea for bars, the Irish Pub Company offers bar owners a menu of styles to choose from, including “Shop Style”, “Victorian Style” or “Modern Irish & Gastro”. The company works in conjunction with The Irish Pub Concept, an advisory resource originally set up by Guinness for people wanting to open their own Irish bar.

An Irish pub in an instant

Donal Balance, of the Irish Pub Concept, argues that while the Irish pubs they work with are curated, they are not inauthentic. “The Irish Pub abroad almost seems a source of embarrassment to Ireland Inc,” he says. “There have been many articles scorning McPubs and the laughable ‘authenticity’ of any pub outside of Ireland. Yet on Tourism Ireland’s site, the two biggest tourism magnets are…wait for it…. yes, pubs and the Guinness Storehouse. A significant driver behind that tourism are the great pubs developed over the past 20 years in 153 countries by hard-working but unpaid and unappreciated ambassadors.”

Guinness and pubs are huge drivers of tourism to Ireland (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Ballance says the company helps Irish and non-Irish people around the world try to capture the essence of an Irish pub. “They visit Ireland, they have the pub designed and built-out professionally, they talk endlessly to people who have done it before and they gain insights into what makes a pub tick. They don’t always get it right… and we can tell from the loafing leprechauns and the over-abundance of shamrock bunting who they are.”

Sláinte! The best Irish bars

Irish Pub of the Year 2017
Ireland Slatterys, Beggar’s Bush, Dublin
UK Waxy O’Connors, London
Europe Scholars Lounge, Rome
North America Irish Times, Victoria, Canada
Rest of World McGettigan’s, Dubai

Best Irish Community Pub 2017
Ireland The Lep Inn, Dublin
UK The Liffey, Liverpool
Europe O’Casey’s, Den Haag, Netherlands
North America Tim Finnegan’s, Delray Beach, Florida
Rest of World McGettigan’s, Abu Dhabi
Irish Pubs Global Federation 2017

What’s the magic formula?

So what make a great Irish bar, that real Irish people want to spend time in? Rebekkah Dooley, of New York’s Dead Rabbit, which was recently ranked as the best bar in the world, says there is no magic formula. “A great Irish pub needs to combine unpretentious hospitality and a genuine welcome,” she says. “Of course, a great Irish whiskey selection and solid pint of Guinness won’t hurt either.”

A great Irish pub should combine unpretentious hospitality and a genuine welcome (CHRIS MADDALONI/AFP/Getty Images)

Dead Rabbit opened in 2013 in Manhattan’s financial district. The brainchild of Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, who had worked together at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast, it is named after the Irish-American street gang that controlled the area in the 1850s and serves high-end cocktails, as well as a decent full Irish breakfast. Design-wise, it is cluttered with curiosities across its three storeys, and mixes memorabilia with modern murals and a piece of art from Belfast artist Terry Bradley. It is certainly more trendy than twee.

Flying the flag for hospitality

“Irish pubs are warm and welcoming,” says Dooley. “The Irish are known the world over for our hospitality and in Irish pubs everyone is treated the same. We have a sign outside The Dead Rabbit stating that everyone is welcome, regardless of their age, gender, wealth or social stature. As long as you pay your way and behave yourself, you can be at home in an Irish pub. We hope that we’re flying the flag for real Irish hospitality.”

The Bankers in Dublin, Ireland (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

A quick straw poll of friends indicates that while they would never visit an Irish pub abroad while on holiday, they have been known to pop in for a pint if they are living abroad and feeling homesick. “I wouldn’t go to ‘Irish bars’ per se, but I would often seek out the same kind of bar – with dark wood and comfortable seating to just sit, enjoy uncomplicated drinks and chew the cud,” says Orna Cunningham, who now lives in Toronto.

‘Like an embassy… with booze’

Irish/American Kim Porcelli says she used to think that going to a bar was the “saddest, most provincial thing imaginable”. “I no longer think that. I was on tour in New York with a theatre company and there was an Irish bar down the street from the theatre. It was like… an embassy, with booze. Very homey. It was like an outpost of the Murphia.”

‘A great Irish whiskey selection and solid pint of Guinness’ help make an Irish bar a success (Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

There is certainly a strange charm in an Irish bar when you’re an expat. And perhaps it’s less about the decor than the clientele. A brilliant Irish bar, depending on the time of day, will have an aul fella nursing a pint and checking the racing pages at the bar with one eye out for a friendly face to chat to, or a throng of drunken 30-somethings, solemn-faced and rigid-armed, dancing along to Riverdance (badly).

Read more

A quirky place to spend St Patrick’s Day

A modest defence of St Patrick’s Day, the Irish Mardi Gras

Seven places to visit in Dublin beyond the pub

When Nuala arrived in east London I was sceptical: the bar’s logo was of a flame-haired woman (Nuala, I presume), and the menu featured several potato-based sides. Would I encounter a sea of shamrockery and generic Paddywhackery on my visit? But no, it was nice. Modern, plain, but dark enough and comfy enough, with obligatory snugs, to be considered a genuine Irish boozer. I didn’t spy an aul fella at the bar. But it did – almost – feel like home. Oh… Lisdooooonvarna….

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