I first went to Ireland more than 30 years ago with a single address in mind—O’Donoghue’s Pub in Merrion Row, Dublin. I went along there the night I landed and when I opened the door it seemed a bomb went off as racing, cacophonous speech, fiddle music, laughter, clattering glasses and calls for pints overwhelmed me and knocked me back. Before me was a multitude of beaming, animated red faces, many with beards as dense as thorn bushes, and all, it seemed, in the midst of speech or joke or song. I went from street to pub and eventually on to a party in a house into which almost all the pub had emptied. When I awoke the next day at 7, it took me two hours to determine whether it was 7 a.m. or 7 p.m.
I have been in hundreds of Irish pubs since then—stately Georgian pubs in Dublin with cut glass and wood paneling and avuncular, white-aproned elderly barmen who exuded bonhomie and unflappability; hotel lounges in seaside villages where men sang long narrative songs of increasing surreality; music pubs where the jigs and reels charged at you like stampeding buffalo; Gypsy pubs; horse-trading pubs; tiny pub/shops not much bigger than closets with hams, rubber boots and fishing nets strung from the ceiling and the beer taps almost buried under the balls of wool and chocolate bars for sale on the counter. A pub can be made out of almost any four walls, whether they are of a funeral home, a disused church or your aunt’s living room. I remember counting 23 of them along the main street of the little town of Caherciveen in County Kerry.
The pub has traditionally sat beside the church as a prime organizing social force in Ireland. Deals are made, deaths mourned, tales told, romances celebrated, dances danced and catharsis achieved in pubs. Even the radically deregulating plan that produced Ireland’s celebrated economic miracle (and its subsequent collapse) was developed in a pub—the small, wonderful, jewel-like Doheny and Nesbitt, just across the street from O’Donoghue’s in Merrion Row.
Virtually every person in Ireland knows how to be in a pub. You see men lifting pints to their mouths with the same ease and intimacy as a carpenter with his tools. To enter a pub in Ireland is something like lifting a woollen winter coat from a peg on a wall and putting it on—it’s warm, familiar, protective, comforting. All ages and professions meet—farmhand, priest, grandmother, politician, athlete—united in drink and, often, song.
Ireland has produced and exported world-renowned horses, oysters, software experts, revolutionaries, literary geniuses and singers, but what it is perhaps best known for is craic—an Irish word that conveys a particular mixture of good times, humor and abandon, with traces of both exuberance and innocence and almost always fueled by alcohol. The Irish can be considered the world’s premier professional good-time havers. It is hardly surprising that the Irish pub as a business concept can be found all around the world, from Romania to Beijing to Ecuador, usually decorated with some farm implements, books, brass pitchers, wooden floors, Celtic script, Guinness, of course, and a picture of James Joyce.
Here is the place, the very aura of the pub seems to be saying to you, where you can feel at home, have a good time and drink to excess and be applauded for it. What entrepreneur wouldn’t think this a promising milieu in which to sell alcohol? If this idea appeals to you, such enterprises as the Irish Pub Company will custom-make you a pub in Dublin, ship it to a location of your choice and then assemble it for you—as they did in Las Vegas at Fadó, Quinn’s, Nine Fine Irishmen and J.C. Wooloughan’s. The decor is readily available as pubs have been closing in the hundreds all around Ireland, because of a smoking ban, stricter enforcement of drunk-driving laws and changing social patterns.
This is the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Many Irish people remember it as a very solemn day, a national religious holiday when you had to go to Mass and all the pubs were closed. The Irish writer Maeve Binchy has said that when she was a young woman, the only place in Dublin serving alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day was the National Dog Show. Even the most vehement animal-haters developed a sudden sentimental interest in dogs so they could get a drink. Now Ireland itself goes along with the festival of drink and frivolity that the rest of the world celebrated long before it did, a spring saturnalia of green beer, fake red beards, political glad-handing, leaping and yelping and dancing.