Like the rest of the world, pubs in Ireland are changing. Fortunately, not too fast.
You read stories about how stout is no longer the dominant drink it once was. You realize the original pubs must be disappearing, because a couple of large companies use parts of them to build “original” Irish pubs around the world. (We know how popular these are because our list of American “Irish pubs” is among the most visited at this site.)
Yet, “The Parting Glass: A Toast to the Traditional Pubs of Ireland” points out that 88% of the 11,000 pubs in the Republic of Ireland are still family owned. Many, we learn, are not quite like the “faux pubs” in the United States, instead selling burial shrouds or fishing tackle as well as beer.
It’s clear that “pub culture” in Ireland means an entirely different culture. One that “The Parting Glass” examines beautifully.
On the surface, it seems awfully bold for American photographer Eric Roth and American writer Eileen McNamara to set out to document Irish pubs. However, Roth writes at the beginning, “As a visitor to Ireland, maybe I can be more appreciative than the local, who would take their pubs for granted.
“We Americans long for the roots, connections, and a time and place to meet friends. That’s what the Irish find at their neighborhood pub. I have fall in love with Irish pubs, and after a lifetime of McDonald’s, shopping malls, and all the plastic outposts of corporate America, I wish there was a pub in my town.
“Pubs aren’t franchised and plunked down, but are a real part of people’s lives. They are a public place that feels like home. They’re meant to be there.”
The trip through 43 pubs across the small country is first of all a photographic journey. It’s obvious why Roth makes his living shooting photos for interior design books and magazines. His pictures show the outsides and insides of pubs in stunning detail, documenting both architecture and history. Many are portrayed in beautiful two-page spreads.
As important are the photos of people. Finbar Grindel, for instance, is pictured both outside H.M. Grindel in Ballyhooly and behind the classic bar. Locals are shown talking in The Temple Bar in Galway City or musicians playing in a variety of setting. At alluring as the pubs are empty, they are at their best when people are enjoying them.
McNamara provides back story after back story. Her first entry begins: “It is not for the hot whiskey alone that Johnny McAndrew walks the mile to Leonard’s from his small farm on the outskirts of Lahardaun. The grizzled bachelor’s ritual stroll is enlivened by the anticipation of a kiss on his weathered cheek from the ponytailed daughter of the pub’s proprietor. With Bubbles the sheepdog at her heels, sixteen-year-old Aileen Leonard tends the bar, stocks the grocery, and pumps the petrol on Saturdays to spell her da from the relentless duties that define the life of an Irish publican.”
Other pub visits tell similar individual stories, while some examine trends, the role of family pubs and why the pubs are more than just pubs.
Vincy Doherty’s in Ballina sells fishing tackle on one side of the pub, beer on the other. McNamara tells this story:
“The habit of conducting two businesses within a single establishment produces some odd sights to the unaccustomed eye. When a funeral procession passes by, Ned Doherty hastily locks the door and pulls the shade down on the bar side of the pub. When the cortege has passed, he unlocks the pub door and lifts the share. “It’s the pub’s demonstration of respect for the dead,’ he explains.”
Is the book as good as a trip to Ireland and an evening in one of these pubs? Of course not. It’s at its best when it taps into our memories. It won’t replace going, but it will make you feel a little better until you can get back.
(Photos provided courtesy of Eric Roth)