A new documentary about family-run Irish pubs and their often colourful landlords is a celebration of what may be a dying breed, says Shelley Marsden
The Irish Pub, out on DVD this week, is a celebration of Ireland’s best-loved institution and, more specifically, the characters that keep them going in a very difficult climate.
Its Irish director Alex Fagan, who will be in Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre this Wednesday, 20 November for a screening followed by a Q&A, says it tells a story about Ireland through the eyes of the pub – an Ireland that still exists and should be treasured.
He told the Irish World: “The Irish pub has such an important place in Irish society – it’s connected to family, tradition, music, history, the ‘craic’, so I thought I’d use it as a vehicle to tell the story of a country. Also, it’s well-documented that pubs are closing down all over Ireland, particularly in the last few years, so even to record these places almost for posterity.”
In the film, Alex visits and interviews the owners of family-owned pubs that have been passed down at least three generations (one goes back seven generations), in which tradition and the personal touch is still important.
“We live in a world where everything seems generic – the Starbucks-isation of the world!”, he said. “These pubs rally against the chain pub with no soul and a forced smile. You close your eyes and you can just hear the chatter, no noisy TV screens unless there’s a big match on…
“It’s the people, the stone floors, an old jukebox, people telling each other their life stories… Some people have said I’m looking backwards but look, these pubs exist and they’re still operational. It’s a part of Ireland that’s still here today – it’s perhaps just not one that everybody is familiar with.
Alex met all manner of locals during filming, from farmers catching up on business to the lone bachelor propping up the bar and hopeful for company. These kinds of pubs, he says – at which he came across everything from a confessional to a massive Samurai sword hanging on the wall – are “cultural museums” for the local community, with the larger-than-life owners their curators.
He said: “The owners are always huge characters, brilliant conversationalists – it’s an art form, what they do. Sometimes, I found they actually reflected the look of the pub – you’d have a dapper owner with a dapper pub, or a total character with a quirky pub. Their personality is infused in their environment.”
But the economic downturn has almost destroyed these little gems of Irish heritage, and for Alex it’s for three reasons: “The Groceries Act which means you can buy drink in an off-licence so cheaply, so people are drinking at home; being unable to drink and drive massively affects rural pubs – though of course nobody would argue that it’s not absolutely necessary -and the economic downturn, so people go out less.”
However, the good news, says Alex is that those that have kept their heads above water are getting creative to make sure they survive. He met owners who have organised buses to pick up members of the local community and bring them to the pub once a week, with a different designated driver every time; more craft beers are being offered as their price has gone down and smokers are being welcomed with warm, comfortable outside areas rather than freezing cold car-parks.
Said Alex,“Innovations are certainly happening; it would be to our absolute detriment if the traditional Irish pub was to disappear, but ultimately, it’s up to the people to decide with their feet.”
The Irish Pub (U) receives its UK premiere at The Tricycle Cinema, tonight, Wed 20 Nov, 7.30pm followed by a director Q&A hosted by the Irish World’s Shelley Marsden. For more see www.irishfilmfestivallondon.com.