“A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub” by Bill Barich
Reviewed by Richard West
“And what will you be having, yourself?
“A pint of your finest.”
In Dublin that would be a Guinness as you wait for the proper pour: the familiar oval glass tilted at 45 degrees while being filled, then left to settle at least two minutes before topping off, never spilling over the rim soaking the coaster. Room temperature. No taint of burnt barley but a scent of the famous still-secret yeast residue containing traces of 13 vitamins.
Indeed better in Ireland than in the other 149 countries where Guinness is sold, perhaps because of the waters used in brewing from Kildare’s mountains, soft they are with a low mineral content. At last the publican sets it before you: black as a poor man’s hopes, crowned with shamrock-etched white foam liquid apartheid, Roman Catholic-collared is what Dubliners call this exquisite demarcation between solid froth and the anthracite nectar, 198 calories (less than a pint of low-fat milk), a relatively low alcoholic content (4.1-4.3% compared to Stella Artois’ 5.2%), a drink to brighten the sorrows of a saint.
But what of the pub itself? Eighty-five percent of Ireland’s citizens stop in one of the country’s 12,000 pubs at least once a month, reports Bill Barich (right) in his just-in-time-for-St-Patrick’s-Day A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub.
Barich’s conclusions are troubling for lovers of Ireland’s traditional public houses for times they are a’changing.
In this most literary of nations the history of Irish pubs can be found in its plays, novels, and poems: the rough and untidy shabeen serving illegal home brew in Act 1 of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907); an early public house in the first scene of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1926); Pat Cohan’s essence of the rural pub in John Ford’s 1951 movie, The Quiet Man; Dublin’s McDaid’s in J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955); and most famous of all, Davy Byrnes, Joyce’s “moral pub” in Ulysses, published in 1922.
And today? Barich, an American journalist married to an Irish lass, began his search for an adequately poured Guinness in copacetic surroundings where he lives, in Ranelagh, a suburb of Dublin, and quickly encountered the impact that booming, prosperous Ireland (at least, until very recently) known as the “Celtic Tiger”‘ has had on pub life. The newly affluent and newly arrived citizens seeking a better life in Ireland apparently need more than the traditional Irish pub offered: a pint of stout, the occasional drop-in group of musicians, and scintillating conversation with friends and strangers known as “craic”. In Ranelagh’s pubs, Barich is dismayed to find all froth and very little Guinness: blaring flat-screen TV’s, Texas Hold ‘Em poker nights, costume party nights, Bingomania, karaoke performances, and glasses of wine (now 21% of pub sales) replacing pints of stout. Sacred heart of the crucified Jesus, what’s the world coming to!
Barich’s determined to find out in central Dublin, a city where the Anglo-Saxon writ that fiddles around with formulas about sun and yard-arms doesn’t apply. Avoiding the yuppified Temple Bar area, Philistia-on-Liffey, he does find alternatives: McDaid’s and the Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest (est. 1198), pubs in business since Noah wore pampers, a bit musty, elegiac, well-curated, looking and feeling much like they did in their heyday; the so-called “trophy pubs” like Doheny & Nesbitt (est. 1850), grandly Victorian-Dublin-esque with its snugs, confessional screens, dark corners, mirrored partitions, and ceiling of paper mache. And, of course, a stop at John Mulligan near the River Liffey, reputed to serve the city’s best pint of Guinness, it’s only bow to modernity a subdued green carpet.
Fine places all but Barich is determined to find the quintessential traditional Irish pub: heavy dark counters, black brass-topped pullers, worn wooden floor with knots like tiny hills, democratic and civil, exuding warmth and good humor, a love of conversation and a sense of community: Hibernicis ipsis hiberniorers, more Irish than Irish. And, of course, no TV or crowd-drawing gimmicks. If it no longer has gunmetal plates for striking matches (the no smoking ban began in 2004), bells for summoning barmen, and brass heating pipes running around the bottom of bars for feet warming, well, the world’s hardly perfect.
Over 90 pubs in Ireland have been in the same family for over 100 years. Only two or three are in Co. Dublin, one of which Barich finds perfect. John Kavanagh, next to a gate of the Glasnevin Cemetery (thus its nickname, ” The Gravedigger’s” ), not only has no TV, it has no listed telephone number nor recorded music. It does have in abundance most of Barich’s requirements for the perfect traditional pub. The Cobblestone on the edge of Smithfield Market also is near perfect with the added fillip of exceptionally fine free music sessions on Sunday afternoons.
Barich does venture into rural Ireland only to find a more dire state of pubdom caused by the strict drink driving laws, disappearing farming families, the visual anemia of creeping suburbia with their commuters and increased land values…”lifestyle” changes in general.
Barich’s Lear-like lamentation for the seemingly bleak future for the traditional Irish pub and the proliferation of faceless corporate pubs operated only for a profit doesn’t leave the reader depressed. His prose — wry, opinionated, and funny — goes down smoothly as a pint of plain. His title, by the way, comes from a beloved verse by the journalist-novelist Flann O’Brien:
“When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran
When all you have is a heap of debt–
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.”