Gentlemen, ye are About to Witness the Return of the Old-fashioned Irish pub

Irish Pub: Tradition, Mutation, Adaptability

I’ve proposed a distinction between early Irish pubs in North America, founded by new arrivals or continued by progeny, and a later, more Americanized version. This history of Chicago Irish pubs by Ilison Hantschel will assist those seeking to understand the immigrant wellsprings of the American Irish pub. This 1961 column by a Jewish writer, Harry Golden, spotlights early Irish bars on the Upper West side, Manhattan, that had mostly disappeared even by then.

The later, Mark II version may have been started by someone of no Irish background, or who purchased a pub from Irish-Americans, or maybe too an Irish-American long assimilated, perhaps one who made a sentimental trip to the Free State.

A third stage arrived with the onset, c.1990, of the Irish Pub Concept, of which the Dublin architect and designer Mel McNally in concert with Guinness/Diageo was a principal mover. McNally in this youtube clip from 2011 gives an excellent overview of the goals of IPC and methods by which corporate organization exported thousands Irish pub interiors around the world.

(Diageo has no commercial ties today to IPC but evidently still has a good relationship with it. McNally remains active in the venture some 40 years after first studying, as a student project, the design characteristics of pubs in his homeland).

A fourth stage of Irish or Celtic pub is the craft version, of which a number exists in Toronto, say Dora Keogh, Céilí Cottage, and Stout. Indeed we have examples of pubs in all four classes, and I enjoy examples of each. A good pub is down to the actual experience, which can’t be defined in advance, for any food or drinking place.

The categories are fluid to a degree, and suggested for convenience, but broadly hold in my estimation. This is based not just on considerable reading and reflection but practical experience in Toronto, Montreal, New York, London, Paris, and elsewhere – latterly Kitchener, ON.

In New York in the 1960s the ascension of pub Version II occasionally ruffled feathers. Consider this letter to the Irish-American weekly the Advocate, published in 1967:

Condon was a regular letter-writer in the Advocate. He must have been about 60 and I’d guess a retired transport or other worker. He mentions in one letter having worked on Manhattan subway construction in 1936.

He had definite views on Irish politics – staunchly nationalist – on pubs, and beer, evidently, recalling how bottled Guinness (i.e., Foreign Extra Stout) was served in Manhattan in the 30s.

The Advocate printed many articles on Irish history and culture. At least in the 1950s – 1970s, the period covered by my review, it didn’t take a strong stance on unification. Nonetheless many of its readers were strongly nationalist or at least demonstrated a resolute ethnic pride.

Condon’s letter is an illustration. You can’t blame him in one sense, as into the 1970s at least, a close connection with an ethnic pub entailed knowing its owner well who was a key part of the social network. Condon felt more at home with an owner of his background, and expressed that sentiment in his letter.

Times change, and concepts of ethnicity and citizenship with them, so the letter has an old-fashioned ring.

The Advocate reported regularly on the pubs of Ireland, the model for the bars Condon admired. Most of the articles were complimentary and often quite funny.

One describes a group of customers being surprised by an itinerant vendor who announces, “Gentlemen, ye are about to witness the return of the old-fashioned top”. He entrances them by jigging on a spinning top, appealing to their memories “as childer”.

In the process he unloads not a few of the toys on their gladdened souls. The writer remarks: the jar the next night foregone.

Another piece describes the singing styles in a “singing pub”. Not unexpectedly, the English come in for good ribbing in the craic. In this piece:

Tom Kelly blasted out his own version of ‘If I were a Blackbird’. It’s a good job that Tom isn’t a blackbird because if so it would be too bad for the Queen of England when he flew over her.

Some of the articles pointed out differences from American practise to alert those planning first-time visits. Pat Greene noted dryly:

What I like most about the Irish pub is the uncertainty of it. First of all, though you know to the minute what the opening time will be, when it comes to the closing time you could find your calculations out as much as an hour or for that matter much more.

But not all the treatments were adoring/affectionate. This 1970 piece by a correspondent born and bred in Dublin offered a more nuanced, even dissenting, view. He deprecated the tendency to romanticize and elevate the Irish pub beyond its just place in the scheme of Irish culture.

Not only that, he offered the opinion that in general, New York Irish pubs were superior. (No doubt a safer proposition than if offered verbally in an Irish bar either side of the sea).

A sample (the author refers to himself in the third person):

He does, however, try in an Irish fashion to refute the false notion – that Dublin pubs are full of playwrights, artists and the like – whose de­light in life is – to sell his bill of goods to the visitor, and I must admit – whatever the fash­ion – in this he is sincere. For the Dublin pub is indeed over­rated both as to clientele and the establishment itself. The clien­tele is invariably quite dull, un­less inebriated and the establish­ments – though perhaps semi-historic is not of the historic nature that a nation would seek to preserve. Yet the average visitor, es­pecially the Americans, seem far more interested in the Irish pubs than in the Irish culture.

Another thing notable in the pub reports whether by Irish or American correspondents is the relative lack of interest in beer as such. To be sure Guinness’s activities and sometimes those of other breweries were chronicled, for example when Harp lager was launched in 1960, or when Guinness staff went on strike in the early 70s.

But apart from noting regularly the founding year of Guinness, there was little interest in porter and stout as drinks: their origins, their changes over the years, nothing of that order. Guinness was respected as a strong emblem of Ireland; that was enough and there was no need to deconstruct the drink as became usual after international beer writing started in from about 1975.

Harp lager was greeted with great interest for being something new from Ireland. Its Continental inspiration was noted but not considered inapt for a stout- and ale-drinking country. It must be said Guinness smoothed matters along by trumpeting the drink as Hibernian to the max, as you see here:

Blarney, did they say?

It’s all good, to use a non-Irish expression. (Or it was).

Little was said in the Advocate of Irish whiskey except to note sometimes in the pub you could get a “half-one”, I assume a small drink vs. a double.* Today no touristic coverage of Ireland is complete without a charge into the distilleries old and new. Inevitably the visitor rhapsodizes over a style, single malt Irish, that isn’t particularly Irish to begin with.

I think at bottom this means, the Irish themselves and their wiser relations overseas have always been pragmatic about the country. If building pub interiors for the world gave jobs to Irish workers and contributed to a benign image for Eire, all the better.

If chilled lager, or single malt whiskey, ended by pleasing the Irish equally or more to stout or the old single pot still whiskey, bring them on.

All countries are like this in their organic development, and will refuse to be pigeon-holed except, of course, where it might be to their advantage. The development of tourism has perhaps had this effect in Ireland. But so too has it in England, Scotland, Canada, San Francisco, Venice, and … where has it not?

North Korea, maybe, but that’s no recommendation.

Note re images: the images and quotation above are from the Fulton History newspaper archive, with source for each linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*I should qualify this to state that there are numerous articles in the Advocate from the early 1950s addressing whether Irish distillers should attempt the U.S. market, where they had almost no sales at the time. One solution recommended to them was to blend their straight pot still whisky, to lighten it in the fashion of blended Scotch, but they (commendably) resisted. Today the major regular brands of Irish whiskey are blended – Jameson, Powers and the like, but such blending only came in in the late-1970s. I meant in the text that as for beer, comment is rarely offered (that I found) by the consumer on whiskey choice in Ireland, comparative flavours, ways of serving, etc.