Ye are About to Witness the Return of the Old-fashioned Irish pub

Note: the post below was originally put up in October, 2018. I am re-posting it, simply to reflect stylistic improvements, there is no change otherwise. Also, at time of writing, the Fulton History newspaper archive is down, so links to it will not work. Periodically it is down so site owner can perform maintenance. Look in again in a few days, likely Fulton will be back.

Irish Pub: Tradition, Mutation, Adaptability

I proposed a distinction between early Irish pubs in North America, founded by Hibernian arrivals or continued by their progeny, and a later, more Americanized version. A history of Chicago Irish pubs by Ilison Hantschel will assist 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 of Manhattan which had mostly disappeared, even by then.

The Mark II version may have been started by someone of no Irish background, or who purchased a pub from Irish-Americans, or maybe an Irish-American long assimilated.

A third stage emerged with the onset c.1990 of the Irish Pub Concept. Dublin architect and designer Mel McNally, in concert with Guinness/Diageo, were the principal movers. McNally, seen in this YouTube clip in 2011, gives a good overview of IPC and how thousands Irish pub interiors were shipped around the world.

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

A fourth stage of the Irish or Celtic pub that I would identify is the craft version, of which a number exists in Toronto. Indeed we have examples of pubs in all four categories. A good pub is down to the actual experience, regardless of category, something that cannot be defined in advance, indeed for any food or drinking place.

The categories are fluid to a degree, and proposed for convenience, but broadly hold, in my opinion. This is based not just on considerable reading and reflection but practical pub experience in Toronto, Montreal, New York, London, Paris, and elsewhere.

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



Condon was a regular letter-writer to the Advocate. He must have been about 60, 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 – and on pubs and beer, evidently. He recalled how bottled Guinness (i.e., Foreign Extra Stout) was served in Manhattan in the 1930s.

The Advocate printed many articles on Irish history and culture. At least in the 1950s-1970s, the period covered by my review, the paper 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. Into the 1970s at least, a close connection with an ethnic pub entailed knowing the owner well, who was a key part of one’s social network. Condon felt more at home with an owner of his background, and expressed the 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 pubs in Ireland, the model for the bars Condon admired. Most of these articles were complimentary and often quite funny.

One describes customers’ surprise at 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 toys on their gladdened souls. The writer remarks, the jar the next night foregone.

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

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 articles pointed out differences from American tavern customs for 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.

Not all the treatments were adoring/affectionate. A 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, at least beyond its just place in Irish culture.

Not just that, he offered the opinion that, in general, Irish pubs in New York were superior! No doubt this was expressed more safely than had he done so in an Irish bar, on 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 these pub reports, whether by Irish or American reporters, is the lack of interest in beer as such. To be sure, Guinness’ and sometimes other brewers’ doings were chronicled, for example in 1960 when Harp Lager was launched, or for Guinness strike in the early 1970s.

But apart from reciting regularly the founding year of Guinness, little interest in porter and stout as drinks was shown. Their origins, changes over the years, even strength, aroused no comment.

Guinness was respected as a known emblem of Ireland. Beyond that, nothing comparable to the attention given by international beer writing once it got going after 1975.

Harp lager, to be sure, was greeted in the Advocate with good interest, but for being something new from Ireland. Its Continental origins were noted but not considered incongruous in a stout and ale-drinking country. Smoothing matters along, the drink was trumpeted as Hibernian to the max:


Blarney, did they say?

Little was said in the Advocate of Irish whiskey except that sometimes in the pub you could get a “half-one”, I assume a small drink vs. a double. Today, no touristic description of Ireland is complete without an ink-laden charge into distilleries venerable and spanking new.

I think at bottom all this means, the Irish and their wiser counterparts overseas were, and are, pragmatic about the country. If building “authentic” pub interiors for the world gave jobs to Irish workers, and contributed to a benign image for Ireland, all the better.

If chilled lager ended pleasing the Irish equally or more to the traditional stout, bring it on.

All countries are like this at bottom really, at least capitalist ones, and the others don’t count. Tourism perhaps has had doubtful effects in Ireland but it is equally so in England, Scotland, Canada, California, Italy, and … where is it different? The advantages to those directly concerned are felt, clearly, to outweigh the costs.

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.



4 thoughts on “Ye are About to Witness the Return of the Old-fashioned Irish pub”

  1. As a New Yorker, the main advantage of “Irish” bars is often the presence of draft Smithwick’s Ale, the best approximation of an English bitter in the states. The only other commonly seen draft bitter of Boddingtons Ale, which seems to be a poor copy what it was before brewery consolidation changed the recipes of most mass market British ales.

    • Thanks, speaking then of the non-craft side of things.

      The Fuller keg beers are probably available here and there though? In the English equivalent of the Irish pubs perhaps.

        • Thanks, that does surprise me. I think perhaps the trad English pubs have withered over the years in the city, due perhaps to craft? There were a couple IIRC on 3rd Avenue, one up in Yorkville, you would know the name I think. Sounds like an opportunity for an entrepreneur. Indeed some English real ale has been brought into the US as well. B United was doing this I think.

          Just as with the Irish pub, I think there will always be a market for this conception of pub, so not craft as such although it could carry some craft too.


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