The quaint harbour of Roundstone - the striking brink of the world. Without question, this must have been the scene where many Irish had once gazed to the unknown and wondered about its potential scope. In the beginning they knew nothing, later the promises of America laid somewhere out there luring them away. From the claws of the church, famine or just the missus’ perpetual complaints - there were surely many who saw salvation in this ceaseless reach of the sea.
It is an imagination both stupid and absurd. The docks of Roundstone faces inland to the east and even if it didn't one would end up in rugged Newfoundland if setting sails from here, far away from the fraternal Irish strongholds on the American East Coast. Still, the dramatic sceneries of this region - Connemara - encourage such fanciful diversion and as I watched the lonely anchored boats as they kept wobbling around in the crisp November morning sun, the Irish saga stood out as greener than grass. I thought to myself; this must surely be the Ireland we make up in our dreams. I leaned against the blue wooden facade of O’Dowds and suddenly Roy knocked on the window from inside the pub. Surprised I was as the time was no more than eight o'clock but also because he had just wished me and my well oiled friends good night only a couple of hours before.
“Do you care for coffee?”, he asked me as he opened the door. In fact, I did not. Thanks to the generous freebees of the Irish moonshine poitín, that Roy had served our party the night before, an acidic reflux was jumping up my throat like rude Pompei lava and anyone with the slightest idea of how to cope with such a burning condition knows that a cup of joe is not the ideal way to go. Still yes, an opportunity like this - to be let into such historical premises like O’Dowds before opening - it was not an invitation I would turn down. I took a seat at the bar as Roy poured me coffee. I looked around the dusky bar lounge and I smiled at the small bar stools that were seated upside down on the red sofa cushions as I now remembered that I had proclaimed them as the most stunning stools in the world just the night before. I looked at Roy - this kind polar bear of a publican as he showcased another bottle of that Irish strong in front of me. Of course - that fatal 8:05 morning shot, I will not dare to complain.
As the coffee and poitín kept us warm, we sat there and chatted for a while. Roy explained me the history of the pub, which had been serving pints since the 1840s but had been an O’Dowd’s family affair “only” since 1906. He himself was married into the business but by the look of it he had been so for a long time and a striking naturalness swirled around his being in the bar. I enthusiastically listened to the stout man’s accounts - everything from the pub’s old past as part grocery store (a legacy many old Irish pubs have in common) to how it once had been staged as a funeral parlour in the regrettable romantic flick The Matchmaker from 1997. And although I enjoyed this morning conversation, I must confess that I did not follow every word he said. Yes, his strong accent was at times hard to decipher but mostly I fell off track because I could not deny the distractions that ran through my mind of being where I luckily was. Because lucky I was. Forget about the lock-in - the invitation to stay at a pub after closing time, that sought-after custom which many Guiness-reaking pub weekenders that come to Ireland regard as beer belly nirvana. I had nestled my way into a storybook shrine of Irish pub culture and here I was, modestly top of the morning with publican Roy. It was a new take and a fresh scent of a pub. In one corner, a dripping broom kept waiting to be swept around the floor. Outside, nothing but a sleepy coastal village, still in bed with the Saturday edition of the Galway Daily and a glass of freshly squeezed grape. In here, a ballet of dust particles were dancing around the intruding sunlight like they had all studied at Julliard. It was quite a scene, this Irish dream.
Besides being a bit tipsy and aroused, I left Roy and O’Dowds as a convinced man. Surely, the famous writers of this island had not been exaggerating its beauty and to truly grasp these patriotic superlatives, the Irish pub could not be surpassed for what it really is; the obvious core of it all. Still, the pubs of Ireland had done little to convince anyone since me and my friends had set foot on this isle. In fact, instead of embracing us in an emerald warmth of convivial gemeinschaft and an island spirit known to the world as both charmingly carefree but still pleasantly torn, all that had been given was an over-filled bladder of black stout and unforeseen malaise. During our days on Ireland I had wondered; where was that glorified craic that is rumoured to glue the most disparate people together, that democratic simplicity that can only be found within the publican’s turf and what about that Irish aptitude of enchantment, supposed to lead us all into what one Irish legend once sang out as “into the mystic? I was confused. What I had witnessed was nothing but a modern country as neo-liberally cynical as my own, fuelled by the same indifferent principles of shallow opportunism and hollowed out by the same mutable void. Fairytale Ireland seemed to no longer exist. All that was left was a romantic exploitation of what it once had been, now catered to Spanish Ryanair-tourists in practical boots and fat Scandinavian male midlifers straight on their way to the Museum of Guinness, of course on the company’s expense. And in the middle of this nonsense; the Irish pubs - the obvious core of it all.
This dissatisfying outcome was of course my own fault. Blinded by the Irish pubs’ fabled reputation, I had approached them by being naively overconfident about their cultural supremacy and subsequently I had not done enough homework before leaving home. This ignorance did not send me to the dreadful abyss of Temple Bar - I am not a quack - but neither did it respond to any ludicrous figments of revelling the day away with the thirsty ghosts of The Dubliners. Sure, some “trophy pubs” were pleasant encounters but not much more than that. Truth to be told, Irish pub culture appeared more and more as an O’Topian dream.
Bill Barich would relate to this angst. He is an American writer who, after spending a lifetime of romanticising the Irish pub as a cultural phenomenon, decided to move to Ireland in order to fully locate and understand it in its purest form. Doped by such nostalgic stereotypes as those depicted in John Ford’s classic movie The Quiet Man, where John Wayne spends most of the time binging with the jovial locals at pub Pat O’Cohen in the village of Cong, Barich set out on an enviable journey and visited pubs all over the isle, an excursion that became the topic of his brilliant book A Pint of Plain. To dismay and surprise, Barich found both the state of Ireland and its pubs to be far from what he had envisioned from the start. Gone was the traditional, the genuinely “true” and unspoilt, all swallowed up by the economic and cultural transformation that the booming years of the Celtic Tiger triggered two decades ago.
Barich’s desperate quest for the archetypal Irish pub reveals both a paradoxical, sad and fascinating turn of events. Today, the concept of the Irish pub has conquered the world and all the way from Bruges to Bangalore one can almost always be sure to find another outpost with the shamrock on its walls. The Irish pub has become a global affair and hand in hand with Guinness it may very well be the biggest cultural export that the Irish bestow to the world (stomach-churning nineties-pop does not even come close). Logically, this makes a prosperous trade and as Barich highlights, there is a myriad of companies out there aiming to provide a parched market with the essential tools of how to make green from green. Everything from furniture and bric-a-brac to the consulting service on how to pour the perfect pint - The Irish pub as a commodity can be sold in multiple ways even though it is most often packaged as a whole.
The pattern is actually rather striking. British research has it that just to rename an ordinary pub with an Irish name, there is instantly a ten percent profit margin to be made. That’s how strong and lucrative the mystique around Irish pub culture really can be. The crazy part is however that meanwhile the global crusade of Irish pubs keeps claiming one new territory after the other, the mother island sees a trend that turns the opposite way. While it is actually Italy that contains the highest growth per capita in the world of Irish pubs, on Ireland another one of the roughly ten thousands pubs closes down by each day. And what is fascinatingly absurd is that Nigeria has become Guinness’s second greatest consumer market (The UK is ranked first) before the country where it was originally from and of course most associated with. It doesn't take a Nobel laureate in economics to understand what is really going on. Ireland is changing and with it the Irish pub. Rapid modernisation, lifestyle changes and new consumer patterns amongst the young. There are many reasons why such a thing of tradition is struggling hard to survive. And as Barich lamentably observes, something is lost in all of this and not only in quantitative ways. As profits gets harder to attain while real estate prices are heading to the roof or the countryside clientele just choose to move elsewhere, those old family run pubs are being bought up by faceless multi-publicans who see the pub as just any other random business plot. Bit by bit the local, the unique and the particular disappears only to be substituted by already-made toasties or another monster of a flat screen to quiet the craic.
Both me and Barich stand petrified in front of all of this. Of course we are. We are both neurotic lovers of the lost and in worked-up nervousness we fall into sentimental vertigo as the dominion of the globalised world reaches another stronghold. And now even good ol’ Ireland? If even the renowned spell of this mythical island can be broken, is there really anything left? In an exoticising and near racist desperation, we tear our hair out (well not Barich, he is incurably bald) as liquid modernity leaves us nonplussed and abandoned on the side of the road. With a begrudging contempt we battle to accept that the Irish also have the same rights as anyone else to move on. Because what is it really around Irishness that implies it to stand outside the benefits of change? Ungenerously and with an almost sadistic touch, both me and Barich reluctantly observe the Irish people as they enjoy another way of life. It is as if we cry inside when we recognise the drunken stereotypes of Angela’s Ashes as nothing but a bad memory. Today the Irish are seemingly past that, munching on imported cold cuts while sipping on gaudy Amarone wine. They head to the gym instead of the pub and perhaps they will just stay home on a Friday to watch a Netflix movie in their newly constructed designer flat. And if the chance is being given, then the unfailing publican may rather see his children off to university instead of taking over a pub that nobody no longer seems to care about. End of saga.
All of this got me rethinking Roundstone. What on earth was I actually longing for that morning and does that dreamlike reverie even exist? Of course not. Because although the Connemara weather is still rustic and grim, there is not much about Roundstone today that brings to mind any old-school Irish hardship to senselessly romanticise about. Once upon a time this village might have been a lively fishing port of some sort but what once could have been an isolated countryside affair far away from the clamorous outside world in frantic change, has today evolved into something completely else. Sure, the low-season of cold November might give a deceiving impression of this being a forgotten Celtic Shangri-la but during the warm summer months an invasion of well-off Dubliners make this their urban seaside refuge out of town. Naturally, they flock O’Dowds as it is the obvious epicentre of Roundstone but also to enjoy the fabulous fish and seafood that is being served in the dining room behind the bar. Yes, O’Dowds is probably one of Irelands safest bets to enjoy a fresh catch and an extensive menu covers everything from fresh lobster to bay mussels in coconut cream.
Coconut cream? In their grave, Brendan Behan and the gang would sober up in panic if they knew what was going on at the pubs on the Irish countryside of today. Looking at the selection of semi-microbrews being offered alongside the imported plagues of Heineken and Carlsberg, they would probably also drop dead again on the spot. And a bit embarrassingly, I have to admit that a confused conservative as myself do to. With risk of of coming out as bigoted silly, I remember how I raised my eyebrows to the fact that the kind waitress at O’Dowds was in fact from Bulgaria and not a country hick girl from Roundstone. Oh, these cruel disappointments in life. Here we were enjoying a perfect meal of Irish make-believe after cosying up in front of the fire while drinking Guinness in the snug and this Bulgarian con artist destroys it all by being something that doesn't match the worn-out cliché. Shame on her.
No, shame on me. And shame on Bill Barich. In our well-intentioned but detrimental attempts of commemorating this pub culture we perceive as jeopardised and at risk, we create a monster of fabrication much more ugly than the conceptualised Irish pub machine. And what is even worse is that this ogre of ours walks around and pities himself and this world. A pathetic response, that’s what it is. Why can’t we just enjoy our black pint as intended to be? And why can’t we allow ourselves to breath in the misty morning without dissecting it all the way through the afternoon? Ireland is beautiful, so has it always been and so will it always be. Let us just ease back and enjoy it for what it is. Let us live its coast and its villages. Let us savour its oysters and its crabs. Let us befriend its thousands publicans. One of them is Roy. And let us visit O’Dowds. It has got warmth and it is genuinely good. It is not the Ireland we make up in our dreams, it is the Ireland we meet for real.
Where? Main Street, Roundstone, Co. Galway, Irland