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Guest of The Nation

By 33230715130361 On August 9th, 2020

My wife’s family has a small farm in the Irish Midlands. Usually the house sits empty until she and the kids go over in the summer. I usually join them for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t get to join up with them last summer and was looking forward to going this year. Then the pandemic knocked everything for a loop. It is a shame as I enjoy the fun of renewing friendships and seeing the familiar places.

The last operating pub in one of the nearby villages has shut down. Rural Ireland’s pubs, especially off the tourist routes had been fighting many a losing battle that the lock down served as a last straw. It is unlikely to return. I can remember being in it after a family funeral with probably the entire village. We had dug the grave with a shovel the night before, passed a bottle of whiskey round, and after we carried the coffin on our shoulders from the church down the narrow street to the graveyard for the burial we then repaired to the pub for a session out of legend. It had a bar and a lounge, and enough characters to fill three novels and two short stories.

The country has been changing and the practical ability to run a rural pub has diminished. A shame, I’ve been in ones that doubled as grocery stores, post offices, petrol stations and undertakers. The publicans usually had diplomatic skills to rival anyone, and served not just as hosts but as adept listeners, talkers, and performers. As a stranger you might enter into a quiet gathering (while they figured you out) but you would leave late, as if you had a reunion with lifetime companions. The patrons were neighbors for generations. The local was as holy ground to them as any ground they ever walked upon. If you did something stupid in London or funny in the Bronx they would somehow be talking about it before the sun set the next day. And the old stories were told time and again as if the fading years had not faded.

Change comes to all things, it is perhaps the one certainty of life. But we who grow older need not welcome it. Next year God willing I’ll have to drive a few more kilometres into the bigger town, and even there the score of pubs that used to be open when I first went twenty years ago are down to a handful. The small shops closing if not closed. Modern life, not just modern highways, are bypassing these small towns. I’m glad I experienced it all before it disappeared. The desperate gastro-themed-craft-beer-pushing-faux-farm-implements on the walls of the modern sterile replicas leave me cold. Come ye back? I surely will. But it will be with a wistful ache for what is no longer there.

37 Responses to “Guest of The Nation”

  1. A beautiful read , might i suggest write that up into a short story , with a bit more on the stories told in the oub, add in a few characters, some landscape , food and fishing, music singing and that’s enough. Many publications Irish-centric would look at it and you never know. published : something to tell the kids and grandkids , if not its for your own joy and pleasure

    just one note, I was on the way to Iona last year, very remote place , and Oban town is the departure point for island visits; there was a weatherspoons there : “The desperate gastro-themed-craft-beer-pushing-faux-farm-implements on the walls of the modern sterile replica”
    But it was fine, near the ferry, clean loos, lots of power-points to recharge phones and laptops, Guinness brought to me and eggs benedict, friendly and low cost .
    I missed the rural, but at least the mens loo said “Fir” on it 🙂

  2. Very good, mahons.

  3. nice post

  4. As was said by someone else, the virus is more speeding up the rate of change rather than being the cause of the change.

    Maybe three or four decades ago, people in the rural areas would have shopped for foot in tiny shops. Now, there would be large supermarkets all over with very good selection and low prices.

    A lot of the young left for Dublin and didn’t come back, and those who stay are just as busy as those elsewhere.

    The pub with farm implements thing is of course not an old thing. I think that Guinness has had a business shipping that decor to pubs all over for ages now.

    Don’t look down on the craft beer. I love Guinness as much as the next guy, but there’s more than one type of beer. Respect tradition but don’t be trapped by it.

  5. the pub with farm implements thing is of course not an old a new thing. I think that Guinness has had a business shipping that decor to pubs all over for ages now.

  6. I flew out of JFK last Wednesday evening. There were less than 50 on the flight which arrived about a half hour early. In Dublin the guy quickly checked my Irish passport and did not even look at the form for 14 days self-isolation. Sine I will be at my place in County Armagh self-isolation is not a problem. People wear masks and observe social distancing everywhere. Overall the Irish are handling the virus quite well, they appreciate safety and act accordingly. I see more plastic face guards than in NY.

    You are probably right about the fate of small Irish pubs. After all, sociability without distancing is their essence. But before the virus they were adversely affected by other problems such as strict drink driving enforcement, the cheaper cost of products in supermarkets and the societal change of less nights out. Unfortunately most of them will be but memories.

    Nobody knows how things will stand when the pandemic is eradicated. In Ireland no one expects it to end very soon and people will carry on observing recommended safety suggestions.

  7. Mahons

    This is my first visit here for years, expecting to see something that might pique my anger, instead I saw your post, so well written and evoking my experience of that part of Ireland.

    I spent every childhood summer through the late 60’s to adulthood in a south Laois village, my mother’s home and now I live in a rural coastal village in Waterford.

    The pubs and publicans were just as you’ve described them, the institution of “pub” served communities so well and it’s tragic how one thing followed by another consigned it to history. The current crisis is the death knell to a lot of those pubs that got this far, their bars for generation propped up by working and retired men with no other social outlet.

    Anyway thanks again.

  8. I second Daithi. Great post on the tragic passing of the traditional Irish pub. NewYorker mentions some of its most important killers. I could add the smoking ban, but generally the main reason is that that Ireland of which they were a microcosm has passed or is passing along with the pub – killed by prosperity and more independence, a more open society where people decide freely how their lives are to be lived at home, internationalisation (whether American or European), a lot of PC, health-awareness etc.

    Because there was also a darker lining to pub culture, and the Ireland of the old days had many faults, bitterness and sometimes inhumanity, of which mahon’s title should remind us, that people are now desperately trying to escape from.

    But overall it’s a severe loss. What is Ireland without the local pub and all the crack and stories and joking. From a purely economic pov, if this aspect of Irish hospitality were to do, tourism would also suffer, and Ireland as a destination would be litle more than an easier accessible Iceland.

  9. Thanks.

  10. Good post, Mahons.

    I was up home for a funeral at the weekend. The usual traditions were still there…but adapted for the times we live in: a wake but only a handful of close relations/friends with social distancing; condolences at the graveside expressed by a nod of the head. Very unnatural but these are the times we live in.

  11. Did the smoking ban really hurt pubs?

    Here, I don’t think that it did.

    The non smokers here very much liked the change, and the smokers didn’t seem to mind stepping out for a cigarette.

  12. there’s a huge opportunity for a chain to emerge and buy up all these places
    what we need is one that will give employment to existing people and one that will promises to maintain the character that is such an attraction to tourists and one that is reflective of the communities wishes to remain traditional .

    Trouble is this is not how it works, some yuppies schmucks in Dublin that can raise a bit of dodgy money due to “cute hoor” connections will buy up these pubs and run a low cost crappy chain , because they don’t give a fuck and are only interested in profit .

    What is possible is community goal funding , that would work
    there’s alot of loans now you can purchase from new banking apps, where people invest their money to get a return into say ecological dwellings , interesting projects, and for example traditional pubs would be a good investment .
    your money is spread around so that if one or two projects fail you don’t lose big
    the returns are in the region of 8% which is well well above a bank rate
    and whereas stocks/shares can be huge retruns/losses
    there’s something quite pleasing and spiritual about investing in a traditional irish pub 🙂

    This is something interestingly enough that you guys could help to initiate
    phantom you must have heard of some of these p2p lending sites


  13. I have, but be careful about investing with your heart, not your head, bro

    The trend to pubs/bars closing very much exists here and of course in the UK, also.

    There are noticeably fewer bars by me than there was 25 years ago, and this is a long term national trend.


  14. mahons marigold hotel
    traditional irish menu hospitality with tasty “ye olde” real ales + murphy’s and magners 😉

  15. Mahons, your writing is so good it almost goes beyond prose into poetry, as long as you stay away from the subject of the Orange Man! Well done.

  16. indeed phantom you have to offer more to make it a going concern
    the trick is to retain the old as well allow for some of the new
    there’s an incentive to get involved so as to head off the dublin yuppies by-off chains.
    If you have property there like NY’er and mahons , it becomes more of a life goal
    saving the pub , village, – but its lots of work !

  17. A lovely, evocative piece of writing. The sentiments expressed are 100% correct too, for many many years the rural pub served a community function in rural Ireland, for good & bad.

    I don’t think the smoking ban harmed pubs in Ireland and if it did the harm was negligent.

  18. Both the increased emphasis on drunk driving enforcement and I think the smoking ban (both good things) did impact the Pub culture. There were other factors as well. I’m glad the post evoked the memories of others and wasn’t just my own.

  19. Nice Post, Mahons.
    I’ve just returned from a few short days in a small, Gaeltacht area in north Donegal. Fanad is probably my favourite place in Ireland. Our family have been going there since I was very young, and I always enjoy my time there.
    I mentioned on another post that I would be having my first proper pint in the Lighthouse Tavern, or Charlie’s as it is known locally.
    The owner, the eponymous Charlie, sold the place a couple of years ago and, I’m sorry to say, the place has gone downhill.
    No longer do you get the friendly ‘hello’ on entering, from Charlie, his son, or the various Regulars at the bar. No more, “Ach, you’re back again!’ after they realise that ‘its yourself,’ on remembering you’ve been visiting for the past forty years.
    The new owner is trying to drive away the very thing which is the pub’s very lifeblood – it’s local Regulars – preferring instead to focus on enticing in the tourists who drive through, but rarely stay for more than an hour or two.
    We spent longer at the other local bar/restaurant, the Fanad Lodge, where the staff were all so friendly (as always) and where the Regulars – all ex-regulars of Charlie’s – told us some of the horror stories concerning their own adventures in trying to get one last pint at 2 minutes past closing time in the Lighthouse.
    It’s a great shame, not only that it has changed so much, but that the new owner doesn’t understand the value in and necessity of her regular trade. Who else will come in for a quiet pint or two on a cold and wet November evening?

  20. The pints after closing, the hush hush and pretend worry about the Gardi taking your name were part of the charm. I love Donegal.

  21. I stayed in the Slieve League area a couple of years ago. Breathtaking scenery and it was also an Irish Language area (could the town have been Teelin?). More European tourists than Yanks (it seemed).

  22. Do they sing the national anthem at closing time?

  23. Mahons
    Yeah, there’s Teelin, Carrick and Glencolumkille. It’s a lovely area.

    They sing the national anthem if there is entertainment on, but not if its just an ordinary, quiet night.

  24. Ourselves and another family, (the Kellys, Seimi) rented two mews converted into holiday homes in Ramelton in north east Donegal a lifetime ago. Ramelton has the name of a ‘Protestant’ town but my friend Paul and I found a bar run by Mary who was around 80 years old an lived in Beechmount in West Belfast as a youngster. She had a soft spot for Westies and made us very welcome.

    The second night we wen to the bar she was serving at two in the morning, (you’re all right lads, stay where you are), when a rap came to the door and a Gard and Gard Sargeant came into the bar and said….

    Mary, get a fry on, we’re starving.

  25. Would that be the Bridge Bar, Paul?

  26. That’s the very one, Seimi!!

  27. Classic story.

  28. Yeah, that’s a great wee bar, Paul.

    Something similar happened to my Da and his friends many years ago. They arrived in a little village in Kerry, late at night. There wasn’t a sinner on the streets, and they had nowhere to stay (2 fellas, 2 girls). My Da’s friend noticed a light in the pub, so they went over. They could hear the chatter of conversation, so they knocked on the door. The chatter stopped, and a voice called out, in Irish, ‘Who’s out there?’
    ‘Visitors from Belfast!’ shouted Da.
    The door was opened and they were welcomed in. They ordered a round and sat down in the busy pub. They got chatting to their neighbour, a large, red bearded man, whose Irish my Da identified as being from Donegal originally.
    ‘ Do you not get any bother from the Gardaí?’ asked Da, in Irish.
    ‘Well, I’m the local sergeant,’ says the redbeard. ‘So no, not really!’
    Later on, he put the two girls up in the cells in the station, though he insisted my Da and his friend sleep in the car, as they weren’t married, and that would be wrong! 😂

  29. Magnificent!

  30. //I stayed in the Slieve League area a couple of years ago.//

    Did you happen to bump into a fellow called Cara when you were there?
    Cara had a few cottages in a field around Glencar, which is near Slieve League and about half way between Killybegs and Glencolumbkille.

    Cara was like that pub full of “characters” rolled into one man. He was old but fit as a fiddle and radiated charm and energy and humour. He rented out his cottages to tourists and slept here, there and everywhere among his guests. He used to go fishing and fry up his catch for a free meal for everyone. He was a great singer in the pub.

    Like everyone else around there, he was on a tax- and funding fiddle. Apparently, they used to get benefits for keeping thatched cottages and letting them out to tourists and various other funding that I never understood. But the only thatched cottage on Cara’s land was occupied by some old geezer, one of his mates. The authorities were onto him, and would regularly send out inspectors to check if the cottage was being used for the right purpose. But he had spies everywhere and was usually one step ahead of them. The sight of the frantic Cara, when an inspection was announced, dashing around to his cottages and getting all these baffled European tourists to grab their stuff and run down to the one thatched cottage, and turf out the old geezer, is an abiding memory.
    Unfortunately Cara left us a few years ago.

  31. Alcohol excise taxes are punitive in the ROI. They’ve been killing business for decades. Excise taxes on alcohol are classist at root, imposed by city-dwelling, middle class, left liberals who disdain the idea of an evening in the pub with friends.

  32. Noel – No. We did stay in a house rented from a guy who owned a B & B and some sort of campground. He had a few places. The house was set up for the Irish Language students and had bunk beds all over which my three (then all under ten) loved. He had a donkey in the field across from the house who would charge across the filed up to the wall braying away in a hellish way that also cracked the kids up.

  33. I recall one night The Simpsons was on tv in the pub and one of the old regulars asked seriously of his fellow bachelors “Now what would yer man want to be married to a woman with that big blue head of hair on her?” They nodded in reproach at Homer’s folly, as if it wasn’t a cartoon.

  34. My niece and nephew attend the college up there every year. My brother drives them up from Galway for it. He used to work there.
    There was a pub called the Rusty Mackerel. The owner refused to speak Irish to him, even though she was fluent. I think it was bought by Mairéad ní Mhaoinigh, of Altan fame.

  35. The general consensus in my home town is that the RUC were much preferable to the PSNI when it came to late pints. Apparently they used to leave the pubs alone – Kethlic town, harmless James, more trouble than it’s worth to address. The young, earnest PSNI sergeants could take a leaf out of their book.

  36. I must say Reg, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to imagine the RUC being preferable in Caisleán Uidhilín under any circumstances.

  37. Well, now you mention it, “general consensus” might be a stretch. It’s probably more “a few people I know”. Credit where credit’s due though, Paul.

    Although, it could have been a dastardly plan to keep the fenians hungover.