By Francine Cunningham
Ireland’s public houses may be world renowned, but time spent abroad has only strengthened the mixed feelings I have about Irish pub culture. As a young journalist in Dublin, I used to make excuses not to join the crowd who would go straight to the pub after work and stay there until closing time. The idea of spending six or more hours in an over-crowded and (then) smoke-filled bar, knocking back pints with no food, while everyone around me got louder and drunker, was never my idea of a good time.
Just walk through Dublin city streets on a Saturday morning, dodging the patches of vomit on the pavement, to see how these evenings typically turn out. It’s a distasteful reminder that Ireland has one of the highest consumption rates of pure alcohol in Europe. According to the Health Research Board’s National Alcohol Diary Survey, Ireland has more than 150,000 dependent drinkers, more than a 1.35 million are harmful drinkers, out of a population of 5 million people.
So, when I first moved to Paris, I instantly felt much more at ease with the French approach to alcohol. An apértif on the terrace of a cafe, or a bottle or two of wine shared with friends over dinner. Wine-loving France may also have a high proportion of problem drinkers (‘Quoi, just two glasses?’), but in general the French approach seemed healthier and more considered — less binge drinking and more la vie en rosé.
If I ever did feel like a taste of home, Irish bars on the continent also seemed gloomy and unattractive, full of uncomfortable church furniture and sticky carpets.
Yet now that I’m back in Dublin and the ‘wet’ pubs are still closed due to Covid-19 restrictions (those serving food have already re-opened), the prospect that many of these establishments will not survive the prolonged shutdown has become a source of national controversy (some would say scandal). Even for an infrequent visitor like me, it’s difficult to imagine Ireland stripped of its pub culture. Pubs play such a central role in the fabric of Irish life, especially in the countryside where they offer an essential space for people to get together.
It’s just possible, too, that this time out will give us a different perspective on our Irish pub culture. People have got used to consuming alcohol in a different way, over dinner at home with family or with a couple of close friends. So, when Irish pubs re-open, as I sincerely hope they will, maybe we shall all have outgrown the binge-drinking culture and can instead enjoy the cosy, life-affirming sense of kinship that pubs can offer in a cold, damp island in the North Atlantic.