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Ireland’s rural pub trade is collapsing (March ’11 edn)

By Éibhir Mulqueen

The village of Annascaul on the road to Dingle in Co Kerry is notable for two distinctive pubs: one, The South Pole Inn, was owned by the famous Antarctic explorer Tom Crean; the other, Dan Foley’s, was run by a retired magician. The pub’s garish pink, blue and red façade is famous for its picture of a gas cylinder and the words “it’s an illusion”, painted on as a magician’s hologram, was a staple of the Real Ireland Design postcard series. Both venues have entertained locals and visitors over the years. But the famous epigram now hints at a deeper, more profound meaning: Foley’s has been on the books of a Tralee auctioneers for the past four years, its colours are fading and the “Guinness is good for you” enamel sign is rusting. You can still purchase the original postcard on eBay but the more recent pictures available online of a slowly decaying premises with a ‘for sale’ sign now reflect a more up-to-date real Ireland.

Closure has been the fate of 1,300 pubs throughout Ireland over the past five years or at the rate of nearly one per day, as the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), representing 4,500 rural publicans, points out, while the return of mass emigration in rural areas means the outlook is bleak.

In the past three years alone, Co Cork has lost 90 pubs, double the number of the counties with the next greatest losses, Kerry and Galway, which each lost 46. Mayo, Limerick, Donegal and Clare have also have seen high closure numbers. In contrast, Meath and Kildare have increased their pub numbers, if only by a small number as they benefit from the numbers living on the commuter belt.

Along with local shops and post offices – around 600 sub post offices have closed in the past ten years – pubs have been an essential part of village life, a meeting point for friends and a place that have delighted foreign tourists, where they felt less of a walking commodity and more of a visitor having a genuine experience.

Eileen Percival, a native of Annascaul who returned from England twelve years ago to lease the South Pole, tells a familiar tale of struggle, changed drinking habits and people less willing to pay for meals. She was employing seven staff up to three years ago during the summer. “Any staff that go I am not replacing them. I am just doing it myself because I cannot afford to. Times are really tough.”

The effect is not just on the hundreds of family-run businesses that kept small numbers employed over generations. Apart from reducing Ireland’s appeal to visitors, pub closures amount to a loss of a social forum, most keenly felt by single, elderly men.

President McAleese has highlighted how rural isolation is now a major social problem for older men in particular. “Yeats once said that this ‘is no country for old men’. I want to be sure he was wrong”, she said at a forum on the issue four years ago while pointing out that older men are now the second most at risk suicide group after young males. In some areas this has been reversed. South Kerry coroner Terence Casey pointed out recently that in his region most suicides since 2005 were among older age groups.

“We have had a lot of discussions about this at our regional meetings. What has been identified is a male group typically aged between 50 and 80,” says Ted Tierney, deputy chief executive of Mental Health Ireland.

“The disappearance of the rural pub and the drink driving laws is impacting on them.

“With the closure of these pubs, their only social outlet in some cases is gone.”

His organisation promotes a befriending project but he also underlines the need for a rural transport scheme to run between 9pm and midnight. “If you could walk to your pub and that closes, the next one could be four or six miles away,” he says.

Meanwhile, the GAA Social Initiative began as a result of the President’s talk and is a reach-out project aiming to have every GAA club participating in social activities, often in a local pub if there is no clubhouse. Seán Kilbride, project manager for the initiative, has 90 clubs involved so far and hopes to have 150 by the year’s end that involve elderly men and, ultimately, all sections of the community in GAA social activities.

“We do not want to be too formulaic. We would be a reminder to clubs that this should be a natural part of their philosophy”, he says.

The VFI has campaigned for dedicated smoking rooms, reduced bureaucracy and lower rates to help pub owners, while pointing out that drinking at home often creates more problems than drinking in a pub. It wants a ban on supermarkets selling below-cost alcohol, an issue also taken up by grocery group RGDATA which refers to Tesco “selling beer cheaper than water”.

The pub is as much an institution in Britain and there the trend is similar. One in ten pubs has closed in the past six years and closures are still running at 39 a week, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, which is also calling for government policies to support a sector promoting community life.

Elsewhere too there are similar developments due to crackdowns on drink driving and teen drinking as well as smoking bans. In France food rather than alcohol has traditionally been at the centre of French community life and there family-run restaurants and bistros, along with café and bars have fallen by the wayside, as smokers are nudged outside and the ‘le fast food’ culture takes hold. In 1960 there were 200,000 cafés but that number was down to 38,600 by 2009, according to the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques. Common factors in all countries are changing habits, urbanisation, the selling power of corporations and strictly-enforced drinking laws which have turned the traditional liberating effect of the car on its head.

Annascaul is still unusual for having a few pubs to choose from. As well as the South Pole, you can also drop into Herlihy’s, Falvey’s, Brofnan’s or Hanafin’s, although these last four only open in evening time, an increasingly common option for pubs that struggle to remain open.

But the village is also distinctive for presenting a brash, new kind of drinking den that provides a vision of the future. The VFI points out that “Irish pubs have been replicated worldwide – but the best of them are here in Ireland”. But the Randy Leprechaun, in bright green colours, is more of a transplant of the commoditised ‘Irish’ pub that has sprung up in capitals worldwide. A hostel cum bar with an in-your-face style, many backpackers evidently find it attractive. Kerry County Council had the brash murals outside removed but, inside, signs warn that the management take no responsibility for virginity lost on the premises. Here, even symbols of the recent violent political past are seconded to entertainment: There is a running competition for the number of ‘car bombs’ ­- a mix of Guinness, Bailey’s and whiskey – you can drink. As part of the Paddywagon group’s chain of tourist accommodation, it offers part of the ersatz tourism experience of viewing an increasingly denuded Ireland in two, six or ten days from behind the glass of a Mercedes Sprinter.