Wednesday 21 March 2007

Will Ireland survive the loss of the rural pub?

When I lived in Connemara, I used to frequent (the old) Keogh's pub in Ballyconneely.
I was green back then, and by that I don't mean pure unadulterated paddy: I mean that, as an Englishman new to an Irish village, I smiled a lot, kept my head down, myself to myself (with the notable exception of the local Chelsea posse) and pretty much did what I was told.
Soon I learned the hierarchy inherent in the place. Older people scored much respect, but if you managed to be old, cantankerous and loud, you stole the show.
"EeenglishmMAN! EeeeenglishmMAN!"
There I was, sitting at the bar, minding my own business, when a fella who fitted all the above criteria suddenly pointed his finger at me, and sat there yelling.
"EeeenglishMAN! You will be my TAXI!!! You will be my TAXI tonight! You will drive me HOME!"
Right then. So that's me driving him home then. Hmm, got that. Wonder when he's going to want to leave. Ah well. Better just wait... tum te tummm...
Over the following months, I got to know the older gentleman in question, alongside all his peers, a dark-clad club of septua- and octogenarians, who appeared to be in the pub all day every day.
To me they became the Manly Brethren of the Bar. I had no idea how they drank so much; where the money came from; when they ate, washed or saw daylight.
But I knew how himself was getting home. I was his taxi, and after an interminable wait on that first night, I quickly learned to suppress my humility and earn some respect by tapping him on the shoulder and informing him that his taxi was ready and it was now or never.
Every rural Irish pub had its Manly Brethren of the Bar, and now, as we know, they are gone, victims (depending on how you look at it) of either the smoking ban and the clampdown on drinking and driving, or of smoking and drinking and driving.
Whatever the reason, Ireland faces a real problem. A very Irish problem.
As an ancient nation and a young country, Ireland is born out of paradox, and presently faces a serious and essentially Irish dilemma:
Is it wrong to drink and drive? Yes.
Will the rural Irish pub survive in the wake of the smoking ban and the introduction of random breathalysing? No.
You really have to live in the country to fully understand the significance of the loss of a local pub. In a lonely geography, where depression and isolation stalk the cloud and rain, the rural pub has always been the sole source of social sanctuary.
Indeed, your colyoomist would have lost his sanity, gone doolally fifty times over in Co. Mayo, chewing the wall and up the ceiling, way beyond this twittery nutsoid state you endure each week, had I not been able to nip up Sweeney's, Golden's, Declan's, Lynn's, Gilvarry's, Danno's, McHale's.
Now only a few of those remain.
But even when the craic was mighty, when the bar was filled with friends and everyone was getting plastered into the bargain, I would suffer the slagging of my drinking buddies and drive home after a couple of pints.
Can't help it. Maybe it's just inbuilt if you're English. Believe me, I'm no goody-goody. There are rakes of laws I break every day, along with the rest of ye, but I just don't want to lose my licence. Or kill anyone.
Of course I knew I wasn't going to get stopped by the Gardai. The two availiable were patrolling an area the size of Texas, and they only set up checkpoints on Bank Holidays and Christmas. And even then it was always just over the bridge from my house, so I wasn't going to get nicked.
On a couple of occasions I stayed and got lathered, thinking I would risk it, only to find myself being driven to my door by the landlord of the pub.
He insisted drily that he was only investing in his future custom
I knew better. Vot a Mensch.
But what is to be done? The auld fellas and their forty pints of stout are gone from the daytime bar. People are buying beer in bulk down Lidl and Aldi, living it up in their living rooms and avoiding the taxi queue.
Out in the wilds, pubs are disappearing like melting snow, and nobody seems to be facing the problem head-on.
It seems to me there are only two routes available, and one target in mind.
There are millions of houses at the end of long bohreens, and if people are to leave their cars at home, they need to be picked up and dropped home by a network of small people carriers, MPV's and minibuses.
Either the government officially recognises the threat to rural communities, isolated households and local economies, and subsidises an extensive network of publicly-owned vehicles (somewhat unlikely, methinks), or the breweries themselves will have to supply the means with which to deliver their customers to the point of consumption, and perchance be offered excise relief as financial compensation.
Such a service could be useful to some people who should never be on the roads at all, sober or drunk. Include hundreds of suicidal cyclists who insist on being lightless and invisible at night, as well as the auld fella who drove a white Escort van all the way to the village at 4 mph.
I drove behind him going apoplectic. On the pavement in the village was an 80Something friend of mine who told me she hadn't had such a good laugh for ages.
"Whoooh-hooo-hooh! I was watching you stuck behind yer man. He's blind!"
"Bloody right!"
"No, I mean he is blind! Lost his sight altogether! Says he has driven that road all his life, knows it off by heart, so he does!"
According to the United Nations, the world's population is neatly cleft in two, between rural and urban dwellers. 3.2 billion of us live in rural areas; 3.2 billion in cities.
In Ireland it would be a cultural disaster and national disgrace if good people stayed silent while rural pubs became extinct.
Gandhi once said that the real India was 'in the villages'.
Well, the real Irish still live in the Townlands, but they are no longer in the pub.

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