The Rural Pub

The family-run public house remains an integral part of Ireland’s social fabric.

God be with the days when decent hours, decent darts and decent prices were the order of the day in the licenced premises dotted around Dublin city. God be with the day when most of them were family-run businesses run by salt-of-the earth type people who were racy of the soil which put a spring in their step as chislers.

Times have changed in Ireland over the last 20 years - big time. Things have changed, changed utterly in the licenced game in particular. ‘The local’ is as conspicuous as a pub by the same name while a ‘home from home’ hostelry is a catch all phrase from a marketing handbook only.

The bigger, urban areas of Ireland have lost a lot of the informality, homeliness and familiarity of yesteryear and the pubs located therein have suffered as a consequence in their bids to be all things to all men (and women). Rural Ireland though still retains that sense of camarderie and conviviality so redolent of the licenced business trade back in God’s oul time.

Rural Ireland is not dead and gone and with O’Leary in the grave. Even non-drinkers should be thankful that that’s the case too because that’s where the heart of Ireland lies . . and that’s where the the pub business - so beloved of men, masters, musicans and malcontents - still thrives even in spite of the ravages of commercialisation, superpubs and the modern phemomenon of off-licences.

The family-run public house remains though an integral part of Ireland’s social fabric and despite the changing times, the number of pubs spread across the length and breadth of the country remains, for the most part, unaltered.

Rural Ireland has chosen to hold on to its pubs and while the nature of the ownership of our favourite inns and hostelries has changed somewhat with more and more pubs being leased by eager wanabees, by and large Ireland’s pub business has retained its trademark intimacy and welcoming ambience as well as its reputation for providing a veritable home from home for young and old alike.
The well-documented so-called proliferation of public houses in the village of Kilnaleck in Co. Cavan, for instance, isn’t quite so unique as some have made out.

Forty years ago, the cosy Cavan town boasted fourteen pubs. That number declined to a low of nine in the interim but in the last 20 years, eleven pubs have for the most part. provided the best of service to aficionados of fine wines and beverages.
Currently Kilnaleck plays host to nine pubs with one pub ‘cum hardware store closing some years back and two other pubs being merged into one pretty large premises.

As with the changing face of the pub industry elsewhere, the pub game in Kilnaleck has seen a greater concentration of stand-alone pubs with little in the way of auxillary businesses operating from the same premises. Specialisation seems to be the name of the pub game in Kilnaleck and other towns of a similar size in deepest Ireland.

For example Oldcastle in Co. Meath, just ten miles up the road from Kilnaleck and with a opulation of about 500 is currently home to 11 pubs (there used to be 14 back in the sixties) with little or no change in the ownership of those pubs over the last 20 years and no change at all in their number.

Leaving aside the obligatory Paddywhackery which places like Kilnaleck have been victim of by elements within the media over the years, the pub culture in rural Ireland is almost like the drumlins of Cavan themselves - unchanging, part of the landscape and undeniable racy of Ireland Inc.
Kilnaleck has retained its quota of pubs - however disproportinate - despite the healthy competition for drinkers that exists in the locale. Like many another rural area of Ireland, county Cavan is well endowed with small towns with big numbers of pubs.

Up the road some three miles from Kilnaleck, the sleepy hamlet of Mountnugent has three pubs all to itself; three miles the other direction, Crosskeys also boasts three while five miles removed from Kilnaleck, the town of Ballinagh has eight hostelries and in nearby Finea in Co. Westmeath, those partial to alcholic and non-alchoholic beverages alike have seven pubs to proffer their custom.
Competition is the lifeblood of any trade and the pub trade in rural Ireland is as buoyant now as it was 40 years ago when the proverbial grocery/hardware shop adjoined almost every single pub in the town/village.

Competition these days is arguably much more rife now between pub owners in neighbouring towns/villages because of greater means of transport and much higher levels of disposable income among the general populace. For this reason, it is not expected that the number of pubs in Kilnaleck will ever increase again to its former high of 14.

Pubs in rural Ireland can still bank on a core of loyal customers though. In Kilnaleck, for instance, some customers don’t venture to any other pub other than the one with no television because they prefer the stimulation of conversation as the appertif to their favourite tipple rather than another instalment of a banal soap.

Publicans in rural Ireland - as opposed to superpub owners in Ireland’s large urban areas - will, of course, continue to give us all a touch of the ‘beal bocht’ and the polemicist among them will continue to rant and rave about the inherent harshness of his trade. There’s a grain of truth in such negatives though. Publicans in rural Ireland may still have the ear of the locals but they don’t have the purse of the Sultan.

The Fair Day has long since gone and the publicans of rural Ireland have never quite recovered from the loss of such a benefactor. Even the rare Fleadh Ceoil or St. Patrick’s Day Parade hasn’t quite replenished the well in that respect. And, to compound matters, the introduction of the Euro, has tarred publicans the country over as being opportunistic money-grabbers and tricksters!

Kilnaleck no longer has the Fair Day to bankroll its commercial centre. Where once the local creamery formed the hub of financial dealings there, it too has gone the way of the dodo. Another blow to the tills. Interestingly, once upon a time most of the shares in Kilnaleck Co-Op Agricultural and Dairy Society Limited were held by the town’s publicans!

For all their travails, publicans, well-heeled and poor alike, remain pillars of rural society in Ireland - a shoulder to cry on, a source of long-lost information, a fulcrum around which local gossip can hang its overcoat and the springboard for local anti-establishment civil rights movements of every shape and hue.

Of course, publicans in rural Ireland and the country’s largest sporting organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association, go together like a referee and his whistle. Where there is a GAA club, you’re likely to find at least one publican with his hand on the minutes or the jerseys.

Rural publicans have survived and even thrived not only as a result of their own ingenuity and business acumen. Publicans in rural parts of Ireland are as thick as thieves when it comes down to the nitty gritty of making sure that Joe and Josephine Soap’s tipple is well embellished with lumps of ice. No publican in rural Ireland has been known to go without ice for longer than it takes to tip either down, up or across to his next nearest Vintners Federation of Ireland member.

Rural pubs came through a lean spell in the late seventies and early nineties partly because of this innate sense of loyalty to one another and the successful co-existence of the many publicans in the outer reaches of Ireland’s rural heartland has helped in part to rejuvenate a lot of Ireland’s villages and towns.

People in small towns and villages have traditionally leant on their local pub for solace and comfort in times of hardship. Some people may have decided to drink all the way to Skid Row in the process of searching for a feeling of togetherness and community but publicans have refused to be accountable for anything other than the products and services they provide . .and rightly so.

Ireland’s small pubs in Ireland’s small towns and villages have provided a social service for donkey’s years. As the long-lost and much loved tradition of people visiting their neighbours for a ‘ceili’, the local pub has instinctively moved into fill the subsequent void.

Still, there is reliable information to suggest that the older folk aren’t quite as inclined these times to venture forth to their local. The recently modern drink-driving regulations have had a major effect in that regard.

The custom and practice of consuming alcohol during the day in rural pubs has largely died away. The decline in the number of owner-occupier pubs has meant that very often a relative stranger is in situ behind the counter and relative strangers aren’t exactly renowned for their capacity to rhyme off the seed, breed and generation of the locals as a local might wish. As they say in the vernacular, he doesn’t really know the lie of the land.

The pub game is not everyone’s cup of tea but the taste of what it offers to visitors and locals alike across Ireland has proven to be a winning formula for many, many years. Rural Ireland and the pub culture go together like bacon and cabbage. And there’s no sign of any diminution in the love affair either.