Ireland's "Crack" Habit
Explaining the faux Irish pub revolution.
By Austin Kelley
Posted Thursday, March 16, 2006, at 5:44 AM ET
Ireland, as much of the world knows it, was invented in 1991. That year, the Irish Pub Company formed with a mission to populate the world with authentic Irish bars. Whether you are in Kazakhstan or the Canary Islands, you can now hear the lilt of an Irish brogue over the sound of the Pogues as you wait for your Guinness to settle. A Gaelic road sign may hang above the wooden bar and a fiddle may be lying in a corner. As you gaze around, you might think of the Irish—O, that friendly, hard-drinking, sweater-wearing people!—and smile. Your smile has been carefully calculated.
In the last 15 years, Dublin-based IPCo and its competitors have fabricated and installed more than 1,800 watering holes in more than 50 countries. Guinness threw its weight (and that of its global parent Diageo) behind the movement, and an industry was built around the reproduction of "Irishness" on every continent—and even in Ireland itself. IPCo has built 40 ersatz pubs on the Emerald Isle, opening them beside the long-standing establishments on which they were based.
IPCo's designers claim to have "developed ways of re-creating Irish pubs which would be successful, culturally and commercially, anywhere in the world." To wit, they offer five basic styles: The "Country Cottage," with its timber beams and stone floors, is supposed to resemble a rural house that gradually became a commercial establishment. The "Gaelic" design features rough-hewn doors and murals based on Irish folklore. You might, instead, choose the "Traditional Pub Shop," which includes a fake store (like an apothecary), or the "Brewery" style, which includes empty casks and other brewery detritus, or "Victorian Dublin," an upscale stained-glass joint. IPCo will assemble your chosen pub in Ireland. Then they'll bring the whole thing to your space and set it up. All you have to do is some basic prep, and voilà! Ireland arrives in Dubai. (IPCo has built several pubs and a mock village there.)
But it's not so simple. Architecture is only one element of what Guinness has branded the "Irish Pub Concept." The concept outlines some simple steps to achieve "Irishness": You'll want to add Irish music, traditional grub, and "bric-a-brac" such as reproductions of antique spinning wheels, cast irons, and flagons. Authentic employees are also a must. "Although it is possible to recreate the feel of a true Irish pub without Irish staff—we don't recommend it. No Irish pub is complete without the friendly warmth, humor and advice of a true Irish bartender." If there aren't any affable Irish in your town, rest assured, Guinness will put you in touch with employment agencies.
When you're ready to open, your pub will need a name. The concept is not properly served by joke names like McSwiggins or Filthy McNasty's, but it will thrive with a Gaelic phrase (Dún na nór or An Cruiscín Lán) or one of the hundreds of standard family names provided on the concept site. (A helpful hint: "To create the illusion of history, '& Sons' can be added to the name.") Authenticity, apparently, is key. In answer to the question, "Why is authenticity important?" the concept states that "Sales per square foot in current authentic pubs are exceeding the U.S. average by a factor of two." The Irish Pub Company's stance on this issue is even more enigmatic: "The authenticity of the Irish pub concept stands up to scrutiny—the deeper you dig, the more interesting and attractive it becomes."
Too true. The branding of Irish bars owes more to cultural stereotypes and modern global economics than to Celtic tradition. The rapid expansion of these faux pubs was partly the result of big companies creating demand in emerging markets, but they are also an outgrowth of the end of the "troubles" and of the Irish economic boom. Suddenly, Ireland was teeming with immigrants, retail chains, and money. Insofar as Irish pub culture was ever the authentic heart of an organic community, its tradition was lost to the dustbin of history just in time to be invoked, exported, and imported again.
The concept is but one of the ways in which Ireland has been re-imagined for the consumer. A few decades back, St. Patrick's Day was a relatively quiet day in Ireland. It was a religious holiday; pubs were closed, and no one dyed anything green. A typical Dubliner might attend Mass, eat a big meal with the family, and nod off early. In the '90s, my friends who grew up in Dublin used to go to a hotel on St. Paddy's Day to watch the American tourists sing Irish drinking songs and celebrate excess.
Where there is celebrated excess, there is a market to exploit. In 1995, the Irish government saw potential in international "Irish" revelry. They reinvented the holiday at home to kick-start the tourist season. Now thousands of partiers head to Ireland for the "St. Patrick's Day Season" as Guinness has called this time of year. (It used to be called "March" or, for Irish Catholics, "Lent.") In Dublin, the festival lasts for five days and adds about 60 million euros* to the economy.
Guinness describes the irrepressible spirit of Irishness with the Gaelic word for communal fun, "Craic" (pronounced crack), and recommends "importing Craic from Ireland." It seems that the Irish had exported Craic, only to get it back again. The Irish are reveling in the Irishness business. After all, as IPCo puts it, "Ireland and things Irish are very attractive to consumers." Ireland now has a lot of native consumers. After the parade, they can stop by an authentic pub for a Guinness. It'll be just like Dubai.
Correction, March 17, 2006: This article originally gave the amount of money generated by St. Patrick's Day in Irish pounds when the correct figure was actually in Euros.
Austin Kelley is a writer in Brooklyn.