The Mothers’ Union members walk at a brisk pace, an overweight clergyman strains to keep up with them in the clammy warmth of a damp June evening. After a day of persistent showers, the canopy of grey cloud has begun to break up. The forecast gives sunshine by 9 pm, an hour of brightness at the end of the day.
Passing the town’s cattle mart, which tomorrow night will buzz with activity, the closed pub across the road is noticed. Once it would have been thronged with the buyers and sellers of livestock, but now its appearance is forelorn. An estate agent’s board invites someone else to come along and try their luck.
The declining number of Irish pubs is discussed; places once at the heart of communities in rural Ireland now struggle for survival. The strictly enforced drink-driving laws are seen as chiefly responsible for the disappearance of pubs Having been stopped at checkpoints and randomly breath tested twice during 2011 (and had a zero level on both occasions), the argument that law enforcement was behind the loss of pubs seems reasonable.
Yet a week ago, in a tiny French village, the pub was thriving. Although a bar by decor and furnishing, it offered an excellent three course menu attracting both travellers and locals alike. But it was more than a question of food – the bar was genuinely a community centre. People of all ages were there, children and teenagers gathered for ice cream, or coffee and chat. A large screen television high in one corner offered sport to anyone interested. A pool table occupied teenage boys. There was no sense of menace, no hint of repressed violence, no-one whose conversation was punctuated by obscenities. It was hard to imagine anyone being drunk in such a place; hard to imagine that the barman would serve anyone with a sufficient number of half-litres of beer or glasses of vodka to allow them to reach the point where they would become abusive or vomit in the street. No-one in short skirt and high heels would stagger from this place screaming at her companions.
It was nothing to do with cost – a half litre carafe of good Bordeaux wine was €8, making the wine about €2 a glass; beer was about a third less than the price in Ireland. Arguments that problems arise when alcohol is cheap are simply not borne out by the French experience. It was to do with attitude. The French handle alcohol responsibly and they take being in a community seriously.
The bar seemed very much the café-bar type of establishment once envisaged by Michael McDowell when he was a member of the government, but firmly resisted by Irish publicans who insisted the traditional Irish pub was what people wanted. The pubs are now dying, even in the cities, licensed premises mostly stand almost empty for most of the week.
It is not the law that will be responsible if pubs disappear altogether, it will be the inability to change that will have killed them.