Book Review 398: A Pint of Plain

A PINT OF PLAIN: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub by Bill Barich. 242 pages. Walker, $25

The Irish pub was reeling when Bill Barich wrote“A Pint of Plain” in 2007-8. At the time, it appeared that modernity would do for them, in two ways — first, prosperity was making pubs absurdly expensive ($3 million, and up if the land was ripe for development); and, second, what the Irish call drink-driving laws were massacring rural pubs, which was most of them.

The prosperity proved to be imaginary, but the drink-driving laws were real enough. Since “A Pint of Plain” was published something like a fifth to a quarter of pubs have closed. And the rest, well, as Barich was lamenting a decade ago, they are changing beyond recognition.

Pub consultants recommend offering better food as a way to keep up business. So this is what you get at The Hill in Ranelagh (the first pub described by Barich): “The Frickel and Cheese — Deep Fried Crispy Pickles, Cheese, Slow Roasted Tomato, Rocket, Hot Sauce & Garlic Mayo on a Brioche Bun.”

The rest of the Americanized menu sounds even worse.

Here is what Barich said about it a decade ago: “The Hill struck me as Ranelagh’s most eye-catching pub, so I tried it first. Founded in 1845, it occupies a knoll on the fringe of the village and has a canary-yellow paint job that flashes like a beacon on gloomy, overcast afternoons. Off the beaten path, it doesn’t attract many outsiders, and its stalwart regulars give it an inbred quality a stranger — or a ‘blow-in,’ as the Irish put it– might have trouble cracking.”

The perfect traditional pub that Barich sought perhaps never was. His model was the pub in the 1951 film “The Quiet Man,” but the exterior shots were of a grocery, and the interiors were filmed on a set (which he quaintly calls a sound stage) in Los Angeles. The set furniture has since been shipped to Eire and used to open a pub.

This, and other things, sets Barich off on an extended rumination about authenticity.

An authentic rural pub wouldn’t be affected by drink-driving laws, since all the tipplers would have walked up. If pubs are disappearing from the countryside, it must be mostly due to the depopulation of the rural areas, which has been going on since 1798 and is now about finished.

If Irish pubs are disappearing from Eire, they are propagating across the world — even Dubai. The ones I have been in from New York to Hawaii are not much like the ones Barich liked in Ireland, except perhaps for the uappetizing food. It is a curious fact — not occurring to Barich — that the Irish saloonkeepers in America made little or no effort to reproduce what Barich takes to be the true spirit of the pub: “a space apart for socializing, where casual friendships and a democratic spirit prevail.”

“A Pint of Plain” is an amusing read, since Barich never stops himself from pursuing bits of history or sociology that have only marginal connections to beer drinking.

He also gets points for knowing the meaning of stevedore, the only modern author I have encountered who does.