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Euro crisis even staggers Irish pubs

7:38 AM, Sep 24, 2012   |    comments
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Ah, the leisurely life of the Irish pub owner - schmoozing with the regulars, charming the tourists, pulling a pint of Guinness with a fine, frothy head. All while making a tidy profit and preserving something for the next generation.

That was sort of how Gary Pepper pictured it when he took over the family business 38 years ago. But that was before the euro crisis, before the unthinkable - that the Irish would have to be enticed into their pubs.

Now, with pubs closing at a rate of one every other day, publicans must be social directors, event promoters, even chauffeurs. Each weekend night after last call, Pepper spends hours in his 2001 VW van, ferrying home as many as 50 patrons. Many have drunk too much to drive themselves. He finishes as late as 3 a.m.

"We're having to work harder at an age when we thought we'd be taking it easier," says Pepper, 59, whose family has run Pepper's Bar in this village in eastern County Clare for a century.

Pepper is one of many in Ireland and across Europe whose world has been upended since the great lurch from prosperity to penury four years ago. As politicians, bankers and investors maneuver, everyone else tries to cope. For the Irish, the collapse of a housing bubble in 2008 brought on a deep recession, toppled the government and introduced international financial control. The crisis has touched almost every aspect of daily life - even the pub.

Found almost anyplace in the world where glasses are lifted, the Irish pub is this nation's most famous export and, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide, its No. 1 tourist attraction. But the recession along with a confluence of other changes threaten the pub's venerable monopoly on Irish social life.

The pub's woes predate the euro crisis. Irish bar sales have dropped by about 25% over the past decade - 5% last year alone - and the number of pubs has fallen from more than 10,000 to 8,300. Ten years ago, 80% of alcohol sales occurred in bars; now fewer than half do. The fastest-growing beverage is wine, once ordered in a pub only by the brave or unwitting.

Earlier this year some of Dublin's more popular pubs, including the Crawdaddy, Odeon and Pod, closed. And two establishments on the so-called "12 Apostles" pub crawl from Dublin City University did not reopen after Christmas.

But what Michael O'Keefe, spokesman for the publicans' federation, says "the real carnage" is in the middle of the country, especially in rural areas where tourists are relatively rare and the pub is the center of community social life.

A financial receiver in February took over Colman Byrne's pub in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon. Byrne says he lost about $250,000 and still owes banks another million. The last straw was opposition from neighbors to noise on Saturday night. Among the complainers: a member of Parliament who'd previously stressed the importance of rural pubs.

Other pubs have survived only by closing weeknights, curtailing hours and cutting staff; the publicans' federation says 5,000 jobs have been lost over the past two years.

Crowds thinning out

Stephen Garvey, 24, tends bar at The Dew Drop Inn in Galway's tourist district. He used to work at a rural pub near home but had his hours cut when business worsened. Sometimes, in an entire night, he'd tend only a few customers.

Garvey graduated from college in 2008 with a degree in business management and planned to first manage and eventually own a pub. But now that seems out of reach. "It'll take a long time for the business to come back," he says, "and it'll never come back to what it was."

Like everyone, he pines for the so-called Celtic Tiger, a period of unprecedented growth between 1995 and 2008. But government spending cuts (insisted on by European monetary authorities) have helped push unemployment above 14%; for many, a night out is now a luxury.

Eileen Healy operates the Ring Lyne, a pub on the island of Valentia in County Kerry. "People are holding onto their euros," she says, "because they don't know if they'll have a job."

She's uncertain herself. Business is way down from the same period last year; vacationing families are able to rent one of the island's many vacant houses cheaply and cook for themselves instead of eating out.

The local trade is off, too, in part because of recession-induced emigration. In January and February the Ring Lyne hosted a going-away party a week. Healy says the man who lives next door has seen three of his five sons move to Australia for work: "He says, 'You're educating them now just so they can leave.' "

But O'Keefe, the publicans' spokesman, says a "perfect storm" has been brewing for years and that the economy is only one of many factors:

•A smoking ban in pubs, which were gloriously smoky throughout their history.

•A government crackdown on drunken driving, including random breath-testing and stiffer penalties.

•A change in retail pricing law that allows markets and other outlets to sell alcoholic beverages as a loss leader, undercutting pubs.

There is also this cruel reality: The Irish simply are less interested in going to the pub. "Many of us," says The Irish Times, "are increasingly indifferent to its long-standing charms."

Going out of style

To many young Irish, the pub seems less charming or quaint than irrelevant. "When I was young we'd hit a few pubs earlier in the evening before going to a club," says Conor Kenny, 54, a Dublin-based consultant. "Now the kids might buy their alcohol at a store, drink at home and go straight to the club. They bypass the pub."

Despite Irish Americans' image of the Irish pub as a glowing bastion of hearty sociability, many are dingy, nondescript places - dirty bathrooms, lackluster atmosphere - that haven't changed since the '60s , says Mary Lambkin, a business professor at University College Dublin.

"Our lot are more into clubs than pubs," says Liam O'Malley, a graduate student in Dublin. "We like dancing and music, not some old fellows holding up the bar."

The Irish pub was a creature of an older Ireland - rural, insular, parochial - where lonely farmers could socialize at day's end. Kenny says the Irish today are increasingly mobile, outward-looking, sophisticated and suburban, and have other needs - like staying in shape, getting a good night's sleep and taking the kids to sporting events on Saturday morning.

But the pub is a tricky issue. Whatever their personal feelings, the Irish acknowledge that tourists like pubs, and tourism remains an economic mainstay. So the nation is caught between the Ireland that is and the one tourists want to find.

Adapting to survive

The pub is far from dead. "No one," says Kenny, the Dublin consultant, "is more resilient than the Irish publican." To get people in the door, pubs have resorted to knitting circles, book clubs, card games, darts tournaments, lotteries and trivia quiz nights.

Eileen Healy of the Ring Lyne has brought in an octogenarian storyteller and given a college student a shot at standup comedy. She asks customers for ideas; one result was a darts league to benefit the local hospital.

Gary Pepper, who competes with three other pubs nearby, offers food ("good home cooking, nothing too fancy - no French stuff") prepared by his 35-year-old son and a chef from Brazil ("Can you believe it?" he asks).

Two nights a week, Pepper's features a "trad sesh" (traditional session) featuring some of Clare's acclaimed fiddlers, pickers and other musicians.

He understands that pub is theater. One recent night, for instance, a 92-year-old man in an Irish cap and pin-striped suit, looking like he stepped in from 1912, sat at the bar in front nursing a pint. In the dining room, a bride in her wedding dress joined a friend in an exuberant exhibition of step dancing. Then, a group of local folks in masks and rural costumes - "strawboys," they're called - honored the newlyweds with a traditional dance.

The tourists from America, Canada and Dublin ordered Guinness after Guinness, happy with their money's worth.

Pepper says the Irish pub must survive, especially in rural areas where some older people are otherwise isolated. As for problem drinkers, he says, "We can control them in here, keep an eye on them. It's better than getting bombed at home alone."

Although he hopes to pass the place on to his son, Pepper worries about the long-term economics. "It's like a farm," he says. "Your kids may inherit it, but will they want it?"

With this in mind - most pubs are family businesses - publicans marched on the Irish parliament last fall to protest their plight. They seek government tax breaks and a minimum price for alcohol to stop stores from selling below cost.

For all the troubles, says Eileen Healy, the publican's life is a good one. "I love the banter with the customers, the stories," she says. Two lads recently regaled her with the tale of a calf's birth via Caesarean section. And she still smiles when she thinks about the time the island's drawbridge got stuck, stranding half of a wedding party on the mainland.

Whatever his trials, the publican fills a need.

Dessie O'Brien's pub is in Kilrickle, a village in eastern County Galway with a church, a store, an elementary school and a police substation.

In many ways, his pub is Kilrickle. Whether it's a christening, first communion, wedding, birthday or funeral, the pub is central to the occasion. "They come here to celebrate and to mourn," says O'Brien, 40, who bought the place 10 years ago and has seen business decline over the past two. "Everything happens at my pub. If I'm not here, they have nothing. It's that way across this country. There are a lot of Dessie O'Briens."

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