The grass, they say, is always greener on the other side of the fence. What we don’t have, we want even more. Culturally, this can throw up some interesting situations. Consider, if you will, the very early days of international tourism. Because of cultural differences, anthropologists observed the curious case of male tourists (and only male tourists) clamouring to visit local villages in, for example, Hawaii and the South Pacific islands, in order to gaze upon the bare-breasted maidens there. Those tourists might have observed that there were very few men in the villages. Why? The male villagers were off in the opposite direction gazing upon the female tourists who, though they had their breasts covered, were, rather daringly, walking around with their ankles uncovered, something the indigenous men didn’t see with their own women.
This month, as we rev up for another night of annual Irish shenanigans at Bar O’Flannagan’s, we might consider another curious phenomenon, that of the “authentic” Irish bar. You can describe one without too much thought, can’t you? The dark, wood-panelled walls, the tiles, the stained glass, and the old-fashioned bric-a-brac. And, of course, the Guinness. When did these so-called traditional bars begin to spring up across the globe? The answer is surprisingly recently.
In 1990, the Irish Pub Company was formed by a Dublin-based architect called Mel McNally. He had the idea that pubs across the world would benefit from expertise in creating an authentic Irish pub. His company would design the interior and provide all that was necessary (the dark wood panelling, the stained glass, the bric-a-brac) to the aspiring bar owner.
Diageo, the parent company of Guinness, saw this as an opportunity to spread the Guinness brand across the world, and were quick to partner with the Irish Pub Company, marketing the idea of the Irish Pub Concept across the globe.
Together, they were wildly successful, opening 2,000 Irish pubs across Europe between 1992 and 1999. They then expanded globally, helping to open themed pubs in over 50 countries, from Moscow to Mongolia.
Unsurprisingly, seeing the success of the Irish Pub Company, imitators followed. Soon, there was Ol Irish Pubs Ltd and Love Irish Pubs offering the same service, further driving the global expansion. And why not? What is wrong with providing something that, as McNally puts it, “gives people a sense of community, friendship and conviviality they find in an authentic Irish pub.”
But how real is a real Irish pub?
Rewind several years and a conversation with a friend, an Irishman from County Armagh who was also a professor of sociology at a nearby university. He was living away from Ireland at the time and had returned home for a long weekend to visit family and friends. When he returned, I asked how his weekend was and whether he had had a good time catching up with people.
He did, though, during the conversation, he told me something that had struck him as both strange and amusing.
After seeing family, he had arranged to meet up with some old friends in their local pub, a place he had known and loved since he was old enough to hold a pint. Only, the place had changed dramatically. Inside, the décor was all dark wood panelling, stained glass and bric-a-brac. They had turned his local, a pub in Ireland, into an Irish pub. It wasn’t always so. My friend told me how it used to be just a regular pub; nothing remarkable, but the place he and his friends had gone all their lives. I was curious why they might change the décor—and, indeed, the entire theme—and so asked my friend. “That’s the funny thing,” he said. “They were getting more and more tourists going and they complained that it wasn’t a proper Irish pub… but it was a bloody good pub, in Ireland, the very definition of an Irish pub!”
Does it matter? Not to the customers that go into an Irish pub, and know exactly what to expect before they enter. In that sense, the notion of the Irish pub has become similar to a brand. The power of brands is the promise they deliver: you can walk into a McDonald’s anywhere in the world and know that you will get the same Big Mac whether you are in Paris or Penang. That’s the promise. The same patty, the same recipe, the same buns, in the same environment. You know exactly what you are getting, and it keeps you in your comfort zone. The Irish pub is the same. If you are in a foreign country and looking for a beer, you know exactly what you will get before you walk in (the dark wood panelling, the stained glass, the bric-a-brac). It’s all a bit Stepford Wives, but there isn’t anything wrong with that, is there?
Some might argue that the notion of manufactured authenticity doesn’t sit well, that it is somehow a lie. A decent “regular” pub in County Armagh getting a facelift to look like a “real” Irish pub is a constructed reality, and a constructed history. But isn’t it also shamefully limiting? Doesn’t it make our experiences more bland? Wouldn’t it be more enriching to visit a foreign country and be forced to try new things, different bars and unusual restaurants? After all, as the early days of international tourism showed us, sometimes it is better to look at the things that you don’t get at home, be that breasts, ankles or beer.
First published in Esquire Malaysia, March 2016 issue.