Opinion: what makes traditional Irish pubs so distinctive lies in their history, interior and decor

By Marion McGarry, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

Back in December 2020, amid criticism of the government for keeping 'wet' pubs closed as part of Covid-19. restrictions, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that "there's nothing I would like better right now than a pint in a rural pub in the west of Ireland'

Many of us, stuck in lockdown, would hanker for this too, yet this is not a possibility any time soon. The close and cosy pub environment of ‘normal times’ is the antithesis to current public health advice pertaining to Covid-19.

But the longer pubs remain closed, the bigger the threat to a unique part of Irish heritage. It’s easy for us to forget that many older, original Irish pubs have unique interiors that provided the design template for pubs around the world.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ One's Nine News, an Irish designer has landed a collaboration with LEGO after building replicas of Dublin pubs

Many would argue that modern pubs are important to our social lives, local business and tourism and even our living cultural heritage. Particular types of older pubs are even more important: those that have largely retained their original shopfronts and interiors act almost as interactive museums. Seemingly preserved in aspic, they allow customers a window to the past. If your grandfathers or uncles supped in these places, or you suppose that they did, you can imagine their past by experiencing these places. 

Despite the temptation to change décor over the years, these old pubs have remained largely unchanged from when they first opened in the 19th or early 20th century. Whether this preservation came about due to owners’ stubbornness or a recognition of their importance and uniqueness, some have become treasured examples of truly Irish, often quirky pub décor. Even though they’ve visually remained frozen in time, they are still operated as businesses and if they fail then this has a profound negative affect on the local economy.

What makes some of these older Irish pubs unique? Some transport customers to another world, rooted in the 19th century, associated with simplicity in the pint of plain or glass of whiskey. They look the same as when our ancestors used them: plain, reassuring, unchanged and undertaking the same pub rituals as today. In terms of furniture and interior design they define what an Irish pub should be in decorative terms.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, publicans Michael O'Donovan and Tom Dunbar on whether drinking at the bar counter will return any time soon

The unique character of traditional Irish pub interiors has led to them becoming one of our most successful design exports. Irish pubs in all corners of the globe mimic these older interiors to provide customers with a truly authentic experience. Many contemporary pub fit-out companies operate ‘turn key’ refurbishment services that can replicate traditional interiors so well that you would be fooled into thinking they are truly original.

Many aspects of what makes traditional Irish pubs so distinctive lies in their history. Changes to Irish licensing laws in the 19th century were designed to bring into line the various ales houses, hostelries and shebeens common throughout the country. Changes to the laws affected the signage of Irish pubs. Pubs in England for example, had traditionally used pictorial signs aimed at those who could not read, so pubs were commonly called after their sign (for example, the Red Lion). Irish pubs are more likely to contain the licence’s name above the door.

Spirit grocer

Licencing laws meant that a type of business known as a spirit-grocer began to appear in towns and villages in the 19th century. These usually had a distinct symmetrical shopfront and comprised of a main central door flanked by a window each side. A bar counter ran on both sides of the interior, which was divided into bar and grocery. The grocery area typically had spice drawers, tea cannisters, a meat slicer and canned goods or jars and shelves. Bar stools were for those who wished to drink. Some publicans also acted as undertakers, quite distinctive to Ireland and still common in some parts of the country today.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, RTÉ estern Correspondent Pat McGrath and Croí na Gaillimhe Resource Centre's Loretta Needham on Maureen O'Connell's Galway pub and her legacy

Shopfronts

A basic interpretation of the neoclassical architectural style left an indelible mark on the architectural look of Irish towns and villages, particularly our shopfronts. Like these, pubs had proportion applied to spacing of windows and doors, and the shopfronts included mullioned windows, cornice, entablature, corbels, fluting, plinth: all associated with the idiom of neoclassicism.

It was also a sombre style which helped public houses reflect their respectability and membership of the establishment, unlike unlicenced premises. New innovations in manufacturing meant that large glass panes and ceramic tiles were fashionable additions. The shopfronts were usually brightly painted to make them stand out from their competitors on the busy streetscape. In some cases, scumble, a type of paint effect that mimicked a wood finish, was used.

Irish pub interiors, particularly rural ones, were quite humble and practical in comparison to some of the more glamorous shiny urban Victorian drinking establishments, such as the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast

Interiors

Interiors of Irish pubs, particularly rural pubs, were sparse and plain. Walls were panelled with tongue and groove timbers and these were painted over. A more ornate addition was the newly invented lincrusta, a hardwearing wallcovering with deep embossed patterns, which was often applied to ceilings. This too was painted over, usually in dark colours, to hide tobacco smoke and stains.

Flagstone floors were common. In the years when tobacco-chewing and spitting were popular, it made sense to spread straw or sawdust onto these to aid cleaning up. Longer bars were partitioned with wooden sections. Because these often darkened the interior, they contained or featured glass panels, often with round headed ‘lights’.

The snug

Until the mid-20th century, pubs were male-only environments. While it was not against the law for women to enter them, no respectable woman would be seen drinking openly in a pub and indeed some pubs would not serve women. To combat social embarrassment and facilitate female customers, pubs that did serve women did so in snugs.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Archives, Michael Bance reports for RTÉ Nationwide in 1999 on Tom Maher, Ireland's oldest working publican who refuses to serve women, sells no Guinness and closes his doors at 10pm.

The snug was a private partitioned area often with a hatch window to the bar. They had frosted or reeded glass for additional privacy. Not just for women, snugs also functioned as private areas where business transactions could take place or matchmaking agreements were made between sets of parents. In heritage pubs, many snugs, lost in the late 20th century, have been reinstated in recent years.

Covid-19 continues to wreak death and devastation on our society and is also eroding aspects of our cultural heritage. Our unique funerary traditions have been diminished and now, our heritage pubs are in danger too. While some Irish pubs look preserved in aspic and act as living museums, they are also businesses threatened by the current lockdown. Prolonged closures mean many such businesses risk never re-opening.

Many have adapted to Covid-19 restrictions. Some shuttered pubs are selling merchandise or click and collect takeaways, supported by loyal customers who hope to see them back soon. Hopefully our pubs, which survived pandemic and upheaval in the past, will re-emerge to offer us back the cosy and unique interiors we hanker for and that are so significant to our design heritage.

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ