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Irish Pubs Face Last Call

They may be hugely popular around the world, but economic crisis and a new attitude toward drunk driving are helping end a way of life at home.


Inside Ray Glynn’s looks much like any Irish pub you’d find in Thailand, Uganda or Dubai. There’s Guinness on tap, Jameson behind the bar and sports on a flat-screen television.

However, the photographs of landscapes lining the walls here — pictures of Athenry's famous fields and medieval castle in the west of Ireland — were taken just outside the door.

And there’s another difference. Irish pubs may be burgeoning across the world, but at home they’re facing a dramatic decline.

At 7:30 on a recent Sunday evening, when students would once have reliably been crammed inside, Glynn’s was empty but for three patrons.

Others have been closing at an alarming rate. Fifteen percent of Ireland’s pubs have shut since 2007. In the first quarter of this year, almost 40 percent reduced staffing.

They are victims of twin afflictions: economic crisis and a new policy of strict drunk-driving enforcement.

Worst hit are pubs in the countryside, where patterns of socializing unchanged for generations are evolving as people find new ways to drink. Outside Dublin, three in 10 pub owners, called publicans, expect their establishments will die with them.

Glynn’s owner Ray Glynn, who was born upstairs from where he tends bar, says the pub has been in his family since 1897.

He doesn’t believe the institution will ever recover its central role in the island’s social life. “Society changes,” the 64-year-old says. “Something will come along to replace it.”

And there’s no relief in sight. In its seventh straight austerity budget released last week, the government raised the tax on a pint of beer by 10 cents, continuing a policy that’s driving more cost-conscious drinkers to buy their alcohol in grocery stores or abroad.

Kathryn D’Arcy, director of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, says the latest tax hike is helping cripple the industry. “We were absolutely devastated,” she says.

Although she says her organization will fight to roll back the tax hikes, much of the damage has already been done to rural pubs.

In Athenry, Martin Glynn’s, the Shamrock and Murphy’s have shuttered for good since 2008. Of the town’s 15 remaining pubs, all but three no longer open during the day.

The town’s fields look much like they did when Glynn’s family first opened the pub more than a century ago, neatly blocked off by stone walls and dotted with sheep and cows.

Today, however, the paysage includes several abandoned housing developments, monuments to the island’s recent economic collapse.

Since then, young people have left the depressed countryside in droves in search of work abroad, depriving Glynn and his fellow publicans of customers.

Older residents are staying away, too, thanks to stepped-up enforcement of once-neglected drunk-driving laws. Many now opt to drink at home.

Thousands of people have been flooding Athenry on recent weekends to watch the Gaelic game of hurling. Once a boon to the town’s pubs, even those potential customers have been kept away by the prospect of fines and license suspensions.

In January, a pub owner on the local Kerry County Council caused a stir by successfully pushing through a motion to allow older people to drink and drive “in moderation.” The measure won’t go into force, however.

In the nearby city of Galway, Charles King, 64, complains over a pint at another bar called Murphy’s. “It’s not right what they’ve done to the country man,” he says. “They’ve destroyed his social life.”

The pubs have held up better here, 15 miles west of Athenry. Drunk-driving laws haven’t taken the same toll on city pubs, and a thriving tourism industry has buoyed the economy of this seaside destination. On a recent Saturday evening, 90-year-old Murphy’s was full — albeit with gray heads.

But in Galway, too, there are signs that pubs face continued decline as generational habits shift. Most of the pubs in the city’s bustling Latin Quarter have changed ownership in the past two decades. The busiest venues, such as the popular late-night destination the Front Door, aren’t very traditional. They feature pounding music and several bars spread over multiple floors.

Since the onset of the recession, Ireland’s young have turned to American-style pre-gaming — drinking before going out — and patronize pubs more sparingly.

Around the corner from Murphy’s, a group of young men begin their Saturday night outside on the waterfront by passing around a bottle of rum.

“It’s 4 euro a pint, f**k that!” says Jimmy Mac Fhlannchadha, a 22-year-old student, of the price in pubs — roughly $5.50. “I pay 1 euro for a can.”

Back in Athenry, Ray Glynn — whose two sons are teachers — doesn’t know if his pub will outlive him.

But he vows his establishment will remain open at least as long as he draws breath: “I don’t think publicans retire.”