Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bill Barich's "A Pint of Plain": Book Review

"Drink is a good man's weakness." Proverbial wisdom Barich passes along during his personal and historical tour of Irish pubs. "Fairytale Ireland" may be marketed under the "Irish Pub Concept" pre-fab faux-antique corporate chains, as traditional pubs decline and decay under stricter drunk-driving laws. These in turn necessitated by the commuters ripping along (Barich estimates a fifteen-fold increase) rural roads as tract homes tear up fields for the Celtic Tiger's rapacious tail. And, such new residents don't frequent the "local," preferring their Carlsberg or Coors in cans from the logoed franchises that replace the family-run stores in the market towns overwhelmed by the blow-ins from the cities and all over the world.

So the cycle continues, and Long Island-born, California-residing Barich, now moved himself to Dublin, tells the tale of a slow death to civility, custom, and charm. About half his book takes place in Dublin, and he tells each chapter set there with grace and pace. He knows how to veer from his main story into anecdotes and byways before returning to his narrative, and this relation of his saga reflects well how a tale's told by a teller in a pub. He classifies the remaining pubs into trophy bars, pitched for tourists more than the neighbors and often based on their venerable status; pleasant but less distinguished corner houses; and corporate chains, which in Ireland appear to erase their "tradition" for a streamlined gentrification, even as abroad you find such enterprises as a hundred "Harrington & Sons" fake pubs saturating the Italian consumer.

Such globalization leads to Irish rejection of Guinness as an old man's heavy stout. Younger Irish follow their Anglo-American cousins in choosing more wine, and lighter German or American beers to quaff, often at home rather than in the company of those who at many pubs tend to be older, more insular, and stodgier. Younger Irish appear too to be suburban rather than urban in their tastes; immigrants replace the stereotypical publican, and such changes are more than cosmetic. They, for Barich, represent the decline of what Perry Share calls the "third place" of camaraderie outside home or work that the pub has long represented, the true public house.

The erosion of such ties for many Irish shows their fragmentation along Western lines as they retreat from the communal, village, farm-based culture into a sprawl of strip malls, semi-detached estates, and endless commutes far from the small towns where the suburbs now stretch to and supplant. Like farmers, publicans find few of the next generation willing to take on the intensive labor demanded to make a living.

"It's been said that a publican must be a democrat, an autocrat, an acrobat, and a doormat," Barich observes (21). He's good at summing up, in the second half, his encounters, or lack of such, in rural Ireland. Outside Sligo town, Barich finds one pub in the middle of a dark nowhere, a remnant of when the pub was also a house, and run by the family for the surrounding peasants. Three fellows hunch over the bar, "each in solitary contemplation of his jar. Their mood was desultory, as if a night at the pub was a dreary job they meant to quit as soon as they could." (163)

In Clonaslee in the Slieve Bloom mountains, bored teens in hoodies under a drizzle hunch too, too young to drink legally. Smoking, they slouch outside the supermarket. "Whenever an older boy wheeled by in a car and blew his horn, they roused themselves for a salute, pumping their fists and leaning hopefully toward the driver as they might toward a cherished vision of the future." (213) In this village, Barich also seems to stumble upon his Platonic vision of the type of pub such as Dublin's Brazen Head could never live up to. M. D. Hickey's stands, with four people inside the room the size of a walk-in closet. The true nature of the old pub, half-house, half-shebeen, here welcomes him with that elusive, however energetically marketed by the Tourist Board, hospitality that finds fewer givers and takers in these hectic, yuppified Irish times.

There were, perhaps it being hectic, a few slips in proofreading. "1852" for "1952" should mark one capital city pub's leasing. A "Vicentian" priest makes an off-stage appearance, while three times, "Malm Cross" gets a mention instead of "Maam" (or alternately "Maum") for the anglicization of the Irish toponym "Mám." Given Barich's ill-starred exploration of Cong of "The Quiet Man" fame or blame, it's puzzling how this error of that nearby place name would be tripled.

Otherwise, his scholarship's apparent if worn lightly; there's a list of his sources appended, but the very readable, brisk text moves free of footnotes. Barich does not end on any hokey epiphany that all will be well at the one last pub at the end of a rainbowed road. The historic identity that the pub stands for, the civility and communal bonds it fosters, now find themselves razed by generic retailers owned far away. Values corrode as "the local-- as in the particular, the unique-- was under siege, batted about the head by the insistently global." (235)

One example that causes controversy stands for the whole capitulation of Ireland to modernization. "The two-lane blacktops pressed into service as highways are a problem, but should Tara be threatened to correct it, simply to please the commuters?" (200) The destruction of the national heritage, the exfoliation of the island's greenbelt, the savaging of the landscape by lack of planning: these too despoil the image of Ireland the postcards and guidebooks persist in peddling, not to mention the ubiquitious Guinness-- now owned by an Italian distributor (along with Alpo pet food, Burger King, Pillsbury dough, and the pseudo-ethnic concoction, Haagen-Dazs).

(Posted to Amazon US today.)


Anonymous said...

I am reading this book right now, and your review is right on target. It makes you wonders if places like Roarty's in Glencolmcille, Donegal can sruvive.

Fionnchú said...

Dan, I wondered this exact scenario at Roarty's too while reading it, and I think that the summer business for such favored beauty spots must make up in certain remote locales for the lack of custom in winter? How does the Glen Head Tavern make it, on the other hand?

As to the drunk-driving laws, I reckon there's hardly any Gardaí around Glen anyhow, and I figure most locals are known to the law and the lads will brave the roads anyhow? The contrast in profits, say, with the bleaker places in Offaly or the Slieve Blooms that Barich visits, on the other hand, must be severe, for few visitors go out of their way to such villages, and few locals will likely walk rather than drive.

The decline of the farming and the rise of the commuting with the resultant shift by less-attached blow-ins to buy Bud Light (!) at franchises and supermarkets ultimately seem to be to blame.