Wednesday, February 04, 1998
An Irishman's Diary by Tom Humphreys
Any time I have the pleasure of showing overseas visitors around my native city of Dublin, I'm inevitably asked if we can go to a pub first. Whether they're from Barcelona or Brisbane, they've learned that a core element of the Dublin Experience is to sample the unique atmosphere of a watering-hole where, according to the guide books, one might meet some Brendan Behan-type character spinning yarns at the bar or some students discussing Ulysses in a snug.
Now, while only the most gullible would expect such company, most visitors might understandably imagine that a Dublin pub was somewhere people came to unwind, to drink and, most of all, to talk. This is the city, after all, which supposedly has a love affair with words.
Yet I have found to my embarrassment that a growing number of pubs in the capital cannot satisfy this most basic expectation. Put bluntly, simply holding a conversation has become increasingly difficult in Dublin's pubs, thanks to the proliferation of a modern phenomenon: the disco bar.
Blasting out music
For those who haven't yet had the pleasure of visiting such an establishment (and they are hard to avoid), let me explain.
Take one Dublin pub, preferably with a long history and diverse customer-base, and station two black-clad bouncers at the front door with orders to keep out everyone except young, affluent, trendy types.
Then mount stereo speakers in every corner of the building and above every table, blasting out pop music at ear-bleeding volumes, which are increased as the evening wears on until customers are reduced to communicating by arm-waving and other gesticulations. Hey presto! You've got yourself a disco bar.
Now sit back and watch them flock to your door. And they will.
That's one of the most disturbing things about disco bars: they're enormously popular. I recall, when one of the first of them opened in Dublin a number of years ago, people were willing to queue for up to two hours to get inside, sometimes in pouring rain, when they could have chosen instead to walk straight into a half-empty pub a few doors away.
Nowadays, queues are the norm outside many Dublin pubs at weekends. Far from acting as a discouragement, they provide some sort of allure as people reckon a queue implies there's something worth seeing inside.
Consequently, bars have moved to create their own queues, which operate in a simple but perverse mechanism. People at the front of the queue are allowed inside, not when the crowd begins to thin out, or when someone leaves but, when someone joins the end of the queue. In this way, the bar's popularity is constantly on view to passers-by.
Running the gauntlet
But queues aren't the only nuisance about disco bars. Customers also have to run the gauntlet of the doormen, who are to be feared not because of their physical presence but because of their unpredictability. They are as likely to refuse you entry because you come too often as because you're not a regular. Moreover, they're prone to singling out people who have the wrong socks, shoes or hair-do, and leaving them out in the cold even if all their friends have just gone inside.
On one occasion recently, I was stopped at the door after a bouncer maintained he didn't know my face, which was fair enough as I'd never been to the bar before. However, I was still denied entry after I explained that I had arranged to meet a group of friends inside, one of whom was celebrating a birthday.
It was only after I produced a birthday card from my pocket and someone had come out of the pub to identify me that the bouncer realised he could justify his position no longer. But he also realised he would lose face by letting me in straight away. So I was told to come back in 15 minutes, like a different person, as it were, and I would be let inside.
To my shame, I dutifully obeyed. Like a scolded child, I walked the city's streets alone before later returning. It was a minor inconvenience but typical of the kind of treatment Dublin pub-goers have come to accept.
Indeed, I felt somewhat fortunate at my short penance when I later witnessed the same bouncer refusing to let a young woman back into the bar after she had stepped outside to use her mobile phone.
Why we put up with it, I don't know. It seems that, for many people, the attraction of a party atmosphere and (in some cases) a late-serving bar make up for the rough treatment. But what about the other costs?
The music in disco bars makes conversation difficult, if not impossible. The selection process which operates at the door results in a kind of apartheid where only the people of the right age, wearing the right clothes and with the right addresses get inside.
More worrying is the effect of disco bars on Dublin pub life generally. The traditional mix of young and old, of city and suburban people, has been eroded. The welcoming, informal atmosphere on which the reputation of the city's pubs rests has become a rarer commodity.
Sadly, I feel many pub-goers don't share my concerns, as I discovered recently when I visited one city pub which had been transformed from a lively, unpretentious talking-shop into some sort of pop-video set.
After fighting my way through a crowd of gyrating bodies into the toilets which, as usual in a disco bar, resembled a battery-farm feeding pen, I turned in solidarity to the person beside me and said: "This is crazy. You can't hear yourself think."
"Yeah!" He nodded enthusiastically. "Brilliant, 'n' it?"
© The Irish Times