Opinion Sat, May 18, 02
An Irishman's Diary
"ALL right?! the bouncer enquired.
"Hello," I replied, pausing in my tracks.
"Would you mind stepping aside?"
Stepping aside? I glanced around, suspecting the imminent arrival of someone far more important. A strippogram. A Chippendale, perhaps, with rhyming birthday wishes for some hapless unfortunate inside. Not so, writes Frank Shouldice.
The bouncer, dressed in a black bomber jacket, was quietly joined by another bouncer, identically attired. They were connected not only by fashion and demeanor but by small radio earpieces that gave them the look of gun-wielding secret service agents.
Maybe it was the President herself arriving. Or was Bertie bringing another US president out on the rip? Not that these bouncers would be rolled over so easily:
All right, Taoiseach? Would you and your buddy mind stepping aside—I don't care if he's the most powerful man in the world, he's not getting in until.
It was almost 6 p.m. on a sunny Friday evening outside a very average Dublin pub. I was meeting friends for a drink after work. Or that was the complicated plan. The centurion duo adopted the bad cop/good cop routine, except the good cop appeared to lose his voice.
"Have you been here before?" resumed the smaller man.
"No. First time, actually."
"We knew that because we haven't seen you before."
"Well, I haven't been here before."
"See—we knew you're not a regular!" he trumped.
I was impressed, but we seemed to reach a sort of impasse. He had answered all his own questions correctly and I, with growing bemusement, was getting everything wrong. His colleague patiently cleaned his fingernails and said nothing. It seemed as if the first bouncer—I mean doorman—had executed the handbook of Frequently Asked Questions so quickly that he found himself momentarily stumped.
"You're on your own," he announced finally.
I looked around to verify his observation. I explained that I was meeting friends inside. Work friends. They were expecting me, unless they too were late. I promised not to stay too long. One or two, then gone. And silently promised myself never to return.
"What are your friends' names?" he asked.
It was 6.10. He had me paged inside so that my bold claims of having friends in the pub could be proven. After all, I could have been going in for a drink all by myself. A friend duly appeared and the matter was settled.
"We don't let in people with earrings."
"I can take it out."
"Don't put it back in."
"Enjoy yourself, buddy."
There are more security men on the doors of Dublin pubs these days than there were in Belfast during the Troubles. You can go for a drink almost anywhere in the world without having to pass a security check, but here, in the so-called home of the congenial public house, potential customers are treated like suspects.
It's not just late-night bars—ordinary pubs now feel the need to vet every customer at the door. The greatest shock to date was the appearance last Christmas of two bouncers outside Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street. This may have taken some explanation from pub tour guides extolling the warmth of greeting to be had in the capital's famous hostelries.
The link between alcohol and violence is well documented but the pent-up security man on the door has become the norm. It's not an easy job. Some do it very well, but some bouncers clearly relish the role and the power trip that goes with it. What's ironic is that bouncers who go in for the confrontational style wouldn't be allowed into premises unless they worked there.
We might pretend otherwise, but Irish pubs—and Dublin pubs in particular—are losing their reputation. There are exceptions, of course, but when was the last time you were in a friendly, clean Dublin pub that hadn't been tarted up like a barn library? When was the last time the service struck you as surly? Or the toilets hygienically challenged? Or when was the last time you handed over your cash only to discover it wasn't enough? Most punters don't check their change, but one of the city's allegedly fashionable emporiums charges €4.10 for a pint of lager. By midnight the price rises to €4.90, all served with a taciturnity that says you're lucky to get it at all.
Now, with summer arriving, thousands of first-time visitors will look forward to the great cultural experience of the Dublin pub. Many will be disappointed. They will find that many of the mock-Oirish bars around the capital look very like the mock-Oirish bars exported around the globe, so that it's near impossible to distinguish the original from the imitation. Big on renovation, short on taste.
They might get lucky and find a place where conversation or live music has not been replaced by a blaring TV, where ventilation is not a curse, where a visit to the toilet doesn't require vaccination, where bartenders aren't stressed beyond a pleasantry and owners pay lounge staff properly to clear and clean tables.
Pub culture still holds a central place in Irish life but the quality, atmosphere and service of Irish pubs have declined. For all our grumbling in the past we were prepared to overlook shortcomings because we knew pubs here were special. Not any more. Dubliners will be slow to admit it, but many of this year's visitors will soon discover the city's pubs aren't all they're cracked up to be.
© The Irish Times