Think of Ireland, and thoughts of the pub probably aren’t too far behind. Cosy old boozers with turf smouldering in the fireplace, auld fellas propping up the bar, and an atmosphere that gets rowdier as the night draws in – all of this is wrapped up in our image of Ireland. But Irish pubs are in trouble.
A recent report from the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) found that pubs all around Ireland are closing at an alarming rate. Since 2005, 1,937 (or 22.5 per cent) have closed their doors, with 450 shutting since the beginning of the pandemic. Covid was brutal for pubs in Ireland – strict lockdown laws meant that some establishments were closed for almost 500 days, and the rising energy and staff costs that followed meant some simply couldn’t survive.
And Covid wasn’t the only factor. “A number of things have happened,” says Padraig Cribben, Chief Executive of the Vintners Federation of Ireland. “Lifestyles have changed, we’ve had changes in drink-driving laws, emigration and then Covid. There have been a lot of things that have happened over the last decade or so that have impacted the trade.”
While pubs in Dublin escaped relatively unscathed, rural areas have seen the highest proportion of closures. In Limerick, 32 per cent of the county’s pubs have closed since 2005, with Roscommon (30.3 per cent), Laois and Cork (both 29.9 per cent) not too far behind. The kicker is, in these rural areas, the pub plays a far more crucial role in the tapestry of local life. When you’re in the country, the pub is the social hub of the community. It’s the cornerstone of village life, where people catch up over pots of tea during the day and gossip over pints come nightfall.
In the country especially, there are vital ingredients that make for a great Irish boozer. Inside, you should find the walls heaving with antique bric-a-brac, from old bar mats and dusty whiskey bottles to ancient pots and inexplicable farming equipment hanging from the ceiling (bonus points if they’re rusty). The air should have a lingering waft of smouldering turf or coal, from an old fireplace that’s lit even during the summer months. And, while even the hardiest of country pubs are starting to change their tune, the only food on offer should be a toastie, made from plasticky cheese and sliced bread.
But most importantly, there should be a classic roster of characters propping up the bar, gently ribbing the landlord and keeping everyone abreast of the local scandal. “People make a good pub,” says Cribben. “We go to the pub to meet people and to interact. It’s the stories – some of them true, some of them far-fetched. But it’s all about the people and how they interact with one another. We’re social animals – it’s part of what we are.”
10 of the best pubs to visit around Ireland
Sean’s Bar, Athlone
As the numerous signs around the place tell you, this is the oldest pub in Ireland – it opened its doors in 900AD. But it’s still a corker to this day, with snug little booths, a beer garden out the back and sawdust on the floor, all in the shadows of Athlone Castle.
On the go (in some iteration) since 1780, Connolly’s is a classic Irish boozer, with apothecary-style drawers behind the bar and battered wood as far as the eye can see. It’s also a good spot for whiskey fans – they host the local whiskey club once a month and have their own seven-year-old single malt, made with the nearby distillery Athrú.
Dick Mack’s, Dingle
At Dick Mack’s, you can pick up a key fob at the in-house leather workshop, pop out to the brewhouse at the back or get some grub at the food trucks. But at its heart, it’s a proper old pub, with well-weathered bar stools and a sloping floor.
Tigh Neachtain’s, Galway
The kind of place that comes into its own on a drizzly day, Tigh Neachtain’s has plenty of cosy corners warmed by roaring fires. There’s usually live music in the evenings, but it’s a solid choice for a solo (and peaceful) afternoon pint.
Morrissey’s Pub, Abbeyleix
Once upon a time, Morrissey’s was a grocer, so you could pick up a pound of butter with your pint of plain. There are still retro groceries on the shelves, along with vintage cigarette ads, antique biscuit tins, and a pot-belly stove to up the cosiness factor.
Matt Molloy’s, Westport
If it’s traditional music you’re after, you can’t beat Matt Molloy’s. Owned by its namesake, the flautist from trad band The Chieftains, this place is hugely popular with visiting musicians and those who want to sink a few pints to the strains of fiddles and bodhráns.
One of those pubs it’s impossible to pass without popping in, Stanford’s is a charming old spot with thick ivy growing up the walls and smouldering fires inside. The best seat in the house is in the tiny snug, to the right of the main door – a misanthrope’s paradise.
O’Shaughnessy’s is the epitome of old school Ireland, from the ancient lettering above the door to the old whiskey jugs on the shelves. It’s Dominic West’s local whenever he’s in town – the pub is just outside the walls of Glin Castle, the ancestral home of his wife Catherine FitzGerald.
Address: Main St, Glin
Duke of York’s, Belfast
If you’re easily distracted by paraphernalia, you won’t know which way is up in the Duke of York’s. Every inch of the pub is covered in old Guinness ads and antique mirrors – even the ceiling. Check out the old letterpress on the wall, with rude words hidden among the letters.
This teensy bar has been a mainstay in the Liberties for centuries, and it’s still a cracker of a pub, with rickety low stools, a tiny fire and a cosy little snug at the entrance. On a sunny day, people hover around the street with their pints to soak up the rays.