A Pint of Plain: How the Irish Pub Lost Its Magic but Conquered the World

When Bill Barich lived in London 25 years ago, he went looking for a pub. Not just any pub, but the real article: a neutral ground of casual friendship, inclusive, restorative, democratic, and possessing a bonhomie emanating from devotion to the spoken word, the comfort of a “low babble of voices in discourse.” He wrote up his quest in a sweet, lapidary piece for The New Yorker, “The Fountain.” Barich gratifyingly expands upon the topic here; now living in Dublin, Ireland, he’s questing again for a local pub, informed in part by the romantic ideal captured in John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Ireland, however, is not immune to change, and many of its old pubs have become trophy establishments, cashing in on their literary and sentimental associations, or simply turned into bad caricatures — you can buy a patented-notion-of-Irish-public-house kit direct from Guinness (500 in 45 countries, and counting). Barich visits the countryside, too, where pubs are dying at a rate of one a day, lost to the real estate market, police checks, and younger family unwilling to serve; this, God help us, in a land where a well-known saint turned a leper’s bathwater into a bucket of ale. Barich will settle for nothing less than the elemental, elusive quality known as craic: that pleasing atmosphere created by a “collectively produced performance?conversation becomes intense, the noise level soars.” A worn floor, a turf fire, a genial but hard-nosed publican — captain of the ship, yet capable of squeezing “an ounce of mirth from a broken leg” — and some live music would be nice, improvisatory magic “rich in unexpected twists and discoveries, with the players bouncing off one another.” Happily, Barich — his own euphonious voice as soothing as a peat fire and a pint of the black — finds a worthy handful of pubs and draws them with such clarity and character that they erase the ordinary cares of even the most distant reader.