Irish Pubs > Pages > Public houses in Ireland

Public houses in Ireland Public houses in Ireland, usually known as pubs, are establishments licensed to serve alcoholic drinks for consumption on the premises. Irish pubs are to be found in cities throughout the world.

Spirit grocers

Until the arrival of supermarket and grocery chain stores in the country in the 1960s Irish pubs usually operated as a 'Spirit grocery', combining the running of pub with a grocery, hardware or other ancillary business on the same premises (in some cases, publicans also acted as undertakers, and this unusual combination is still common today in the Republic of Ireland).

Spirit groceries first appeared in the nineteenth century, when a growing temperance movement in Ireland forced publicans to diversify their businesses to compensate for declining spirit sales. With the arrival of increased competition in the retail sector, many pubs lost the retail end of their business and concentrated solely on the licensed trade. Many pubs in Ireland still resemble grocer's shops of the mid nineteenth century, with the bar counter and rear shelving taking up the majority of the space in the main bar area, apparently leaving little room for customers. This seemingly counter-productive arrangement is a design artefact dating from earlier operation as a spirit grocery, and also accounts for the differing external appearance of British and Irish pubs. Spirit grocers in Northern Ireland were forced to choose between either the retail or the licensed trades upon the partition of Ireland in 1922, so this pub type can no longer be found in the North.


Ireland's pubs usually bear the name of the current or a previous owner, e.g. Murphy's or O'Connor's, and traditional pub names are absent. Famous traditional pubs in Dublin which have the characteristics outlined above include O'Donoghue's, Mulligan's, Doheny & Nesbitt's and The Brazen Head, which bills itself as Ireland's oldest pub (a distinction actually held by Sean's Bar in Athlone). Some pubs are named after famous streets, such as Sober Lane in Cork, which is named because of Father Matthew's Hall of Abstinence. Individual pubs are also associated with famous Irish writers and poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and James Joyce.

Elaborate exterior decoration is rare, but was typified by The Irish House on Wood Quay in Dublin, which was surrounded in 1870 by coloured friezes of nationalist heroes, and with iconic traditional themes such as round towers. Parts of Ulysses were filmed in this pub in 1967.

Northern Ireland

Pubs in Northern Ireland are largely identical to their counterparts in the Republic except for the aforementioned lack of spirit grocers. Traditional pubs in Belfast include The Crown Liquor Saloon (owned by the National Trust) and the city's oldest bar, White's Tavern, which was established in 1630 as a wine shop. Outside Belfast, pubs such as the House of McDonnell in Ballycastle (a former spirit grocery retaining all the characteristics of the type) and Grace Neill's in Donaghadee are representative of the traditional country pub. Peadar O'Donnell's is a famous traditional pub on Waterloo Street in Derry, while The Farmers Home is another fine traditional pub in Strabane, County Tyrone.

Irish pubs and tourism

The majority of 'traditional' pubs in Ireland today have been refurbished in a pastiche of the original style during the 1990s. Many were refurbished in this manner so as to increase their attractiveness to tourists by more closely resembling the 'Irish pubs' found outside Ireland; and thus have more in common with them (many were refurbished by the same outfitting companies) than the traditional pub type they purport to represent.

Pubs in tourist-oriented areas are also more likely to serve food to their customers, a recent phenomenon dating from the 1970s. Prior to this time, food was not served in the vast majority of Irish pubs, as eating out was uncommon in Ireland (except in "eating-houses" set up on market days) and most towns and villages had at least one commercial hotel where food was available throughout the day. The provision of meals in pubs ('pub grub') since this time is largely the result of an effort by Irish publicans to capture the tourist eating trade. The majority of traditional rural pubs not on the major tourist trails do not serve food; while traditional bars in urban areas such as Dublin, Armagh, Galway, and Sligo have responded to the increase in Irish people eating outside the home (a by-product of so called 'Celtic Tiger' economy during the 1990s); and now provide meals throughout the day.

Following the introduction of the smoking ban in the Republic of Ireland, many pubs offer enclosed and often heated outdoor smoking areas. A similar law came into effect in Northern Ireland in April 2007.

Irish Pubs have been opened throughout the world, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

The vast majority of pubs in Ireland are independently owned and licensed, or owned by a chain that does not have any brewery involvement, generally meaning that nearly every pub sells a similar but extensive range of products. Some microbreweries operate their own pubs or chains of pubs, where the range is more limited, with only their own products and a few others.

Irish pub culture and etiquette

For decades, the Irish public house has been a social and community hub for the people of Ireland. It functions as both a place to consume alcohol at leisure as well as a place in which to meet and greet the people of a locality. In many cases, Irish people will have one (or more) pubs which are referred to as 'the local' which is the pub which they frequent most often. There is generally a very close and mutual understanding and informality between the customer and the barstaff and, in many cases, particularly in country pubs, virtually all of the regular customers will know each other very well.

The etiquette in Irish pubs varies from place to place. Generally speaking, however, it is never necessary to 'tip' barstaff. The only exception to this rule might be in a pub which has waiters for serving food, or for staff at a hotel bar, or on special occasions or events when the bar staff show particular skill, hard-work or good-humour. But again, this is rare.

Irish pubs in North America

The tradition of the Irish pub in the United States is a rich one and it is virtually impossible to find any city on the continent without its own unique representation of Irish pub culture. Many great examples of these pubs date from the early part of the last century and even the 19th century and most of them came into being as a result of large-scale emigration from Ireland since the 1840s.

The most recent wave of Irish pubs started appearing during the 1990s with the arrival of venues modelled on the great Victorian pubs of Ireland. The millwork and fittings for these pubs were usually crafted in Ireland and transported to North America, supporting their owners' claim that these pubs were authentically Irish. As this style of pub became very popular and successful, many more began to open across the United States. However, as the cost of importing millwork and fittings for an Irish pub became prohibitive, prospective owners looked more locally and nearly all of the required material is now more than adequately supplied from within the United States or Canada.

The financial and popular success of these pubs has been phenomenal and Irish pubs are now one of the largest and most prolific casual-dining concepts in North America. While many pubs are still owned by individuals of Irish origin, the vast majority of new Irish pubs being opened are owned by American or Canadian restaurant operators who recognize the very attractive business model and potential return on investment. In an industry where profit margins can be low, margins in Irish pubs are significantly higher than those achieved within the mainstream casual-dining sector, mainly because of the very high and profitable ratio of beverage to food. Irish pubs also have the ability to attract business during periods when their casual-dining counterparts are traditionally slow. Examples of the "Irish pub" concept translating to American casual dining include O'Charley's and Bennigan's. However, these are not true representations of the Irish Pub and their food is very much on the theme of American Roadhouse. The first ever convention for Irish Pub operators took place in Philadelphia during 2011, an immensely successful event that attracted nearly 200 operators from the US and elsewhere.

Often, the Irish theme extends only to the name and the decor, while the menus are much like those in other North American bars or full of faux-Irish dishes like "Irish nachos" and reuben egg rolls. True Irish Pubs in North America ensure that food is 'made from scratch', from fresh ingredients and using local produce where possible.


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