The Irish Pub

The Irish Pub
The Irish Pub plays from October 24–30 at the Carlton Cinemas and the Kingsway Theatre in Toronto.

The Irish Pub (Director: Alex Fegan): I was born in Ireland and although my par­ents brought me to Canada when I was just a tod­dler, I’ve been back more than a dozen times in my life­time, and have some great memor­ies of time spent in tra­di­tional Irish pubs. So it wasn’t too dif­fi­cult to con­vince me to watch this new doc­u­ment­ary about these unique places. Director Fegan takes his cam­era around Ireland and spends most of his time in coun­try towns where the pubs have often done double duty as gro­cery stores (and in one case, even as an undertaker’s). That should give you an idea of how essen­tial these places have been in the his­tory of the coun­try. Far more than just a place to drink, the pub has been at the centre of social life for the com­munity, includ­ing the arts for which Ireland has become fam­ous. It seems that every pub in this film is filled with storytellers and musi­cians. In one case, a pub­lican became a rather well-known play­wright even as his cus­tom­ers knew that most of the plots had been lif­ted almost dir­ectly from the con­ver­sa­tions he’d over­heard through the years.

The film allows many of the pub’s own­ers and cus­tom­ers to relate some of the stor­ies that have made each one unique. In a few places, there are (largely unne­ces­sary) sub­titles. Many of the pubs are set in post­card gor­geous set­tings. The cam­era lingers lov­ingly on items of bric-a-brac, and on faces. It’s a leis­urely-paced film with no real struc­ture, and no grand thesis. Instead, it simply aims to doc­u­ment people and places that seem in danger of dis­ap­pear­ing forever. As such, it’s a pleas­ant exper­i­ence, although surely a bit roman­ti­cized. I’d have liked to hear how the pubs were also hives of polit­ical res­ist­ance and act­iv­ism dur­ing the years of English rule. Or hear more about the pub’s rela­tion­ship with that other insti­tu­tion of Irish life, the Catholic Church. Alcoholism and oppress­ive reli­gion and eco­nomic des­pair are also a huge part of Irish his­tory, and the pub could be a divis­ive as well as a uni­fy­ing force.

That being said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this film a lot. To hear the sort of stor­ies told in darkened pubs in a vari­ety of charm­ing brogues would put a smile on anyone’s face. And you’ll meet a whole cast of charm­ing char­ac­ters, from Athy to Ballylongford, from Clonakilty to Dingle, and bey­ond.

Lately, I’ve been watch­ing a real­ity tele­vi­sion show called Bar Rescue, in which a brash con­sult­ant tries to “turn around” fail­ing bars in a few days. Often he berates bar own­ers for not chan­ging their decor, or not upselling cus­tom­ers to more expens­ive drinks. This film, and its name­sake the tra­di­tional Irish pub, is just about the com­plete oppos­ite of the new ideal for bars and pubs. But I’d argue that it’s what the Irish call “the craic” that people are look­ing for when they walk into a bar. This film gives that dif­fi­cult to define term a bit more sub­stance, and makes for a healthy cor­rect­ive to the relent­less cyn­icism of real­ity TV.

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