Everyone seems to lament the fact that there are few places in the world where a McDonalds or Starbucks doesn’t exist. I was particularly surprised to find a Starbucks in Vienna, heart of the European coffee culture. But you don’t often hear people talk about the impending global invasion of the Irish pub.
Almost everywhere I have traveled, I have been confronted with the wood paneling and copious mentions of Guinness that are the hallmarks of a traditional Irish pub. From Singapore to Tel Aviv and almost every major city in the U.S, I have found at least one Irish pub amongst the popular restaurants of the area.
It wasn’t until I was in Frankfurt recently, and espied yet another Celtic beverage center, that I began to wonder why there are so many of these institutions around the world. I’m sure the Irish like to travel, at least as much as most Europeans. But I wouldn’t call them prolific travelers, certainly not to the level of Australians or New Zealanders, who not only like to travel, but drink in prolific amounts. Why then must their pubs dot the globe in a diaspora of leprechauns and black and tans?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Irish pubs, everything about them. The clickety-clack of my shoes against the hardwood floors, the games of darts in the corner and of course, the beer and hearty food. But that doesn’t explain the sheer universality of the pub.
Ultimately, these pubs and restaurants serve a mixed crowd. I have always noticed a combination of expats and locals, all converging for their fix of unique surroundings and a taste of home. While Irish Pubs may be Irish in name, they are not always so in practice. The one I frequented in Jerusalem actually served as a popular haunt for Americans living abroad, mostly for the live telecasts of football games. (real football and not soccer)
That’s the real reason why Irish pubs are so popular. They’re not just about getting some stew and a pint, they’re about community. Pub culture both in Ireland and England has a long history, but at its core is fostering a sense of camaraderie and friendship. Ireland is home to more than 10,000 pubs. You don’t travel far to go for a pint and watch some sports, you go around the corner to commune with friends, neighbors and family. It’s all about creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere the focus of which is not getting drunk, but enjoying the simple pleasures of being welcomed. Hospitality is the real reason why Irish pubs are so popular, and ultimately why they span the globe.
I was born in the 1970s, grew up in the frenetic 1980s and came of age in the melancholy 1990s. My childhood was spent hundreds of miles away from extended family and with few exceptions, I have no idea who our neighbors were growing up. While this may be somewhat extreme, most of us live in a world that is extremely fast paced and where interpersonal connections are made via Facebook status updates. For many of us, the idea of spending time at a pub just a few paces from our home, where we know everyone is relegated to old episodes of Cheers.
The Irish pub though allows all of us, at least temporarily, to pretend that we live in a pub culture, a culture where everyone is friendly and where you can enjoy being yourself. In the US, these institutions are definitely all based on the concept rather than the reality, but overseas it is a different matter. That Irish pub in Jerusalem was as kitschy as it gets. But when the Sunday night football games came on, the bar was suddenly filled with expats, most of whom knew each other and were having a great evening. They were laughing, patting each other on the back and, at least for an evening, were reveling in images and sensations from home with their new friends. While it is most certainly accidental, the traditional Irish pub, and everything for which it stands, is best seen not in Dublin or County Cork, but in the side streets of Bangkok, Tokyo and Tel Aviv. It is in these leprechaun infested, Lord of the Dance playing, Guinness drinking institutions where everyone truly does know your name.