The Irish Pub is a documentary travelogue that moves through the Republic of Ireland seeking out pubs that fit into the traditional mould and interviewing the proprietors about what makes an Irish pub so special. In a manner somewhat similar to Ken Wardrop’s affectionate and lovely His & Hers, The Irish Pub largely allows its interviewees to tell their stories and create the tone of the film.
The film travels throughout the country from Dublin to Castletownbere to Kingscourt (though it never ventures into Northern Ireland). Filming inside each, the proprietors and any game customers are interviewed about the Irish pub phenomenon and it is the stories, both funny and melancholy, and the banter and the lives of those involved that the film takes as its subject.
The film is a funny, moving portrait of the Irish pub, its proprietors and its customers. It moves between a series of pubs, structured around the themes that it addresses. The proprietors and the customers talk about what it is that makes an Irish pub an ‘Irish pub’, why they such an important from Irish society and culture and the importance of keeping the tradition alive. We hear about how one pub closes at 6pm out of respect for the proprietor’s deceased father who made this rule. Many of the proprietors have had the pub in their family for many generations, and refuse to modernise their pubs as much from a sense of responsibility to generations past and present than any particular aesthetic or traditional reason. The toll that running an Irish pub takes on one’s life is explored as many of the proprietors talk about the long hours and the fact that this will be, for better or worse, their life’s work. Few have travelled.
Mainly, however, the film focuses on the stories of the people, with one moody, slightly standoffish bar man (Paul Gartlan of Gartlan’s in Kingscourt, County Cavan and the unlikely poster boy for the film’s promotional material) offering a series of very funny anecdotes that feature a raid on his pub during after hours and an incredulous American tourist. Much of this humour is refreshingly human and the film has a real sense of life in modern day Ireland and the battle between tradition and modernity and between the rural and the urban ways of life.
As funny as the film often is, it is also surprisingly moving, since a pub is seen now as an ambivalent space, filled with both camaraderie and music as much as it is filled with sadness and loneliness. In fact, some audiences don’t seem to be quite as able to see the pubs in this light, and the film does not quite succeed in bringing out these awkward, often too sudden, shifts in tone, a fact not helped by an off-putting plinky-plonk soundtrack. When one elderly customer says that if he didn’t have the pub, there wouldn’t be anywhere for him to go and nothing to do but sit inside his house and stare at the wall one is given an insight into the Irish pub as serving a valuable function in a country swept by recession and cut backs in vital public services. There is a Garage-like sense of loneliness and isolation to a lot of the pubs, a wistfulness that jars somewhat with the film’s otherwise light, breezy, picture-postcard rendering of the pubs and towns on view. It is clear that the drink is secondary to a lot of the customers here and, though some audiences may laugh regardless, there is a prevalent sadness about the people in the film, something that Alex Fegan may not necessarily have expected to capture and something that makes the film a little uneasy and self-conscience.
Another issue with the film is its artless inauthenticity, especially in a sequence in Gertie Brown’s in Athlone wherein one opera singing regular’s loud, impromptu rendition of an old standard is suggested to have sent one disgruntled customer out of the place. However, it is clear that this is two unconnected shots stitched together to give the impression that one lead to the other – a cheap laugh gained dishonestly. And while this may seem like a fairly small thing, it does mar the rest of the film to a degree, making one wonder how much of the rest of the film was arrived at through equally dishonest means. Documentaries are always slippery when it comes to authenticity and much better films than The Irish Pub have been equally troubling, if not more so (last year, to name a few, there was The Act of Killing, Leviathan and Dirty Wars while Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God was unnecessarily exploitative), but here Alex Fegan allows his film to appear too easily cobbled together.
The Irish Pub is ultimately a little too unfocussed and a little too long, it overstays its welcome and its uncomfortable attempts to edit together unconnected events does make it feel like nothing more than a corporate advertisement for the Irish pub – coming to your town soon. That said, it can’t help but feel refreshingly human and authentic when it allows its interviewees to talk (often in long, steady takes – a good choice). This is ultimately where the film succeeds the most, in investigating a phenomenon through the eyes of the people most closely involved. It doesn’t have a patch on His & Hers – which was after all a much more deep project - but it does nonetheless have a bright, breezy and believable humanity.