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In Affluent New Ireland, Rural Pubs Are So Yesterday

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 25, 2008

CONNOLLY, Ireland -- For generations, Carney's, the only pub in this tiny village in western Ireland, had been the place to strike up a romance, celebrate a birth or mourn a death -- or just sip a pint of Guinness among friends near a warm fire on a damp day.

So when Carney's shut down last year after more than a century in business, Teresa Tuttle, 62, took it hard. "Where can we go after a funeral? After work? Where would we all meet?" she recalled thinking, shaking her head in her kitchen, not far from the pub.

The "closed" sign abruptly posted on Carney's door -- and on the doors of 1,000 rural Irish pubs in the past three years -- was another sign of the profound lifestyle changes that have accompanied the country's dizzying rise to affluence.

"It was like a sudden death in the family," said Anthony Scanlan, 51, a farmer who lives near Carney's. "Everything has changed in Ireland. It's as fast as New York around here."

As recently as the 1980s, young people had to leave Ireland to find work and millionaires were as rare as hen's teeth, as the Irish say. But by 2005, according to the Bank of Ireland, the country of 4 million people had 30,000 residents worth more than a million euros, or about $1.5 million. A year later, the number of millionaires had jumped another 10 percent.

Ireland's per-capita income is now among the highest in the world, surpassing those in the United States, Sweden and Japan, according to the World Bank.

Wealth has given the Irish more options and less time -- a bad combination for the local pub. More people are spending sunny weekends in Spain rather than evenings of "craic," as good times and conversation are known, down at the pub.

Fewer people are farming the valuable rolling green hills around Carney's, about 50 miles south of Galway, and more are commuting long distances to better-paying jobs. And all over the country, when the weary commuters return home, many now prefer to stay in their comfortable homes with a glass of chardonnay in front of their flat-screen TVs.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland, which represents rural pubs, said the number of pubs outside Dublin has dropped from 6,000 to 5,000 in the past three years. Some estimates suggest the number may soon dwindle to 3,500.

Smoking bans in pubs and stricter drunken-driving laws have also played a role in the decline, said Michael O'Keefe, a spokesman for the Vintners group. He said some pub owners are serving lattes along with beer and whiskey in an attempt to cater to changing tastes. "Twenty years ago, if you asked a barman for a cappuccino, he would have looked at you as if you had two heads," O'Keefe said.

Some shrug off the closures, saying Ireland had too many pubs anyway. Many say they are delighted there are more fine restaurants and upscale coffee shops. But others, particularly older people, lament the decline of a touchstone, a place that linked neighbors, a seat near the fire where their fathers and grandfathers chatted before them.

"There is a certain sense of loss, of the coziness and companionship of the pub life," said Patricia O'Hara, a sociologist and policy manager with the Western Development Commission, which promotes economic and social development in western Ireland. She said some older people feel isolated and alienated in a faster-paced Ireland, where young people's lives seem to revolve around cellphones and social networking Internet sites such as Facebook.

"Be absolutely assured that people don't want to return to the days of poverty," O'Hara said. But, she added, "there is a questioning how much we are losing as result of prosperity . . . a nostalgia for simpler times when people had more time for each other."

Connolly sits at a bend in the road in the middle of County Clare, a little cluster of buildings set around a towering gray stone Catholic church. For generations, village life has revolved around the church, the pub and a small post office that collected mail, cashed checks and dished out news.

But now all three of those institutions are under pressure.

Regular church attendance in this overwhelmingly Catholic country has fallen from 90 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent today.

Ireland had nearly 1,900 post offices a decade ago, compared with 1,255 now. People use bigger urban post offices, ATMs and direct deposit, and fewer families are handing down the job of running the local post office.

"You don't want to see things closing, you want to see them opening," said Pauline Connellan, the postmistress in Connolly for 34 years. She said she is not sure what will become of her job when she retires -- or of many other traditions in this era of "rush, rush, rush."

To Eamon Ó Cuív, the minister in charge of rural affairs and a grandson of Eamon de Valera, one of the founding figures of the Irish Republic, those traditions include the art of conversation that thrived in pubs. But he said: "What are we to do? We can't make going to the pub compulsory."

Still, Ó Cuív said, "Change doesn't mean the death knell for a culture. . . . It will take a lot longer than 20 years to change the basic nature of the Irish people."

The Irish novelist Maeve Binchy said she believed there was "a danger that Ireland might lose its relaxed, easygoing, peaceful lifestyle," given all the changes. "But it's only a danger, not a fact," she said in an e-mail. "I may be Pollyanna, but I think our brush with prosperity made us better rather than destroying us."

Terry Kennedy, 37, a bricklayer, was working one June day when his cellphone rang with the news about the "closed" sign on Carney's. "I had to sit down for an hour," he said.

After Carney's shut, Kennedy said, he sometimes drove to the pub in the next village, but it wasn't the same. At his own pub, he either knew everyone in the place, or soon did: "It's small here, so the seven or eight of us at the bar can all be in the same conversation."

Older people who didn't drive had nowhere to go. Many stayed home. Some called taxi driver Garry Boon, 64, to take them out and about to meet people. "It cut the heart out of the village when it closed," Boon said of the Connolly pub.

Then in November, Liam Moloney, a villager who had moved to London and runs a pub and a construction company there, bought Carney's, fixed it up and reopened it -- a rare example of a shuttered rural pub getting a second life.

"I'm not going to make any money to write home about," Moloney, 33, said from London. "But it was my local pub."

Now Carney's has a fresh coat of white paint and a giant new TV to show sports matches. It opens only in the evenings, but the weekly Tuesday night card game is back.

"Having lost it once, we are trying to keep it," Kennedy said one recent evening, pulling out the euro equivalent of $5.40 for a pint of Guinness.

It was a special night: John and Teresa Tuttle were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Soon, two dozen people piled into the two-room pub, and a trio playing guitar, double bass and accordion filled the place with traditional music.

As the clapping began, John Tuttle, 82, sat smiling in his wheelchair and tapping his foot to an Irish reel. In the 1960s, when he dated Teresa, they had come here.

"If this pub weren't here, we wouldn't have a party," said their daughter Emer Tuttle. "All these people are country people and wouldn't leave the village. That is why these pubs are so important."

The day after the party, which lasted until 3 a.m., Teresa Tuttle sat in her kitchen looking out the window. In the near distance, over the green fields, she could see giant wind turbines, a new feature in an old landscape.

"I loved every bit of last night," she said, looking at flowers, candleholders and her other gifts.

She said she had marked First Communions, birthdays and funerals at Carney's and felt lucky that she had her meeting place back.

"Without it," she said, "the likes of us would have nowhere to go."

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