An Irish tradition in decline

July 13, 2008|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,Los Angeles Times

Dublin - The two men drink standing near the back of the long bar at Davy Byrnes, one of the many watering holes in this city that, in the words of writer Samuel Beckett, who once lived upstairs, have been known to house "broken glass and indiscretion." In the back, because that's well away from the "whippets" and "blow-ins" who tend to wander in, armed with neither intellect nor wit, if one distinguishes between the two, settle on the first available stool and ask for a "Boodweiser" from the barman.

Standing, because as the long, merry nights wear on, each of the men must be on his toes, or miss the opportunity to point out a deficiency in the other's grasp of 13th-century history, or drop a deftly delivered pun, or a magnificent lie.

"Some of the time I'm telling the truth. You have to figure out for yourself whether I'm having you on or not," says Roy McCutcheon, a native of Belfast who met Paul Winter here at the pub made famous by James Joyce - now a civilized "gastropub" with very little broken glass - one evening three years ago, and on a good many evenings since. "We're like-minded. We're very sharp, very quick, we've got a great repartee going on." "He's full of it most of the time," Winter says. "And he's a fascist." "I'm not a fascist. But you're a Trotskyite."

If there is a common denominator to these long, cantankerous evenings, it is Guinness, the beer so fundamental to Ireland that one has only to say, "Pour me a pint" to receive, in due course, a wide, ceremoniously poured glass of "the black stuff."

Bitter and muddy, thick with creamy foam, too meaty for the heat but a blessed lubricant for a foggy night and a tearful chorus of "Carrickfergus," Guinness is Ireland's best-selling beer.

Sixty-somethings like McCutcheon and Winter, weaned on its thick roasted barley essence as teenagers, wouldn't even consider drinking a wispy lager in its place.

But even Guinness, it seems, is not immune to the forces of open markets, suburban sprawl and Ireland's evolution from an impoverished backwater of emigrants to one of Europe's economic powerhouses, a country that now imports cheap labor from Eastern Europe.

Even as sales have boomed elsewhere, Guinness has seen its business decline in Ireland over most of the past seven years, a trend that eased only slightly last year with a growth rate of 3.5 percent.

The problem is, Irish traditions are something many Irish simply no longer have time for.

In Dublin, working and commuting now take up much of the time once spent stopping at the pub for a pint after work. And as the Celtic Tiger begins like everyone else to feel the effects of the global credit crunch, with declining home prices and rising unemployment, it doesn't help that a pint of Guinness costs $7.20.

"I've got a hundred-mile round-trip commute every day. So you're out of the house for 12, 14 hours a day, and by the time you do get home, all you're fit for is a couple of hours of TV, maybe dinner, and go to bed. It would never, ever cross my mind to go for a pint on the way home," said Cormac Billings, a 33-year-old investment banker who works in Dublin's city center but lives in the suburbs.

"Maybe six, seven times a year, you might meet up with your mates for a few pints, but it's always a hassle to organize," he said. "People are busy. They're married, they're having kids."

Ireland is still the second-biggest beer-drinking market in the world, after the Czech Republic. But beer consumption has declined by 15 percent since 2001. Rural pubs last year were closing at the rate of more than one a day, victims of high taxes, increasing supermarket sales and a nationwide smoking ban.

Add to that an explosion in demand for wine and high-end coffee here, and Guinness now sells more beer in Nigeria, where its extra-robust, 7.5 percent alcohol foreign extra stout, than it does on the Emerald Isle.

In May, the company announced a $1 billion modernization program that will close two of its most venerable breweries and eliminate more than half its brewery staff, while transferring most Guinness export production, including beer bound for the U.S., to a new large state-of-the-art brewery in the Dublin suburbs.

Production at Guinness's 249-year-old flagship brewery at St. James's Gate in central Dublin will be shrunk by a third, focusing almost exclusively on beer sold in Ireland and Britain - for those whose Guinness tastes are so refined they wouldn't accept beer brewed anywhere else. The facility, Ireland's biggest tourist attraction, also will get a major face-lift.

"We listened to our consumers, and we listened to ourselves. And something like St. James's Gate is really, really important to people," said Brian Duffy, chairman of the Irish branch of Diageo, the multinational beverage company that owns Guinness and also distributes Tanqueray gin, Smirnoff vodka and Cuervo tequila.

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