Irish Times – Who will mourn the loss of our pubs?

The Irish pub is dying. Is there any hope that it can be revived? Does anybody really care? Or are we ready to wave good bye to it and embrace healthier habits that don’t involve consuming expensive alcohol in public?

The steadfastly sober Economist carried a eulogy to the British pub last month written, fittingly, by its obituaries editor. Pubs in England, as here, are struggling to survive under the combined weight of a smoking ban, cheaper booze selling in supermarkets, changes in how much alcohol people consume and how they consume it and the high prices charged by wholesalers. Rather than accepting the demise of the pub with a laissez-faire shrug as you might expect, the Economist piece is a clarion call for its salvation.

It says people used their favourite pubs to “measure their own lives, and Britain’s condition. They see reflected there, as in a glass, the present blights of social isolation, forgetfulness of history, cultural confusion; but they also see the forces of change somehow made to pause. Time slows; company gathers; speech is freed; beer flows, like the very lifeblood of the land. Pubs are needed, even when every social and economic indicator is running hard against them”.

Stirring stuff indeed, and sentiments the owners of the Cellar Bar in Galway might have wished had been shared among the locals in recent months. The Cellar has been a well known and popular pub for generations but despite its history and its prime location, a stone’s throw from Shop Street and Eyre Square, it went from landmark to statistic last week when it shut its doors for the last time, another victim of the recession and the crisis that has gripped the Irish pub scene.

According to publicans, there is worse to come and some are predicting the death of the Irish pub entirely. Publicans say the blame rests with below-cost sales of alcohol in the big supermarkets. “The pub business and independent off-licence business have taken an awful hammering in the past year. The big supermarkets have a monopoly on the price of alcohol and pubs cannot compete with it,” said Val Hanley, a former president of the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), and one-time mayor of Galway.

The power of the supermarkets “must have been a major factor” in the closure of the Cellar and Cuba, another bar owned by the same company on the other side of the city, she says. “The big fear is that 2011 will be nothing but bad news for the trade.”

VFI president Gerry Mellett said the removal of restrictions on below-cost selling had broken the back of the industry. “They’re selling at prices that we can never compete with,” he said. “When you combine this with stricter drink-driving regulations and the smoking ban, they are making it increasingly difficult for people to socialise. The authorities seem intent on over-regulating everything.”

This is not a new argument. For more than two years the VFI, which represents more than 4.500 publicans, has been warning that a host of outside pressures is killing its trade.

One of the early signs that all was not well in the Irish pub scene came at the end of 2008, when the VFI and the Dublin-based Licensed Vintners Association announced on behalf of their 5,500 members that they were introducing a price freeze for a year. Many wondered why prices were freezing and not falling and any kudos the lobby groups may have hoped for never materialised.

The Competition Authority wondered why the representative groups were talking about prices at all and took a successful court action to prevent them having any role in price setting in their members’ premises.

While times certainly are hard for many publicans, news of the industry’s death may have been exaggerated. According to the Revenue Commissioners, there was a total of 7,616 pub licences held in the State last year, down from 8,922 in 2005. While a decline of 1,300 in five years may sound alarming, the 2010 figure is actually up on the figures for 2000 when there were about 7,000 licences.

Mellet said this figure was skewed by the number of big supermarkets that had bought full licences from pubs closing down so they could open off-licences on their premises. “Our membership has fallen from 6,300 to 4,500 over the past 10 years and that is because they are closing their pubs and leaving the business,” he said.

For many consumers the single biggest reason pubs are struggling is prices. There is a feeling among many consumers that during the boom years publicans were guilty of price gouging. With people being charged more than €1.50 for a glass of water and a dash of cordial, more than €8 for a short and mixer and in excess of €6 for a pint of lager, such concerns are entirely legitimate.

When Pricewatch asked people on Twitter last week their views on the current crisis in the industry, the response was massive and instantaneous. To say sympathy was thin on the ground would be an understatement.

“Supermarkets, hotels and restaurants have all halved their prices,” said James Campbell. “It’s time for the VFI to stop the blame game, and reduce prices.”

Another Tweeter called Paul said he would put Ireland’s pubs in the same league as its taxis. They “milked it when times were good, at our expense” and they are “undeserving of pity now”. Chris Murphy described Irish pubs as “a rip off. At least €2.50 for 200ml of coke for a mixer! They need to adjust their pricing”.

Kieran Sammon said he enjoys a night out but described the cost as prohibitive. “I was charged €5.80 for a pint of Cidona at the weekend. Hardly good value. Time they adapted or closed.”

Almost 100 people responded in less than two hours and few voiced even mild support for the publicans. While Twitter users may not be entirely representative of Ireland’s drinking community, it was an interesting snapshot.

The price of soft drinks in particular is what seems to anger people and they point to the low cost in supermarkets and the high cost in the local. Take the Cidona mentioned by Sammon.

A 500ml bottle, which is just under a pint, costs €1.25 in most Irish supermarkets. That means he paid almost four times more in the pub for the same drink.

A bottle of Coca-Cola of the same size costs €1.19 in the shops yet another reader was asked to pay more than twice that for a bottle that was less than half the size.

Mellet says comparing the price of soft drinks in pubs and supermarkets is unfair and misleading. “You are talking about completely different products. You don’t walk into a bar and take a bottle of the shelf and then walk out again. As publicans we provide light, heat, entertainment and security and people can be here for hours at an end. That comes at a cost,” he said.

“So when you compare the prices of the minerals here and in a supermarket you simply are not comparing like with like.”

Mellet blames the press for focusing on those pubs that overcharge. “The print media gave us bad press in the 1990s and for most of the last decade but we got it in the neck because of a perception that we were overcharging. That may have been the case in a small number of urban pubs but it was a completely different story down the country,” he said.

The decline in the pub trade started 10 years ago and is a result of a combination of lifestyle changes – people are drinking less, the smoking ban, changes to drink-driving laws and cheaper alcohol being available in big supermarkets, he says.

“We are not looking for any sympathy from anyone. We are in business and we accept that if I have a pub and a small shop in a village four miles from anywhere, I am finding it very hard to survive because of competition from the likes of Tesco and Aldi.”

He sticks by his prediction that the rural pub in Ireland is under severe threat and could actually face extinction. “If that is what Ireland wants, then so be it,” he said. “We can’t do anything to stop it but if it’s not what people want, then someone has to call a halt to it.”


Source: The Irish Times, 10/01/11
Journalist: Conor Pope