Ireland plays to drinking culture in its temporary Olympic home turf

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From The Irish Times

Many countries have set up showcase  ‘homes ’ in London and the Irish one has opted for a pub look, writes RONAN McGREEVY  in London  

THE COMPETITION for national pride which characterise the Olympics is not just confined to the sporting arenas.

The tradition of  “hospitality houses ” has been built up over several Olympics to provide countries with an international showcase and a place for their fans to repose after visiting the games.

Some of London ’s most salubrious attractions have been taken over by visiting nations who have spared no expense in their attempts to impress.

Brazil, the next Olympic hosts, have taken over Somerset House; the Russians, hosts of the Winter Olympics, have commandeered a section of Hyde Park; while the continent of Africa is presenting a united front in Kensington Gardens.

The French have spent more than  €2 million turning old Billingsgate Market into a little bit of France and the Swiss are painting the magnificent Thames-side Glaziers Hall red and white. All are backed by government money.

The Irish House is not actually an Irish establishment or in one of the hundreds of Irish pubs in London although distillers Jameson, one of the sponsors, has done a good job disguising that fact by making it look like one, at least temporarily.

The venue is in Pentonville Road, a two-minute walk from King ’s Cross station.

It is usually known as the Big Chill House, a converted Victorian pub with a penchant for hip DJs, but has been remodelled in recent weeks into a little bit of the Auld Sod.

The main bar has a stage for the myriad Irish acts which will play during the festival. A warren of rooms leads to a roof terrace where the lofty Shard can be seen in the distance.

The basement is based on the theme of Father Ted and has been visited by Ardal O ’Hanlon but, aside from pictures of the cast members, it looks more like an Irish pub circa 1975. It has Formica tables, flock wallpaper and a wooden television with a silver dial.

There are photographs on the wall of all the Irish athletes competing in the London Olympics. It is a private venture and there is an entrance charge of  £10 before 6pm and  £15 afterwards.

The man behind it is Stephen Hickey, the son of long-standing Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) president Pat Hickey.

Without the support of the OCI, the Irish House could not call itself an official hospitality venue nor display the Olympic rings.

Stephen Hickey says his involvement is everything to do with the promotions company THG Sports which he works for and nothing to do with his father.

 “I ’ve lived in London for 15 years. I ’ve worked in events for 12 years. I heard about this and I said,  ‘I really want do to it ’. ”

Once approval was sought, and got, from the OCI, the organisers went to Tourism Ireland looking for financial support, but it declined.

Tourism Ireland chief executive Niall Gibbons said:  “We were offered three opportunities to invest: gold, silver and bronze, ranging from  €50,000 to  €300,000. We decided not to progress with it. ”

He said what other countries did was a  “matter for themselves ” and they had different priorities.  “There were other things we wanted to focus our money on. ”

Instead, Tourism Ireland has focused on the Escape the Madness campaign in Tube stations and in London newspapers, contrasting the frenetic nature of London during the Olympics (somewhat exaggerated as it turns out), with the bucolic pleasures of Ireland.

A viral ad featuring the voice of actor Chris O ’Dowd has been viewed more than 350,000 times.

Mr Gibbons said their focus in the UK was next year ’s The Gathering: some 300 people came to its launch at the Irish Embassy last week.