When I first came to Ireland, about three years ago, I was immediately intrigued by the number of pubs I encountered in Dublin. After going to a few I realised that they were indeed very different on a number of levels from the pubs that I had been to so far. So, I was very excited when I received an advance reader copy of Kevin Martin’s Have Ye No Homes To Go To? – The History of the Irish Pub from The Collins Press. Many thanks to PureM for facilitating this!

I come from a city known for its pub culture in India, which means I have seen a fair share of watering holes… or so I thought. I soon discovered that Dublin was vastly different. For one, there is probably three times (or more) the number of pubs here compared to my city even though Dublin is the smaller of the two. Secondly, I noticed that pubs here varied in character and clientele. While some were noisy and filled with beer guzzling 20-somethings, some were relatively quiet with men and women in their mid-30s or 40s discussing their long day at work, caressing lowball glasses filled with whiskey or gin. I also discovered that there were a lot of pubs that were established a few centuries ago and still standing today as institutions. Clearly, pubs were not just the entertainment centres that I had been acclimatised to. Here, they had deeper social dimensions.

These dimensions are precisely what Kevin Martin discusses in his engaging and fact-filled book. He begins in the 6th century when pubs were a necessity by law. Local kings were required to have a “bruigu” or a brewer whose establishment was supposed to welcome weary travellers with a smile and a drink at all times. Interestingly, there was a time when women were brewers as well. Known as alewives, these women, many of them widows or unmarried women, would brew fresh ale in their small houses. These were the beginnings of the pub in Ireland. As brewing became more of an industry, laws began to appear along with typical patriarchal notions of ‘corrupt alewives’ who spoiled innocent girls with their licentious behaviour. Women were altogether banned from brewing ales and later even from entering the premises where alcohol was sold. It was only as shockingly late as 2003 that it became illegal to refuse women entry to a pub.

Martin notes that drinking is perceived differently in different cultures. He quotes a 1944 study by Robert Bales which showed that drinking, in the Jewish-American community, was “spiritually and physically symbolic.” But in Ireland, drinking has no relationship to “religious ideas and sentiments.” The Irish drank to alleviate emotional lacunae, loneliness, and to blend into the social tapestry, which were some of the key causes of the drinking problem in Ireland. Martin digs deeper and lays out some of the reasons behind young Irish boys turning to the bottle in earlier times. He shows social rituals playing a role in alcoholism, and how the Irish came to call the pub as a “third space,” a place away from home, a neutral and level ground where everyone could air their opinions and have a good conversation.

Of all these observations, I was most interested by some of the features that are unique to Irish pubs like the convention of the spirit grocer and the evolution of trad sessions.

“Spirit grocers were originally a response to the emergent temperance movement of the mid nineteenth century and the consequent drop in sales of spirits… Spirit grocers were central to the Irish rural economy in the twentieth century… Typically, the premises had rows of drawers behind the counter containing spices, flavourings, tea and tobacco, but different spirit grocers had different layouts. Many sold fruit and vegetables. Others had hardware products for sale.”

Today, this has become one of the idiosyncrasies of an Irish pub that is proudly displayed as a speciality to attract tourists. So are trad sessions. Apparently, Irish traditional music sessions in pubs were more popular outside Ireland before they gained recognition here. Before the 1950s, music in bars and pubs was unheard of (pun intended) and it was only later in the 70s, when Ireland was going through a time of prosperity that music became a part of people’s social lives and ergo began to be assimilated into pubs.

Have Ye…  is one of those books that requires you to return and thumb through its pages at random, pause at a statistic here or a fact there in order to digest it completely. The writing is a bit choppy and abrupt but the research is in-depth. Martin has quoted multiple studies and gone through several books, as evidenced by the bibliography, to type up this volume. Although pubs are the focus, Martin’s fascinating account is a glimpse into Irish life as it was shaped over the centuries by laws, social outlook, religion, and politics. And of course, the centre of it all was the local pub.

Written by Swati Nair