The new documentary The Irish Pub reaches the screens in a timely manner as the dying embers of Arthurs Day flicker out. This was a chance to explore our complex relationship with alcohol be it for good or for bad. Pubs are still the social centre of life in Ireland. Remember the slightly odd advertisements calling pubs the original social network? What better way to look at all of this than a documentary on the big screen. Sure we can go for a pint afterwards and discuss it.
The documentary sets out its stall with the meeting of various landlords in iconic or old pubs all over Ireland and letting them talk. Some of the characters on camera are more compelling than others, particularly Paul Gartlan in his pub in Cavan. He is a force of nature straight out of Deadwood and could easily have his own spin off film. The problem here is that there is very little to tie it together. There is no structure or forward momentum which makes the film feel a shade longer than its tidy 76 minutes. When the talking heads are interesting, it is fine, but when they are a little duller, it drags. The film struggles through the first half hour in a whimsical fashion, painting an Ireland that surely would be believable to a certain kind of homesick Diaspora. 30 minutes in and I was beginning to worry the whole film would continue like this.
Thankfully the film improves immeasurably when it tackles the importance of the pub to people who are lonely and use the pub as a lifeline. To a young generation this may not mean much but to older people who live alone, a local pub that keeps you a chair on a winters evening - it is a vital link to the outside world. This is explored here and it is the role of the landlord that is very important particularly in rural areas. Some of the camerawork is excellent here, with specific close-up shots in certain pubs memorable.
But this is a film with problems. The main one is its determination to explore the past rather than the present. With this, The Irish Pub seems in thrall to a kind of dangerous nostalgia. Jokes are made about whether women could go in the pub (they could, in the lounge or the snug, not the bar) without being challenged or at least contextualised. New Ireland, with its steady supply of young people (there are only a couple of young people amongst the talking heads) presumably ready to be loud and obnoxious are virtually ignored. What we are left with is the Ireland of the past, of Ryan’s Daughter, cream crackers and polo mints (some of the pubs are also shops). At one point (pint?) during the Irish pub a picture of the Virgin Mary is seen next to a Guinness glass. If there is a better image to represent Ireland of the last century I have yet to see it. They make queasy bedfellows at the best of times and yet you would not know it watching The Irish Pub. The film virtually ignores any negative aspects of the pub. There is no one drunk onscreen (I presume deliberately) and there is no sense that there is anything wrong with going to the pub night after night. I was not expecting a miserable documentary exploring the horrors of drink but at least some mention of growing problems in our society would have been welcome. John B. Keane’s pub is featured as is his son who tells an amusing story of his father using material from the bar in his plays. Yet there is only a passing mention of Brendan Behan and practically nothing about the fact that alcohol essentially caused his early death. Again not expecting a serious exploration but more than a brief mention would and should have been there.
The Irish Pub is an interesting documentary but it feels like an incomplete story. If you have a burning desire to see Ireland as it once was, this is the film for you. I noted in a superb article by Ronan Doyle on Irish cinema (http://www.indiewire.com/article/why-you-need-to-start-paying-attention-to-irish-cinema) a mention of a panel discussion at IFNY that will be discussing American investment in Irish films to see if the Irish American audience could be catered for. Well this could be the prototype model. I imagine it would be approved by The Gathering and Licensed Vintners Association as well. This to me is why overall despite some interesting points the film fails honourably.