I was reminded of this whilst reading a fascinating new report about the cultural role of pubs - The Enduring Appeal of the Local - published by SIRC in the UK. Though focused on English pubs, most of what the report contains relates to Irish pubs as well. The essence of the pub of course is that it is a place for people to meet. We enjoy the convivial feeling of belonging to a community where the more constrained rules of work, family, church or class don't apply. Crucially, the pub is about participation, not spectating:
This idea of participation is crucial to understanding what pubs, and locals in particular, are all about – why people are attracted to them and why they endure as a focus for social networks even in the digital age of online communities, texting and other forms of 'instant' communication. We may go to the pub 'for a drink', but 'having a drink' (rather than just 'drinking') is essentially a social act surrounded by tacit rules – a special 'etiquette' that gives us a sense of inclusion and belonging that is independent of our status in the mainstream world. In this sense the pub is very much a social leveller – something that was apparent even in the Middle Ages. As Theodore Leinwand notes in his study of Shakespeare's plays, in the 15th century, alehouses, taverns and inns were " … sites … where people of disparate status mixed…[which] brought men, high born and low, into relation, fostering a propinquity that might secure, adjust or threaten hierarchies."The SIRC study is a healthy antidote to the dreary binge blaming we are subject to day-in-day-out by the Nannyists in our midst who accuse us, wrongly, of being on a path of growing alcohol abuse. But the study does make one thing clear: much of the recent decline in the fortunes of Irish pubs is due to the drinks industry forgetting that people go to pubs to meet other people and share a few drinks: not to drink alcohol in the company of other people.
Still, I found the insights in the SIRC research encouraging, even in the age of Bebo we can look forward to a convivial future for our pubs. Or as they put it:
We may sign up to an online community to communicate with like-minded people who share our interests across the globe, or we may reveal selected aspects of ourselves on Facebook. These are, however, 'non-local' by definition. They are what the late urban planner Melvin Webber, predicting over thirty years ago the internet trends that we witness today, called 'community without propinquity'. They are, in a very significant sense, different. They may extend our social and professional lives and allow much wider patterns of interaction, but they do not replace the more traditional and timeless face-to-face activities that take place in the special social institutions created to facilitate them – central among them, the pub.It's time to reconnect with our locals, though I'll probably stick to wine rather than beer as the former is better for my IQ it seems ...