What’s with the books?

What’s with the books?

There’s a common decor staple that you see at the cookie-cutter Irish-themed pubs (use of the word "pub" is itself part of the thematics) here in the USA. They all have to have a bookshelves with antique-looking books, as if Irish publicans go to the pub to drink and read tomes of antiquity. I’ve been in more than a few bars in No. Ireland and have yet to see a single book on the walls. Other than providing some extra acoustics to absord sound, I see no purpose for this cliche decor trick, and it actually kind of annoys me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that there are Irish-themed pubs in the States and that they try, but honestly there is a cookie-cutter approach to these establishments that is loaded with cliches. So be it, perhaps I’m complaining needlessly.

Seriously, are there actually pubs in Ireland that have books? Is this perhaps a pub feature from days past? I’m just curious.

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We have no TVs in our pub, so the books actually get used from time to time. We also have a stack of games: Domino’s, Monopoly, playing cards, I think there’s even a copy of Risk. A tin of Lincoln Logs too, if I’m not mistaken.

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I’m not sure if the company still exists, but there used to be one in Dublin which specialised in providing newly-converted ‘Irish’ pubs around with world with appropriate accoutrements. These included replicas of signs - ‘An Post’, ‘Killarney 3 miles’, classic Gilroy Guinness designs, etc. - as well faux-antique bars and mirrors.

I suspect that the books idea was an off-shoot of the Firkin and, subsequently, Wetherspoon’s pub refurbishments in the UK from the mid-1980s onwards when bookshelves suddenly began to appear in British pubs. Miles na Gopaleen’s ‘book-thumbing’ service had finally been realised.

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SWFL - Ha! back at you. I would love that pub. 🙂

Floss - That makes sense. My wife, who is originally from Belfast, and I have been toying with the idea of opening a Irish-themed establishment here in the USA. I would like to avoid the cookie-cutter approach, but I also understand that certain features are unavoidable. I just want a place that earns a living, has some authenticity, that is, avoids pretense to the extent that such an endeavor can, and provides a safe haven for sessionistas and sessions that will never go away unless the business goes under. We’ll see, it’s little more than a notion at this point. One thing it won’t have is an obligatory bookshelf with books that nobody will touch, and only one television off where the sports fan’s won’t annoy the sessioners. I can dream, can’t I?

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SWFL, you’re in Florida…

I can only remember one pub in Ireland where there were books to thumb through, poetry books, and I remember enjoying a few poems over a pint and a shot, but it was unusual, but nice to have a pub without noise from a tele, just the locals, and a good book… I wonder too if there are any such places surviving anywhere nowadays, free of tele or other noise given a boost through speakers? I have known a few coffee houses like that, and restaurants, but they don’t count… 😎

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Thankfully, there are still some pubs in Ireland which don’t have a constantly blaring TV (or any other kind of background ‘accompaniment’). The most common of these, though they’re gradually dying out, are the places which operate as combined groceries and pubs (and often petrol stations too).

I can think of four of these which are within ten miles of my front door. Donegal still has a fair few, but they’re virtually non-existent in Norn Iron.

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I’ve been to loads of bars in Belfast and Dublin which do have bookshelves. My local bar infact has books in it! The older pubs and the touristy pubs tend to have them. I’d rather see books in the bar to be honest - my heart sinks when I enter a bar with a tv, pool table and slot machines - personally I would ban these from bars as they instantly kill the conversation and attract drunk knackers and larger louts! There should be sportsbars catered exclusively for this sort of thing, and all the cheap and nasty drink promotions to go with it.

I think the idea of booksheleves in Irish bars has been taken over by the tourist board but its also important to remember that one of the immediate ancestors to the modern pub (the coffee house), were in fact meeting places for literary societies so perhaps it’s not so surprising that the idea has been around for a long time (at least the early 18th century!) - long before the tourist board at any rate!

Perhaps it is a testament to Ireland as "the land of saints and scholars"! Many of the most famous Irish poets were heavy drinkers and may have attracted a following. Again, this could have historical significance and having nothing to do with the today’s tourism and commercialism!

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It’s because famous literature has been one of the things Ireland has been well-known for in the Anglosphere, and probably the world in general, even by people who never read it.

What all this bookery in theme pubs is actually saying, is something like this:

"If you devote yourself to getting utterly bladdered here on a continuing basis, you will discover spontaneous talents of tongue and pen that will turn you into a Great Writer. You will become a flamboyant romantic figure into the bargain, like Brendan Behan and J.P.Donleavy. Suckled unceasingly by the Celtic muse, you will live in some vast tottering tower in the middle of nowhere with goats crawling all over it and a family of tinker pipers in the cellar. You will tell them to feck off and they will tell you to feck off whenever you want a light-hearted break from your creative endeavours. You will bring back a succession of starry-eyed floozies from American lecture tours and marry some of them. The Goddess Fand will bring you breakfast in bed. Your few needs will be met, including a top-notch golf course, salmon river, private distillery and weaponry to see journalists off. You will go into local politics and tell the whole County to feck off, and they will tell you to feck off. You will discover, at length, that you are so famous you *don’t actually have to write any more* - that is, if you ever actually did write anything. Your annual tax bill will be E0.00."

And this probably suckers people, if they are sufficiently vulnerable to the notion that drink is the portal to mystery and mastery.

I must say, the quality of some of the furniture in some Irish theme pubs has struck me as remarkably good, and some of the books as being worth reading, not just filler rubbish. I’ve often read books in quiet pubs - I think it goes very well with a pint.

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Some interesting comments. I realize I may be coming across and anti-literate. This is not the case, I assure, as I am at least somewhat bookish myself. I just thought it was interesting that this really is nothing more than a decor device in the themed pubs in America, and contrivances tend to annoy me. I also liked the coffee house comparison. There was a time, before Starbucks, where independent coffee houses dotted the urban landscape in the States, and these were great places to have a coffee or tea and sit and read, and many of them had extensive bookshelves. I guess I just don’t go to bars to read, and different bars have different purposes, but I would rather converse, play music, etc. at a bar. I have nothing against a television, but in the States the "sports bar" has so saturated the bar industry that most bars have to have several flatscreens around the bar in order to compete for business.

nichola - I didn’t know that books in the themed bars said all that. 🙂

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Mr. C, is that a senior citizen comment? 😉

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That sounds like a good life to me, Nicholas.

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It does to me, too! Well, bits of it.

The potency of the myth cannot be denied.

When I was 12, I wanted to be like that.

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Actually, it sounds far too much like hard work.

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Books? What I’m perplexed by are those pubs with lidless, upright coffins standing along a wall. Or walls. People have taken to carving aphorisms, vows, or even their full names inside. The odd farewell to granny, too. And on the flat tops: cute stuffed animals, framed photos of cloud formations, sugar skulls, pint glasses filled with hair and finger nails.

I’m told the coffins are placed there by a spiritualist group to remind us of the inevitable, but all too often you notice one inviting a snug rendezvous. Here, let’s have just that arm up, all right? Good.

Looked out the car window last week and saw a pub named Coffins and Confetti. If it was Coffins OR Confetti they’d have had my afternoon.

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Bail ó Dhia oraibh! Greetings to all!

I’ve just got up and watched a most beautiful late summer sunrise, had a cup of tea and read some W. B. Yeats, as I like to do, and then stumbled on this great discussion.

Maith an fear (Good man!), Jimmy!

I don’t know if there are any genuine Irish pubs back in England now, as opposed to pubs in which people are allowed to play. I read with some horror about the changes in htelicensing laws and the stipulations about how many can play together.

Before I came out to Tasmania in 2002, pubs back in England could be “traditionally” Irish, or increasingly, as appears to be indicated in the posts above, thematic Irish pubs.

We called them “Plastic Paddy” pubs. It was like that with the music too.

If you wanted to, and I know many who did, you could play near enough twice a night doing Wild Rover, Black Velvet Band, Whiskey in the Jar etc. Oh! And you could coin it in too!

Personally I think it was a trend which moved away from the session in which people got together to share a few tunes, songs, jokes and good craic. Please, before you think I’m saying anything against the sessions today, I’m not.

There have been many discussions here at this forum discussing sessions, leaders, payment etc. All valid I must agree.

Maybe my early “middle life” (I didn’t start playing until in my twenties) playing days were halcyonic beyond belief in that I found so many different old Irish pubs in which one just sank into what was genuine traditional Irish music.

“The Favourite” in Holloway in London had a fiddle hanging on the wall for anyone to play.

Some of them had TVs, especially for the racing, not many had one armed bandits (that’s what we called slot machines up in Liverpool) and there was no canned music.

Some of the pubs had a “crossword corner” and there would be the obligatory OE Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, a Scrabble Board, A Chess Board, and it wasn’t unusual to see a group of people standing round a game as spectators! And in some of these pubs there would be some well thumbed copies of Yeats, Joyce, Puckoon, Edna O’Brien. That’s where I first found “August is a wicked month”.

And in the background a seamless tapestry of tunes.

In Liverpool if someone started to sing, people in the bar would call “Ssssh!” and the whole pub would listen.

If you get the chance to visit Hobart please drop in to The New Sydney Hotel. I’ve posted before how great this pub is for Irish people, and Irish Tradition. This is why The Irish Association of Tasmania has it as its registered address.

No TV with one exception – AFL Grand Final Day; no pokies, no Keno (gambling) and just background canned music. There is a “crossword corner”, all the newspapers, dictionaries. Not many books, but there are some concerning Irish artists, Irish Magazines etc.

The pub thrives on conversation, and is what I’d call “self policing” – from the customers’ side of the bar. There’s a really good sense of what is right

Just last Wednesday we had our monthly “Craic is back”, it’s like a little folk concert as opposed to session. It finished at 11pm. People were drifting off and on came a nice CD in the background. A few people came over and asked if I fancied a tune, and off we started. Ad hoc…and within a nano-second the background CD vanished!

If any musician drops in, they are made welcome, and this is not just on Session day. And if someone wants to play the music will be turned off. And at the session nobody gets any more than anyone else, everyone gets just one free drink. And relating to Joe’s post the other day, young and developing musicians are made welcome and, more importantly, encouraged.

It’s not perfect but, my word, it goes a long way to restoring belief in what an Irish Pub can be.

Maybe some of you can share if you have pubs still doing things like this?

All the best

Brian xx

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Interesting. That made me think of some of the saloons we have here in Arizona in wild west tourist towns like Tombstone. Some of them will have an old pine coffin standing up against a wall, with no top. In the wild west days of the late 1800’s in the USA, saloon owners, sometimes at the behest of the town marshall, would place an open upright pine coffin containing the body of a recently slain outlaw in front of saloon as a scare tactic for passing ruffians/outlaws to see. Sort of like saying "If you f*** around in this town this is how you’ll end up." The tourists can then get into the upright coffin and get snapshots.

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briantheflute -

Thanks for that post. That was a good read. I’m happy about this thread. I’ve gotten some excellent posts. I’ve been disillusioned and bitter of late over what we call bars here. This is likely due to the recent American football season, where multiple screens blaring as many games from around the country seem to be all that is important in life. The only conversation one holds is with the bartender when ordering the next drink. The books just seem like a mockery in that context.

Thanks to all for the excellent posts.

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@Jimmy B

I think we should start an anti TV campaign. It is getting ridiculous. In Limerick (I think) I was even in an establishment which had TV screens behind the wash hand basins in the loo - is nothing sacred? It’s not just the US anymore.

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TVs in Limerick are understandable as you would need to keep up with the rugby obviously.

As for Belfast, pubs , well they used to say that in Belfast one must never mix business with pleasure and that drinking is business. (Kitchen Bar on a Friday night excepted)

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Hey Jimmy - I can’t remember how long you’ve been here in "the ‘Zona," but about 12 years ago, there was a building spree of about 4-5 Irish pubs in the valley, each one claiming to have been "built in Ireland and shipped over to be reassembled." Included with the vast library of Joyce, Wilde, and Yeats books, are the equally curious props of saddles, Woodbine cigarette ads, riding crops, tins of biscuits and other turn of the century Irish curios. I would wager every Irish pub built in the states in the last 15 years has attempted to capture the look of Cohan’s Pub from the movie The Quiet Man by way of Frank McCourt’s imagery from Angela’s Ashes.

I think it’s a phase, but much better than the American Irish pubs of the 80’s. It was either green leprechauns and drunk college kids or a dusky IRA safe-house - no middle ground.

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dusky? that should have read "dusty"

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Hey Jimmy- who’s gonna drink in your "authentic" Irish pub? Americans in "authentic" Irish caps an’ vests….speaking of cookie cutter…and not to bash us Americans but…since we’re bashing…

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In all the pubs/bars I’ve been to in the states, only Mr. Toads Library in Omaha seemed to use books as a deliberate decoration. It was more of an english style pub than anything else. Funny enough there was a story behind it and they were all real and honest law books, but nothing anyone would ever read.

As far as faux irish establishments I’ve seen, Bennigans is maybe the worst. Most of the irish themed bars in the states I’ve been to are pretty decent places to go to, IMO, but that’s mostly luck and living in the right cities.

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I love pubs that are full of bric a brac and such like.. it gives the pub a certain atmosphere. I played trad for a number of years in such a pub. It fascinated me so much that I wrote an epic type poem about it, which was framed and holds pride of place on the wall of the pub. Here are a couple of verses depicting just some of the stuff that is on the walls:
"There’s coach lamps and blow lamps, and old iron kettles.
Brass lamps and glass lamps, and lamps made from metal.
Bike lamps and storm lamps, and one with no wick
There’s even a very old ‘rush candlestick’.
There’s an old army bugle and a pair of old spurs.
There are swords and a pistol that came from the wars.
Finally I’m glad to relate that a small country pub within walking distance from my home has a whole corner set aside like a small library with wall to wall books donated by all and sundry.

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My favorite pub has instruments hanging on the wall for people to play. My old guitar is there-a nice retirement home for it. As for the rest of it, I couldn’t tell you- Don’t know if it’s "faux" Irish or not. The guy who owns it is from Ireland. Maybe it’s a "faux" American pub run by a "plastic American from Ireland…I donno, it gets confusing….

I wouldn’t complain about books in pubs, as long as they’re not Romance Novels or self help guides.

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The (kinda) pub my session is in has a "take a book / leave a book" shelf. If I arrive early, I might do a little browsing, rather than see how many pints I can knock back; or (shudder) watch the television.