Nerve Centre Screens The Irish Pub Documentary
Alex Fegan's acclaimed film on the enduring cultural significance of the humble pub to screen in Derry~Londonderry on June 9
Kerry publican James Curran has a straightforward business plan: ‘Keep things as they were. There’s enough things changing in the world,’ he says. ‘The whole of Dingle is changing, which is ruining it and we’ll try to keep it the same as it was.’
Curran’s testimony is typical of the prevailing attitude in The Irish Pub, a beautifully constructed journey through Ireland via 23 of the country’s traditional public houses. Set to be screened at the Nerve Centre in Derry~Londonderry on June 9, it is an elegant study of the role played by these humble establishments in Irish society, right up to the present day.
Director Alex Fegan, who made the documentary in his spare time during the first half of 2013, has seen it receive rave reviews in the Irish media following a seven-week run in southern cinemas – almost unheard of for non-fiction fare – where it was lapped up by audiences discerning a deep, personal connection to the topic.
Fegan is a qualified solicitor who left the profession to pursue his passion for filmmaking, a move which, so far, appears to have been a wise one. He sees Ireland’s bars as important cultural markers and was eager to document their significance.
‘Part of me wanted to try and tell the story of a country by using the pub as a vehicle,' Fegan explains. 'There are so many aspects of Irish culture which are connected to the pub, whether its music, song, history, politics, religion, the Irish humour, the colloquial way of telling a story. All these aspects of Irish life are almost on the walls of pubs.’
In Fegan's view, the social landscape in Ireland is enriched by its pubs for reasons beyond their merely serving alcohol. ‘What didn’t interest me was just drinking,’ he adds. ‘It’s the story-telling, the conversation, the chat. It’s a community.’
Fegan roved far and wide – armed with a single camera and a few lights – to bring his vision to the screen. He took in Cavan, Cork, Donegal, Galway, Monaghan and Roscommon, to name only a few destinations. Crucially, an overarching communal spirit is evident from the picture’s beginning to its end.
Fegan also suggests that ‘family is another aspect of this world'. Thus, each premises was chosen by the director for its multi-generational ownership and the steadfast adherence to a particular aesthetic quality, where refurbishments and upgrades are often eschewed to maintain the all-important familial continuity. ‘I wanted to [feature] pubs where the owner is the same person whose name is over the door.'
The film depicts the subjects as distinctly indispensable curators of Ireland’s history in its true, muddled, free-flowing form. In the faded plushness of his cosy lounge, longtime proprietor Michael Smyth, of Newtown, County Carlow, plays on his baby grand piano. In Dingle, Curran still bars the door every night with a rod bent out of shape by the Black and Tans’ decision to ram his grandfather's building.
Butterfields of Ballitore, County Kildare, meanwhile, has sported the same flagstone floor since opening its doors in the 1780s, and Bundoran’s Brennan sisters proudly state that they have no music or television to disturb the conversation. ‘The surfers like it,’ says Nan.
In Fegan’s native Dublin, too, Liam Aherne chuckles about his father ejecting firebrand playwright and author Brendan Behan from their Palace Bar – more than once – and recalls Belfast's Mary Robinson being persuaded to run for Irish president while seated in a corner snug. Garry Cusack of Mulligan’s in Poolbeg Street touts his Guinness as the best in the world and claims a historic connection with groundbreaking author, James Joyce.
That such simple things should fascinate so many was intriguing to Fegan, who rightly points out that tourists flock to Ireland every year to partake in the ambience of these unassuming venues; they sense that there is something special to be had.
‘What is it that makes this thing so unique?’ he asks. ‘I wanted to try and figure out what it is. Is it the atmosphere? Is it the person behind the bar? What is it that makes people want to travel so far to be in these pubs?’
At its core the Irish bar is a symbol of parity, contends Fegan. ‘The thing about the Irish pub is that it is one of the few places in the world that when you enter it, you park all your worries aside, for that period of time. They are very inclusive.’
He argues that such equality ‘reflects the Irish personality in many respects. People really embrace that.’ This fact, along with with the national facility for easy interaction, is undeniably attractive. ‘It’s a very simple combination of things that make this environment so special and unique to Ireland,’ Fegan argues. ‘There are very few places in the world where that still exists.’
In putting The Irish Pub together, Fegan was afforded a truly profound insight into the character of his country and those he calls compatriots. The experience has been invaluable. ‘When it started off I was thinking that it was going to be all about the history and then, as it went on, it changed to become all about the people.’
The Irish Pub will screen at the Nerve Centre, Derry~Londonderry on June 9, followed by a Q&A with the director.