What makes an Irish pub Irish?

I’m fussy about my pubs. I’m even fussier about foreign pubs that claim to be Irish. They need to be Irish owned with at least one genuine, dyed-in-the-wool Irish person behind the bar or working the floor. Someone who knows how to banter, to give the nod.  Otherwise, in my humble opinion, they have no claim to being an Irish pub. I’ve banged on about this for years and rightly or wrongly, that was my belief and I was glued to it.

I can still remember the shock of discovering (in San Francisco) that you can order an Irish pub on the Internet. You send in the square footage, pick your package and it’s delivered – lock, stock, and three smoking leprechauns. The frosted mirrors, the plaques with witty sayings, the pictures of the usual suspects – Joyce, Behan, Beckett, Wilde et al., all come neatly crated ready to be unpacked and hung on the walls.

The Juke Box comes loaded with the Waterboys, U2, The Cranberries (am I dating myself?) or whoever has carved a niche as being Irish on the international music circuit. Depending on the politics of the location, you might get a rabble of rebel songs from the Wolfe Tones and the Chieftains. Or a few Daniel O’Donnell albums for the crooners.

The bar itself will have the usual Irish whiskey and pints of Guinness or Kilkenny with bottles of Magners in the fridge. The food, always optional, will be vaguely Irish, or at least Irish-themed with local takes on original classics like the Full Irish. [There’s a completely different conversation to be had about what constitutes a Full Irish and how it differs from an English Breakfast. Answers on a postcard please….]

But these are just the trappings. Looking like an Irish pub doesn’t make it an Irish pub. Having sawdust on the floor isn’t enough to turn your hostelry into the like of what you might find in the west of Ireland. And playing a few jigs and reels should never be mistaken for atmosphere.

When I’m abroad, I avoid Irish pubs with the same enthusiasm that I avoid bacon and cabbage, unless there’s a match I want to see… then I go out of my way to find one. I tell myself that I didn’t come to Istanbul or Athens or Rome or wherever to sit in an Irish bar and drink imported beer. Like any self-respecting Irish tourist, I know my boundaries. So when I was wandering around Taksim on my first night in Istanbul in search for a reasonably priced glass of white wine, the last place I thought to look was the local Irish pub – The Dubliner.

I did stand across the road though and take a photo for posterity. I struggled with my conscience and the consequences that crossing the street might have for my reputation. And the lads, seeing my hesitancy, did what any Irish publican would do – they gave me the nod.

I walked over and checked the menu to see what they were charging for a pint of blackened Liffey Water. We sparred a little, going back and forth about how sacrilegious it would be for me to go inside and sit down, me being Irish and in Istanbul to see something new, something different. But they had it nailed. They had the banter and the smiles and the ‘we-couldn’t-care-less-what-you-do-but-sure-why-not-have-a-quick-one-while-you-make-up-your-mind’ attitude that is hard to fake. And in I went. For one.

The following night, I was joined by a colleague from Romania. We had dinner and then I heard myself suggest that we go to this Irish pub I’d come across the night before that played music from an Ireland I’d thought had died years ago. As we approached, the lads recognised me, bade us welcome, set up the white wine, broke out the apples and the nuts, and kept an eye on us all evening. We were joined later by a third colleague from the Czech Republic. And each of us received the same attention. They said the owner was Irish, from Cork. So I felt vindicated. I met him (a lovely man) and it turned out that he was local but had lived and studied in Cork for so long that he himself felt he’d made the transition. And I felt a little cheated but two nights in a row meant that I’d gone beyond redemption, lineage be damned.

On the third evening, we went back again, all three of us plus a couple of Serbian colleagues and so the pattern continued. I had such a good time that I got over the fact that it wasn’t meeting my strict criteria of being Irish owned and Irish staffed. We didn’t go every night but we dropped in for one if we were in the neighbourhood. And each time, we got the nod – that acknowledgement that we weren’t simply customers, currency on legs. And this is what makes a pub Irish: the nod.

It’s not rocket science – and yet so few pubs manage it. Treat your customers as if they’re more than customers and they’ll come back. Take the time to chat. Pay attention to the amount of attention they seem to want and if they’re up for some banter, then engage. If they’re not, keep a watchful eye from a distance and keep them fuelled. Know enough about what’s going on in the world to be able to find something to talk about. Remember what they talk about – because if you show interest, they’ll come back. And if they feel they were given their due, without being fawned over, then they’ll come back with friends.

I’ve officially changed my mind. My long-held belief that to be really Irish, an Irish pub has to be Irish owned and staffed by real Irish people has wavered. While still the rule rather than the exception (as is the case in Budapest), there are places, like The Dubliner in Istanbul, that have managed to make it happen and happen in style.

One day, when I’m president of Ireland, I’ll make Hadi and Mehmet ambassadors for Ireland 🙂 In the meantime lads, le mile buíochas for looking after us so well.


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