20th Century Pub pubs

The Blarney Stone, Kilburn, 1984

Here we are going on about Minder again – that wonderful record of the pubs of London in the 1980s. This time, what grabbed our attention was the appearance of an Irish theme pub too early in the timestream.

In the twelfth episode of series four, originally broadcast on ITV on 24 March 1984, one of the two intertwined plots involves Terry McCann (Dennis Waterman) working as a bouncer at a pub called The Blarney Stone, in Kilburn, North London.

We’re introduced to the pub when Terry’s friend Kevin O’Hara (Gerard Murphy) calls Terry to discuss the job mid-refurb. “Mind them harps – they’re only polystyrene!” he yells at a workman, and then, “Oh, no, not plastic leprechauns…”

Kevin O'Hara


So what? you might ask but here’s why we sat up and took notice: in our book 20th Century Pub, after much research and inquiry, we declared Flanagan’s Apple in Liverpool to be the first Irish theme pub in the UK. It opened in 1984.

To clarify, there are Irish pubs (pubs in Ireland) and Irish pubs (pubs in other countries frequented by Irish people) but we’re talking about (fiddle music plays, party poppers go off) Irish Pubs, providing a kind of Disneyland Irish experience.

Now, The Blarney Stone is fictional, but why would the writers make this joke if Irish theme pub makeovers weren’t something in the popular imagination, that ITV viewers might recognise as ‘a thing’?

We began to worry, in short, that we’d got it wrong – a perennial problem when you come off the fence and state what you are 99% confident is a fact in print.

As the episode winds on, the politics of this particular pub are explored in a little more detail: Kevin tells Terry that the makeover has been imposed by the brewery that owns the pub.

The Shamrocks.

“Forget the spit and sawdust days, all this is going to be a bit choice, nobody gets in without a collar and tie.. The brewers make me smile. They’ve got about as much idea of Irishmen as you have. Not content with outing the disco, and stacking the jukebox with Jim Reeves records, they have to bring this lot in for opening night.”

“Who are they?”

“The Shamrocks.”

“Most of the punters in here are Irish anyway, aren’t they?”

“That’s right, and they’re not amused.”

When some burly Irish labourers turn up and start a fight any pretence at gentility is forgotten, and the polystyrene harps are indeed smashed to pieces.

By the end of the episode, we felt reassured: this wasn’t a portrait of the emerging Irish theme pub, it was an attempt to lampoon the theme pub trend more generally, then at the tail-end of a three-decade history.

The joke is that the brewery, recognising this Kilburn pub’s Irish clientele, imposed an insensitive makeover intended to pander to them, just as it might have painted scenes of cotton mill life on the wall of a pub in Lancashire, or covered a pub in Scotland in tartan.

But if you know otherwise – if you recall Irish Pubs as we know them now emerging before 1984 – we’d like to know more.

American beers News pubs

News, Nuggets and Longreads 23 March 2019: Choice, Cycles, Cask 2019

Here’s everything in the world of beer and pubs that struck us as noteworthy in the past week, from AB-InBev to Samuel Smith.

Hollie at Globe Hops, a UK beer blog that’s new to us, recently went back to Nottingham where she studied and noticed that many of her favourite pubs had tons more choice in their beer ranges, but somehow less character:

My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

(Via Peter McKerry | @PeterMcKerry.)

News pubs

News, Nuggets & Longreads 29 September 2018: Runcorn, Rochefort, Rules of the Tavern

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from PR disasters to art installations.

Last year Kirst Walker wrote up a pub crawl of Runcorn’s Victorian pubs with her trademark spark; this year, she notes plenty of changes, giving the exercise a certain academic interest as well as pure entertainment value:

Time for the Lion, where everybody knows your name! Last year’s winner was where we we would end the night once more. I didn’t double up last time but as we’d already had time bonuses, sambucca, and sandwiches I threw caution to the wind. Alan bought a round of pies like a freaking billionaire and we had a group de-brief with plans to repeat the operation next year on the same weekend… The Lion has lost much of its original room layout since it was refurbished and part of it converted into houses, but it’s still the type of traditional corner pub which is a hub for the community, and in my opinion it as better to try and save the pub than keep the entire sprawling space.

Price list in a pub.

We tend to ignore clickbaity brouhahas over individual expensive pints these days but Martin Steward at Pursuit of Abbeyness has waited for the dust to settle before reflecting on one such recent incident, producing a slow-cooked opinion rather than a flash-fried ‘hot take’:

The most remarkable thing about the price of Alesmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian is not that it is five-times higher than the price of Rochefort 10, but that it is three-times higher than Alesmith’s ordinary Speedway Stout… That premium buys you some toasted coconut flakes, some vanilla and some rare Hawaiian Ka’u coffee beans, which are indeed three-times more expensive than your bog-standard joe… If you can taste the difference after those beans have had beer fermenting on them, I complement you on your sensitive palate. If you think it justifies a 200% premium, I have a bridge to sell you.

Belgium marketing News

News, Nuggets & Longreads 31 March 2018: Moorhouse’s, Memel, Mellowness

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from ongoing developments in the discussion around sexist beer branding to the ever-expanding BrewDog empire.

Katie Taylor has an interesting run-down on Moorhouse’s rebranding exercise. Packaging re-designs are usually among the world’s most boring topics but this case sees a longstanding problem solved as poorly rendered ‘sexy’ witches in flimsy frocks are out, replaced by more abstract, modern designs that come with an unambiguous statement of intent:

“When I joined, Moorhouse’s was a strong brand, tied into the provenance of the local area,” said Lee [Miller] when I met with him a couple of weeks ago. “But we are guilty as charged. Our branding was indefensible and really could have happened sooner. What I wanted to make sure of was that when we did this, we did it right. I wanted Moorhouse’s to set out its stall, to bring in a new brand ready for the future. We hold our hands up.”

But the stuff about the temperance influence on their new range of beers is almost as interesting.

Illustration: lambic blending.

Returning to his favourite topic Roel Mulder gives us‘Eight Myths About Lambic Debunked’, with plenty of reassuring references.

Quite a lot is made of the fact that lambic is made out of wheat, today usually 30% to 40%. In the 19th century, that was even more: a 1829 recipe specifies no less than 58% raw wheat.[15]However, at that time all-barley beers were only just starting to gain popularity in Belgium. In fact, at the start lambic was quite modern for not having any oats, spelt or buckwheat in it…. only in the 20th century did it become special for not being an all-barley beer.

A reminder, this, that snappy stories and simple explanations in beer history are usually the work of storytellers and marketing people; the truth is almost always more complicated and, frankly, less fun.

Beer history pubs

Irish Pubs, English Pubs and the Essence of Pubness, 1964

A pint of stout.

Was part of the appeal of the Irish pub in the 1980s and 90s that real Irish pubs were more like ideal of the English pubs than English pubs had become?

This fantastic article by Irish journalist Mary Holland (1935-2004) published in January 1964 covers multiple issues in a few hundred pithy words.

First, the mystique of Dublin pubs: ‘I’ve always gone along with the belief that any Dublin bar has a magic aura which causes the talk to shimmer and sparkle as fast as the Guinness flows.’

Then their true qualities: ‘I now think the Dublin pub mystique is thriving as never before for the simple reason that its pubs are more comfortable.’

(See also a related 1996 columns from the Pub Curmudgeon here.)

And, finally, there’s a pointed examination of the state of English pubs in the mid-1960s:

One of the most recent attempts to revamp a pub’s image in central London is a bar designed to appeal to ‘business executives and the younger set,’ in which rattan cane, murals of brooding buddhas, slatted bamboo swing doors and a background of jungle noises are among the attractions. Yet this is only an extreme example of the way the brewers seem bent on catering to a city of pub-lovers. Given that the beer is good (and I know that this is another question), I can’t believe that anyone wants to drink his pint, let alone talk the evening through with friends, in the kind of South Seas Traders tavern or sub-Scandinavian bar which seems to appear whenever the painters and decorators move in on an ordinary pub.

You can imagine how that delighted us, what with our ongoing obsession with theme pubs.

In general the Spectator archive is a fantastic resource: searchable, fully indexed, with material provided as both OCRd text and original page scans. Our ramblings through it to date suggest that it was very much a wet office — there’s lots of coverage of beer and pubs — so if you’ve got a pet obsession, give it a search and see what you can turn up.