Paul Hopkins Column: Why I’m in no hurry to go back to the pub

Why I’m in no hurry to go back to the pub

My late father said to me once that there were no "real pubs" left in Ireland. Not so, I chided, and began a litany of some of our more renowned watering holes. My mother nodded her head as I reeled off pub after pub and, when I was up at around a score or so, she exclaimed: "And you've been in every one of them, son."

I could not tell a lie and said: "I have Mammy, I have ..."

Pubs are intrinsic to what we Irish are, in our psyche, entrenched in our social activities and mores, our ‘holy of holies’. The poet William Blake noted that a good local pub had much in common with a church, except that a pub was warmer and there was more conversation.

When, next week, up to 60% of bars open their doors for the first time in three months there will be huge changes in place: there will be no live music, sitting at the bar will be no more, strict 'table service' will be in place, people must remain socially distant and there could be a booking system in place in some. And your night out will clock in at 105 minutes.

The place of the pub in society the last decade or two has changed dramatically, thanks to drink-driving laws, the availability of cheap alcohol in off-licences and supermarkets, the smoking ban, the growth of other options like coffee shops, and a growing awareness of alcohol-related health issues.

Now, in these times of Covid-19, their future looks even bleaker. And, anyway, realistically, many will never reopen, given that the economics no longer add up.

I was first introduced to drink at a family gathering when I was 14. The Uncle Tom proffered me a bottle of the infamous Arthur Guinness, with sleight of hand, as he replenished the stock from his party pack by the pantry. “There you go,” he said, “that’ll put hair on your chest.’’ And he popped the cap and handed me this long and elegant, but cold and wet, bottle of stout.

“And don’t let your mother catch you, or she’ll skin me alive.’’

It was to be three years before I made my journey into the measured world of the public bar, cheap chandeliers and brass fittings, peopled by young bucks and old men lost in familiar overcoats as they sat motionlessly, ritualistically eyeing their bottle of Guinness or pint of ale and its accompanying whiskey chaser. It would be a brave man back then who’d touch another man’s drink.

Love of alcohol is in my genes, both grandfathers — though those only — were overly fond of a sup, and down the years I have enjoyed the conviviality that alcohol allows in the bars of my locals — numerous locals, worldwide with my numerous travels — and the intimacy among those of similar disposition, lost in that alcohol-induced cocoon. The world always seemed a much more manageable place, life an easier existence, through the prism of alcohol, and I never, ever made apologies for that.

The thing is the last years I was giving it the lash, increasingly seeking solace and succour amongst fellow drinkers of an evening in the local, where we'd discuss all and sundry from existentialism to Europe, trivia to Trump.

I was never that drinker who needed a fix first thing in the morning — never, but my day, particularly the last few years, was built largely around getting work and my daily constitutional out of the way and being down the pub by four or five for sundowners and the rest. I was drinking, boy was I drinking, to such a degree that, not alone was I, unwittingly, hurting myself, but hurting those around me, those I loved and who loved me.

And so, three weeks before lockdown, after a lifetime's love affair with alcohol, I knocked it on the head. I'm not anti-drink, just anti-binging. Without my daily fix, I feel more free, more Me. The stuff that used to obsess me — those relentless circular thoughts because drink is a depressant — are no more.

A near-brush with death introduced me to my shadow — the other fella, him that drank. I came face to face with my dark double and it almost cost me my life. With a bit of luck the two of Me have made our accommodations, but we won't be raising a glass to it anytime soon...in any pub, socially distant or otherwise.

* First published in last week's Meath Chronicle. You can read Paul's columns every week in the paper.

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