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Longstanding pubs in danger of dying out

By Daniel Garzina

It’s 2 p.m. on a Monday in January.

Inside The Hill Top on Thomas Street, several neighborhood residents are scattered around the pub; some sprinkled at the eight-seat bar sipping pints of Guinness and Heineken, a couple recline on the striped couch, and others at single seats. They chat and nurse their beers as a horse race flickers on the TV in the corner. Everyone has gray hair except one man in a sweatshirt and track suit who intently watches the race.

This is the type of Liberty pub scene that is in danger of becoming extinct. The recession hit the working class hard, and neighborhood pubs, especially in the Liberties, are on thin ice.

The Dublin pub industry lost about 7,000 jobs since 2009, according to a survey conducted by DIGI (Drinks Industry Group of Ireland), and pubs in all of Ireland cut thousands of jobs in 2011 alone according to a survey by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI).

While the pub culture is interwoven with the past of the neighborhood fabric, the future might unravel completely.

“The culture is changing,” says Graham Mooney, owner of The Hill Top. “Old real Dublin men and women are dying off.”

These older Dublin men and women make up the vast majority of pub business in the area.

Sixty-eight percent of all Dublin pub customers are over 30 and 29 percent are over 50, according to DIGI. Most of the younger generation travel to trendier areas like Camden Street or Grafton Street, or have left the area altogether, Mooney says.

Some pub workers, like Robby Kennedy, manager of Tom Kennedy’s Bar on Thomas Street, wonder what business will be left when this older generation is gone.

“Pubs are a dying breed,” Kennedy says. “Ten years from now, what’s going to happen?”

Kennedy counts 11 pubs that went under in the last couple years: Seven on Thomas Street, two on Francis Street and two on Meath Street. Across Ireland, 130 nightclubs closed from 2008 to 2011, according to the Irish Nightclub Industry Association (INIA).

Three pubs in the Liberties that are still operating have banded together to keep the culture alive. The owners of The Hill Top, Tom Kennedy’s Bar and The Clock Pub are friends who talk regularly, helping each other try to keep the neighborhood pub culture alive.

“We borrow vodka from each other when we’re running low,” Kennedy says, and let each other know if there’s a problem coming up the block.

“Our locals are their locals,” says Steve Whelin, owner of The Clock Pub.

Tom Kennedy’s was in danger of closing for good, too. For 50 years it was Tom O’Neill’s before it was shut down in 2006 for being “run down” with “bad clientele,” according to Kennedy. Clinton Kennedy, Robby’s cousin, bought it, revamped it and reopened it in 2008, renaming it Tom Kennedy’s after their grandfather.

Adding live music and darts helped it thrive – pubs just can’t be pubs anymore and expect to stay in business.

Pubs around Ireland have been encouraged to diversify their entertainment and food options to create business, says Maureen Gahan of Bord Bia.

About 43 percent of Dublin pubs added more entertainment between 2003 and 2008, according to DIGI. Neighborhood pubs need some kind of hook to compete with tourist havens like The Brazen Head.

For The Clock Pub and The Hill Top, their hook is low prices – they’re the only pubs in the area to not raise prices in the last few years, Whelin says.

A pint of Guinness costs €4, versus €5 at the Brazen Head. The Clock is the only pub in The Liberty with a beer garden, Whelin says.

But all of them need help to withstand the seemingly endless recession, turning the local environment to “greedy, bitter and hostile,” according to Mooney, a 28-year-old neighborhood lifer.

It remains to be seen what will happen when the pub regulars, the old guard, is gone.

“The people over 50 are the heart and soul of the neighborhood,” Mooney says. “But you’ve got to keep moving on.”

Daniel Gerzina was part of a team of students from Columbia College Chicago who traveled to Ireland to report and write about the Liberties.

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