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Ode to lost 'craic'

IF you close your eyes and imagine an old-fashioned Irish pub, you might think of worn wood floors, bric-a-brac on the walls and gents in flat caps. According to Bill Barich, an American writer based in Dublin, this stereotype is great for tourism worldwide but wields a culture-sapping strength that's killing off pubs in Ireland itself. Nothing less than the country's national identity is at stake.

Driven by a need to experience a timeless tavern like the one in John Ford's 1952 film "The Quiet Man??a place with a strong sense of community, where the art of conversation flourishes ?Barich travels throughout Ireland and is routinely disappointed. The pubs he finds are either lifeless "museum pieces,?corporate sports bars with TV screens or shameless fakes hawking manufactured nostalgia.

The old cereal boxes and tin signs advertising tobacco at E.J. Morrissey's are, Barich laments, "just for show.?The banjo-and-bodhran-playing musicians at the Brazen Head resemble "a tepid version?of the Clancy Brothers. Throughout Ireland, literary giants like Joyce and Yeats are memorialized in ways that suggest they were regulars at a laughably improbable number of spots.

Inauthenticity and modernization, Barich concludes, have ruined bar fun (or "craic?as it's known to the Irish). Interviews with elderly publicans like Dessie Hynes help Barich understand why the old-fashioned businesses are dying: tougher drink-driving laws keep people from venturing to local taverns, and members of the community no longer convene in public houses.

Greed also takes some of the blame. "Pubs aligned with the leisure industry,?Barich explains, describing popular gimmicks like quiz nights with cash prizes, Texas Hold 'Em tournaments, bingo and karaoke. At one low point, he finds himself surrounded by five Bud-drinking jocks watching a soccer match while the barman sends text messages on his cellphone. Elsewhere, Barich encounters a device that lets patrons pour their own pints, "thereby reducing the contact between people even further.?He'd cry into his beer if only he could find a decent one: even the local Guinness ?"flavorless,?"sticky,?tainted with burnt barley ?falls short.

But as rural pubs are dying in the motherland, the concept has become a hot commodity around the world. The Dublin-based Irish Pub Company has built about 500 bars in 45 countries. Their advice: add an ? Son?tag to make your place sound older. The multinational drinks conglomerate Diageo-Guinness sells Irish Pub Concept (IPC) business plans. And statistics suggest that more stout is now sold in Nigeria than in Ireland.

These changes ?insidious byproducts of globalization ?come across as relentless downers, but Barich weaves a never-ending stream of oddly engaging historical and literary references into every dead end. In explaining why some publicans doubled as undertakers up until the mid-1900s, he notes that "under the Coroners Act of 1846, any coroner had the right to dispatch a dead body to the closest pub, and the proprietor was obligated to store it, usually in a cool cellar with the kegs of beer, until an inquest could be held. The law stayed on the books until 1962.?

To shed light on the manly art of drinking, Barich invokes all kinds of Irish literary heavyweights, including Conor McPherson, William Carleton and Flann O'Brien, whose poem "The Workman's Friend?inspired the book's title. Occasionally his digressions seem overly indulgent ?not every reader will care that a bartender named Helen McLean, in the crossroads hamlet of Bally-scannel, was once fond of ballroom dancing ?but Barich's passion for boozy subjects is broad and undeniable. He's equally at ease covering the effects of the temperance movement and introducing regional slang terms for being drunk.

By the end of his travelogue, Barich admits that "there's a good deal of hand-wringing ... over what it actually means to be Irish?and that plenty of Irish men and women don't actually mind the disappearance of old pubs. And while he finds a few worthy spots, he never deeply contemplates the paradox that makes them worthy. He has, after all, based his notion of authenticity on a few plays and poems and an American movie ?on a romanticized stereotype.


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