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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sláinte!

Celebrating Irish Culture in Milwaukee Pubs

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Our nostalgic claim to Irishness finds us huddled against the brisk mid-March chill on a pre-dawn sidewalk waiting for the doors of the local Irish pub-of-choice to open for St. Patrick’s Day. While it is with a celebratory spirit that we indulge our Irish side (whether embedded in your DNA or just for the day) with leprechauns, shamrocks and green beer, beneath it all is the story of Ireland’s unique pub culture. An integral part of the country’s rich fabric, Ireland’s pubs have always been far more than just simple bars in which to buy a drink. They are, in fact, a way of life.

“A true Irish pub is traditionally a public house, a place where the community can gather—to hold a wake, to talk agriculture, conduct community business and have a drink,” explains Greg Steffke, general manager of County Clare Irish Inn and Pub. “It’s a place that is universally for the family, and because it serves, in a cultural sense, as a gathering place, that’s what ultimately makes it a public house.”

Ireland’s celebrated pub culture has long been a key feature in selling the Green Isle as a tourist destination. Pick up a Fodor’s or a Lonely Planet and you’ll find that the literature focuses on the conviviality, conversation and live music (or “craic” as the locals call it) that can be discovered just by walking over the threshold of a traditional Irish pub. But to appeal to money-wielding tourists, traditional Irish pubs started changing the way they did business—owners, or publicans, expanded seating areas, started serving food and offered live music that customers could sing along to. Today there are few traditional pubs in Ireland that haven’t been subjected to change in order to attract tourists by more closely resembling their sentimental image of Éire.

Along with tourism, the other key factor that has irrevocably changed the Irish pub experience by making it an immensely profitable commodity is the Irish-themed bar business. According to marketing material provided by the Irish Pub Co., a division of the McNally Design Group that specializes in the design, manufacture and installation of fabricated Irish pubs worldwide, the company has designed and built more than 400 Irish pubs in over 40 different countries since being established in 1991. And it’s certainly not the only one contributing to the global phenomenon. Diageo, the largest multinational beer, wine and spirits company in the world, and owner of Guinness, has contributed to making Irish pubs one of the largest and most prolific casual-dining concepts by opening more than 1,800 pubs in 53 countries since 1992.

Here in Milwaukee, natives of Ireland accounted for 15% of the population just two years after the city was incorporated, so there was plenty of demand for the corner pubs that Irish immigrants began establishing all over the new frontier city. At the turn of the newest century, popular haunts with Irish ties, such as Derry Hegarty's, The Harp, Judge's and County Clare, had to share their little piece of Irish culture with the arrival of a new generation of Irish-themed bars, such as Mo's Irish Pub downtown in 2003 (and a second location in Wauwatosa in 2006), The Irish Pub in 2006, Brocach Irish Pub and Restaurant in 2007 and Trinity Three Irish Pubs in 2008.

It’s not enough to have “Irish Pub” in the name, or list Guinness and Bushmills on the drink menu, so how does one know if a local Irish pub is authentic? Look around. Who are you sharing the bar with?

“The Irish diaspora—the people who have left Ireland and transplanted themselves here in the United States—find local places that have an authentic feel to them, which includes kindness, the art of conversation, reasonable prices and good times,” County Clare’s Steffke says. Some local Irish pubs have gone so far as to partner with Irish employment agencies to bring young Irish bartenders to Milwaukee, giving them a chance to work abroad and giving customers a little face time with a true Irish accent.

Another way to determine Irish authenticity is to find out how seriously the Irish pub takes its responsibility as an emissary of Irish culture to Milwaukee. Many local Irish pubs sponsor athletic teams that play traditional Irish sports, such as hurling, and book Irish performers who specialize in traditional music and dance. In addition, some places offer Irish language classes and free screenings of indie Irish movies, and even arrange for tours to Ireland.

In keeping with the powerful Irish cultural tradition of lively conversation and passionate debate, the topic of whether or not an Irish pub transports genuine Irish culture is a topic worthy of discussion as you and your mates sip from perfectly poured pints of Guinness this Green Season.

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