In which The Author devises a business plan
A number of years ago I read a proof copy of a humorous travel book called McCarthy’s Bar, by a guy named Pete McCarthy. It grew out of a simple but effective idea, as these humorous travel books often do. Being of Irish descent, but never having visited the Old Country, Mr McCarthy decided to explore the whole island, and have a pint in every McCarthy’s Bar he could find.
It was a deservedly popular book, and a couple of years later he wrote a sequel called The Road to McCarthy. This went to the next level – Mr McCarthy travelled the world in search of Irish pubs. He found them in some bizarre places, including one in Japan which was situated in a large office block. He perfectly describes his feeling of bafflement at being surrounded by smartly-dressed business types, then opening a door and being transformed to the other side of the world and a few decades back in time as well.
I was telling a friend of mine about this book last week, and it brought to mind an idea which I had nearly twenty years ago.
In the summer of 1996, Sam H. and I had a week’s holiday in Ireland, staying in her family’s cottage on the north side of the Dingle Peninsula. The village (actually, describing it as ‘a village’ is stretching it a bit) was called Fahamore. The Spar supermarket-cum-Post Office was four miles away; we were twelve miles from the nearest bus stop, and some twenty miles from the railhead/coach terminus at Tralee. The next piece of land directly to the west was somewhere in Canada.
In my postcard home, I joked that Fahamore got its name because it was ‘far more remote than either of us had thought possible. It was just about marked on my Reader’s Digest Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland. (You can now find it on Google Earth and Google Streetview, unsurprisingly.)
Fahamore itself consisted of a couple of dozen scattered houses, a small fishing harbour, a phone box, and a bar/restaurant called Spillane’s. We spent our evenings in Spillane’s, partly because the meals were cheap and substantial, and partly because there was bugger all else to do. It was well-known for miles around, too. All we had to do when we got in the taxi at Tralee was to ask the driver to take us to Spillane’s. It was becoming popular with trendy youngsters, drawn to the dramatic Atlantic coastline by the promise of waves to ride.
By the way, I know that it was a four-mile walk to the Spar at Castlegregory, because I did it (there and back again) on our first morning in the cottage. Apart from (bizarrely) several tins of tomatoes and a jar of Mellow Bird’s coffee, there was no food in the house. The night before, we’d eaten in Spillane’s, where Sam had fallen foul of one of the small but important differences between the two countries: in the UK, a standard measure of spirits was 25ml; in Ireland, it was 35.5ml. Every double vodka she’d bought was nearly a treble by our standards.
Unsurprising, Sam was in no fit state to undertake an eight-mile round trip the following morning. We needed bread, milk, eggs, and other perishables, so I set off on foot to explore. It was a beautiful way to blow away a hangover, mind you. I walked along the narrow unspoilt beach for a while, watching the sea birds rummaging in the white sand. At one point I passed the primary school; groups of kids were skipping, or playing soccer and hopscotch, and their teacher kept an eye on them while reading his paper and smoking his pipe. It was almost like stepping back in time.
At Castlegregory, I stocked up with as much as I could carry, and had a look around for a while before heading back again. When I reached at Spillane’s I called in and ordered a pint. Then I nipped over the cottage, filled up the fridge, told Sam I had a pint getting warm over the road, and left her to it.
On the Thursday afternoon, we decided to walk across the narrow headland to Kilshannig, the other ‘village’ at the northern extent of our little headland. Sam’s uncle, who had been born and raised in that area, and her aunt (who was Welsh) had told us all about the pub there – O’Connell’s Green Room. It was another famous place. There’d been a fire there one night a few years earlier, but that didn’t make any difference to the locals. By the following lunchtime, the owners had rigged up a temporary bar in a nearby barn. It sounded like the sort of place that Pete McCarthy would have found in profusion during his tour of the Emerald Isle. By all accounts people came from miles around for their live music jams, and the whole place always had a party atmosphere.
When we arrived there, it was mid-afternoon. I don’t think the interior had seen a paintbrush since the establishment of the Irish Free State. The walls and ceiling had a thick patina of nicotine smoke. There were two old boys nursing pints of Guinness and reading the racing paper. It wasn’t the bouncing place we’d expected.
Weirdly, one half of the building was the pub and the other was the village shop. We were able to buy a round of drinks, a loaf of bread and a packet of firelighters in a single transaction. We stayed there for a couple of drinks before heading back to the vibrant city culture of Fahamore.
[A digression: I hadn't been prepared for the extent to which the Roman Catholic faith still dominated the Republic. It was strange to hear the Angelus bell on television before the evening news, accompanied by a picture of a stained-glass window or painted altar piece. On our way to Kilshannig, Sam and I found a roadside shrine to the Blessed Virgin at the junction of two very minor roads. At this same road junction, we were able to send the postcards which I'd bought on our first morning at this same junction. On my return, I had the photos developed, and gave my cousin/godfather Denis a copy of St Mary of the Postbox.]
On our (eventual) return to Aberdare – and that’s a story for another day – we complained bitterly to Sam’s aunt and uncle about the lack of goings-on in O’Connell’s Green Room.
‘When did you go there?’ he asked us.
We told him that we’d been there in the afternoon.
He nodded sagely. ‘Oh, it doesn’t get going till about midnight!’
Anyway, thinking about this again last week brought back to mind a business idea I had after our holiday. Reading Pete McCarthy’s books may have had something to do with it as well. I’ve never looked into it seriously, but here’s the essence of it:
A Welsh theme pub.
You see, there are two kinds of Irish pubs in the world: real
Irish pubs, like Mulligan’s/Kitty Flynn’s in Cardiff used to be (see A Letter to the Editor 6
); and terrible gimmicky ‘Oirish’ pubs, like the ubiquitous O’Neill’s chain. For some perverse reason, it’s the ersatz ones which seem to be really popular.
Well, my plan is to recreate the authentic Welsh pub experience in cities throughout the UK, and eventually further afield. We’ll initially be aiming at the ex-pat market, but the growth of the Oirish pub phenomenon proves that you don’t need Irish roots to part with your money. I haven’t made a detailed business plan yet, but I’ll outline the scheme here.
First of all, we need to acquire the right property. This won’t be easy, because ‘pubs of two halves’ are a dying species even within the Valleys. We need a building where the same door leads into a narrow passageway, with doors at either side. One door will lead into the bar, and the other into the lounge. It’s vital that we maintain the gender segregation which has been a time-honoured tradition in Valleys communities for generations. Only men will be allowed into the bar; women will have to make their way into the lounge. If at all possible, a small hatch for ‘off sales’ should also be incorporated into this entrance vestibule.
Once customers are in the bar, they’ll be confronted by a feeble selection of draught drinks: Carling Black Label and/or Skol, Allbright bitter, Worthington’s, Strongbow cider, and another lager which nobody’s ever heard of. Guinness will be available, but they’ll have to wait while the electric surger breathes life into the canned variety. As well as famous brands of spirits, we’ll offer cheap-ish ‘house doubles’ of vodka and gin which we bought from the local supermarket.
Customers should never make the mistake of trying to order food in our Welsh theme pub. The best they can hope for usually is a packet of crisps, some nuts, or pork scratchings. However, if they come in during an afternoon when Wales are playing a rugby international, they’ll be offered a complimentary dish of cawl or some faggots and peas at half-time.
The interior decor should be as drab and uninviting as possible. Ideally, we’d like to acquire a building which hasn’t been decorated since the smoking ban took effect, so that the walls and soft furnishings retain that special stale tobacco odour. (If the carpet stinks of stale beer as well, so much the better!) We’d obviously need to source suitable pictures of coal mines, rugby players and male voice choirs to ‘brighten the place up.’ Framed Gren caricatures of the 1976 Wales Grand Slam squad would do the job admirably. The space above the bar will be filled with old brown and green bottles advertising long-vanished breweries, and the lounge walls will be decorated with love spoons and pictures of sheep.
We’ll have a jukebox in the lounge, of course, but its hard drive will be taken up almost exclusively with fifty or so Top 20 hits from no later than 1968. (The sole exceptions to this rule will be some of Max Boyce’s comedy songs and the first LP by the Stereophonics.)
In spite of the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, non-white people will be actively dissuaded from coming through the doors. To this end, the regulars will be encouraged to rant at length about ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘UKIP’ and so forth. Gay and lesbian couples will also be forced to leave under a hail of abuse. To this end, copies of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Star will be scattered around the tables. This should help to make the atmosphere intolerable as well as intolerant.
Old-style Welsh licensing hours will be strictly observed. We won’t open until midday, and last orders will be at 4pm. After a two-hour interval, we’ll reopen and serve until exactly 11pm, when ‘Time’ will be called. Once the occasional customers have drunk up and left, the regulars will be allowed to stay on until we all get bored. Sunday hours will be more limited. In fact, we might choose not to open at all on Sundays, depending on just how authentic a Welsh experience we intend to deliver.
If anyone else wants to come in with me on this, please feel free to put your ideas forward.