THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Back in the Eighties there was hardly a red-blooded Irish male who was not in love with the wonderful Sally O’Brien and “the way she might look at you” from across the crowded local pub come Christmas week and everyone having the craic as only we Irish know how. Of course, the man longing after the lovely Sally, in the famous TV ad for Harp lager, was, if memory serves me, working on a rig in some far-off land and would not be making it home for Christmas, being thousands of miles from the familiar, cosy confines of his local and the come-hither smile of the woman of his dreams.
God knows where Sally O’Brien (Vicki Michelle of TV’s ‘Allo, ‘Allo! fame) is now or, indeed, yer man on the oil rig but praise be, after two Christmases of Covid-induced stupor, this Christmas will one more be that wonderful world conjured up by that Eighties TV ad, the world of the Irish local come Christmas, bustling with the craic and seasonal goodwill among family and friends. I can see it and feel it now in the locals up and down the land, lit up like Santa’s grotto: the Christmas jumpers, the comaraderie, the back-slapping, the whispered, and not-so whispered, terms of endearment, the well-wishes and the banter. “Oh, ye are having goose this year” or “Can’t believe it’s Christmas again already.” or “So your Jimmy won’t be coming home this year.”
Most pertinently, this year will be the thousands of family members who live and work abroad and who will be coming home for the holiday, most likely for the first time since 2019. And this merry lot will be packing out their local Christmas week, familiar faces in the teaming throng.
Sometimes, we don’t know what we have ’til it’s gone. With our favourite locals — for so many their home from home where the victorious are celebrated and the dead are waked, where revolutions are planned and friendships cemented — was absent from our lives for a good part of the last two years, that adage had never resonated so much for so many.
Social drinking in Ireland’s public houses has its history and pervasiveness deeply entrenched in the Irish psyche. The transformative journey from shebeens, ale houses, taverns and inns to the pubs we know today is testament to publicans’ enduring resilience and ability to adapt, even since the Eighties.
Consider too, alcohol is an industry that supports some 92,000 jobs and contributes around €2 billion to our economy. One in five adults on this island does not drink, but for the rest of use consumption has increased somewhat — certainly the varied choice of alcohol — since those days in the Eighties when yer man on the rig was thinking of Sally O’Brien and the way she might look at him.
Despite the changes since those days — the drink-driving laws, the smoking ban and the availability of cheaper alcohol in supermarkets — a report for the Vintners Federation of Ireland last year showed that a third of rural pubs reported an increase in turnover but many other rural locals cited being “not confident” or “worried” about their futures since the pandemic. The lockdown did not help those worries. And the reality of having to live with Covid-19, as we do with annual flu, despite vaccines, may change the future fabric of pub life and curb our enthusiasm for how we like to interact with each other over a few pints, whatever the cause for celebration.
My friend Sara has lived, variously in Michigan and Colorado, for the past almost 30 years plus, ever since she left Ireland, a mere slip of a girl. Down those many years, I always knew it was Christmas week when in the crowded, cosy confines of my local I’d spot the diminutive Sara lost in the celebrations and we’d look over at each other and then, worming our way through the heaving crowd, meet in the middle … for a Christmas hug.
“What’s the craic, Paul?” she’d say, and break into her beautiful smile.
I am hoping Sara will make it to my local this coming Christmas week. I desperately need that hug.