“There’s nothing so lonesome, so dull or so drear,
Than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer.”
From A Pub with no beer by The Dubliners
The very words sung by the Dubliners might become a reality due to taxation, recession and emigration.
An Ireland without pubs and beer might loom in the not too distant future. Two long standing Irish institutions, the pub and the pint, are under threat of extinction at present in Ireland.
According to Liam Edwards, owner of The Jim Edwards pub and restaurant in Kinsale, County Cork the demise of the pub trade began ten years ago.
“Where people would have come to have a meal and a couple of drinks,” Edwards said, “they now have their meal and a glass of wine.”
The pub trade has changed dramatically in Ireland through the boom years and now the recession has brought even bigger changes.
“In the old days when the older gentleman would come out for his pint, that business is completely gone,” Edwards said.
Ronnie Curley, owner of Curley’s Bar in Portumna, County Galway agrees. Curley said his busiest days during the week were Tuesdays and Thursdays, the mart days. The older farmers would come in after selling some livestock, “have a few drinks and drive home,” Curley said and added, “All that has changed now.”
A legal loop hole allows the larger grocery stores in Ireland to sell alcohol for lower prices than the pubs and off-licences or liquor stores.
Ken Murphy, owner of Kinsale 1601 off-license in Kinsale explained the situation.
“The supermarkets can claim back the VAT (Value Added Tax) on their sales, so the government was subsidizing the below cost selling by 21%.” A practice that Murphy said began four years ago.
“The previous government decided to abolish The Groceries Order which allowed the big multiple grocery markets to basically go nuts!” Murphy said and added, “a can of beer now is cheaper than a bottle of water in Ireland.”
Edwards agreed. “What you do have now, which is a problem, is the huge, massive supermarkets selling the drink so cheap,” he said.
The reason for the difference in the price of a pint at the pub and the supermarket is also due to high taxation. According to figures from the Central Statistics Office, “Irish beer drinkers pay among the highest rates of tax in Europe.”
What this means to the man with the pint glass in his hand is, “about a quarter of the cost of a pint of beer in the pub is made up of excise and VAT,” according to the Irish Brewers Association.
Add to that the strict drinking and driving laws. The quarter of a pint that is now paying excise and VAT should be left unconsumed on the bar according to the law.
“There has been a decrease in the drink driving limit,” Murphy said, “They (law enforcement officials) have it down to about 50mls per unit of blood alcohol. It’s about three quarters of a pint,” he added.
The breath test limit of 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood was lowered from 80 milligrams in September 2011.As a result, the pint drinker is paying VAT on the quarter of a pint that he is legally not allowed to drink in order to remain within the drinking and driving limit.
Early morning police checkpoints are also a contentious issue for those who consider themselves to be responsible drinkers.“A guy goes out the night before,” Murphy explained, “Being responsible, he takes a taxi home. He’s not driving. He goes to bed. Gets up to go to work in the morning and is stopped and bagged, breathalysed.”
Despite the fact that it is the next morning, people have been “over the limit.”
The public in general are taking the situation seriously. “People are taking it that you can’t drink and drive now,” Ronnie Curley said.
The smoking ban, enforced on March 29, 2004 has also had a negative impact on the pub trade in Ireland. Consumers who like a cigarette with their drink now stay home.
To beat the higher alcohol prices in pubs, people buy their wine or beer in the supermarkets or the off licenses, have some drinks and then go out.Murphy said that drinkers, “may not go to a bar, they might come to my shop, buy a bottle of wine, go back to the hotel room, then go out later on for a drink.” Murphy added “Ironically enough my last years’ turnover was exactly the same as the previous years’, but I did about ten thousand more transactions, so people are spending way less,” he said.
Edwards has also witnessed this in Kinsale. “They are watching their money,” he said. “They’re getting their nice bottle of wine, their nice bottle of champy (champagne) at home. They are meeting their friends and they’re coming out a bit later,” he added.Curley agreed. “They’ll have a few drinks before they go to the pub.”
The recession, emigration, cheaper prices at supermarkets, strict drinking driving laws, and the smoking ban means bad news for pubs in Ireland. Numbers from the Central Statistics Office state that the volume of retail sales in bars in 2010 was down by 10.5 per cent. Since 2007 the total decline is 25.1 percent.
Cheap wine being sold at supermarkets and bottles of beer that cost less than a bottle of water, according to Murphy have all done damage to the traditional Irish pub, and to the off-license trade.
“In Kinsale alone,” Murphy said, “there was about six bars closed last year, and I would say that there’s probably another two to three bars going to close again this year.”
Liam Edwards described an even bleaker scene.
“Outside my window, one of the biggest local bars has just closed its doors before Christmas. So I would say four or five of the local bars have definitely closed in the last four or five years,” Edwards said.
North of Kinsale, in a town that once boasted twenty bars, Curley’s of Portumna is now one of the nine remaining with their doors still open for business. His view of what the future holds for the Irish pub is unclear.
“I don’t know,” Curley said, “Things seem to be changing a lot.”