Irish Pub in a Box

by Kieran Healy on August 16, 2006

Soon after I moved to the United States in the autumn of 1995, I went to visit a friend in Boston. We went to a pub in Cambridge called — possibly — Grafton Street. It was an early example of the Irish Pub in a Box, sold as a unit and built to look like a slightly heightened version of the real thing back home. On the way I asked whether was like an Irish pub really, or just a poor imitation. “Well,” my friend said, “it’s not too loud, the tables are clean, and you can find the bathrooms. So not like an Irish pub at all.”

“Via Alan Schussman,”: I see that a similar thing has arrived in Tucson, just down the road from my office. (Or, if it’s good, just up the road from my old office.) The “website”: says the pub will “echo the pathos of rural Ireland to a tee,” which does not augur well.

From the “photographic evidence”: it seems like they went hell-for-leather on the relics, though. The old telephone box is a nice touch, as is — if it’s original — the postbox with the G-R emblem on it. Older postboxes were inherited from the British in 1922 and were merely repainted from red to green. But the royal seals were cast into the iron and couldn’t be removed. G-R and even V-R boxes are still around.

The two most important questions are (1) Will the pub’s staff be taught to pour stout properly? And (2) Will there be any actual Irish people around? “Probably not” is the answer to both questions, though the second is a little trickier than the first. It is of course much more enjoyable to be Irish in America than Irish in Ireland, which is why your typical expat finds the ideal number of Irish people in a pub setting to be about 1, i.e. himself. Perhaps some small number more may be tolerated if they are all known to each other and can be relied on to keep up the schtick. Any more than that threatens to stymie the flow of bollocks about the auld sod, or the charming adventures of the hapless emigrant, or the quality of the stout and how no-one pours it properly. It also reduces the beneficial effects of his accent in attracting sexually any relevant people in the immediate area. In my experience, Australians and especially Scots are essentially the same in this regard. With English people, the class composition of the group is an important intervening variable.



Kieran Healy 08.16.06 at 10:14 pm

By the way, while waiting for my car to be fixed today, I heard a TV news anchor say, “More rain on the way for Tucson, so the valley is not out of the woods yet.”


Matt 08.16.06 at 10:16 pm

That last bit captures much of why I always tried to avoid other Americans while living abroad. That and the fact that most of them were a sorry bunch of losers living in Russia because they couldn’t cut it or get laid in the US. (Me? I was there to help people or something.)


Commenterlein 08.16.06 at 10:22 pm

I agree with pretty much everything in your post, except that the Grafton Street Pub in Cambridge is an overpriced pick-up bar / restaurant with mediocre food, and as far as I can tell barely pretends to be an Irish Pub. Did you probably mean “The Druid” or “The Field” instead?


derrida derider 08.16.06 at 10:31 pm

Yeah, so many expatriates seem to want to exaggerate their supposed national characteristics abroad – and it’s often the bad features they exaggerate most.

I’ve really noticed it with my fellow Australians, who habitually exaggerate their crassness. But Americans abroad seem much louder than americans at home, and Irish abroad seem to want to revert to the things they fled from.


nick s 08.16.06 at 10:47 pm

There’s obviously a large warehouse in Dublin 11 knocking out the pub tat. My wife’s local in CT was this place, which was managed by a couple of Ulster expats, but shillelaghed up something rotten. (Note the green Gilbert Scott phone box outside.) It even had fake-Irish barstaff who were actually third-generation Italians from New Jersey, and none of them could pour a Guinness.

Something I have seen in my neck of the woods: old red double-decker buses converted into coffee shops. This is apparently a US-wide trend.

Fake English pubs in the States, though, are generally sadder than fake Oirish ones, particularly in very un-English climates. I still get twitchy at the thought of table service, which is Just Wrong.


nick s 08.16.06 at 10:58 pm

I correct myself (though you won’t know until the moderators arrive): most Pubs In Boxes are fabricated in a Dublin 18 industrial estate, offering an array of styles (reminiscent of Liberace in The Loved One) and ‘authentic’ crap. Locations? Kazakhstan, for one.


DivGuy 08.16.06 at 11:04 pm

If you want an Irish bar in Boston, Matt Murphy’s in Brookline Village is my favorite, though the green line location isn’t so good. I liked James’ Gate in JP, too.

Grafton Street does actually claim to be Irish. It’s a craphole pickup joint either way, but he may well be talking about Grafton Street regardless.


Fargo North, Decoder 08.17.06 at 12:14 am

I had a memorable experience once eating my Lunch Special at a newly opened Thai place here in Chicago when the shipment of Authentic Thai Decor all arrived in a box. The staff ripped off the cardboard and began lifting out cornices, brass Buddhas, bamboo fountain, hardwood bar–everything.

On a related note, it often seemed to me during my days in England that most London pubs–those run by the big breweries, at least–seemed to have been fitted out of similar Identikit components. All those polished brass settings must come out of the same vault as the uniformly cut chips and the barely dethawed shepherd’s pie!


blatherskite 08.17.06 at 12:25 am

It’s worldwide!

“In the last 15 years, Dublin-based IPCo and its competitors have fabricated and installed more than 1,800 watering holes in more than 50 countries.”

From this Slate article from March, 2006:

Ireland’s “Crack” Habit: Explaining the faux Irish pub revolution. By Austin Kelley

We’re all about faking sincere Irishness:

Architecture is only one element of what Guinness has branded the “Irish Pub Concept.” The concept outlines some simple steps to achieve “Irishness”: You’ll want to add Irish music, traditional grub, and “bric-a-brac” such as reproductions of antique spinning wheels, cast irons, and flagons. Authentic employees are also a must. “Although it is possible to recreate the feel of a true Irish pub without Irish staff—we don’t recommend it. No Irish pub is complete without the friendly warmth, humor and advice of a true Irish bartender.” If there aren’t any affable Irish in your town, rest assured, Guinness will put you in touch with employment agencies.


Chris Bertram 08.17.06 at 2:13 am

I remember a Russian philosopher (and occasional CT reader) telling me that there are two Irish pubs in Novosibirsk.


Matt McGrattan 08.17.06 at 2:25 am

There are certainly some Irish pubs in Prague and also some places that aren’t but have ‘Irish’ features.

U Maleho Glena, in the Mala Strana, has a name that translates as ‘The Wee Glen’, for example, and serves Czech stout.


abb1 08.17.06 at 2:57 am

Go to the Burren in Somerville.


bad Jim 08.17.06 at 3:19 am

Last year I spent a couple of evenings in a Ceilidh bar in Inverness (Inbhir Nis?). A news report was posted concerning the effect of the banning of smoking in like establishments in Ireland, lamenting the loss of the traditional craic (sp? pronounced “crack”), the ambience, the atmosphere, the very smog of the pub.

There may have been an element of self-congratulation, that there on the Highlands’ threshold the ancient liberty of smoking could yet be indulged. It’s my understanding that in the U.K. it can be no longer, and the U.S., state by state, is following suit.

Those for whom the tobacco reek is a flavor essential to the experience may have to seek it on the continent or pursue it to Asia.


Tim Worstall 08.17.06 at 3:45 am

The Guinness subsidiary that built all those Irish pubs in the CIS is called Denview (or at least was). You could turn up at their offices in Moscow with proof of the right to use a particular building or part of one (proper leases and so on being a little difficult there in the 90s) and they’d sell you the kit. Even find investors for you if you didn’t have the money.


Ajax 08.17.06 at 5:18 am

There used to be a great Irish bar in Seoul, South Korea, called O’Kim’s.


James Wimberley 08.17.06 at 6:25 am

I’ve patronised an early arrival in Kiev.
I would defend Guinness’ model. Each fake Irish pub is different, because the franchisee and designer choose and assemble the raher jolly tat in a different way. The beer is usually far superior to the local version. Beats the soulless uniformity of chain eateries any day.


oscar 08.17.06 at 7:26 am

thats globalization for ya!

tbh im not sure why peeps prefer them, as an irishman with plenty experiance of pubs, Imo
min requirements are alcohol and company, both of which are available in any pub.

i thinks people just have an impresison that in irish pubs theres loads of people who are just waiting to get to know ya (and have the craic!).

bad jim, yes spelling is craic, smoking ban is old news here now, takes a bit of adjusting to, but where theres change theres oppurtunity,

apparently, its a godsend to single males, who find that its an excellant excuse to chat up women outside pubs, and whats more they have got one thing in common, smoking!


J. Ellenberg 08.17.06 at 8:07 am

I was very proud to have written the description of Grafton Street that appeared in the late-’90s Zagat guides: “a depressing slice of yuppie hell.” My pride was only increased by the fact that I had never been inside.


cleek 08.17.06 at 8:42 am

we hit four different Irish pubs in Japan, last March. after a week of not knowing what we were eating, it was comforting to be able to order Fish-n-Chips and get exactly what we expected. turns out Irish pubs are more consistent than McDonalds.

the strangest bit was the Japanese musicians playing Irish folk music – and playing it as well as any band I’ve ever seen…


LizardBreath 08.17.06 at 8:50 am

There’s something to be said for the faux-Irish-type bars — they have a faux-cultural excuse to keep the music down so that people can hear each other talk. If I’m drinking, I’m either talking or dancing, and if I’m not dancing, I want the music at a level suitable for conversation. (Who am I kidding? I want it off. But I recognize that the police would be forced to step in at that point.)

I can ignore any amount of tacky decor if the bar will sell me a decent drink and let me hear the person I’m with.


garymar 08.17.06 at 9:05 am

I love the English pub at Epcot Center in Orlando. Plenty of Guinness, darts, and air conditioning after a long day in the hot Florida sun trekking through other countries (Japanese pagoda — on which a taiko drum troupe performs!!! Moroccan restaurant with belly dancers! A movie about France — without the rudeness!). The waiters are English, too.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.


arthur 08.17.06 at 9:05 am

This goes in all directions. The 1940’s vintage railcar greasy spoon from my working class New Jersey home town was physically exported to Germany a few years ago (it was next to the tracks already, so it wasn’t so dificult), to be an “authentic” American diner. I understand they kept the decor and the color scheme and the Sinatra-heavy jukebox. I don’t know if they probably could imported authentic Puerto Rican staff to oversalt indifferent Greek recipes; perhaps they merely require that their Turks curse in Spanish in the job. Still, there’s no way Germans could leave the counters properly sticky.


Rasselas 08.17.06 at 10:49 am

There are “Irish” pubs all the hell over Reykjavik, Copenhagen and Stockholm.


Rob St. Amant 08.17.06 at 11:31 am

The website says the pub will “echo the pathos of rural Ireland to a tee,”

Funny; if I want pathos, I might as well just stay home and drink.

I used to go regularly to a place called The Pub in a little town in southern Germany, which was Irish only to the extent that it served Guinness and had some Irish-themed posters on the wall. Great place, but not because it was an Irish pub.


matt d 08.17.06 at 11:55 am

Not having been to Ireland, I’m curious: do Irish pubs (the ones located in Eire) have maps of Ireland on the wall, hung next to harps, hurling sticks, and rugby shirts?

Such pubs have always struck me as perfect simulacra, but maybe I’m wrong. I know that no self-repecting bar in Canada has moose antlers, canoe paddles, and snow-shoes on the wall (let alone puts CHEDDAR cheese on the ‘poutine’), but the ‘Canadian’ bars I’ve been to overseas have these features. And here in Canada, bars in Ontario that claim to be “Maritime Pubs” always feature lobster traps, buoys, fishing nets, and a dory on the ceiling. It takes real effort to attach a heavy fishing boat above the bar. But no pub in the Maritimes (except the ones aimed at tourists) look like that, either.

So: do pubs in Ireland look anything like “Irish” pubs-in-a-box?


Dan Simon 08.17.06 at 12:43 pm

Hmm…I wonder what other regional purveyors of vice might be amenable to global marketing…How about a “Middle Eastern opium den in a box”? Or “The French Brothel Company”?


bb 08.17.06 at 1:09 pm

Ireland, a classless society. Who knew!
I guess everyone has their fansasies. I’m sure the bar tender can be trained.


tps12 08.17.06 at 1:16 pm

Canadian bars? Are you for real? That’s awesome. And what the hell kind of cheese is on poutine if not cheddar? Canadian cheese?


a different chris 08.17.06 at 1:23 pm

This is a stupid tangent but I’ve been bothered by this since I was a literal-minded kid and so I can’t help myself:

>(Or, if it’s good, just up the road from my old office.)

How do people ascertain what is located “up” the road and what is “down”? It sure isn’t elevation I know, having been instructed by locals that something was “up the road about…” in the flattest of locations middle America has to offer.

And yes, I’ve even been f’d by that once when I assumed “up” was to continue the way I came, but the guy giving directions of course had another idea about it.


matt d 08.17.06 at 1:27 pm

Unripened cheese curds. They’re little white cubes that bear an uncanny rememblance to pencil erasers. You put them on french fries, and smother them in beef gravy. Yes, it tastes as gross as it sounds. Fancy places in Montreal make it with brie and foie gras. Still gross, though.

And London has at least one bar for every nationality on earth. But I can assure you from personal experience that “The Maple Leaf” is not, in fact, awesome. If bars in Canada were like that, I’d never drink.


Adam Kotsko 08.17.06 at 1:29 pm

They had an authentic Irish pub in Venice when I was there a couple years ago. Of course, the lame-ass people I was travelling with really wanted to go.


BiggerBill 08.17.06 at 1:48 pm

Ah, but can you get a toasted cheese sandwich in any of these “authentic” pubs? And as for the restrooms, do you get to piss against the wall and dilute it with a little squirt from the plumbing pipe there?


john m. 08.17.06 at 2:06 pm

“So: do pubs in Ireland look anything like “Irish” pubs-in-a-box?”

I was going to stay out of this one but…several years ago I was asked to bring a very successful US businessman on a pub crawl…sorry “research trip”…of Dublin bars as he was going to be opening some Irish bar/restaurants in the US courtesy of the IPC. Suffice to say that halfway through the evening, in a state of total horror, he made his excuses and left. On arrival in the US he promptly halved the drinking areas in the new bar/restaurants whihc have gone on to be highly successful. Does that answer your question?


zevatron 08.17.06 at 3:43 pm

Further down Mass. Ave in Central Sq. is an “Irish” bar called the Asgard. Not only is it a big-box, faux pub, but they confuse Norse and Celtic mythology. Horrible.


serial catowner 08.17.06 at 6:07 pm

Ha-ha! An Irish pub as a pickup place! How very Joyceian!


Kath 08.17.06 at 6:26 pm

Been reading this blog for… oh at least a week. Got here via a Google search result where the combination of ‘Charles fucking Darwin’ (almost the subject of my original query) and ‘Kieran Healy’ (name of old mate of my brother – seems to be one and the same) caught my eye.

Interested to see that this post has excited the most commentary of anything I’ve read so far. Not sure that says good things about the readership. And it’s the first I’ve felt the urge to comment on. Not sure that says good things about me.

Anyhow in the London Irish mega-pub Waxy O’ Connors they (in fairness) tried for a weird kind of authenticity by installing one of those tall old priest-with-back-to-congregation’ altars you still get in older Catholic churches. Only snag was it was too tall for the space so they had to chop the top bits off… This was quite a while ago so it be might be gone now (since) but it was quite funny.


Laura 08.17.06 at 6:44 pm

For a period of time, I lived in Sunnyside, Queens and spent a lot of time in American bars filled only with Irish guys. It was the late 80s and a lot Irish were in the city at the time. The guys from different areas of Ireland congregated in different bars and all played soccer on the weekend. Yeah, they knew how to pour a proper pint. And, my girl friends and I really enjoyed being the only females in these bars. Free beer for us.


Kieran Healy 08.17.06 at 8:00 pm

Kath = Katherine Stynes?


josh 08.17.06 at 10:00 pm

I steered well clear of the Irish pub in Riga — which was very popular, and patronised (it appeared) primarilly by Aussie tourists. Which was just depressing, really.
Alas, I know Grafton Street well — I’d never have guessed its supposed to be ‘Irish’. If I want a fake Irish bar I go to the Thirsty Scholar (or is it fake? Perhaps most pubs in Ireland have pictures of Joyce and Beckett in them? After all, nothing enhances a drinking experience like the smiling face of — Samuel Beckett).


josh 08.17.06 at 10:03 pm

Oh, I forgot to mention – the Thirsty Scholar has chips and curry (or ‘curry fries’ as they call them). That in itself redeems the place.


Mary Kay 08.17.06 at 10:56 pm

I’ve been in a number of Irish pubs in the US and most of them have little if any connection to real Irish pubs in Ireland. I’ve been in real Irish pubs in Ireland. Most of the ones in the US have too damn many tvs to be real Irish pubs. Though there are a couple here in Seattle which aren’t too bad. (I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a major city in the US that didn’t have an Irish pub or two.)



Xero 08.18.06 at 2:21 am

I always thought the key to pouring stout properly is “In a glass.” I mean cold or room temperature, either way it’s good, and other than that it’s pretty hard to screw up.


Kath 08.18.06 at 5:48 am

Yip. How’s tricks?


unclemonty 08.18.06 at 11:53 am

> How do people ascertain what is located “up”
> the road and what is “down”?

Surely depends on local conditions. Here in my neighbourhood of Montreal “up” is always the grid direction we call north, though in fact it’s a little on the west side of north-west (and at certain times of the year the sun sets smack in the middle of the “north-south” streets as you cross the road and look north, which is all wrong)… but I digress. When giving directions you say “above” or “below” to mean north or south of, so for example you might say “it’s on St.Denis just below Laurier”, or “you’ll have to drive up to Duluth, over to Berri then come back down half a block”.

I think it got that way because the prevailing slope is slightly uphill as you head north, because of the presence of the mountain – but even once you get so far north that you’ve passed the mountain, people in my experience still refer to “up” and “down” in the same consistent way. When a friend who hadn’t been here long was using “up” and “down” indiscriminately, it was most confusing – I hadn’t realised how strong the tendency was till I heard someone misusing it!

Best non-traditional poutine around here is at Patati-patata on St.Laurent just below Rachel, where they have peppers and onions and mushrooms in the mix. But they do use the right kind of cheese! (you know it’s right when it squeaks.)


C 08.18.06 at 12:39 pm

Are we seeing The Irish Person Thing in action between Kieran and ‘Kath’? How very exciting!


Kath 08.18.06 at 5:36 pm

Well I already know Kieran so it’s not truly The Irish Person Thing. Am guessing ‘c’ that you’re not Irish or we could do a demo!

btw Kath is actually my name so no ‘Kath’ necessary…


tony 08.19.06 at 8:15 am

At least the superpubs in Dublin are up the jaxi with Capital Bars’ losses running to 18 million last year. I’ll drink to that. Some of the best new pubs in Dublin now feel like New York bars. Which isn’t a bad thing at all.


Another Damned Medievalist 08.19.06 at 9:50 am

Well, supposedly the Irish pub just outside my new town is the only decent place to drink, atmosphere-wise. Of course, as it’s not in town, one can’t go and drink there, because, well, drinking and driving aren’t a good combo.


John 08.19.06 at 8:41 pm

Canadian bars? Are you for real? That’s awesome.

There’s a couple here in Paris – the Moose, near Odéon and the Great Canadian on the river a bit west of Saint Michel. As described above, they feature lots of ridiculous “Canadian” paraphernalia and sell hamburgers for 15 euros.


digamma 08.19.06 at 8:50 pm

The website says the pub will “echo the pathos of rural Ireland to a tee,”

It would be kind of cool if they had actors posing as pub patrons who would randomly break into Martin MacDonagh dialogue.


paul 08.20.06 at 5:42 pm

When I lived in England, my local brewery refurbished its rather run-down estate of unremarkable watering holes. Interiors were ripped out, each one was tarted up with generic identi-tat and – best of all – received a spanking new outdoor sign proclaiming it to be “Unspoilt By Progress”.

On Irish pubs, has anyone else noticed that the ersatz Irish pub concept has been so successful that it has now emerged in Ireland?

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