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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 May 2007, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Changing habits threaten Irish country pubs
By James Helm
BBC Dublin correspondent

As a much-loved institution, it's been imitated around the world, from San Francisco to Sydney, and plenty of places in between. The Irish pub is alive and well.

Drinkers in an Irish pub

In Ireland itself, once you have left the cities and headed into the green landscapes and small communities where agriculture is key, it is a different picture.

That trademark Irish venue, the country pub - renowned as a place to chat, have a pint, hear some music and soak up the atmosphere - is facing challenging times.

Recent figures suggest that many rural pubs are shutting their doors, their owners selling up and moving out. One report put the figure at a pub closing every day.

In 2005, almost 440 fewer pub licences were issued. In the year up to November 2006, more than 60 pubs shut down in two of the bigger counties - 20 in Clare, 42 in Cork.

Gradual decline

Pubs are privately run here, rather than being owned by big brewery chains. Many have been passed down through generations of the same family, whose name appears on the front.

Dunne's Bar in Stradbally, County Laois, has been in the family for nearly a century. Richard Dunne took it over in 1980. It is one of four bars in this town of around 1,600 people, an hour's drive west of Dublin.

The culture is changing in that there's a drift towards people having parties at home, and maybe just having a few drinks at home at the weekend before going to the bigger towns
Richard Dunne Jr

Here, the decline has been gradual rather than sudden, but there were once nine pubs on the long main street.

Richard stresses that country pubs are much more than simply places to get a drink. They are central to rural life.

"The whole ethos of the rural pub is not just from a drinking point of view," he says.

"It was a place where people met, it was a place where people celebrated football games, where they celebrated weddings, where they came after funerals, where they came after births. It was a way of life."

In the early evening on a weekday in the main bar, seven or eight regulars are chatting with staff.

At weekends, and after local sports matches, the place would be far busier.

Richard says he has not struggled in the way that many of his colleagues are around the country have. However, like many he cut back his opening hours.

Last year he bought a van so he can ferry home his regular customers late at night.

"I purchased an 8-seater mini-bus and it allows me to bring my customers home in a 2, 3, 4, 5-mile radius," he says.

"I have basically guaranteed that if people come to the pub they will be able to get home safe and sound."

Smoking ban

Publicans point to three main factors for dwindling trade in rural areas.

One is the smoking ban which was introduced three years ago. While many, such as health campaigners, view it as a success, many pub owners say it has damaged their trade.

Then there are new drink-driving laws. Random breath tests were introduced last year, allowing police to stop drivers at their discretion. Publicans are keen to stress that they do not object to tighter drink-driving rules, and certainly do not condone driving under the influence.

Smokers in Irish pub
Smoking was banned at pubs in the Irish Republic in 2004

But the new rule, they say, has meant fewer people going to the pub in remote areas, especially during the week.

Finally, habits are changing. Much of the evidence here may be anecdotal, but it seems more young people are either buying alcohol at the off licence, or heading to the larger towns to smarter, bigger bars.

For some, perhaps, the attraction of the traditional old country pub is fading.

Richard's son, Richard Junior, helps out part-time behind the bar, and he sees the trend.

"The culture is changing in that there's a drift towards people having parties at home, and maybe just having a few drinks at home at the weekend before going to the bigger towns," he says.

One plan is to use public money to fund a night-time transport network for country areas.

Supporters say such buses would help whole communities rather than just struggling pubs.

Joe Callanan is a politician and farmer from the west of Ireland, and he has researched the issue.

A non-drinker himself, he believes the night transport service is much-needed.

"This wouldn't be a 'boozer's bus'," he says. "It would be a bus to bring you anywhere at night, even if it's to the bingo or for a game of cards.

"I think it's important that where the pub is a focal point it would be helped out by this rural transport."

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