Toronto Irish Film Festival Review: The Irish Pub (2013)

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Director: Alex Fegan
Country: Ireland
Genre: Documentary | History | Music
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: the following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Toronto Irish Film Festival. For more information see torontoirishfilmfest.com or follow @toirishfilmfest on Twitter

“There’s too many things changing in life,” a barmaid says after proudly showcasing the two hundred-plus year-old flagstone floor on which her institution stands in The Irish Pub, Alex Fegan’s warmly funny crawl cum cultural study. Hers is one of twenty-two bars the documentary features, spanning the length and breadth of the country in efforts to arrive at an image of how the pub—or indeed teach tábhairne; Irish seems so much more appropriate here—has come to command so firm a footing in Irish identity. “There are no strangers here, only friends you have not yet met” goes the W.B. Yeats quote on which the movie opens; certainly there’s a charm to these amiable interviewees to leave us lusting after a Guinness in their company.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” is another of Yeats’ lines, and an apt one in the face of the unashamedly nostalgic presentation of the past Fegan brings to bear.

the_irish_pub_2013_2Less a study of the drinking culture that contributes to these institutions’ ongoing success than an ode to the peculiar charm of the places themselves, Fegan’s film is more interested in glimpsing the nation’s past than looking at the problems that plague its present. It’s telling that the only children we see are the two that playfully leap into frame as their father talks; The Irish Pub is aware, even when its subjects are not, that it speaks to an Ireland of distant memory. “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” is another of Yeats’ lines, and an apt one in the face of the unashamedly nostalgic presentation of the past Fegan brings to bear. An analysis of alcohol’s influence this film is not; nor, in its defence, does it ever aim to be.

Whether or not it should be is another question entirely. One publican, in the course of the film’s rather-too-neat wrap-up, fronts the tongue-in-cheek idea that Ireland might have the smallest proportion of psychologists in the world despite the greatest need. “It’s like a safety valve for the population of Ireland,” he says of his trade; to tout the merits of these communal hubs with nary a thought for the ingrained tendency to bury problems in booze is to miss a real opportunity to cut to the heart of Irish society. Still, Fegan has made the film he desires, and in the gentle humour of the distinctive characters his camera captures he has forged an image of an Ireland it’s a shame to leave behind.

This isolated island in the top corner of Europe ain’t what it used to be; the joy of the film is in suggesting that the future’s no more to be feared than the past is to be forgotten.

the_irish_pub_2013_3His tidy visualisation—he shot and cut himself—and unannounced arrival at each location lends the film the affable immediacy of entering a pub by chance: the quiet calm of the midday lull; the friendly face of a bonhomous barman; the swirling currents of a settling stout. Where those who’ve been in the likes of these places will recognise each cluttered corner, as garishly bedecked with odds and ends as Jennifer Aniston’s uniform in Office Space, those who haven’t will find themselves wanting. Fegan’s subjects, friendly to the last, are only too happy to give us a tour: one spouts an anecdote of Ryan’s Daughter, the autographed face of Robert Mitchum framed behind him; another excitedly points to a picture on the wall: “We have a dog here wearing glasses and smoking a pipe.”

The idiosyncratic charm of such eclectic trinkets is the essence of The Irish Pub’s appeal, buoyed by Dennis Clohessy’s wistful score and borne upon a sense of pride in the past. A lingering shot of a solitary drinker who stares off solemnly after the laughter dies down suggests just how aware Fegan is that his film is a time capsule, an image of a world that no longer exists. “My father was never out of the country in his life,” an interviewee says with pride at one point. This isolated island in the top corner of Europe ain’t what it used to be; the joy of the film is in suggesting that the future’s no more to be feared than the past is to be forgotten.

[notification type=”star”]60/100 ~ OKAY. The idiosyncratic charm of such eclectic trinkets is the essence of The Irish Pub’s appeal, buoyed by Dennis Clohessy’s wistful score and borne upon a sense of pride in the past. [/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.