Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The Irish Pub, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell
(Thames & Hudson, 2008)
See special reports on the book on RTE's Nationwide and BBC News here.

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Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell at launch of
'The Irish Pub' in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin.



IN AFFLUENT new Ireland, rural pubs are so yesterday". That was the headline of an article published by the Washington Post not long ago. So that's it. Our cover is blown. No longer can we fool the Americans that we live on a verdant green island replete with mischievous shebeens where old men guffaw into creamy black pints and red-cheeked children ring rosies around the turf fire to the sound of giddy fiddles.

Don't get me wrong. You will still find that sort of carry-on if you hunt for it. Thank goodness. But, by and large, the Irish Pub of our wistful imagination no longer exists. For one thing, you'd be hard pushed to find a decent turf fire in any of the 10,000 pubs currently operating in Ireland, north and south of the Border.

Over the past two years, photographer James Fennell and I have been searching for classic old-style pubs across the country in a bid to preserve some record of what has essentially become an extremely endangered species. Legend has it that at least one Irish pub closes every day. And for every pub that has closed, a dozen more have been hurriedly "modernised", with salt and pepper canisters on every table, homogenous fitted furniture, charmless staff and obscenely giant plasma screens that deafen all within.

Traditionally, the pub was the focal point of community life. For some, alcohol encouraged joyful moments, an emigration of the soul from sometimes unhappy realities. But for most people, the pub was there for sheer delight. The pubs we visited ranged from the richly decorated Victorian bars of Belfast and Dublin to country shop bars that double as grocery stores, where the décor consists of shelves laden with tins of fruit, packets of tea and lightbulbs.

The traditional pub is not ideally suited to modern Ireland. Indeed, it's hard to think of any area of Irish society that has changed more during the first eight years of this topsy-turvy century. The entire pub experience has back-flipped and, in many case, belly-flopped. Everyone has a theory as to what went wrong. The ban on smoking in public places, combined with the crackdown on drink-driving, certainly brought a sad but necessary end to the more carefree attitude of days gone by.

As drinkers, we've become more pernickety. Unlike our tribal elders who never had a choice, we are inclined to spend our money sipping Merlot at home or guzzling cocktails on a distant beach rather than blowing it all down the local. Moreover, as the Washington Post correspondent noted, creaky old pubs just don't suit a new generation brought up on iPhones and Facebook.

None of this has made life any easier for the publican. Michael Smyth, who runs a much-loved music lounge in Newtown, Co Carlow, reckons the days of the country pub are definitely numbered. "Paying rates, electricity, heating, public liability insurance, the long hours . . . it just doesn't add up."

For many publicans, there is a temptation to sell the licence to one of the insatiable pub chains or supermarkets stomping across the land. "It's a tremendous pity," says Michael, "because it was a great help to people who live down lanes and in farms . . . that they could come out here and talk and hear the news."

The Irish Pub is not a "best of" book. It is intended to be an insight into the fading world of the old-style Irish pubs and a cautionary tale for anyone who still takes them for granted.

Turtle and co-author James Fennell launched The Irish Pub to a full house in the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin, on 2nd October, followed by launches in Belfast (The Crown, 7th Oct), Waterford (Geoff's, 16th Oct) and Kilkenny (Lenehan's, 23rd Oct).


'Delightful' says The Irish Times. 'Fascinating' concurred the Independent-on-Sunday.'A brilliant history of the Irish pub' declared Country Life. 'A masterpiece of pub porn' concluded the Sunday Independent. Turtle's new book 'The Irish Pub' - his third with photographer James Fennell - has certainly been gathering the plaudits since its publication in October. It has was selected as Bookseller's Choice for Christmas 2008 by Hughes and Hughes and short-listed in The Irish Times Christmas Gift Special. The sumptuous hardback sold over 5,000 copies in its first 3 months. It also generated considerable coverage on BBC News, BBC World, The Today Show (BBC Radio 4) and Saturday Magazine (BBC Radio Ulster), as well as Nationwide (RTE1), Ireland AM (TV3) and The Tom Dunne Show (Newstalk 106). The book was a major feature story in The Guardian, Country Life, The Independent (UK), The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, The Irish Echo, Sunday Independent, The Irish Mirror, The Daily Mail, Sunday World, The Dubliner, Hospitality Ireland, Passport Magazine (USA) and the Oct/Nov 08 issue of Cara. Published by Thames & Hudson, the book offers a colourful tour of 39 classic pubs from across all 32 counties of Ireland. The book is selling in shops for around €30. However, it is available at a 10% discount price from Dubray Books for those in the know. Simply visit www.dubraybooks.ie/offer and enter the promotional code: irishpub

'Well ya see, Norm, it's like this... A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members. In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we know, kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That's why you always feel smarter after a few beers.'
Cliff Clavin, Cheers