Those scandalized by the portrayal of an Irish town as a snake pit of malice and depravity in John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” can take heart from Alex Fegan’s picturesque documentary of “Ireland’s most important institution” (or so says the film’s press notes), the pub. “The Irish Pub” plays like a portfolio of lovely postcards, with splendidly photographed pictures of quaint buildings, cobbled streets, breathtaking landscapes, and smiling faces as hollowed and worn as the centuries-old stone floors of the title taverns.
But before it lulls one with the glib, gadabout tone of a “Rick Steves Europe” episode about the ould sod, Fegan’s picturesque pub crawl hints at a more melancholy reality below the façade, one of loneliness, loss, and dissipation.
The two dozen or so pubs explored range from a tony establishment in Dublin, with its merry topers telling tales of Brendan Behan or relating not-so-funny jokes about drunken husbands kicking their wives, to a once thriving spot in the sticks where the octogenarian owner sits at a grand piano among empty tables and plays “Home! Sweet Home!” Roughly structured by themes, the film investigates such pubby fixtures as the “snug” (originally a closed off area where ladies could drink or matchmakers would meet and make deals to marry off eligible daughters), or explores the primacy of community and continuity in the pub tradition, with patrons treated like family and the same families running establishments for six generations or more.
Some of the more amusing moments involve a survey of random items that have collected over the decades and found a place on the walls, behind the bar, or hanging from the ceiling. They include ancient advertisements for alcoholic beverages, an autographed photo of Robert Mitchum from when he was in Ireland shooting “Ryan’s Daughter,” a Wellington boot, a church confessional box, and a picture of a dog wearing glasses and smoking a pipe. A surreal moment occurs when a barfly stands next to a Baconesque portrait of himself and bellows out “Santa Lucia.”
Every bar has such colorful “characters.” Like the toothless codger who laughs alone at his own joke, after which the camera lingers on him long enough to hint at a lifetime of dissipation and despair. The Ireland of Samuel Beckett is never far away, as when a portly pub owner (a.k.a. publican) says that his secret of life is to take it slow, because “You’ll get through it eventually.”
In the meantime, there’s the warmth of the pub and the heartiness of voices raised in song. If you have fond memories of old vinyl LPs by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, then hearing ballads such as “She Moved Through the Fair” and “Come by the Hills” rendered by dulcet local tenors might bring a tear to the eye, especially if helped along by a good pint or two.