An Irishman’s Diary

Source: Frank McNally, The Irish Times

Thursday, 08th Sept, 2011

THEIR CONNECTION with literature is almost umbilical, or so they like to pretend. So now that Irish pubs are struggling for survival – forced, in a once-unimaginable turn of events, to advertise their collective existence – surely literature could provide one possible path to renewed relevance. In a sense, the solution is staring vintners in the face. Despite which, to my knowledge, no Irish pub has yet hit on the idea of establishing a writer-in-residence programme.

'To my knowledge, no Irish pub has yet hit on the idea of establishing a writer-in-residence programme.' Photograph: Eric Luke

Just about everywhere else has one these days: including places you might least expect literature to flourish. A while ago, even London’s Heathrow Airport appointed a writer-in-residence, giving philosopher Alain de Botton the run of the complex for a week with a view to producing a book, which he duly did. Meanwhile, remarkably, the Irish pub – which for decades has traded off its literary links – still has not seen fit to formalise the relationship.

When I suggest the idea is staring bar owners in the face, I refer of course the ubiquitous poster of “Famous Irish Writers” so beloved of pubs, especially Dublin ones. You know the one. If a certain adjective beginning with I and ending with C were not already so hackneyed – and if I hadn’t recently urged its banning – I would be tempted to use it of this poster, which has a quasi-religious quality about it.

It features an apostle-like line-up of 12 heads, for one thing. And like the original apostles, they’re all male. But apart from souvenir shops, the only place you even see the poster is in a bar. It is to pubs what holy pictures are to churches, although as well as sanctifying the premises, it must also be considered good for business.

Presumably, the deliberate implication is that customers who drink in the same places as those writers did may be touched in some way by their genius: even – who knows? – to the extent of being inspired into literature themselves.

The reality of the relationship between pubs and the writers featured is, of course, more complicated. WB Yeats rarely darkened the door of a bar. Shaw didn’t drink. And while others in the line-up, like Behan and Flann O’Brien, more than compensated for the abstemious ones, it is widely concluded that the drinking subtracted from their overall output rather than increasing it.

Indeed, pressed once on why he exiled himself in Paris, Samuel Beckett suggested that if he were back in Dublin, he might be just “sitting around in a pub”. Which sounds like the clinching argument against my writer-in-residence proposal.

Except that, even in Paris, Beckett seems to have found plenty of time for sitting around in pubs. And if he didn’t actually work in them, others did. Take the Closerie de Lilas in Montparnasse, which as well as being one of Beckett’s favourite drinking dens, is reputed to be where Hemingway wrote much of The Sun also Rises . So the ideas of productivity and licensed premises need not be mutually exclusive.

No doubt the size of the bar is a factor. Ideally it would be big enough to have a corner where a genius could operate unbothered. His or her sobriety, at least during periods of actual composition, would be important too. If necessary, under a writer-in-residence scheme, it could be imposed as a precondition. And in some respects, arguably, Irish pubs are better equipped for such restrictions than pubs abroad.

Most of our older establishments have a snug, for example. This could serve as an isolation unit for a participating artist who would be installed (and where necessary locked in) for two or three hours at a time, with only food or strong coffee passed through the hatch. A “Do Not Disturb” sign would hang on the door and that other well-known type of pub artist, the bore-in-residence, would be kept well away.

By all means, the publican – who would be paying for the privilege – would be entitled to advertise the artist at work. Perhaps a viewing hatch could be provided for the amusement of customers, so long as they promised not to supply drink to, or otherwise distract, the inmate.

When not actually composing, the writer would be encouraged to mingle in the bar, engaging in witty conversation and saying at least one quotably funny or profound thing each day. An occasional lecture might be demanded too. And of course, the work would have to result in an end product: ranging from a short story to a full-length masterpiece, depending on the duration of residency.

Maybe the scheme would appeal to already-famous literary pubs seeking to reinforce market position. Alternatively, it might suit an up-and-coming bar trying to get a foot on the literary ladder.

In a few other cases, perhaps, it could even help remove a stigma. I’m thinking of those unfortunate Dublin pubs that have been around for more than a century and are known to have been on Leopold Bloom’s route, but have ever since had to cope with the shame of, for whatever reason, not being mentioned in Ulysses.

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