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Episode 764: Pub In A Box

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Episode 764: Pub In A Box

Episode 764: Pub In A Box

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/523653040/523656949" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Wherever you go in the world, the Irish bar, the Irish pub looks pretty much the same - dark wood, smoky mirrors.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And, of course, lots of old guys joking around.

SMITH: Got any Irish in you?

RANDY MANCUSO: I'm half Irish.

SMITH: Half Irish. Which half?

MANCUSO: My mother's half. She...

JACK SCOTT: The good half.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: This is my neighborhood Irish bar in Brooklyn. It's called Farrell's. And it's filled with retired police officers like Jack Scott and his friend Randy Mancuso, who works in the engine room of the Staten Island Ferry.

SCOTT: I think women look in here and say, oh, there's 20 guys, I ain't going in that joint.

MANCUSO: Yeah. It has that reputation. We don't frown on women coming here, we don't. Is this a place to pick up girls for a date? No, it's not.

SCOTT: No. It's not.

MANCUSO: But, I mean, you can. I've brought my wife here plenty times. It's a man's bar.

CHANG: Now, the mystery of Farrell's to me is that it works at all. It doesn't try very hard to be genuinely Irish. They serve Bud and Bud Light in these giant Styrofoam cups. And I didn't see anyone at the time drinking Guinness anywhere.

SMITH: It's Irish because it was started by an Irishman a long time ago.

SCOTT: I was here when they cut the ribbon in '33 - all right? - when they first opened the place.

SMITH: Not true, but it feels true.

SCOTT: Everybody knows everybody in this - guy - look at this guy. Hey, look, see? See?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Irish bars like this one spread around the world. And they feel pretty much the same because Irish immigrants were copying this hazy memory of what pubs were like back in Ireland. Here in America, they simply put their names on the front of it, made the beer cheap and called it a day.

CHANG: But one Irishman had a better idea. He thought if you could just figure out what made an Irish pub work, you could take it apart, reproduce it and sell it.

SMITH: You could put an Irish pub in a container, stick a label on it and ship it anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

CHANG: And I'm Ailsa Chang.

SMITH: Today on the show, we're going to knock back a bunch of beer and we're going to ponder the eternal question - is this an awesome bar or what?

CHANG: It's the story of the man who designed a thousand Irish pubs. You've probably been in one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Before we meet the mastermind of the modern Irish pub, we thought we should experience his work firsthand.

CHANG: Pub crawl.

SMITH: Pub crawl. We already checked Farrell's off the list. Next stop - one of the newest pubs in New York City.

CHANG: A pub so exclusive, you have to submit to a full-body scan just to get close to it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is a general boarding call to all remaining passengers travelling on Virgin Atlantic flight VS46.

SMITH: We should tell people where we are. Where are we?

SIOBHAN BRETT: We're in Terminal 4, JFK Airport.

SMITH: The most Irish place to be.

BRETT: (Laughter) I've never felt more at home.

SMITH: We invited along a genuine Irish person, Siobhan Brett. She's also an economics reporter who agreed to be our guide on this part of the crawl. Siobhan wanted us to see the Tigin pub in JFK Airport because this right here is a little island of authenticity in a vast generic wasteland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVES LIKE JAGGER")

MAROON 5: (Singing) I've got the moves like Jagger.

SMITH: I believe this is the Irish band Maroon 5 singing behind us.

(LAUGHTER)

BRETT: Traditional band, if ever.

CHANG: OK. Music aside, Siobhan says that the place is doing something much more subtle and smart than just slapping on an Irish name, especially for an airport bar.

SMITH: Because it doesn't just look Irish. Everything in this place is from Ireland, from the dusty bottles on the shelves to the massive chairs.

BRETT: The furniture is all so heavy-duty. And that's a telltale sign, I guess, that you're...

SMITH: Yeah. These chairs weigh like a thousand pounds.

BRETT: Right (laughter). And the table's 2,000 or 3,000.

CHANG: Siobhan recently wrote an article for eater.com that traced back all of this stuff to its origin.

SMITH: To a man named Mel McNally and his business, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin, Ireland. The Irish Pub Company finds people who want to start pubs around the world and offers to sell them a whole package of Irish magic from the distressed vinyl floors to a patterned ceiling. Everything they sell has a story. And everything is produced in Ireland.

CHANG: And they'll send it to you in a giant shipping container.

BRETT: That's their selling point, that if you want to really nail it, come to us and we're going to give you all of the components that will give you an accurate and exact representation of what an Irish pub is.

SMITH: Authenticity in a box.

BRETT: So they say.

CHANG: And they've been enormously successful. Mel McNally has helped create thousands of Irish pubs. All of them are unique, but there are very strict rules and themes. Like, you can order a Victorian-style pub with its brass and ornate stained glass.

SMITH: Or you can order a pub that riffs off the Irish cottage style. That's a cozy place with old knickknacks on the shelves. It makes you feel like you're relaxing in an Irish home - and not where you really are.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please proceed to Gate A5 for boarding.

SMITH: Next up on the pub crawl, Dublin. Or for us, back to the radio studio to call Dublin to call Mel McNally.

How old were you when you first went into an Irish pub?

MEL MCNALLY: Probably 2 (laughter), brought by my father.

CHANG: Is that a thing, people bring their little kid?

MCNALLY: Irish people live in Irish pubs. You're nearly christened in them. If you were christened, you'd be taken to the pub later anyway.

CHANG: Mel grew up in pubs but he didn't really give them much serious thought until he was in architecture school. It was the 1970s. And he and his fellow architecture students had to come up with an idea for a final year project. So what they decided to do is something a lot of us have done before. They decide we are going to write our paper on something we already know a ton about.

MCNALLY: And we picked the designs of Dublin pubs as an analysis.

SMITH: How did you decide that?

MCNALLY: Over a few pints. We thought it would be a good crack. We thought we'd have a good time doing it. It was frowned upon initially. And...

SMITH: Why was it frowned upon? Did they not think of it as architecture?

MCNALLY: That was the worry obviously by the tutors that this was a bit of a scam to get out and just have a good time.

SMITH: Which it sort of was.

CHANG: But they took it really seriously. They hit all the famous pubs in Dublin. They brought along their sketch pads and their tape measures.

MCNALLY: We were ridiculous. We looked at the craftsmanship, the artwork, the stained glass work, et cetera. And we would say, what makes this poll different?

SMITH: They quickly discovered that the very best Irish pubs were obeying a set of unspoken rules. The first rule was no matter where you are in the bar, you should be able to see the alcohol. You should have a view of the center of the bar.

CHANG: The second rule is that the space had to be divided up in a really shrewd way. They have these tiny little rooms called snugs to fit about one or two people at a time, give them some privacy while they're having a drink.

SMITH: Mel says the whole thing is about how you divide the space. Even the long bar would usually be broken up into segments, separated by these screens.

MCNALLY: These screens, we call them, or dividers, help people to gather in twos and fours and eights. And they communicate. And they get to meet each other.

SMITH: While they're having more quiet and intimate time, the rest of the crowd is sort of funneled into the center of the Irish bar to all mingle and congregate and be noisy and have fun right in the center.

MCNALLY: And that is one of the focal points of a bar.

SMITH: So as you're an architecture student, you start to see that these things that we might not even notice in a bar are actually directing our behavior. They're creating...

MCNALLY: Exactly.

SMITH: ...Social groups. They're determining how my night at the pub will be.

MCNALLY: Exactly.

SMITH: Obviously, Mel and his fellow architecture students aced their final project. But more than that, Mel realized that he was now probably the number one expert in traditional Irish pub design. Now, Ireland already had enough pubs. But over the years, he started to think that the rest of the world did not.

CHANG: So Mel began to get on some planes. Wherever some eager entrepreneur wanted to open a traditional Irish pub, Mel would go there and show them how it's done in Dublin in almost any country you can think of.

MCNALLY: Try me.

CHANG: Kazakhstan.

MCNALLY: I'm doing one in Kazakhstan at the moment.

CHANG: (Laughter) Wow.

MCNALLY: Give me another one.

SMITH: Hong Kong?

MCNALLY: Hong Kong - did many.

CHANG: The Ivory Coast.

MCNALLY: Interestingly enough, my son has nearly signed a contract for one there.

CHANG: Mel found out that if you got the spaces and the details right there was no place too awkward or too remote to put a pub.

SMITH: Mel came up with a really clever way to make sure that no one could just replicate his designs cheaply in a factory in China. He convinced pub owners around the world that in order to build a truly authentic pub, in order to get the Irish magic, you had to buy everything from Ireland. You had to buy everything from Mel McNally - the chairs, the lights, the curtains.

CHANG: And in the interest of full Irish employment, he highly recommends an Irish bartender and a real Irishman to help install everything.

SMITH: Mel says it can run you $300,000, maybe half a million dollars for a typical Irish pub, although he does say it goes up into the millions if it's particularly fancy or in a particularly difficult place.

CHANG: And he says if you really want to go see how it all comes together, he has a container of Irish stuff on its way straight from Dublin to a pub in Stamford, Conn. So we went there to go check it out.

SMITH: This'll be the last stop of the pub crawl. And that is where we meet Darren Fagan, who works for Mel McNally, handles all of his U.S. business. Darren spent the morning checking the shipment from Ireland.

So there is a - it's a full-sized crate.

DARREN FAGAN: It was a 40-foot container. So it went from Dublin to Liverpool, Liverpool to New York.

SMITH: And inside is everything Darren will need to redo this pub. Now, I should say this is already a working Irish pub. It's part of the chain called Tigin. Mel originally designed it 20 years ago. But the owners want it to be updated.

CHANG: Now, the basic layout of the pub will remain the same. It already perfectly conforms to the Mel McNally rule about segmented spaces. Every patron in the pub can see the bar no matter where the person is sitting. And it's still really easy to pair off into smaller nooks and snugs.

SMITH: But other than that the entire inside is going to get new decorations, new furniture. And there's another Mel McNally rule for that, too.

FAGAN: It's very haphazard. He uses the word higgledy-piggledy.

SMITH: You know, there's bottles tucked here and, like, there's some weird plate up over there.

CHANG: And the photos are sort of haphazardly arranged. But not so. There's a deliberateness behind this.

FAGAN: Correct. And it's a reflection of Irish families where over generations and generations they all lived in the same house. But they threw nothing away, so everything went on the shelf.

SMITH: The thing they're going for is Irish horder. Darren shows us his plans and all the stuff they're going to update and swap out. And it gave me a better appreciation for what the company is trying to do. This isn't just a pre-fabricated pub that you put together with Allen wrenches and leave forever. People's conception of what looks authentically old-timey, it changes all the time.

CHANG: So they are going to swap out some of the old crap for some more up-to-date old crap. For instance, some of the framed magazine ads for eggs and butter, they are going to replace those ads with framed black-and-white photos of famous Dubliners.

SMITH: They're also going to swap out some of the furniture. Darren says when they first designed the pub the tables and the chairs were too tiny.

FAGAN: We realized people were bigger and they needed more space. And that's what we're doing. So...

SMITH: (Laughter) So you have to design it for fatter Americans?

FAGAN: All right, come on, you're not going to - (laughter) I can't say that. We have big people in Ireland, too.

SMITH: In the pub business you have to keep changing the definition of what exactly is genuine. It has to feel like Dublin, but Mel also promises to provide a unique design, a design tailored to a particular location, to particular customers, to the particular size of your customers' butts.

CHANG: But ultimately, the question is - is all of this really Irish? Darren says, yes, absolutely. But at the same time, he also acknowledges they're telling a story here.

FAGAN: A lot of what we did over the years was spinning a tale, right? That's just the Irish way. If I said that was done because, you know, Joe Soap and yada, yada, and it came from a place in Mayo - and everybody's going to believe it because why would you not trust an Irishman, right?

(LAUGHTER)

FAGAN: So - but at the same point you can't put a disco ball in and try and spin that one because nobody will believe you anyway. So you kind of have to - to retain your own credibility, you kind of have to be careful with how you spin that tale.

CHANG: Do you think you earn a level of trust right when you open your mouth and people hear your accent?

FAGAN: Yeah, I think so. I think you do. There's no question about it. It's - it definitely helps.

SMITH: The more authentic their Irishness, the more successful they are. But the more successful they are, the harder it is to pull off the authenticness because the demand for all of this stuff, the higgledy-piggledy junk, it's contributing to what Darren tells us is a global shortage of real authentic Irish kitsch.

CHANG: It's a crisis. The island has been ransacked for jugs and old butter dishes to create atmospheres around the world in all these different Irish pubs.

FAGAN: And we played a part in that - right? - so I can't be overly critical of it. But now I kind of see the sad side to it because we're looking at reproductions, but we're having a harder time finding original bric-a-brac because it's just not there anymore.

SMITH: And the Irish Pub Company has competition for that bric-a-brac. There are a few Irish companies that have started up to do the same thing - a little Irish brogue here, a story there, an old weathered chair in the corner and you're in business.

CHANG: I guess I just don't buy that all this deliberate Irish magicalness (ph) somehow filters down into the customer's consciousness.

SMITH: I mean, you could view it as a little contrived. But, I mean, the way I saw it was look, everyone can't go to a pub in Dublin that's been around for hundreds of years or they can't even go to Farrell's in my neighborhood. Like, sometimes you just want a drink in an airport or on a street near the train station and you want a space that makes you feel a certain way, like you're drinking with friends even if there are no friends around. And I do think Mel and Darren have figured out a sort of social shortcut. And I think the subliminal signals of the dusty knickknacks and the Irish chairs, I think that adds to the experience.

CHANG: Wait, but what about that butter dish on the wall at Tigin in Stamford?

SMITH: Yeah, the butter dish. So I was taking a lot of the junk off the wall looking at this. And when I pulled the butter dish off, on the back it says there, plain as day, made in Poland.

CHANG: And we were standing there, like, thinking, ah-ha, we got you. But then without even missing a beat Darren launches into this story about how, well, that could theoretically be an Irish knickknack because during World War II, Irishmen scattered all over Europe. One Irishman could have conceivably been in Poland, picked up a butter dish, went home and put it on his shelf.

SMITH: And that, that is what you are paying for in an Irish pub. You're paying for an awesome story that may or may not be completely true.

CHANG: And one more thing about Farrell's, that Irish bar in Brooklyn, after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: So one thing that I saw at Farrell's that I did not see at any Mel McNally pub were these piles of cash all over the bar. I asked Jack Scott about this.

SCOTT: See the money on the bar? Randy will go outside, have a cigarette, do this, do that, nobody's going to touch that money. Nobody's going to touch cellphone, your keys.

MANCUSO: I left my iron on in the house and that money will be there tomorrow morning for me.

SCOTT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

CHANG: Yeah, I probably wouldn't touch the money either in a bar full of ex-cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Tell us what you think about the show. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Twitter or Facebook.

SMITH: Also, NPR has launched a new daily podcast. It's called Up First. It goes into your podcast feed at 6 in the morning - at 6 in the morning. They're working all night for you, finding the top news stories of the day, telling you what you need to know and why it matters. And the whole thing's about 12 minutes long. You can find Up First on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

CHANG: Today's show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. And you can reach Siobhan Brett's story about the Irish Pub Company at eater.com. I'm Ailsa Chang.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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