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A Pint of Plain: book review

March 21, 2010

A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub
Bill Barich
Walker and Company
February 2010 $15.00 256 pages.

Having grown up spellbound by a mythos of Ireland fueled by things like The Quiet Man and grandparents’ stories, Bill Barich sets himself the task of finding a pub that fits into that mythic vision. He has married a woman from Dublin, and so scours his new home city in search of that perfect pub. The criteria seem to be: it must have a strong, authentic connection to the past; it must have a good, busy local scene; and also that elusive Irish sense of good fun, craic.

As a newly local transplant, and armed with the historical curiosity that makes for some fascinating asides into lore, Bill Barich is on something more driven than the typical tourist roots-quest. It’s more complicated than exploring a new neighborhood, or even, finding somewhere nice to have a pint. Asides into odd facts, tidbits of limericks and stories about James Joyce, or the founding of the Guinness plant, are honestly more fun than his sometimes frustrating march from pub to pub in search of the authentic. If Barich weren’t on such a quest, but instead chose to meander and explore, it might be less frustrating.  The constant sense of evaluating where he is against the drive for the authentic, perfect local, distracts from just hanging out in the moment.

As a pure travelogue, Barich does a terrific job of capturing the souls of the places he visits, making them, their owners and locals real. He works beautifully with the analysis of the way tourism and globalization have threatened the truly local pub, and the economics of the local versus the corporate. My inner social scientist is very happy with the discussion of pubs as a “third space,” neither home, nor work, but community. So, even though he’s being regimented about it, Barich clearly gets it on some level.

Pete McCarthy’s two searches for a root connection to an Irish bar, McCarthy’s Bar and The Road to McCarthy, Around the World in Search of Ireland, work along similar lines to A Pint of Plain: Man seeks roots in Ireland, writes about it. The difference seems to be that Bill Barich’s quest seems more like marching orders, tinged with a sense of duty and the futility of finding perfection. Pete McCarthy, honestly, seems to have a finer grasp of craic, of letting the adventure happen to him.

I understand that Barich’s book had to have a frame, both to organize his thoughts and to pitch to a publisher… but I wish the book had been more of a straight, happy travelogue. The depth and breadth of research he presents is really fascinating, and he’s got a terrific atmospheric grasp of how to describe each pub, to make it real to the reader. But– then there’s this quest, this sense of pubs not measuring up enough to be his local.

Here’s what I’m talking about. “By accident, through the sheer drudgery of tasting one pint after another all over Dublin, I’d become a semi-expert and approached my pint now with the severity of a veteran sommelier assessing a vintage Chateau d’Y’quem.” “severity?” “drudgery?” I think his approach goes against finding a local, actually.  A true local pub, where you’re happy with the music and the other regulars, and the bartender pulls your pint the second he sees you- that’s not something you go seeking, but something that happens, by a mix of chance and timing.

The other thing I wonder is why isn’t Barich’s Dubliner wife more of a presence? I gather from the dedication that her name is Imelda. And I gather from Barich’s excellent recreation of Ireland’s bar and beer culture, past and present, that it’s very much a male space… but still, Barich’s writing seems to be a solitary, male journey, his wife just an unseen catalyst. I would have liked to know what she thought of her American husband going in search of the mythic local pub, and the cultural identity of the place she’s taken for granted as home.

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