The growing -and surprising, to my mind- public revulsion with regard to Diageo’s ‘Arthur’s Day’, a mock feast day in which everyone still goes to work –if they have work to go to- before they engage in a carnival celebration intended to humanise a multinational corporation, had me thinking about the intertwining of politics and alcohol in Ireland.
Public houses in Ireland are often painted as part of its political fabric: the site of seditious meetings, passionate debates, and surreptitious encounters between journalists and those who pad the corridors of power. However, these days ‘public’ is a more suitable description of the trading status of a drinking establishment –whether it belongs to a publicly listed company or not- than anything to do with places where a popular political will takes shape amid intense and involved democratic discussions. The atmosphere in many if not most Irish pubs is determined by the availability of a sporting spectacle on a big screen, or loud music designed to minimise conversation and maximise consumption.
Nonetheless pubs still seem to have some resonance as sites where the political happens. Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach whose erstwhile gift was to apply a popular gloss to a right-wing political project, was famous for stopping in Fagan’s for a pint after a hard day’s machinations, thereby affirming his status as one of ‘us’. Meanwhile Doheny and Nesbitt’s was the site in which the free market economic doctrine to be administered to the Irish population was supposedly sketched out on the back of cigarette packets by raffish economists. A couple of months ago the Labour Party Minister Pat Rabbitte was confronted in the same pub by a group of protesters. It subsequently emerged that a function was underway upstairs for officials from the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, at which at least one other government minister was present. The press was quick to denounce this intrusion of the rabblement into a reputable establishment, but also to stress what they imagined Rabbitte’s own unruffled response, thereby presenting the Minister as a man who knew how to handle himself in a pub, and who was, therefore, one of ‘us’.
I doubt it is any accident that a common canned response in Ireland to expressions of unease at how people have accumulated large quantities of material wealth is “fuck the begrudgers”, a phrase understood to have come from renowned “drinker with a writing problem” Brendan Behan (though I have been unable to find the original context for the remark: perhaps it was in conversation with Zhou Enlai on the consequences of the French Revolution). It often feels as if the measure of a person’s fundamental authenticity and trustworthiness depends on whether or not they will feel at home in a pub.
I’m glad to say I missed nearly all of the advertising for Arthur’s Day this time around. What sticks in the mind is an advert no doubt from a few years back, which showed crowds in the street raising a glass “To Arthur” in an image of mass docile conviviality and amiability. The image to my mind does not differ all that much from the ideal image of the Irish population sold abroad by political and economic elites: this is not a people likely to get too disputatious, or erect unreasonable barriers to capital, and ever prepared to show their gratitude to the boss. It is worth considering the role of alcohol in lending such an image a degree of truth: contrary to widespread myth, Irish people are not especially gregarious or outgoing. At least not in the absence of alcohol, that is. But as the saying goes, when the drink is in, the wit is out. That has destructive consequences not only for livers and households, but the possibilities of a demos.