All around the country this weekend, publicans are quietly doing deals with each other, selling pubs discreetly, hoping not to damage further an already fragile market. Apart from the odd trophy sale (which are usually property deals in disguise), the bottom has fallen out of the pub market.
More and more people are turning their backs on the typical Irish night out – a rake of pints followed by a bag of chips.
Publicans are trying to respond with food, music and the dreaded Sky Sports plasma screen – but to no avail. Bar sales are falling fast, and as turnover slows, the huge debts that many publicans incurred by buying at over-inflated prices in recent years are beginning to cripple them.
The falling turnover means that the pubs are being forced to cut costs, and many are unable to reinvest.
On top of this, the standard of service is dropping and this will get worse before it gets better. In such an environment, when pubs come to the market the sales are being done behind closed doors to avoid publicising the fall in the going rate for bars.
Why has this happened? Only a few years ago, superpubs were all the rage and giant boozing stadiums were appearing everywhere.
Why are beer sales falling? And how did it happen so quickly?
A quick look at the share price of Heitons or Grafton – two listed home improvement outfits – provides the explanation. The nation is in the grip of a DIY frenzy, and the share prices of these companies have soared accordingly.
It seems the ultimate aim of the average worker is to turn the suburban home into an entertainment plaza. Our suburbs are on steroids, with massive extensions, huge decks, hyper-kitchens and supersized bathrooms being grafted on to perfectly respectable houses every day.
Irish houses are experiencing the architectural equivalent of boob jobs, Botox, liposuction and collagen lips all at once – and are fast becoming bricks and mortar versions of Jackie Stallone. Interior design is the new plastic surgery.
Small houses have been gutted, disembowelled and transformed by rapacious architects, designers and their spellbound clients. Walking into ‘artisan’ cottages in Dublin these days is like entering Doctor Who’s Tardis. You walk in through a small door and emerge into a cavernous double-height warehouse that screams good taste and glossy interiors magazines.
No house is too small for a kitchen extension with the ubiquitous sloping Velux windows and ceiling-to-floor glass doors, looking out onto a smooth timber deck. No back yard is too pokey for varnished cherrywood decking, and no winter too inclement for outdoor gas heaters.
The Entertainment Plaza lets us show off our smooth, perfectly chiselled, granite countertops and celebrate the disappearance of our ghastly architectural cellulite. We express ourselves by our slate bathrooms and laser touch taps. Ultimately, through our dinner parties, we convey who we are.
This carry-on is really quite new. It is a function of money, age and the property boom.
When I was growing up, the difference between ordinary people and the really posh was that the posh entertained at home.
Ordinary folk went out to meet friends on neutral territory – maybe a bar, maybe a hotel grill-room, but never at home. Home was where you had your own dinner. It was designed to cope with the family and to function. It was where we could sleep, eat and watch TV; it wasn’t in competition with the pub, restaurant or cafe.
Today it is totally different. Why go out to some communal trough with the rest of the plebs when you can luxuriate in the refined privacy of your own home?
The change of habit can be explained mainly by demographics. The baby boomers, those born in the great Irish fertility feast of the 1970s (which peaked in June 1980, nine months after Pope John Paul’s visit), are moving into their late 20s and early 30s.
They are no longer all going on the razzle in superpubs, as they did when they were 21.
In addition, we are also seeing the echo of this original baby boom as the Pope’s kids have their own families.
Since 2000, Ireland has seen an upsurge in family formation, with a mini-baby-boom going on.
The difference between this and the last boom is that the Millennium Boomers are mainly single-child families, or two-kid families at most. Back in the 1970s it was more typical to have fewer families with more children; today it’s a case of more families, each with fewer children.
By making trading up inaccessible to many, the property boom has prompted a compensatory mania for home improvement.
(This syndrome is particularly acute in suburban yummy mummies, and explains why it is probably easier to pull in Woodies than Lillies.)
This combination means that the parents of the Millennium Boomers are spending more cash on their houses and are sick of forking out â‚¬50 for a babysitter before they pay her taxi home. So we are seeing a huge increase in dinner parties.
A recent survey by Spar reveals that 55 per cent of Dubliners said that they were entertaining more at home in the past six months.
The corresponding figures were 60 per cent for Cork,45 per cent for Galway and a staggering 88 and 81 per cent for those polled in Waterford and Limerick respectively.
After spiralling costs, the survey found that wanting to entertain at home was the main reason for the switch. Also, most people are doing their entertaining on a Friday – always the traditional post-work night for going to the pub.
A statistic that won’t surprise us, but would shock most continentals, is that 87 per cent of us admit to drinking a bottle or more of wine per person on a Friday night. If this continues, the pubs as well as our livers are in for a hiding.
Who is benefiting? Wine sellers are doing a roaring trade. There has been a surge in wine buying. While pub sales of beer are falling, the wine market in Ireland has grown between 10 and 15 per cent a year since 1999.Off-licences are thriving. In Britain, the split between on and off-trade sales of wine is 50:50. In Ireland it is 15:85.
If present trends in off-trade sales continue and Ireland mirrors developments across the water, ‘offies’ will boom. An interesting development in this regard is that the price of beer licences has fallen from â‚¬190,000 to â‚¬160,000.Who is buying them? Not publicans but supermarkets.
Picking up this growing trend for home entertainment, supermarkets are making the booze area a feature. Next time you go to grab a bottle in your local supermarket note the softer light, the newly decked floors, the authentic looking wine crates littered around the off-licence – you might even get sawdust on the wooden floor. This is all appealing to the type of person you are or might (secretly) aspire to be.
Meanwhile back at the bar, the draughty superpub of 2001 feels empty.
The expensive pints – prices are up to meet the mortgage payments – taste flat and watery, while the Geordie hen-party’s corned-beef legs are that bit more unattractive.
You neck your pint and head for the door back to the safe, salubrious sophistication of your traditional Shaker kitchen.