‘Do you ever feel like there’s just no point to it?’ Anton asks me after a silence, as we step out of the DART onto the platform of Dún Laoghaire station.
‘No point to what?’ I reply.
‘Everything. Like this, coming out to Dún Laoghaire to do some bar review. What’s the point?’
‘I suppose I try not to think about it,’ I say, ascending the station steps. ‘It’s just my job.’
‘Some job,’ he says, meeting my gaze. ‘Criticising businesses that are just trying to provide employment in the community.’ His words sort of linger in the air, unanswered. The DART pulls away beneath us. ‘Personally, for me, I think you should be encouraging businesses. That should be your job!’
The overarching narrative of Wetherspoon’s incursion into the Irish market, having monopolised its native Britain, or at least the one the Vintners’ Association is inclined to push, is whether patrons will be inclined to trade in the traditional, real pub experience (add your own quotation marks according to cynicism) for its larger, cheaper, franchised alternative. Crucially, with prices for a pint ranging typically from €2.50 (Beamish, etc.) to €2.95 (Staropramen, etc.), you’re talking about literally half the cost of most extant Dublin pubs. Due to a commercial dispute over its pricing, Guinness is not stocked, which is another key, iconic difference between Wetherspoon’s in Ireland and the rest of our Diageo-friendly bars.
Along with its extraordinarily low prices, the most striking thing about the Forty Foot is probably how brightly lit it is inside. No music plays over the PA. In terms of ambience, it feels more like a cafe or a gift shop than a bar, if you ignore the fact that everyone around you is visibly and enthusiastically sipping pints. You get the sense that you may not cast a shadow at all in this building, an impression that equates closely to that of being watched. Presumably, given the ubiquity of CCTV surveillance nowadays, you are. But the seating is comfortable, well laid out, far from cramped and consciously mismatched enough not to look clinical or, worse, evoke the archetypal hotel bar.
The selection of non-draught craft beers too is extensive, including both bottles (€2.45 for Lagunitas IPA being a particular highlight) and cans (likewise the €2.75 Sixpoint Bengali IPA). The food menu seems to have been conceived with a sort of blunderbuss focus, incorporating essentially everything that could possibly fall under the umbrella of ‘pub grub’, but in spite of the broadness of its approach, the fish and chips with mushy peas (€10.50, including a drink) is of remarkable quality and generous in its size. It’s hard to find fault with the operation on a functional level. Everything oscillates comfortably between ‘all right’ and ‘very good’. Ultimately, if Irish pubs are to be worried by the franchise’s emergence, it is specifically the ones that fall beneath those qualitative brackets.
In an article in the New Statesman, Will Self suggests that the Wetherspoon’s model ‘demeans the customer and the worker’. Of the latter, one might rejoin, so too does all work under capitalism. But of course these are categories without any innate meaning to begin with; they are constantly reproduced in the act of exchange. It might well be that the bourgeois urge, rather than wishing to feel vaunted as a customer, is merely to slip invisibly and anonymously into the background of the commercial space. Admittedly, in this light, it feels quite impossible.
‘Well, I suppose you’re going to say that was just soulless, corporate drudgery, drinking in there with me,’ says Anton, stepping out into the winter air, cigarette in hand.
‘Yeah, apparently going and having a few pints with your mates in a big pub that’s providing employment in the local area is “soulless, corporate drudgery” these days! According to you, anyway.’
Forty Foot Bar & Grill
Marine Road, Dún Laoghaire
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall
Photos: Killian Broderick