Guinness good for la dolce vita: Irish bars are thriving all over the Continent

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The Independent Online
BARMAN Paul Bredican, from Sutton in Dublin, leans across the counter, eager to debate the Republic of Ireland's World Cup prospects. Behind him, darkly imposing mahogany pillars and panels flaunt magnificent floral wood-carvings and decorative mirrors advertising ancient Irish whiskeys. Above a big ticking clock and a porcelain Guinness toucan, yellowing wallpaper suggests the nicotine of a century of porter drinkers.

The comfortable seats, the half-light and gasoliers all evoke comforting Dublin retreats such as Bongo Ryan's or Doheny and Nesbitt's. But this is 1,000 miles away in Pavia, northern Italy, and the bar is just nine months old.

Last night, it was just one of 22 such Gaelic inns around the country where the Ireland-Italy World Cup soccer clash was being replayed over countless litres of Guinness.

The Il Broletto Irish pub is tucked away beside a cathedral in the old mayor's headquarters in a spacious Renaissance piazza. Fortunately, no plastic brewery signs demean the exterior. The finish is elegant and expensive - and looks it.

It is also paying its way. By midnight, when other bars in the university town have closed, Il Broletto remains packed with the local bella gente, Pavia's chic and affluent youth.

The bar is one of 250 Irish pubs doubling as unofficial Irish embassies across Europe, an empire extending from Tallinn in Estonia and Moscow's Arbat district to Catalonia in Spain, where a new Kitty O'Shea's opened last month. Seoul in South Korea has one, and another is planned for Tokyo.

On the European mainland, two or three open each week, with advice from Guinness, the London-based stout brewer, but without Guinness putting up a penny to develop these valuable standing adverts for its product. So far, Continental patrons have spent an estimated pounds 50m to pounds 100m on creating these Irish pubs in exile.

The newest are meticulously modelled on Irish originals, elegant Dublin city pubs and country bars blending grocery trade with occasional pint-pulling. A modern alternative, seen in the new Mulligan's at Gattinara, Italy, has Celtic wall friezes and contemporary Irish metalwork, evoking older themes with a bold simplicity.

Other forms include cottage pubs, based on private homes that happened to have licences, and the brewery style, using copper tuns and related artefacts for decoration.

The popularity of Kitty O'Shea's in Brussels, (with sister premises in Dublin and Paris) sparked the fashion, opening a gold mine for Guinness, steady work for Irish craftsmen and women (including traditional musicians who now have a thriving European pub circuit), plus jobs and language skills for around 1,000 young migrant Irish bar staff.

Of the 250 on the European mainland, Germany now has more than 100 Irish pubs of varying quality, many developed without the guidance of Guinness. Berlin's largest ones turn over pounds 3m to pounds 4m a year. Entry costs in Germany are lower - typically pounds 150,000 to open a bar, against pounds 500,000 in Italy where prime properties and licences are harder to obtain.

Traditionally a wine-dominated market, Italy is showing the most dramatic changes. Italians consume an average of just 23 litres of beer a year. With annual sales worth pounds 31m in Italy, Guinness is talking of an 80 per cent rise in sales this year. Almost half will be through Irish pubs - 'our number one growth vehicle in Europe', says John Gilmore, the Guinness marketing man overseeing the project.

The figures indicate young Italians are gradually adopting pubs as social centres. The interest is attributed partly to popularity of all things Irish in Europe, from music to football, cinema, writing and Irish holidays - a first glimpse for many into real Irish pubs and a cool stout on a warm summer's day.

The Belfast-born Mr Gilmore considers Italy has room for 500 Irish bars but accepts that tight controls over new licences will curtail growth. Italy's 22 Irish pubs will rise to 52 by the year end.

Guinness is not investing in the pubs directly, because it has always avoided owning its outlets. Besides, it sees commercial sense in each owner creating a distinctive personal atmosphere. But its five-year contracts as sole supplier of draught beer mean that it has a vested interest in their success.

Beside a good location, Guinness stresses the authenticity of the interior. For this and the quality of its crafted finish, it recommends its preferred supplier, the Irish Pub Company. The ambience created by Irish staff (at least two behind the bar in most cases), Irish music, preferably live, and of course, Irish drink and food are other prerequisites.

Brendan Buckley at the Irish Pub Company - which evolved as a sister company from Dublin's McNally Design - puts the average cost of a complete interior at pounds 120,000. It employs 34 staff and 200 subcontractors from joiners to glaziers, forged metal and brass workers from Donegal to Wexford. For personnel, Dublin's Action Recruitment provides bar staff, while the Irish state apprenticeship body, Cert, conducts training.

(Photograph omitted)