Of all the cities in all the world, Dublin has to be the one short of pubs

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The Independent Online
MARTIN O'BRIEN is staring gloomily into his pint of Guinness in McCafferty's, a cavernous pub on the outskirts of Dublin. It is the day after St Patrick's Day and he has a hangover the size of an elephant, but that is not the reason why he is so fed up.

It is McCafferty's itself that is responsible for his mood. The place is pleasant enough, with its airy ambience and mock-wood interior, but he yearns for an occasional change of scene. Not difficult, surely, in a city fabled for its pubs? Mr O'Brien sighs and his shoulders droop even further.

Astonishing though it seems, Dublin is short of pubs, thanks to an antiquated and labyrinthine system that makes it virtually impossible to open new licenced premises. And Mr O'Brien has the misfortune to live in Tallaght, an area identified as having the fewest pubs per head in Ireland.

Thirty years ago, Tallaght, in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, was a farming village with a population of 400. Now it is part of the urban landscape, a sprawling working-class suburb, home to 85,000 people. But the number of drinking places has barely grown; there were eight in the 1960s; as of a couple of years ago, there are ten.

"It's a pain, and no mistake," says Tony Kelly, propping up the bar at Molloy's, one of the oldest establishments in Tallaght. "The pub is a big part of our lives in Ireland. It's somewhere to come, it's somewhere to meet, it's where you go for a bit of craic. But you don't want to drink in the same few pubs all the time."

The situation seems inconceivable. In Ulysses, James Joyce wrote of the "puzzle" of trying to cross Dublin without passing a pub; his characters quickly gave up trying. To the modern visitor, the capital is awash with them; in the narrow streets and alleys of Temple Bar, the city's most fashionable quarter, there is a pub on every corner, at every turn.

Yet the statistics speak for themselves. Dublin has 29 per cent of the country's population, but only nine per cent of its pubs. While rural villages are blessed with scores of places to drink, Dubliners are going thirsty. Tallaght has more residents than the city of Limerick, but the latter is blessed with hundreds of pubs.

The reason for this iniquitous state of affairs is a 1902 law, backed by the Catholic Church, that prevents new licences being issued other than in exceptional circumstances and froze pub numbers at the level of that era. The restrictive regime has penalised Dublin the most because of the population shift from rural areas to the capital over the century.

There are ways around the system, but they are tricky and expensive. You can buy two rural pubs, close them down and trade in the licences for one Dublin licence - although, with the shortage of pubs in the city, licences change hands for up to IRpounds 500,000. Alternatively, you can build a hotel of at least 22 rooms, which allows you to install a pub with a separate entrance. Or you can simply expand on your existing site.

These loopholes have led in recent years to the emergence of enormous, barn-like "superpubs" around Dublin, the antithesis of the traditional intimate Irish pub. Hotels have also sprung up; in Tallaght, the only two new pubs of the past three decades are attached to hotels, the Plaza and the Abberley Court.

Not all publicans can exploit these avenues, though. Jim Murphy, owner of the Dragon Inn in Tallaght, would like to open another establishment nearby but has fallen foul of a Sixties' law that prevents a new pub from being built within one mile of an existing one. The law applies only in rural areas and, to Mr Murphy's chagrin, Tallaght is still classified as such.

Neither can he expand his present cramped premises, because they are located next to a priory and seminary run by the Catholic Dominican Order. "The Dominicans won't sell me an inch of land," saysMr Murphy. "I've been trying to persuade them for 20 years."

Brian Hayes, who represents Tallaght in the Dail, the Irish parliament, calls the licencing system "barmy and hopelessly out of date". The government has committed itself to reform, but has yet to introduce legislation. Mr Hayes fears that it may baulk at taking on the powerful pub lobby, which is fiercely opposed to deregulation. "What you have here is a virtual monopoly situation," says Mr Hayes. "Wouldn't you like to be the only pub in the middle of 10,000 houses? I wonder whether there is the political will to take on the publicans in a country where politicians hold their surgeries in pubs."

The Licenced Vintners Association, which represents Dublin publicans, believes that there is no need for reform. "It is not that there are too few pubs in Dublin, just too many in the rest of the country," says Frank Fell, spokesman for the LVA.

In Tallaght, locals complain that the lack of competition is reflected in the price of their drinks, which are dearer than in the city centre. The paucity of pubs means that they have to be on their best behaviour, too, as Martin O'Brien, drinking in McCafferty's, knows only too well.

"Six months ago I was barred from Molloy's," he says. "There was a row, I wasn't involved, but my name was mentioned. The message went around the other pubs and now I'm barred from everywhere except here."

His father, John O'Brien, points to another lamentable consequence of demand for pubs outstripping supply. "There's no such thing as a regular in Tallaght," he says."They recognise you and they know what you drink, but you're just a bum on a seat. If you don't like the way they treat you, someone else will take your seat. Irish hospitality? You won't find it in Tallaght."