Ireland is changing - and for the worse

It is going down the same priggish, PC, non-smoking road as health-obsessed America
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The Independent Online

Italy without pasta, Lourdes without faith, Tom without Jerry - impossible to imagine you may think but not as impossible, to me at any rate, as Dublin pubs without cigarettes.

Italy without pasta, Lourdes without faith, Tom without Jerry - impossible to imagine you may think but not as impossible, to me at any rate, as Dublin pubs without cigarettes.

News that Ireland is going down the same priggish, PC, non-smoking road as health-obsessed America is deeply depressing. Asked for a single image that sums up my four years as a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and it would be a noisy, crowded, smoke-filled pub, Neary's, O'Neills, Sean Murphys, The Bailey, The Old Stand, Doheny & Nesbitts in Baggott Street, near our flat on the canal, or the Lincoln at the back gate of college full of rowdy medics fresh from playing rugger.

Everyone in Ireland smoked. The cashiers behind the marble columns in the Royal Bank of Ireland smoked. The doctor dishing out prescriptions in the surgery smoked. The driver of the green double-decker heading north to my digs in Cabra smoked. If you sat in the back row of the tiered lecture room in the Museum Building, you could happily smoke through one of Mr Pfeiffer's vowel-grinding lectures on theology.

Ever since Ireland cosied up to the European Union and almost overnight the snoozing leprechaun economy re-emerged as the Celtic tiger economy, the flahulich ways of the emerald isle that I loved have changed dramatically. There are new five-lane motorways, new bridges across the Liffey, new five star hotels.

Years ago returning from a visit to friends in Connemara, my father asked the porter at Galway station what the time the next train to Dublin would be. The porter considered the question for a long while, scratched his head and replied: "Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, who knows?" Chances are these days he'd take out his palmtop computer, log on to the net and tell you it was running early.

What depresses me most is the apparent willingness of the Irish to conform to this new smoking ban. They're a famously free-thinking race, for heaven's sake. They do their own thing, go their own way, live and let live. "Excuse me, I'd be grateful if you would refrain from smoking, your cigarette is upsetting my wife" is not a phrase I would normally associate with an Irish pub or restaurant, though God knows I've heard it often enough in English ones. In the Ireland I remember with such nostalgia people didn't care what you did in pubs so long as you bought your round and were there for the craic - in other words to have a good time.

Things seem to have changed. On Saturday nights, I remember, it was impossible to get into Neary's at the top of Grafton Street, so packed was it with people pouring out of the Funnies, the cartoon cinema down the road or flush with their winnings after an afternoon's racing at Naas. Now, according to a Dublin friend, hardly anyone goes to Neary's. They are all across the road at Mao's, a fashionable new Oriental fusion food eatery where, if they're really pushing the boat out, they'll have a thimbleful of rice wine with their noodles.

I know cigarettes are bad for you. Let us not go down that road, but so is alcohol which, please God, is still available in pubs, though at the rate we're going there will probably be a health and safety crackdown on that shortly. The world's first booze-free pub - ye gods, I can hear Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour earnestly discussing this exciting new trend with a couple of sociologists, female of course. "It's only a question of adjusting one's mindset," said the one who has written a best-seller called Teetotal, Toned and Taking on the World. "It is eminently possible to have a fun night out without smoking and drinking."

Oh yeah, it depends on your idea of fun. In Dublin mine used to be an evening at Sean Murphy's playing bar billiards, drinking draft Guinness, smoking a pack of Carrolls and enjoying the craic. Students, locals, tourists, even the Americans who referred to the Book of Kells as Kelly's Book, we all joined in - the talk getting louder, the atmosphere fuggier, the singsongs increasingly sentimental.

One night an old gaffer, flat cap, shabby old coat draped over his shoulders, cigarette butt stuck to his lower lip, approached the billiard table. "Would one of yous lads ever give us a hand to the gents'?" he asked. Sure, what's the problem said Charlie. "Well now, the truth of it is I'm a little short of the moving parts," said the old gaffer, shrugging off his coat to show us that his arms finished at the elbows. "I'm after a lad that might be handy with me zip, that's all."

I've got to say it. Smoking in Dublin? It's 'armless.

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