Welcome to the Virgin Mary: Dublin’s alcohol-free pub

There’s still plenty of craic to be had on a booze-free night out in Ireland, finds Stephen Phelan

Wednesday 18 August 2021 15:07
<p>Shaking up a sober cocktail at The Virgin Mary</p>

Shaking up a sober cocktail at The Virgin Mary

It’s a cold, wet, wintry Saturday night in Dublin, and The Virgin Mary gives out an inviting glow. Through the window on Capel Street it looks like less of a pub than a high-end, low-lit cocktail lounge. Such places are still a relative rarity here on the north side of the River Liffey. On deciding to enter, you will soon find out it’s even rarer than that. Order a pint of Guinness or a shot of whiskey, ask to see the wine or cocktail list, and just see what they say behind the bar.

“We have to be straight with people the second they walk in,” admits this evening’s barmaid, Anouk. It is common enough, she tells me, especially on weekends, for newcomers to have no idea that they just stumbled across Ireland’s first and only alcohol-free drinking establishment. Literally, in some cases. “Yeah we get quite a few who are pretty hammered already,” says Anouk. They’ll express surprise, confusion, sometimes abject horror, and quickly move along.

More sober patrons will often stick around to give it a try, “even if they’re only being polite”. At which point she will ask them what they usually like to drink, and guide them toward a zero-per cent ABV substitute: a bottle of oaked cider, a pint of porter with a nitro coffee top, a glass of sparkling rosé tea. Particular care has been taken over the cocktails, described so appealingly that your thirsty brain almost skips over the space usually occupied by gin or rum.

Alcohol-free nights out just got classier

I take a Tiki Street, on Anouk’s recommendation, which she mixes with syrah, hibiscus, pomegranate molasses, allspice, vanilla, lime and black cardamom. It tastes sweet, smoky and all the more exotic in context – such a dry libation in one of the wettest, most pub-flooded sites on earth. “Obviously, a bar like this is still an anomaly in a country soaked in alcohol,” says owner Vaughan Yates, who opened The Virgin Mary in May 2019. “So yes, it was a risk.”

At the same time, he says, Ireland and its capital are not immune to changes also observable across the UK and Europe. “People are generally drinking less, and there is less of a social stigma attached to not drinking on a night out. There’s also enough investment in alternative products that you can actually offer consumers a range of attractive choices now.”

Obviously, a bar like this is still an anomaly in a country soaked in alcohol

Vaughan Yates, owner

His clientele have their own reasons for coming, Yates tells me. These are often a simple matter of having to drive, or being pregnant. They might also be health-related, or connected to religion or culture. Today’s Dublin is a global tech hub and university town with a much more diverse population than it used to have. What was once the domain of boozy Irish Catholics is now home to workers and students from countries with different… priorities.

They want to partake in the pub scene that the city is famous for, without necessarily matching the natives drink for drink. And the essential, ineffable quality often called “the craic” is no less present in Yates’s bar than anyone else’s, he says. Sometimes he thinks it’s even more convivial here precisely because of what is not on offer. “I’ve noticed our customers seem a bit more focused on conversation. They’re not knocking back pints and getting their phones out.”

The Virgin Mary’s PB Sour

“We also see a lot less of the paranoia that often creeps in toward the end of a night, after a load of champagne or whiskey, when people start wondering if their friends really like them.” He’s aware that a bar like this can seem to stand in judgement of others, and some in Dublin have duly taken offence. “We are absolutely not telling anyone not to drink. If you want to, please go to the pub and have a nice time. But if you don’t want to, please come to us.”

For all the press The Virgin Mary has received in recent years, it’s only the most visible sign of the times in Ireland. The smoking ban, the more rigid enforcement of drink driving laws, and rising excise duties on alcohol have all contributed to a general decline in pub-going as the linchpin of locals’ social lives. Novelist Colm Tóibín has remarked that the Irish are turning away from booze at roughly the same rate they’ve been turning away from the church.

The Virgin Mary founder, Vaughan Yates

This has led publicans to try other means of bringing in punters – live music, better food, healthier diversions. Another Dublin pub, MVP, now runs popular Sober Sundays with juice bars and “reggae yoga” sessions, while the dry club night Funky Seomra drew huge crowds for over a decade before the pandemic. “People go out at night to escape, and to socialise,” says Yates.

“It’s the same all over, but in Ireland we might have more of a job changing the perception that something is taken away when alcohol is off the table. What they’re looking for is still right here.”

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