Besides whiskey, Ireland exporting its pubs

Besides whiskey, Ireland exporting its pubs
Nine Fine Irishmen inside the New York-New York Hotel Casino in Las Vegas pays tribute to the leaders of the Young Ireland movement of the mid-19th century. (MGM-Mirage)

The sky is performing its usual routine — an ever-changing mix of clouds and sunshine — as I catch up with a couple of friends at a pub a few miles south of Dublin.

The sun pouring through the leaded-glass windows warms our souls nearly as well as the whisky. Then, a breeze brings brooding clouds, and we're thankful to be indoors as rain washes over Greystones, County Wicklow. As quickly as they arrive, the clouds blow out to sea. The warming solar rays return, and one of Ireland's timeless rituals continues.

Chatting, laughing and drinking in a secluded corner of Dan's Pub, my friends and I are indulging in yet another ritual, one that seems as old as the weather's hard-to-predict moods. The Irish have been celebrating their triumphs, drowning their sorrows and seeking shelter from the storms in their local watering holes for hundreds of years.

But Irish pubs are going out of business at an alarming rate. In the last three years, the Vintners' Federation of Ireland reports that 800 of the once-pervasive pubs have closed their welcoming doors. Some blame the government's ban on smoking in public places. Others wag their fingers at the prolific super-pubs, which incorporate several bars and restaurants under one roof.

Although traditional Irish pubs are in decline at home, their numbers are soaring around the world. In dozens of countries, travelers can seek out the real McCoy — or Mooney's — designed and built on the auld sod of Ireland before being disassembled and shipped to Australia, Dubai, India and other far-flung lands.

Working out of a nondescript office building on the outskirts of Dublin, Irish Pub Co. has been exporting home-grown bars since 1991. That's when executives at Dublin's fabled Guinness brewery decided that placing authentic pubs abroad could boost sales of its namesake stout. The concept caught on like wildfire; Irish Pub Co. has created 1,500 pubs in more than 40 countries. Ireland's loss, it appears, is the rest of the world's gain.

"The first country to take off was Italy," Anita Doyle, the company's operations manager, says of the 100 or so pubs it has created for the Italian market.

"It [was] like they were Irish, more Irish than ourselves," she adds with a laugh.

These pubs aren't mass-produced. No two are the same, and clients can choose from five designs, including Country Cottage, Gaelic and Victorian Dublin.

"We traveled all over Ireland to establish what was the real Dublin pub, the real country pub," Doyle says as she shows me plans for some of the newest properties.

The emphasis, she says, is on authenticity whether the bar is at the Dublin airport or the Shangri-La Hotel in Chengdu, China.

Mooney's touts itself as "the most traditional Irish pub in town," although with 3 million residents, Chengdu is hardly a town. With its Irish beers and whiskies, savory shepherd's pie and live Celtic music, Mooney's is one of the company's biggest successes.

"They [the owners] were fearful that this massive, two-tower, 80-story hotel was going to make everybody feel ill at ease. So they felt that this Irish pub might invite the local people in — you know, just honest, hard-working people," says Sean Ryan, the project's lead designer.

"We built kind of a little old cottage outside, as if it's in a fishing village on the west coast of Ireland, like in Galway," Ryan adds. "That all was brought through into the pub."

Inside, guests are greeted by a currach, a replica of the wood-framed boats formerly used by fishermen. The pub's dark woods and its nooks and crannies are reminiscent of what would have greeted those fishermen when they returned to port.

"To me, it's about atmosphere and the staff and the interiors," Ryan observes. "When they're sitting inside it [Mooney's], they don't feel like they're in the Shangri-La Hotel."

Irish Pub Co. has designed about 80 properties in the U.S., including the Field in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. New pubs will open later this year in Miami, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

One of the flagships is Nine Fine Irishmen, inside the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The pub pays tribute to the leaders of the Young Ireland movement of the mid-19th century.

"In Las Vegas, we had to compete with the best of the best of the entertainment world," Doyle says. She notes that, over a full year, every aspect of the design, from the front bar to the staff uniforms, was researched "down to the minute details."

Nine Fine Irishmen is so faithful to age-old traditions that visitors from the Emerald Isle quaintly describe it as "home from home." Pub designer Ryan says its authenticity means it could be plopped down in County Wicklow — or anywhere else in Ireland — and be successful.

"The integrity of it, the atmosphere, would be just fine," he says.