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Pub Smoking Ban Snuffs Out an Irish Tradition

As some grumble about the new law, activists are watching the Emerald Isle's experiment to see whether it can be spread across European Union.

June 04, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

DUBLIN, Ireland — It is a Thursday night before a holiday weekend, and the Frank Ryan & Son pub on the north side of the River Liffey is starting to fill -- as it has for decades -- with a mixture of working men and office types from the law and banking concerns on the other side of the quay.

As the dark Guinness flows and the faces grow more flushed, a steady stream of customers flows past the century-old mahogany bar and the age-darkened stools and out the back door.

It's not a whiff of fresh air they seek, but tobacco smoke.

Yes, the smoky pubs of Ireland, the haunts of such literary luminaries as James Joyce and Brendan Behan, immortalized by poets and peers, have joined the 21st century as clean-air zones. And although the famed revolutionary spirit lives on in word, it does not necessarily in deed.

Ever so meekly have Irish smokers submitted to a new law that fines them up to 3,000 Euros (more than $3,600) for puffing in the taverns.

In fact, Ireland boasts the toughest public anti-smoking law in Europe, and anti-tobacco activists are watching the Emerald Isle's experiment to see whether it can be expanded across the European Union, following the example of many states and cities in the United States. On Tuesday, Norway joined Ireland in outlawing smoking in bars and restaurants, with Sweden slated to be the next to follow suit.

For those who frequent Irish taverns, there is more than a trace of nostalgia, even as they submit to the strictures meant to protect their health and the health of the hospitality industry workforce.

For what true Dubliner hasn't, like Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney's hero:

... Gone miles away

For a drink like a fish

Nightly, naturally,

Swimming towards the lure

Of warm lit-up places,

The blurred mesh and murmur

Drifting among glasse

In the gregarious smoke.

Or, to put it another way: "I don't know what kind of a fool thought that up, but he must have been on drugs."

The speaker is George Allis, who on first glance is an ordinary workingman, a builder by trade.

But as a reporter tries to keep pace at Ryan's, pint for pint, it emerges that Allis has a rebel's pedigree and pungent observations about changes in Ireland: from imported Romanian carpenters, to the decline of the health service, to interfering European bureaucrats and the alleged vacant-headedness of Mary Robinson, Ireland's former president and ex-U.N. human rights chief.

But he saves his special wrath for the smoking ban. The law went into effect March 29. As of that night, smokers have had to either put out their cigarettes or stand outside with their pint in one hand and a smoke in the other. Some taverns have provided ashtrays and set up and heated outdoor areas, which at Ryan's consists of a picnic table in the back parking lot.

Disgusting, in the opinion of Allis, who mentions that he is descended of a first cousin of Sean Treacy, who led the Soloheadbeg Ambush (which killed two Royal Irish constables) in County Tipperary, one of the most important chapters of the Irish war of independence, and "it followed down the line a bit."

The law bans smoking indoors in almost all places, the chief exceptions being private homes, prisons and mental hospitals.

"The only pleasure left anymore is in prison, or in a mental hospital," Allis grieved. "At times, I feel like going in there and knocking on the gate and asking them to let me in."

What has become of the Irish, he asked, and then mournfully supplied an answer. "We've become a very docile race, after fighting England for 800 years. And we thought the English were pussyfoots!"

Removing smoke from the air in pubs is no cause for an Irish wake, defenders of the ban insist.

"It's not the smoke-filled rooms people come for, it's to come for the craic," Ivor Callely, Ireland's junior health minister, said on the BBC's Today program, using the Gaelic word pronounced "crack" that can be liberally translated as: good music, good people, good conversation and good times.

Two months into the ban, pub owners -- many of whom initially opposed it -- are learning to live with it, said Seamus O'Donoghue, the new president of the Vintners Federation of Ireland, a trade group.

"There is a little bit of members complaining they have lost a lot of business, especially in rural areas," he said. However, "urban areas are taking it on board and dealing with it."

The urban-rural divide, he explained, is because in the country people tend to be more set in their ways and often do not have a choice of local pubs. If a country pub is the closest one for miles, and it has no outdoor smoking area, the pub-goers who smoke are sunk. "If the facilities are not good, or there is inclement weather, they'll drink at home," O'Donoghue said.

Some worry about old people losing the pub-going habit because of the ban.

"Living alone, those people's only contact is the pub one night a week," O'Donoghue said, "and if they don't appear for a night or two, someone would notice and go out and check on them."

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