Irish “Pub In A Box”

As part of a Guinness marketing effort in the early 1990s, thousands of Irish pubs around the world have been built using standardized design templates.

Recognized around the world, the Irish pub is one of the most well-known Irish cultural exports – and where there’s an Irish pub there’s usually Guinness. In the 1980s Guinness began to track the causal relationship between new Irish pubs and regional increases in Guinness beer sales. As new pubs opened, Guinness sales went up. If Guinness could help create more Irish pubs then they could also increase their own revenue.

Ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Guinness sales representatives traveled around Italy meeting with potential Italian business partners with the goal of opening Irish pubs. Their pitch was built around revenue generation and how Irish pubs have a more profitable beverage-to-food ratio than most other bars. From January to June of 1990 Italy opened 58 Irish pubs, welcoming Irish soccer fans and drinkers of all kinds. However, the critical factor to revenue generation was that these pubs needed to appear authentic – enter the “pub in a box”. 

Pub in a Box

Successful Irish pubs outside of Ireland have the look & feel of the real thing. As part of their expansion effort Guinness assembled a team to analyze, quantify, & document the seemingly ineffable essence of the Irish pub. The Irish Pub Concept helped determine the critical success factors to operating an Irish pub. Chief among these factors is visual authenticity.

Founded in 1990, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin was one of the first companies to offer “authentic” Irish pubs for export. Instead of doing all of the work yourself they’ll take your dimensions and design, manufacture, and ship all of the necessary materials to you. Do you want the rural Irish pub style or the Victorian? Maybe you want the general “Celtic” style. They offer a variety of prepackaged pub types that come complete with all the knickknacks for the walls. To date they have designed & shipped over 2,000 pubs to more than 50 countries.

Fadó in Chicago, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Celtic” style.
Mandy’s Apothecary in Moscow, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Shop” style.

The Irish Pub Co. isn’t alone. Ól Irish Pubs and GGD Global also offer to design & ship you a “pub in a box”. This Disney-ized packaging of Irish culture is not without criticism. For one it raises questions of authenticity. It’s true these are pubs that have been designed & manufactured in Ireland. However, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when your pub has a fake Irish country store as part of the decor. Instead of organically collecting meaningful mementos for your bar, these superficial design packages ship all the rusty farm equipment, dusty old bottles, and framed photos of strangers you need to give the illusion of authenticity. Why take years cultivating a unique local flavor when you can just throw up a portrait of Michael Collins or the Molly Maguires?

An additional criticism is of Guinness for helping to bring these “pub in a box” bars into existence. Established Irish bars were expected to keep serving Guinness beer while the Guinness company was busy creating additional local competition. Beginning in the early ‘90s some bars boycotted and stopped serving Guinness. McGillin’s Olde Ale House of Philadelphia still does not serve Guinness as a result of the “pub in a box” fallout with Guinness.

The Wild Rover in Barcelona features framed photos of random Irish people, used purely as decoration.

Better than nothing

To many customers the ambiance that these cookie-cutter bars generate is all that matters – the question of authenticity never crosses their minds. The theatrical set dressing used by these bars creates a fun environment. Even for those who recognize the dubious credibility of these establishments, some feel to have a “pub in a box” Irish bar is better than having none at all.

As America has helped transform St. Patrick’s Day into an all-out extravaganza, Irish pubs (authentic or otherwise) are increasingly patronized not only by the diaspora but by people of all backgrounds. The pub offers people of all stripes an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. The long tradition of the pub serving as a gathering place for the local community can still be carried out by these “pub in a box” bars … just don’t scrutinize the bric-à-brac too closely.

Added info: If you’re interested in standardized / templated restaurant experiences, you may also be interested in learning about how the Thai government’s culinary diplomacy has successfully spread Thai restaurants around the world.

the Shamrock Shake & Uncle O’Grimacey

The McDonalds Shamrock Shake helped pay for the first Ronald McDonald house.

In 1970 McDonalds introduced their lemon/lime flavored green Saint Patrick’s Day Shake. It eventually changed flavors and names to become the mint flavored, and alliteratively titled, Shamrock Shake. Like the autumnal artificial scarcity of pumpkin spice, the Shamrock Shake is only available around Saint Patrick’s Day in the February through March timeframe (except in Philadelphia where it has two seasons).

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mayor Frank Rizzo, members of the Eagles organization, Fred Hill & his daughter all attended the opening of the first Ronald McDonald House, October 15, 1974.

Philadelphia’s two seasons of Shamrock Shakes goes back to the role it played in creating the first ever Ronald McDonald House. In 1969 Kim Hill, daughter of Philadelphia Eagle Fred Hill, was diagnosed with leukemia. By 1973 the Hills and members of the Eagles organization started the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity which helped pay for the new oncology wing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After seeing parents camped out in the hallways and waiting rooms while their children received treatments, the charity went a step further in 1974 and purchased an old seven-bedroom house at 4032 Spruce St. not far from the hospital. The house would be a place for visiting families to stay free of charge while their children received treatment – a “home away from home”. To help pay for this the Eagles partnered with the local McDonalds restaurants asking them to donate money from their next promotional food item, which just happened to be the Shamrock Shake. The Eagles asked them to donate 25 cents per shake but McDonalds executives asked if they could have the naming rights to the house if they donated all of the proceeds. Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray said “… for that money, they could name it the Hamburglar House.” From this, the first ever Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974. Today there are more than 375 Ronald McDonald House programs around the world which, at what would have been more than 2.5 million overnight stays in hotels, save families around $930 million each year.

Uncle O’Grimacey

As positive as the Shamrock Shake’s impact has been, there have been some missteps. To help promote the Shamrock Shake, McDonalds introduced the new mascot character Uncle O’Grimacey in 1975. The Irish uncle of the purple mascot Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey (complete in his kelly green hat, shamrock-patterned vest, and a shillelagh) would travel from Ireland each year bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland. Uncle O’Grimacey was quietly phased out of McDonalds marketing after a few years due in part to an alleged incident in Philadelphia in 1978 where the person portraying him made statements in support of the IRA and that British soldiers were better dead than alive.

Casual racism isn’t just relegated to the distant past however. In 2017 McDonalds ran an ad promoting the Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they had a man wearing a tartan Tam o’ shanter playing the shake like a set of bagpipes (which would be Scottish) while standing in-front of Stonehenge (which is in England). McDonalds stopped the ad and apologized saying they are “… strongly supportive of Ireland and respectful of its culture”. Begosh and Begorrah.

Uncle O’Grimacey bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland.

Jack-o’-Lanterns

The Jack-o’-Lantern is an iconic part of modern Halloween but its origins are in much older traditions.

Humans have been hollowing out vegetables to use as lanterns for at least 10,000 years. The Māori of New Zealand use the word “‘ue” for both “gourd” as well as “lampshade.” While the jack-o’-lantern is Irish in origin, the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. So before 1492 the Irish used other vegetables to create makeshift lanterns, and one Irishman in particular used a turnip.

Jack of the lantern

Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, Jack of the Lantern – his name varies about as much as his story does. The common thread among the variations of this folk tale is that Jack was a jerk. A bad drunk, or a liar, or both, Jack generally made trouble for the people of old Ireland. Eventually the devil came for Jack but, clever as Jack was, he talked the devil into going for a drink before taking him to Hell. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a silver coin that he could use to pay for the drinks (again, Stingy Jack). Once in coin form Jack put the devil in his pocket beside a crucifix, torturing the devil. He released the devil on the condition that the devil go away for some period of time – some versions say 1 year, others say 10. Eventually the devil came back for Jack but, incredibly, was tricked again. This time Jack asked for one final taste of this life and tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree to fetch an apple. Once in the tree Jack either carved a cross in the trunk, or he placed a cross at the foot of the tree, but either way he trapped the devil up in the tree. This time the devil agreed to go away forever and to never take Jack’s soul.

Eventually Jack died and was obviously refused entry into Heaven, but as per their agreement the devil refused him entry to Hell. So Jack was forced to forever wander between worlds. To light his way in this shadow world of existence, the devil gave Jack a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip as a lantern. This was the first jack-o’-lantern.

Samhain lanterns

The Halloween we know has its roots in the ancient Irish pagan festival of Samhain. A Gaelic harvest festival marking the end of the pagan year and the start of the new year, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Festivities begin at sunset on October 31st and go through the night to November 1st. This one evening is believed to be especially supernatural where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is blurred. The ghosts of the deceased as well as the supernatural fairy folk (the aos sí) are said to temporarily cross over into our world. To appease these spirits, and for protection from any tricks they may play, the ancient Irish would light bonfires, prepare special meals, and perform sacred rituals. Making lanterns from hollowed out vegetables was also believed to help ward off evil spirits.

Eventually the Samhain lanterns and Jack’s lantern came together. Jack-o’-lanterns supersized to pumpkins as early as 1834 as Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Today most pumpkins grown in the United States and the United Kingdom are grown solely for decoration. Despite being high in fiber as well as vitamin A, most pumpkins are never eaten. Billions of pounds of pumpkins are thrown in the trash each year after serving as seasonal decorations.

So after your jack-o’-lantern wards off the evil aos sí during Samhain, find a second use for that pumpkin as food.

Celtic to Gaelic to Irish

What we call “Celtic” is a bit of a misnomer that misses the bigger picture

People use the term “Celtic” to generally describe traditional Irish (as well as Scottish and Welsh) types of art, literature, music, etc. Celtic crosses, Celtic dance, Celtic jewelry, Celtic tattoos even, all have a certain “look” we call Celtic, but it didn’t start out that way.

What we call “Celtic” is largely because of the Celtic Revival movements of the 19th & 20th centuries. This term constitutes a series of narrowly selected cultural elements from a limited range of time in the British Isles. While this generated renewed interest in these particular traditional cultures, the Celtic Revival movements also oversimplified (and flat-out got wrong) other elements of Celtic culture.

Celtic

The Celtic Revival focused on the Celtic cultures found in the British Isles, but the Celts were a lot bigger than that. The Celts were a mix of tribal peoples who originated in central Europe (more or less around Austria) a few thousand years ago. Pinning down exactly where the Celts came from and when they came into being, is debatable.

Eventually the Celts worked their way westward claiming land across Europe and around the 6th century BCE began migrating up into the British Isles. In the 1st century BCE the Romans expanded their empire and killed off many of the Celts in mainland Europe in the process. As a result, the survival of the Celtic culture was primarily in the British Isles but also in a few small pockets of territory along coastal Western Europe.

The Celts had their own language which evolved over the centuries depending on where in Europe they were. Eventually Celtic got split into three categories:

  • Continental: which created a few now extinct languages
  • Britonic: which created a few extinct languages as well as Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.
  • Gaelic

Gaelic

In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man the Celts became the Gaels who developed their own language of Gaelic. Gaelic then became the basis of three languages:

  • Manx: the (mostly extinct) language of the Isle of Man
  • Scottish Gaelic: spoken in the highlands & the Hebrides of Scotland, it is also called Scottish (which is different though than Scots, which is a different Scottish language that is Germanic based)
  • Irish Gaelic

Irish

The Gaels who made Ireland their home developed their own culture and their own Gaelic language of Irish Gaelic, also just called Irish. Today Irish is one of two official languages of the Republic of Ireland (the other being English). Because of early Irish Gaels leaving Ireland for Scotland and the Isle of Man, Irish Gaelic was the basis of what became Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

Today most people in Ireland speak English as their primary language. Most media, politics, and business is in English. That said, according to the 2016 Irish census 39.8% of the country (1.7 million people) said they could speak Irish. But of those Irish speakers only around 73,000 people (around 1.7% of the population) speak Irish as their primary language. To help the language survive & grow the Irish government has programs & plans in place such as Irish being a mandatory subject in school.

So while “Celtic” tends to mean all things Irish in pop culture, the true roots of Celtic culture are much older and much more diverse. While large parts of Irish culture (including the language) are originally Celtic, not all things Celtic are Irish.


Also: Celtic is pronounced with a hard “k” sound as “keltic”, unless you are referring to the Boston basketball team or the Glasgow football club which use a soft “s” sound as “seltic”.