This year, on 29 March 2004, an astonishing event took place in Ireland, that sea girt isle off the North West coast of Europe. A law came into effect, which banned smoking in public places. This law has such a wide definition that it even includes your own kitchen should you employ anyone there.
But what is truly amazing is that pubs and bars are included in the legislation. Everybody knows that for centuries these have been the fulcrum and focus of social life in Ireland. From the warp and weft of conversation, story telling, myth and just common gossip that take place in Irish pubs, a vibrant literature has emerged for which Ireland is so justly famous. So just what is the government up to?
Even though Ireland has a stunningly beautiful landscape, it has inspired all too few world-class artists. The irregular hedged and stone walled green fields; the yellow gorse and brown bogs with twinkling lakes and waterways; worn down mountain ranges, glowing with purple heather in the changing light as the clouds scurry across the over arching sky; the shyly placed, moss covered Celtic cross, peeping out from among some ancient ruins… all these mouth-watering sights, which enchant the visitor to Ireland, have been little used by painters as muse and inspiration.
Even writers of poetry, prose and plays pay only cursory attention to the countryside of Ireland, for their main muse and inspiration comes from people and their great gift for endless gripping chat. You might never know there were so many shades of white to black until you study an Irish cloud strewn sky, but it is not to these that novelists, playwrights and poets are drawn, it is to the clouds created by the tobacco smoke in the pubs, and what goes on beneath that gets their creative juices stirring. Without the smoke, there would be no chat – for certain!
So what now, and how would the government fare bringing in this well nigh revolution in Irish ways and social habits? My friends with whom I was staying at the time predicted dire consequences. No Irish person, they assured me, would put up with these rules and regulations. Five centuries of foreign rule by the British had dealt a mulish streak in the Irish. They were ill disposed to be told what to do and especially so in their pubs, which they consider to be extensions of their very own kitchens and living rooms.
But then again, I was told it might work, say, in parts of Dublin, because the capital city changed beyond recognition during the Celtic Tiger nineties, when Ireland’s economic growth suddenly took off into double digits and she embraced the beastly global world. Here, there was some regard for public health; that was the main reason the government was pushing the ban. Or so they said.
I thought they must have a hidden agenda, like trying to stop all the binge drinking and violence that was breaking out all over rural Ireland on Saturday nights. But in the countryside: never. It just couldn’t happen. Imagine no smoking in Gunnings, they said. Here was the iconic Irish country pub, where nothing much happened for a great deal of the time, as old folk sat before an open fire, gently sipping their pints, occasionally lighting up a fag to gently draw in a few poisonous fumes only to expel them again ruminatively. Every now and again a conversation would start up: a neighbor’s life would be scrutinized; a few rococo frills and fancies would be added to the already huge edifice, which is your existence in others people’s eyes in Ireland. Playwrights latch onto these stories and embellishments, and weave them into fantastical patterns and scarcely believable happenings. Think Wilde, (yes Oscar), Synge and nowadays Martin Macdonagh and/or Marina Carr.
So there you have it at the latter end of March: a hardly audible campaign by the government to stop all smoking in pubs, bars and work places in a country, in which being told what to do is anathema and moreover, where puffing a fag is the very essence of life, not only for the puffers, but for the life-blood of Irish literature itself.
It so happened that I spent the first day of the ban in as typical a bit of Ireland as you’ll find. First off I was at Coolatin, in its heyday a vast estate, but long since recycled as a golf club. Well the parkland was, and very beautiful a course it is too. Its greens lie between venerable oaks, beech and fir trees .The thirteenth hole was the old walled garden big enough in the old days to feed and provide flowers for an immense household and employ upwards of a dozen gardeners. But now all that remained was a tumbling down glass house against the whole of the south facing wall and a few grotesquely gnarled and ancient apple trees.
In the centre of the parkland was the original house, huge and elegantly Georgian, but crumbling now that agriculture and that way of life have disappeared. Why hadn’t it been recycled as holiday flats? I wondered. Later we wandered through three charming villages with greens and rows of cottages, which once housed estate workers but had been gentrified by people from Dublin to use as a weekend escape. Pubs in the three villages diligently showed the government no smoking sign and believe it or not people were complying. A few congregated outside in the early spring weather, illustrating the government’s canny timing of starting the ban at the very beginning of spring, when it’s just possible to stand outside. Many pubs have made special outdoor areas for the smokers.
I then traveled on to Bunclody, my favorite small town in Ireland. The usual wide main street has a culvetted stream pell melling down the slight incline while trees line the pavements. Here in the Chantry is a restaurant, where you can pop in and have a cup of coffee, a cake or a meal. There is a fine dining area and a sweet parlor again with a real live fire coming out through here to the smokers’ tent outside my sister spotted a smoker. “Oh!” she shouted, “Fancy smoking, you’re not allowed to do that.” The girl turned crimson and spluttered she had forgotten and hurled the offending stick in the fire. “Oh dear!” said my sister, “I had no idea it would have that effect.”
Then, that evening on the news, there was a whole rehash of what had happened throughout Ireland in response to the smoking ban and guess what? Most people agreed that it was a good idea; even smokers were not angry that they had to leave the premises to light up. So, what’s going on in Ireland? It really is uncanny – a way of life snuffed out, just like that. I can only think that the Irish, fed up with all those writers writing about them, plagiarizing their lives so to speak, are conniving with their government to cut off their inspiration at its source.
The photographs in this story are of Ireland and were taken by Bibi Eng. You can visit her photography web site at http://www.bibieng.com.