Pubs that failed to notice the changing times found themselves on death’s door. Or they found themselves at Mel McNally’s doorstep. We met Mel in chapter 1. Remember when we began the book with my discovery that Irish pubs are dead, or at least dying? Well, you can’t really tell that to Mel. He’s helped build, or rebuild, 1,500 of them all around the world, exporting Irish culture to every corner of the planet along the way. He’s a master of rescuing bars, and spreading all the things we are writing about — branding, space, charm — to the world. So I had to make a pilgrimage to his homeland (and mine) and learn what I could from the master.
This is excerpt 4 of The Barstool MBA: Why Running a Bar Beats Running to Business School. Click here to read the other excerpts.
When I met Mel, he had just flown back from working on site at a project in Liverpool. He was also managing design of one new pub in Moscow, and another in Malta. Irish pubs aren’t dead, but they are changing, he says quite confidently.
I had heard of Mel years ago, when my investigation into Irish bars began. He has sort of invented software for bars. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. Go to Mel’s website, pick “Country Style,” or “Shop style” or “Victorian style,” enter a credit card, and Boom – an Irish pubs lands at your site. (It’s a bit more complex.) Every pub owner I talked to knew of him, and had a mixture of admiration and misgiving about him. But his track record is undeniable. I spent a good year chasing after him, trying to pin him down for an in-Ireland interview to learn his secrets. It wasn’t easy pinning down a man who flies around the world constantly building bars. But the timing finally worked out, and I made my way to the Sandyford Industrial Park, about half an hour outside Dublin, where Mel makes the Legos that get shipped overseas and assembled into places of fun and music.
Mel fully concedes that Irish pubs have to change. The firm’s new motto is “Taking the best of pub culture and integrating it with trends of today.” That means TVs. And sports. But if it’s done well, says Mel, there’s one large TV for big events…one that can be hidden much of the time. It means craft beers and other non-Guinness drinks. But it also means holding onto the critical elements that have made Irish pubs places of comfort all around the world. Pubs are the kind of bar where everyone, people of all ages, people looking for all kinds of fun, are welcome, and that is no accident.
Pubs are still a place of chatting, of craic, as we discussed early. And Mel is convinced that the key to the craic is the space. Or rather, the spaces. When he graduated from school with an architecture degree, he used an extensive paper he’d written on Irish pub design as the basis for his company. His research showed that the critical element in pubs was the “snug.” That’s a small area away from the crowd where people can take a more intimate chat. A good Irish bar doesn’t have just one. It has dozens. Pubs in Dublin are like labyrinths; walk through a big one, and it can feel a bit like a casino. Where’s the exit? There might be several floors, a room for shows in the basement, a table in the back under the stairs. This design serves many functions. No matter how crowded an Irish pub gets, there is still a way to retreat and talk. Soundproofing is part of the design. So are larger and smaller auxiliary bars. In some places, there are so many distinct areas that there can even be several bands playing at once — maybe trad music on the main floor, a band sitting on barstools near the main bar, maybe punk rock in the basement, and a cover band in the main showroom. But somehow, if you bring your parents there for holiday, you’ll be able to eat some Shepard’s pie and talk to a barman without shouting.
Talking is key, too. Mel will tell you that Irish bars serve as a defense against the hard-charging world where everyone stares at their cell phones.
“At some places if you are looking down, you’re going to get a lot of slag,” he says, chuckling. Slag is Irish slang for sarcastic teasing. Some take things more seriously. Mel put me on to a bar in Cork where the bartender is famous for getting frustrated with patrons, grabbing their phones, and throwing them into the wall. It’s no joke, though some folks now bring an old phone to the bar with the intention of having it “taken” and destroyed, for fun.
As with every story, the better story is often the after story. So, here’s that.
Just to end the story. Before I left McNally in Sandyford, I asked him the most obvious question ever: Where’s your favorite pub? Harbour Bar in Bray, he tells me. It’s just a train ride away, on the coast, looking out at Dublin Bay. Naturally, I had to visit.
Harbour Bar is an old, old pub that has a new owner who’s made a few changes — like new beers — but otherwise left well enough alone. It’s a marvelous place. There’s a small boat on the roof that you can see from the train, beckoning weary commuters to stop in for one on their way home, and perhaps stay for the music. So, it’s easy to find. Walk inside, you’ll quickly spot a snug that looks like a grandmother’s living room. Another is behind a fully closed door, for obviously very private discussions. You can sit outside with your pint and your dog and smell the sea air. Or you can go upstairs, which looks like your crazy uncle’s bachelor pad; crammed with knick knacks like a wall full of sarcastic pope pictures. I got the grand tour only because as I sat on a stool on a quiet Monday afternoon — I ordered a pint at the earliest respectable hour, perhaps 1 p.m. — and a lovely older couple sitting next to me chatted me up. He spent his life at sea, now retired. She said all those long journeys helped their marriage. We laughed and bought each other a round. They quized me about my Irish heritage. Oh, she has family in Connecticut. Then they ask how I came to be in Bray that day. I start to tell them about this amazing architect I came to interview.
“Oh, Mel McNally,” Ann says. “He’s my cousin.”
We spend the next four hours drinking and talking.
Only in Ireland. I spend a year trying to get just a few minutes with a man and then walk right into his relations at a pub.
Some things shouldn’t change. I’m proud to say Dan hasn’t been able to take away my Celtic-infused romantic vision after all.