O’Dowd’s Little Dublin. The Kilkenny. The Galway Hooker. Flaherty’s. You may never have been to one of these establishments, but you can probably guess what they look like. Hefty wooden bar. Guinness on tap. Not-so-subtle references to the motherland.
That’s because each of these Irish pubs—located respectively in Kansas City, Missouri; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Cornelius, North Carolina; and Morton, Illinois—were all designed by the same company: the Irish Pub Company. For the past 27 years, the Dublin-based firm has exported the architecture and interior design of Irish pubs, the social heart of any Irish town, all over the world.
The company was founded by an architect—Mel McNally—who spent a year traveling around to Ireland’s greatest pubs and cataloging how each one created an unmistakable ambience through space and interior details. He then codified his findings, which entrepreneurs anywhere in the world can pay to have resurrected. In 1990, McNally partnered with Guinness, and within five years had taken Irish drinking culture global.
Earlier this month, Eater looked at the booming business McNally has built by exporting his research. We spoke to him about what it’s like to be a pub designer—and the challenges of building authenticity and nuance into a space that often falls victim to cliché.
It’s A Formula, But A Customizable Formula
Like a designer of prefab or modular housing, McNally is attempting to balance a plug-and-play approach to design with customization. He leads a team of 15 Irish designers, who usually work on producing seven or eight pubs at once. “What we need to create is something that brings you out, that you want to go out and meet other people. The design needs to be quirky and a bit of a surprise, while retaining its freshness and authenticity,” he says. “That’s the success of an Irish pub.”
Aspiring pub owners can choose from six templates: There’s the classic Country style, the traditional Celtic style, the historic Brewery style, the flexible Shop style, the more modern Victorian style, and a contemporary gastropub iteration—and customers are free to mix and match. Victorian-style pubs generally use hardwoods such as oak, mahogany, or teak, while Shop-style pubs often use an American pine to give the bar a more distressed look. While operating within each thematic scheme, each pub that the Irish Pub Company designs is entirely based on budget and space restrictions, even if it might feel the same, whether you’re in Argentina, Australia, or Taiwan.
“We have a toolbox in our head—things that we know that work,” McNally says. “Even if it’s a semi-futuristic Irish pub, we still have the rule of thumb, the proper balance of the bar, the gathering space, the private space.”
When A Bar Has “Presence”
McNally seems to have a sixth sense for atmosphere—a relatively intangible aspect of design that can be tough to gauge in different cultures and cities.
The first thing he notes is the bar: “Does it have presence? Does it say to you, ‘you’re welcome’?” The bar is the centerpiece of each space—almost like the hearth space in a home—and McNally says it should be the first thing you see when you walk in. It should also be visible from most of the establishment, and there should be enough space around it to encourage movement and accessibility—while also encouraging people to stand and mingle.
“The bar is what makes the pub, really,” McNally says. “It’s like an altar.”
Exporting A Culture
Though McNally’s company has built hundreds of pubs in places like Sweden, India, Kurdistan, China, Canada, and Bermuda, the company sees authenticity as a linchpin of its business. “Just like the Italians are good at food, the Irish are the best at serving drink and pub culture,” McNally says. “We’re bringing that culture authentically to the world.”
Most of the interior elements of the Irish Pub Company’s designs, from the furniture to the art, are sourced directly from Ireland—unlike some of the company’s competitors, who promise to create a similar atmosphere cheaper and faster. This means that some of the more conspicuous symbols of Irish culture—at least outside of Ireland—are absent in its designs. There are no shamrocks, and no cheesy Celtic typefaces. “It’s not a true representation of Ireland,” says Darren Fagan, who manages all of the company’s North America projects. “But your generic Irish pub will use the shamrock, will use Celtic fonts. They actually miss the point. They just fixate on things that are Irish, and then call it an Irish pub.”
The company also tries to keep local culture in mind wherever it’s building. Right now, it’s working on one for the Mauritius airport. “We’re an island people, so we had an affinity with them in terms of design,” McNally says. “We brought in some of the imagery of the west of Ireland. There isn’t a huge difference between young people in Mauritius as those in Ireland.”
Of course, Irish pubs aren’t the hippest spot to be on a Saturday night, especially for many millennials, who would rather stay in and watch Netflix than go out. That, too, is something the Irish Pub Company is working on. “Their perception of an Irish pub is as an old person’s place,” Fagan says. “We have to make it more modern. There’s a romantic connection to what Ireland is, but it’s never really seen as a metropolitan, vibrant culture.”