Huddled in Chicago’s neon-scarred River North tourist district, Fadò Irish Pub desperately strains to pass for one of those quaint public houses common to postcards from the Old Sod. Its brightly painted façade, Celtic-lettered signage, and gimcrack-cluttered windows practically creak from the effort to project authenticity. The doorman who checks IDs typically has a brogue. All for naught, alas. None of these cosmetic touches can hide the fact Fadò stands three stories tall, a height completely unbecoming for a humble Irish pub. Such bulk is more in the league of Fadò’s neighbors the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe.
Fadò—Gaelic for “long ago” and pronounced F’doe—is the history of Ireland as Disney would “imagineer” it: the past as a preindustrial idyll full of familiar, entertaining, and edifying scenery—with anything that might offend or trouble painstakingly excised. There are no paintings of Cromwell’s butchery at Drogheda or reenactments of the Great Potato Famine here; indeed nothing in Fadò explicitly indicates that for eight centuries Éire was occupied and often brutally exploited by the hated Saxon. None of that bummer blarney! The prime mover behind the bar is Guinness Brewing—which is in fact a British company, part of the London-based conglomerate Diageo, which also owns Burger King, Pillsbury, and United Distillers & Vintners—so it probably sees little advantage in exhuming such unpleasant facts. Fadò would rather plunder the breadth of Irish history, from the Stone Age through the early twentieth century, to fabricate a pastiche past in which lighthearted bogtrotters worked hard, prayed hard, drank hard, sang songs, and bought quaint things with nary a grumble about their lot.
The past-as-playground rendition of Irish history unfolds as soon as you step inside. At the entrance a fake dolmen—a table-like megalith prehistoric Irelanders would raise for the honored dead—towers over you. From there the ground level is split into three rooms supposedly representative of different eras in Irish history. First up is the Gaelic pub. Here you’re to sip your pint, meditate on the murals decorating the light wood walls, and reach spiritual communion with the fun-loving Goidelic Celts who conquered Ireland around 500 B.C. and sang beautiful ballads when they weren’t seizing slaves. A row of semi-secluded wooden tables, calculatedly rough-hewn, clings to the east wall.
Off to one side a seven-foot-high Celtic cross stands on an altar table.
Moving on, customers enter the stone-walled Cottage Industries pub, which absurdly celebrates the subsistence economy of nineteenth century rural Ireland. To commemorate that era of famine and want, Fadò has decorated the room with the now-quaint workaday implements of an economy that broke backs and drove hundreds of thousands to board ships for the perilous passage to Amerikay. A loom hangs from the ceiling; elsewhere can be found a spinning wheel, a butter churn, a wash stand, farm tools, seed bags, and a collection of buckets and bottles.
A weathered “currach”—the dinghy-like fishing boat still used in the west of Ireland (at least when there are tourists about)—hangs over the stairwell leading to the “Land of Saints and Scholars” mezzanine. This space is modeled after the ship in which St. Brendan allegedly sailed to America during the sixth century; a mural of a sea monster rending Brendan’s vessel is splashed across the ceiling. Off to one side a seven-foot-high Celtic cross stands on an altar table. Painted icons of Saints Brendan, Columcille, and Finian stare out from the walls. It’s like drinking in church.
The north end of the third story is devoted to the “Dublin Victorian Pub,” which celebrates the queen whose reign saw the Great Famine, two crushed insurrections, and the “dynamite campaign” in England—with luxurious dark woods, velvet curtains, and beveled glass. The area is dominated by a hundred-year-old, forty-piece bar shipped over from Ireland. Off to the sides are “snugs,” the intimate booths favored by Irish characters and conspirators alike. A formidable collection of antique barrel taps hangs on the east wall.
Mixed with a few pints, these surroundings are intended to create what the Irish—and especially the marketers of Irishness—call craic (pronounced “crack”), a Gaelic word for a convivial atmosphere. Unfortunately, conversation is usually impossible because the sound system is unbearably loud, recycling the same tired hit-list of every pop sensation with even the faintest ties to Erin. Gaelicity assaults from all sides, making cogitation of any sort a futile endeavor. But the politicos, traveling businessmen, and young executives who jam the place don’t seem to mind; they simply jostle and holler as if they were in a sports bar.
People choose to visit Fadò for the same reason they go to its theme-restaurant neighbors: They want to be immersed in an entertaining fantasy. The Rock and the Planet provide an escape into the world of celebrity; the Rainforest indulges a fashionable consumerist eco-politics; Fadò offers a portal into white exoticism. It’s a fantasy Chicago has always done well. Consider the blues bar, long a fixture on Chicago’s must-do tourist circuit and a virtual emporium of the exotic, even though you’re more likely to share your table with a howling fratboy or glassy-eyed management consultant than a hard-bitten migrant from the Delta. A place like Fadò, on the other hand, affords the white American thrill-seeker an opportunity to wallow in maudlin sentimentality and exult in the illicit passions of a subaltern minority without embarrassing reminders of his own place in history—that is to say, with out thinking about race. Ireland and Irishness fit such a need perfectly. Not only for the more than forty million Americans who claim at least a wee bit of Irish blood, but for Celtophiles who see the Emerald Isle and its people as embodiments of old-fashioned clannishness and underdog pluck.
Irishness sells to Americans because it represents authenticity and tradition in an often depressingly transient and hollow culture.
Irishness certainly is a desirable commodity. Once content to be Irish only on St. Patrick’s Day, with all its antics, speechifying, and moronic uses of the color green, Americans—white ones, anyway—now demand more high-minded representations of the Gael. The culture industry has obliged. Michael Flatley has danced, live and on video with prerecorded taps, into the hearts of millions in the bombastic “Lord of the Dance.” The New Age Celtic strains of the various Titanic soundtracks have served as background music for dinner parties coast to coast. Audiences have adored Edward Burns as the sexy bohemian with a heart of family values in The Brothers McMullen, and cried along with Matt Damon’s sexy, two-fisted supergenius in Good Will Hunting. Frank McCourt’s memoir of hunger in New York and Ireland, Angela’s Ashes, won a Pulitzer and prompted an ill-considered second act by his brother Malachy. More is on the way: A sequel to Angela’s Ashes and a film treatment are in the works.
Marie Antoinette and her attendants played at being peasants; bored nineteenth century English gentlemen idealized the sensuousness of Italy; Irishness sells to Americans because it represents authenticity and tradition in an often depressingly transient and hollow culture. Religion and faith are untroubled parts of “Irish” lives. Family bonds are strong. Neighbors know and help each other. Work is valued but so is play. Song and dance are in their blood—you saw how those paddies got down in the Titanic’s steerage! Good conversation and a sly, authority-tweaking humor spring naturally from their lips. This perception is nothing new: It was part of the vision of nineteenth century Irish romantic nationalism and has been propagated ever since by the entertainment industry and the Irish Tourist Board. Only nowadays, deep-pocketed marketers have the latest in demographic marketing tools and segmentation strategies to cram this vision down our throats.
The accepted narrative of the Irish experience in America also bolsters the ideological foundation of the increasingly conservative body politic. In the New World the Irish contended with bigotry and slaved at menial jobs, but by dint of hard work overcame all obstacles and assimilated into the respectable life of the suburbs and office cubicles. This myth of Irish advancement omits such important factors as political cronyism, the munificence of the New Deal, and the expansion of government, but it does promote self-satisfaction among white folks. If they could make it, the thinking goes, so can anyone. Unspoken but always understood is the contrast of the Irish narrative with that of the other major, if more threatening, exotic group in the United States: African-Americans. The historic travails of the two groups are often compared, and audiences everywhere nodded when a character in the 1991 film The Commitments, which told the story of an aspiring Dublin soul band, announced that the Irish were “the blacks of Europe.” Of course, at some point the Irish in America “became white,” in the words of Noel Ignatiev, but that doesn’t figure in the story craic peddlers want to tell.
Beneath its folksy Hibernian veneer, Fadò is a cog in a global marketing strategy engineered by Guinness Brewing. Looking to boost sales of its renowned stout, the brewer has orchestrated an alliance of designers, developers, investors and marketers in the mass production of a supposedly quintessential Irish institution: the pub.
In the late eighties, Guinness noticed that Irish investors were making a killing with home-style pubs in France and Germany. Hungry to build its international market share, the brewer decided to get a piece of the Irish pub’s new international vogue and create just the right atmosphere to coax skeptical foreign customers, Italian and Estonian alike, to ramp up their consumption of the strange black liquid. Guinness gave a name to its globe-spanning sales strategy: the Irish Pub Concept.
Putting out feelers, Irish Pub initially encountered skepticism, partly because Irish bars had a bad rap in the States.
Guinness then started rounding up accomplices. It tapped chefs to design menus, hired recruiters to find appropriately accented bar staff, and commissioned the Irish Pub Company—a newly created subsidiary of Dublin-based McNally Design Group, an international planner and builder of restaurants, hotels, bowling alleys, and discos—to create cookie-cutter pub patterns. Irish Pub architects and researchers spent months visiting hundreds of pubs in Ireland, analyzing and cataloging such minutiae as joinery details and floor finishes, all to quantify the essence of an Irish pub.
Reasoning that it didn’t make sense to get its hands dirty in the bar business, Guinness began searching for outside investors and developers. Working with Irish Pub, the brewer began pitching the idea to venture capitalists in Europe and beyond. Before long pubs started springing up in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, in cities from Dublin to Hong Kong.
Guinness and its partners waited until 1995 before casting a cold eye across the western ocean to the world’s largest beer market, the United States. Putting out feelers, Irish Pub initially encountered skepticism, partly because Irish bars had a bad rap in the States, where they’re often seen either as cheesy fratboy hangouts or nondescript dives that drew illegal immigrants and IRA supporters. In fact, Irish Pub had to put up money for a showcase pub before it finally struck a deal with a group of Irish and American investors called Fadò Irish Pub Company. The first bar-named Fadò—opened in Atlanta in January 1996 and before long became one of the country’s leading draft sales outlets for Guinness stout and Harp lager. The other investors soon bought out Irish Pub Company’s stake in the bar.
The designer chose Atlanta as its first site to demonstrate that a city doesn’t need a large Irish population to support its establishments. Irish culture had a strong appeal among young professionals, tourists, and conventioneers of all backgrounds, and the Atlanta bar proved it. Encouraged by the Atlanta bar’s success, investors have since opened twenty bars in the United States designed by Irish Pub. Fadò Irish Pub itself has gone on to open eponymous establishments in Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; and Cleveland. The Chicago bar opened its doors in November 1997. Guinness claims it has opened more than fourteen hundred Irish Pub Concept bars around the world.
Nevertheless, sales growth of Guinness stout has lagged behind that of other global brands, and the brewer now pins its hopes on expanding its market share in the United States. Irish Pub Concept establishments figure to be a significant part of Guinness’s marketing effort. The brewer envisions about four hundred such bars opening in major and smaller cities; Irish Pub alone hopes to open a hundred establishments in the United States over the next five years and it continues to hunt for new partners.
As novel as the Irish Pub Concept may seem, it follows in the footsteps of a recent and rather unfortunate cultural phenomenon: the theme restaurant, two or three of which seem to occupy every block in River North, thanks to the tireless “vision” of Chicago entrepreneur Rich Melman. Melman got his start in the early seventies, one of a few savvy restaurateurs who recognized that, in a culture saturated by the entertainment industry and electronic media, there was money to be made by injecting elements of theater and carnival into “the dining experience.” He opened his first establishment, R. J. Grunt’s, in 1971. Grunt’s offered an offbeat, casual vibe with its hanging plants, modern art, and that definitive gustatory innovation of the decade: the salad bar. Catering to the groovy young singles then gentrifying the Lincoln Park neighborhood, the place was a hit.
The Fadò staff proudly boast how the chairs you sit on, the bar you lean on, and the floors you tread upon all were made in Ireland.
Thirty years ago restaurants typically needed only to be clean and serve decent food to make a buck. Now it’s difficult to find a restaurant not animated by an entertainment concept. While it’s true that some of the high-end theme chains—Fashion Cafe and the Rainforest Cafe, for example—have hit a wall (mostly because they served lousy food), entertainment still has become a standard of the eatery industry in the post-Melman universe. When people step into a restaurant, they now expect to enter a different world. Sometimes, of course, that world is one better left in the dustbin of history, as in the case of the popular Chicago restaurant Le Colonial, which sumptuously evokes the languid, sensuous milieu of French Indochina in the twenties, with bamboo fittings, lazy ceiling fans, and sepia-tinted photographs of peasants carrying water, harvesting rice, and hefting a sweating, porcine worthy in a sedan chair. The pictures, one gathers, are the next best thing to staffing the joint with real peons. The self-impressed patrons of Le Colonial would hardly be likely to endorse the viciousness of the French regime in Indochina, and yet the nostalgia for an era of entitlement, deference, and abject servitude dovetails nicely with the leitmotifs of our own time: the polarization of rich and poor, the no excess-is-too-absurd imperative to please that is imposed on service industry employees.
At Fadò, the staff plays along gamely in the bar’s exaggerated effort to convince its customers that they are experiencing something other than a denatured spectacle called into being by transnational investors. They proudly boast how the chairs you sit on, the bar you lean on, and the floors you tread upon all were made in Ireland. The patrons by and large appear to love the contrivance of the bar, and the air is abuzz with them excitedly telling the story of Fadò to friends who are experiencing the craic for the first time. No one really seems to mind, or even acknowledge, the irony that the quaint Irish pub they are drinking in is a very modern creation brought into being by the sort of large conglomerates that are destroying local institutions ranging from the drug store to the butcher shop. Everyone’s too enthralled with the “authenticity” of the Made in Ireland surroundings and the fun of playing at Irishness; on every visit to Fadò I have either heard someone ape a brogue or seen someone break into a half-assed jig.
Where’s the harm in that? Hasn’t Ireland been inundated for decades by millions upon millions of Americans searching for their roots, for the Blarney Stone, for the Book of Kells, for 7 Eccles Street? Millions of long-lost and annoying cousins, boring you with stories about their granny from Kerry and trying out their Hollywood brogues and donning their Aran sweaters and tweed flatcaps. And spending billions of dollars. Moreover, isn’t the “Celtic Tiger,” Ireland’s vaunted high-tech and service-economy boom, the tourist trade writ digital?
Ironically, one gets a sense of the real Ireland’s predicament in Fadò’s recreation of post office/grocery/bar supposedly typical of rural Ireland. A telephone switchboard is set in a corner, and stacked on the shelves are boxes of Jacob’s cream crackers and Oxo cubes, bags of Mosse’s brown bread mix, and jars of Fruitfield marmalade. Adverts for Players cigarettes, Marsh Co.’s biscuits and Wills’s Cut Gold Bar tobacco hang on the walls. The whole room effectively breaks Ireland down into brand names. It’s the way America understands the world these days.
I once saw behind the majestic Victorian mahogany bar two bartenders arguing—Arguing! How wonderfully Irish!—over which artifacts in the pub were authentic antiques and which ones were newly minted and artificially aged impostors. The debate lasted for some time with neither side yielding—another indubitably Irish characteristic. But the disagreement raised a new question: Is Ireland the country doomed forever to live in the shadow of Ireland the brand?