The History of Pubs - The Urban Menu
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The History of Pubs
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The History of Pubs 

Last month we talked about the history of beer and various types of beer, this time let’s talk a bit about the history of pubs

Like most things in the western world, the roots of the pub can be traced back to the Romans. As the Roman Empire expanded into Celtic Europe they built roads to make it easier for their armies and merchants and colonists to travel. On these roads, every 20 miles or so, there would be a “Tabernae”…or “Tavern”. All cultures prior to the Romans had drinking establishments, but this is the one that most influenced modern Pubs.

These Taverns were a lot like hostels where one could get a square meal, a night’s rest, and enjoy the company of others.  Roman taverns were established in mostly rural areas but as the economy diversified and farming became more specialized, there were a lot of people not growing their own food, so the need for a place where people could eat outside of the home arose. Taverns were initially intended for travelers, but if villages or cities sprung up around the tavern, locals would adopt them as a third place apart from home and work, where they could go to discuss politics, farming, business and family life. 

history of pubs
Photo by drobotdean on Freepik

When the Roman Empire reached the British Isles, they encountered a well-established ale-making culture already in place. Brewing ale was a domestic duty and as such was done in the home primarily by women. This heavily influenced the Roman tavern system and women began to open up their own domestic dwellings as Taverns for weary travelers, especially if their husbands were deceased and they needed a way to make a living. As the Roman Empire collapsed and Roman influence retreated, these taverns evolved into Ale Houses. Ale Houses quickly became a place for community gatherings, socializing and meetings for the common folk. 

Having never been influenced by invading Romans, ancient Ireland independently developed their own tavern-like establishments. In Brehon law (the word “Brehon” refers to the laws of ancient Gaelic culture) of the sixth century, Chieftains were required to have their own “Bruigu”…or “Brewer”. These brewers not only brewed Irish Ale but also ran hostels that followed the strict laws of Gaelic hospitality. The Bruidean (Bruidean is usually translated as “hostel”) had to be open 24 hours a day, have torch bearers so that travelers would always be greeted with a warm welcome, and have food and drink at the ready.  From these early Taverns and Alehouses evolved the “Public House” in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and later commonly referred to a shortened version of the name…the “Pub.”

By 1760, there were 2,300 public houses in Dublin, a city which became famous for its public houses and their colorful names. Most people during that time period were illiterate, so pubs were identified by the bright symbols on their signs that would eventually become their names. Names like The Flying Horse, The Sots Hole, Three Candlesticks and the Blue Leg. The public house was designed as a place where the common man could enjoy the local community and get a drink. The poor classes, which made up a majority of the people in Dublin, couldn’t afford the private clubs that the upper class frequented. Each pub would acquire their own regular clientele who would affectionately call the pub their “local”. Pubs would have a reputation for attracting certain groups like tradesmen, poets, politicians, businessmen and revolutionaries.

History of pubs
Photo by on Freepik

Between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million Irish immigrated to the United State due to the Great Hunger, with many more to follow in the coming decades. The United States already had an established pub and tavern industry that dated back to the very beginning of the colonies, when public houses doubled as meeting halls and court houses due to the complete lack of actual government infrastructure. Eventually the Revolutionary War would be sparked in conversations held in Boston Taverns.  When Irish immigrants arrived in the United States they were often told to go straight to the local “Irish Pub”. Their fellow Irish immigrants could help them settle, find work or locate family members. The Irish pub in the United States was just as much a center of community, and oftentimes it was a way to connect with the culture of Ireland and a lifeline back home. Irish immigrants opened pubs in Boston, Chicago, NYC…all over the United States and eventually all over the world.

Like everything in history, the evolution of the pub wasn’t always pretty. Women were not allowed in Irish pubs for a very long time with the exception of female street vendors that earned their spot at the bar. Eventually lounges were put in the back of bars for couples and finally women were allowed in all together. There were periods of time when pubs were known for their drunken debauchery, criminal elements and working men spending all their wages on drink… but a great modern pub that has withstood the test of time is a distillation of all the great aspects of past pubs.

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