Irish bars adapt to excel in Madrid

MADRID -- Irish bars are not just for St. Patrick's Day and Brits living abroad. Irish bars are dominating Madrid's bar scene, filling up nightly, even in a time of high unemployment and recession.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID--Where can you go where everybody knows your name--in Spanish and English and maybe Irish or Gaelic? An Irish pub in Madrid, that's where.

Most of Madrid's cervecerias only feature the Spanish football (soccer) games at night, filling with customers just from 8 to 10 p.m. It is Madrid's nearly 50 Irish bars that are leading the reinvention of the Spanish hospitality industry, in order to attract a more steady and diverse customer base. They fill their bars night after night by offering flexible entertainment, international sports, live music with no cover charges, diverse menus, and, of course, a wider selection of beer.

"I think the attraction of Irish pubs for new ex-pat customers is the familiarity, the social network of other ex-pats, and the chance to socialize with Spanish people in a supportive atmosphere," said Wendy Goebey, part-owner of Triskel Tavern in the Malasaña barrio. "The attraction for Spaniards is that they are familiar with the pub concept from traveling to the UK and Ireland, and (it is) a chance to practice their English."

Brendan Murphy has been with the Irish Rover, one of the two biggest pubs in Madrid located near the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, since its opening 16 years ago. He says that, back almost 100 years, pubs were places to meet, "the Internet of the time," where people went to be informed. Now, "in a virtual world, it's very important to maintain physical contact with people."

Murphy says that Irish bars were instantly successful in Madrid because they filled a need for a meeting place as an alternative to "caña-hopping" at brightly-lit, stainless steel, noisy cervecerias, which often feature cacophonies of television, music and slot machines. Over the years, Irish bars were easily-filled because of this demand for a bar with soft-lighting, where people can sit down for a pint and a chat. "Because Spanish people like to talk. A lot. At the same time," Murphy said.

"I was once told by a Spaniard that the secret of success of Irish pubs was a mix of good music, better lighting, a cozy warm atmosphere and the people," Goebey said. "Whilst good long-term staff are important to the success of the bar and its continuity, the customers themselves are the making of a good pub."

In the nineties, Murphy said Irish pubs did not have to work to attract customers. "People just went out, with much more disposable income." Then, that first generation of Spanish who frequented Irish pubs starting buying homes and having kids, going out less. He speaks of how the Internet and home theaters joined Spain's first pizza delivery companies in making it easier and obviously cheaper to spend an evening at home. More recently, Murphy says that anti-drunk-driving laws and last year's smoking ban have also contributed to the Spanish changing their socializing customs. This is, of course, compounded by the economic crisis.

"People can't afford to go out and spend 30, 40 or 50 euros. Most people (living in Madrid) are earning 1,000 euros a month, spending sometimes half that on rent, with only 100 to 150 euros a month for leisure," Murphy said.

As a result of these external changes, the hospitality industry has to be more creative to attract customers. One of the biggest draws are the sports. Typically, Irish bars in Madrid have digital TVs where they still play popular Spanish matches, as well as rugby, football, and International Fighting Championships, from around the world. Depending on the night, even American football and baseball games can be on.

It is no secret that the Spanish have some of the lowest English levels in the European Union. Many Spaniards use Irish bars as a more relaxed way of practicing English, whether it is at a specialty night or just chatting with bilingual bartenders. Most Irish taverns have the British pub staple--the trivia quiz night. Almost all feature a weekly intercambio language exchange. The very popular O'Neill's Tavern, near the tourist center of Puerta del Sol, has an intercambio that attracts more than 50 customers a night from dozens of different countries.

Triskel Tavern has Thirsty Thursdays, where musicians and sometimes comedians and poets gather in the basement for an open mic. The Irish Rover features live bands, with no cover charge. It also is the location of Madrid's monthly Tweet-Up group. Both bars also have the flexibility to host private parties.

There is no doubt that creativity and adaptability are the secrets to success in this economic climate, ideals which Irish bars in Madrid clearly embrace. Plus, offering pints of Guinness cannot hurt either.

Photo: Brendan Murphy (Murphy has the mustache.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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