Train-watching (aka ‘railfanning’) men and plane-watching men are synonymous with England, men who (allegedly) stare at goats synonymous with America; however, in Ireland if one looks in the right places you can find the men who stare at beer! I recently witnessed an animated conversation between two men that sparked my attention and got me thinking about these beer gazers. The conversation I witnessed brought to my mind a quintessential image associated with old Irish pubs: a lone man sitting at the bar or small table staring into a cold pint of beer or stout. Usually this man is silent and still, occasionally he might throw a comment or two to the bar man or fellow beer gazer … if he feels obliged or inclined.
The conversation I witnessed went a little like this:
First Man (FM): Why didn’t you go out the other night?
Second Man (SM): Because I had no one to go out with.
FM: What do you mean?
SM: It would have been too late by the time I got to the pub and there wouldn’t have been anyone there I would have known.
FM: Could you not have rang someone and said “Hey are you coming down for a pint?” Or what about ya man Andy? Would he not have been there?
SM: It was too late. It would have been last orders by the time I got there.
FM: Are you telling me that you wouldn’t go into a pub by yourself for a pint?
SM: No, I wouldn’t go into a pub by myself, I would have to meet people there. You can’t just go in by yourself … on your own … I’d have to be meeting others, you know?
FM: WHAT? [total disbelief]… A real man can walk into a pub by himself get a pint and read a paper or just sit at the bar or whatever – A REAL MAN!
Some might describe this conversation as a ‘competitive argument’ (Campbell, 2000: 572). I believe this conversational excerpt offers huge insight into these two men’s constructs of masculinity, and reveals something about the men who stare at beer. Both of these men are Irish and both are professionals, however, the First Man (FM) is older than the Second Man (SM) by about ten years. The FM appears to have a very clear and distinct idea of what a ‘real’ man is – his idea is traditional and one that conforms to normative hegemonic ideals. Such a man is strong, independent and confident, he can go anywhere he pleases by himself – he doesn’t need handholding or the support of others.
According to the FM, a real man is really a lone wolf; he is autonomous and can do difficult things on his own … like drinking beer or reading a paper! The FM’s comments serve to question and undermine the legitimacy of the SM’s masculinity; the FM implies that the SM is not a real man. The SM does not challenge the FM’s views, and takes a subordinate stance. The SM although being a confident and outgoing person, for whatever reason, would not enter a pub by himself. Without being able to ask the SM, it’s difficult to speculate why this is. He may be a ‘sociable drinker’ as we refer to it in Ireland, preferring the company of others when drinking or he may ascribe to a different masculine construct. The SM appears to have a very clear distinct view that pubs are not places for lone individuals, especially when you are not a regular of the pub. The pub domain can be an intimidating place; anyone who has ever walked into an Irish pub (especially a rural one) and had the entire pub turn on their bar stools and stare at you will understand completely!
The above conversation reveals much about the everyday gendered interplay between men, and demonstrates the hierarchical nature of masculinity and how hegemony asserts its power. This conversation is an example of what Hugh Campbell (2000: 565) refers to as ‘conversational cockfighting’, where men try and assert dominance over each other using verbal exchanges, wit and specialized local knowledge. The FM’s comments illustrate the culturally embedded association between masculinity and the pub, and offer some understanding of the men who stare at beer.
The men who stare at beer, are possibly not just staring at beer, they are publically displaying a specific type of masculinity. They are pub performers in a sense. This masculine construct historically distilled in Irish pubs is often referred to as ‘traditional masculinity’. This masculinity is hardened, solitary and free from the influence of women. In compiling an oral history of Irish pubs, Kevin Kearns interviewed many Irish men with this type of masculine construct. Kearns (1996: 40) states that Irish pubs were the ‘last bastion of male supremacy’, and that many [older] Irish men (crusty old regulars as Kearns calls them) regarded the pub as a ‘holy ground’. One man described the social rules of the pub to Kearns in the following way ‘it was a sort of religion among the men that a woman wouldn’t be seen in a bar’ (John Greenhalgh, age 82, In: Kearns, 1996: 40).
The men who stare at beer are remnants of a bye-gone era, where pubs were strictly masculine in domain. The pub was mythologized as a sacred space and this ‘holy ground’ served to exclude women and legitimize men’s hegemony. The SM from the conversation above is not a beer gazer, and his comments serve to demonstrate a noticeable cultural shift among younger Irish men. Younger Irish men are less likely to be beer gazers than older men. This shift may be subtle but does indicate a move away from traditional masculine constructs toward a more contemporary inclusive masculinity. Some might say that young Irish men are less likely to be beer gazers and rather beer guzzlers, but that’s a separate blog altogether!
Campbell, H. (2000) ‘The Glass Phallus: Pub(lic) Masculinity and Drinking in Rural New Zealand’, Rural Sociology, 65(4), pp. 562-581.
Kearns, K.C. (1996) Dublin Pub Life and Lore – An Oral History, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
Clay is a PhD Candidate at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin. You can read more blogs by Clay at http://www.irishsociologyblog.com/blog