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Fri, Mar 15, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Asia seems to be in love with everything Irish

AFP , HONG KONG

With a pint of Guinness on his lips, rock band U2 in his ears and rugby to watch on the TV screen, Irishman Gareth Lennon could be forgiven for feeling at home in Delaney's bar.

Yet, after he slurps the last of his black stuff and heads for the door, Lennon will find himself not on the breezy streets of Dublin, but in the steaming heart of Wan Chai -- Hong Kong's legendary night-club district, lit by neon lights and the fluorescent glare of late-night noodle shops.

Across the region, thousands of Lennon's countrymen will this weekend be raising a glass of stout to celebrate Irish national holiday St Patrick's Day in similar bars from Bangkok to Beijing -- the sheer quantity of which seem to indicate Asia's unquenchable thirst for all things Gaelic.

For, while traditional colonists such as Britain and France have spent hundreds of years and squandered countless lives to secure unsteady footholds throughout Asia, Ireland has seemingly achieved its own mini-empire with a few barrels of booze and a disarming brand of folk music.

In Hong Kong alone there are no less than four Irish-themed pubs with two more set to open in the coming months -- a trend reflected in many neighboring countries.

At least half-a-dozen pubs attempt to recreate a slice of the Emerald Isle in Beijing and Shanghai, while bars in Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Singapore and almost every Australian city all have a crack at recreating the "craic" -- Irish for alcohol-related revelry.

This recreation is attempted with varying degrees of success.

Shanghai's O'Malley's bar lovingly mimics a rural Irish pub from the roaring log fire to the imported roadsigns pointing the way to Dublin.

But on the Thai holiday island of Koh Phi Phi, Jordan's Irish Bar, with its pumping reggae and sand-covered floor, is about as Irish as spicy papaya salad.

What they both have in common is a never-ending supply of drinkers who, for whatever reason, are willing to suspend disbelief long enough to soak up the atmosphere often provided by nothing more than a roomful of distinctly sham shamrocks.

Lennon, who earns his Guinness money working as a China-based market researcher, believes the enduring appeal of Irish bars can largely be attributed to their lack of originality.

"They have developed a reputation of giving a constant product. Wherever you are in the world, there's usually an Irish bar, people know what they're getting -- a little piece of Ireland," he said.

"They seem to create a relaxed atmosphere where people can enjoy a comfortable drink, have a chat and relax and that usually makes for an enjoyable evening.

"Ireland is a small country, people often associate it with having a good time and no-one feels threatened."

According to Delaney's spokesman Paddy Foley, the bars largely thrive thanks to another successful Irish export -- Irish people.

"They have always been a place where a lot of travellers like to visit. They arrive in a strange town, head for the Irish pub, have a relaxing drink, meet people, maybe find out about jobs or just have a chat with a few boys from back home.

"Only about 20 percent of our clientele are locals, who probably don't understand the pub culture. But we have always had a large following among Irish and other expats."

Not everyone is a fan, however. In a world where, according to the makers of Guinness, an Irish bar opens every single day, Australian travel writer Andrew Mueller has encountered one too many.

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