by John Sepulvado
At one point, just before 5:59 pm, the cobblestone on Quay Street in Galway completely disappeared. About five hundred people, mostly young adults, had come to the town’s center to toast Arthur Guinness. Despite rain driven by a fierce wind from the bay, these young pub-goers danced, flung plastic cups of Guinness on each other, and climbed street signs.
Twenty-year-old Stephen Hines came with a group of friends to hear music and knock a few pints back.
“We’ve been drinking a lot of Guinness, a lot of other drinks too,” Hines says.. “The Irish being drunk, and Guinness…Everything kind of goes together today.”
Hines says he started drinking Guinness regularly after last year’s Arthur’s Day celebration.
And that’s exactly why Guinness launched Arthur’s Day in 2009.
Just a few years ago, Guinness sales were falling. Specific figures aren’t available. The company that owns Guinness, U.K. spirits giant Diaego, doesn’t make those figures public. But over the past 7 years, about one in three Irish pub-goers started staying home to drink, according to the pub-association group, Vinter’s Federation Ireland.
That was bad news for the famous Irish stout, because Guinness, perhaps more than any other beer, is associated with the pub.
Meanwhile, many bartenders say the remaining patrons started switching to heavily marketed trendier drinks, like flavored malts and ciders.
The perception was that old men ordered Guinness.
“But everybody drinks Guinness nowadays,” says Galway bartender Craig Monaghan. He attributes the uptick in sales to marketing.Back in the day, Monaghan says, Guinness was sold almost as a health tonic with the old slogan: Guinness is Good for You.
“But nowadays,” Monaghan explains, “it’s more of a party drink, it’s connected with a lot of sporting events, you know, and gigs like Arthur’s Day, and music. I suppose they’re trying to make it a little bit more current, and I think it has worked.”
Arthur’s Day has been a big part of the re-branding effort. By inventing the celebration, marketing it heavily, offering live musical acts and discounted product to pubs that participate, Diaego solved two problems: They got people back in the pubs, while changing the perception that Guinness is for old people.
Fergal Murray is the Guinness Global Brand Ambassador. He says the corporate sponsored celebration has also been a boon for Irish pubs.
“Pubs do, they love this opportunity,” Murray says. “Music events, it brings people to their pubs, I mean they have to think about it as an opportunity that they can grow their business, grow their reputation as well.”
Arthur’s Day falls five months before St. Patrick’s Day, a traditionally slow period for pubs. Yet, Vinter’s Federation Ireland President Gerry Rafter, has mixed feelings about Guinness’ promotion of Arthur’s Day.
“Certainly, I have to give [Diaego] credit for Arthur’s Day,” Rafter says. “But one swallow won’t make a summer.”
Rafter wants Diaego to expand the marketing into rural communities and pubs, who he says are suffering disproportionately in the recession.
Rafter also says Arthur’s Day is a symbol of what’s happened to Irish pub culture: That the Irish used to go to pubs to meet other people, but now pubs have to create events to lure customers.
It might make for louder and rowdier pubs, and it can be a burden on pub-owners, who now have to be more creative in making events.
But Rafter says, it’s better that the pub culture change than die out.