An Evening at the Harcourt

When we hit Dublin it was still raining from the year before. The pastel gray Liffey blended with the faded gray alleyways peppered with foggy people in wrinkled long coats and proficiently ducked heads. Umbrellas were on every street corner. No frowns on crowded O’Connell Street. Hard to tell what evil lurks behind the walls of nearby Dublin Castle, for centuries a symbol of British control.

“The weather here has only been like this since about 300 AD said Richard Kelly, the same man who at the Harcourt bar assured us that the Dublin City Ramblers would perform at nine, ten o’clock at the very latest.

“It’s a week night and the people of Dublin have to work in the morning,” he smiled, embracing a Paddy’s. “Besides, by Irish law the pubs must shut their doors and half past ten.”

We had only arrived that afternoon, after a groggy trip from Denver. The only thing less appetizing than airline food is airline sleep.

“What do you mean you don’t have Cork Gin? What kind of airline is this anyway?”

The taxi ride to Tavistock in Ranelagh was an eye opener as our driver, Brian, covered 2500 years in about 15 kilometers.

“That’s the General Post Office and the Ha’Penny Bridge. There is Steven’s Green and Trinity College, and over there is the eternal flame to the famine victims.”

Everywhere people hurried about, a Saxon city, a Viking city, a Norman city, the Pale…now back in the hands of the ancestors of Repeal, forced emigration, landlordism. The survivors of a terrible potato famine, slow murder by unofficial Parliamentary decree. A place on the landscape.

But we were here to drink pints of Guinness, not dwell on the pains of my ancestors. (“No, I’m not here to find my roots…I’m here to find a good seafood restaurant.”) We stepped into a three-story pub off Parnell Road. We had been coached by the wise…the Dooleys, the Walshes, the Sullivans, the Healys.

“When you’re in Ireland and you’re thirsty, step up to the barman and simply ask for a pint,” they had told us. “You don’t need to say a pint of what. They will know what you’re after, and they will appreciate your knowledge of local custom.

We stood at the bar and were greeted by a red-headed colleen who could have been the Young Ireland poster girl.

“What’ll ya have?” she asked.

“Two pints,” I answered as Tuatha De’ Danainn might have done.

“Of what? was her curt response. It turned out she was an American student, unfamiliar with drinking manners and, as it turned out, much of the noted social curriculum at all.

“Did ye rent the hair too?” Slight disappointment overcome with the arrival of the dark stout. Where is The Gingerman, Sebastian Dangerfield, when we need him?

“Maybe a nap would put us in league with Dublin’s lovely night life,” someone suggested.

By now it was approaching seven and already dark on the shores of the Irish Sea. Strolling with the flow along Grafton we came upon the Harcourt and a sign in the window: “Tonight: The Dublin City Ramblers.

What good fortune. These people put on one hell of a show. I saw them in Boston some years back. What a fitting arrival to Dublin’s fair city.

We walked into the bar and were greeted by soccer on the big screen, (they call the game soccer here so as not to be confused with Irish football, hurling, rugby, or even horse racing, which, along with swilling the Product, makes up the recreational side of this culture.) The pub was full of men in suits who forgot to come home from work that evening. My beautiful companion began receiving offers of marriage right there at the bar.

“I don’t usually do this but in your case I will have to make an exception…”

Then the first of many pints arrived at my thirsty elbow. I acknowledged the gift, raising my glass in the direction of my benefactors.

“My name is Richard,” said the big man to my right, “and this is my mate, Tommy.”

We exchanged the basics, marinated in room temperature Guinness. The duo, with their British accents assured us that the band would begin any moment now. It was 8:30 and the pubs had to close and all.

As it turns out Richard and Tommy were in the British Army together during the 1970 Troubles in Ulster. Both were the off-spring of Irish parents who fled the starvation economics of their own country for better conditions abroad, in this case Liverpool. When the two were old enough the army looked to be the best prospect and they joined. Both volunteered for duty in Derry, a decision that continued to haunt them. Now both lived in Dublin.

“It all makes little sense,” I offered, “to hear you scream Some Say the Devil is Dead with a cockney accent.

As a gentlemen in Rosscarbery would later explain it: “Layers, laddie, layers.”

This cruel Anglo-Irish whirlwind of love and hate.

Finally the band arrived on the stage and played till about 2 am punctuating their rowdy performance with the Irish National Anthem. A Nation Once Again. The two of us got lost by the Grand Canal, going home. It was still raining.


Small Paradise at Castlefreke

The two Americans arrived in idyllic Rosscarbery, once home of patriots O’Donovan Rossa and Michael Collins (born in Clonakilty), after spending the five o’clock hour negotiating the under-construction sidewalks of Cork City. And we never left the car.

West Cork: The beach at Owenahincha. Templebryan, Longstrand, yet another Murphy’s Pub. The castle near Gally Head that Maureen O’Shea neglected to say was there when she sent us out for firewood to go with our processed peat bricks and lamb chops.

“Oh, I’d forgotten. We’ve so many castles and you’re from the States. Sorry, but castles are easier to find than kindling. They’re everywhere! Ignore the trespassing signs. If you’re confronted play dumb. Nobody really cares either way. Yes, I’ll have a wee nip of your Tyrconnell while we negotiate the tariff.”

The Irish forest, tromping through an 11th Century relic of rock and moss, a monster overlooking an expanse of more green and green on top of that. We’ll stay in Rosscarbery a few days, maybe forever.

It was on one of those accompanying nights that we met Timothy Fry, anchored in the doorway of what had been his bachelor abode for the past 65 years. A fine gentleman but a little too responsive to my lovely companion. With a tolerating glance in my direction he suggested Murphy’s at ten “and don’t be late if you’ll be wanting a seat!”

In the Rockies social hour hovers around dusk. Here it doesn’t start until later in the evening. We arrived and saw Mr. Fry seated in a booth. He waved us over. He was a farmer. He awoke every day at five and worked the fields until dark. Then he took his supper and a nap.

“That’s the way to beat the odds,” he smiled. “Then I walk down to Murphy’s for a pint or two before bed. It makes me sleep well.”

We sat in Murphy’s and watched the crowd grow larger, every cap and cane trying to out-animate the other. Pint upon pint, laughter and music. Then I made my first mistake.

When traveling in Ireland one must realize that one is among experts in the field of sacred bedevilment. At a tittered coming of age every Irishman worth his pipe spends at least 80% of his waking hours engaged in the holy obligation of aggravating his mates. It really doesn’t matter what else is accomplished. The art of getting another’s goat falls somewhere between nettled malarkey and playful wrath. It is rampant and I would fall victim to the razor-sharp wit time and again until, hammered mercilessly, I learned to keep quiet.

The fool’s errand: “So, Mr. Fry,” I said scanning my non-existent time piece in charade, “It’s almost midnight. Don’t you think it’s time you got to bed?”

He banged his cane down hard on the bar and a frightened silence invaded the room like muted Viking raiders securing a sneaky beachhead.

“Let me get this straight, lad…” he began, “I’ve been in town for 79 years and you’ve been in town for three days, and you’re setting me bedtime!”

The stares and the shaking heads. Don’t these Yanks have any manners?

Quick thinking on the starboard side.

“I’d like the buy Mr. Fry another pint, please,” I mumbled, embarrassed in the direction of the waiting barman. Then everyone smiled and went back to their chatter. Good craic, all right, for a week night.

Mr. Fry mustered a hopeless frown and rolled his eyes as he dove into the foam and turned to my companion, “And now lass, as I was sayin’…”


Blasket John and a lesson in stouts

It had just stopped raining in Dingle. Dick Mack’s Pub looked like the place to be. The tiny bar was maxed with Friday afternoon’s finest, all, of course, talking at once. A mixture of Gaelic and English, sifted through the wit of a Kerryman. Across the room stood Blasket John, as a youth a bare knuckles boxer in London, now a mildly contented 65-year-old grandpa “with all of me children living between here and Ballyferriter”.

Next to him swayed Ian, the half-asleep bachelor from Inishtooskert, who was reputedly “afraid of women”. John had grown up hard as the eldest of seven kids on an impoverished Great Blasket Island, a region that was finally abandoned due to played out fishing in 1954. At 15 he had journeyed to London to fight and send money home. He spent almost five years there, lonely, missing Ireland, the Gaeltacht.

One look at his well developed biceps told us this was no story. He had fought men ten years his senior and held his own. He had no love lost for the British, or the Germans for that matter.

Then, during a rare visit home to see his aging parents he met Mary Brennan and “that was that”. He never went back to England. They acquired a small farm and “did all right considerin'”. Six children came along and later 14 grandchildren.

“And they all live on this very peninsula,” he cracked. “I thought I had lost my family in those flea bag hotels of South London. Sometimes one has to have faith, one just has to hold out a little longer.”

He bought a round. I ordered a Murphy’s and to my surprise got a lecture:

“No laddie, you don’t drink Murphy’s up here, only in Cork. The stuff’s not fresh here. You drink Guinness here,” he pressed, engaged in a serious point of order.

I thanked him for the advice and later when it came for my round I bought Guinness for all four of us. He smiled approvingly. Slainte!  Some more bragging about his grandchildren, a wake-up nudge toward his sleeping friend and on to tell us about turf cutting near Lispole and turnip snagging at Inch Strand.

The next afternoon, which greatly resembled Colorado in blue sky and sunshine, we spent at Ceann Sleibhe, Slea Head, one of the most beautiful places on earth, on the recommendation of Blasket John.

– Kevin Haley



Filed Under: Hard News

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.