This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” – Sigmund Freud
A good pub is a wonderful thing to behold. It might, for me, be one of the best things. Good pubs don’t occur everywhere, but it could be argued that Ireland has a disproportionate amount of them. Many books and articles have been written about Irish pubs and pubs in general for that matter – some of them true scholarly works – and I don’t intend for this post to be a predictable repeat of those.
A good pub features wood prominently, in the walls, bar and seats. The wood is not always impeccably finished, having seen generations of glasses pounded on the bar top, asses pressed into the seats and beer splashed against the walls. In a good pub the seats will creak when you settle into them and feel oddly comfortable due to, in part, the thousands of asses before yours that have molded the wood into the perfect comfort position, like the depressions in stone steps at old churches. Walls are often hung with paintings and photos depicting historical events, sports teams, politicians and community leaders from days of yore: men who stare out at you and seem to whisper, “hey bud, you’re sitting in my chair.” There should always be a large selection of lagers and ales available, all drawn from taps and pumps that gleam with brass that is regularly polished. The back of the bar should be carefully arranged with glasses, bottles of liquor and all the other detritus necessary for the bartender to ply his trade. There should, under no circumstances, be any music, televisions, off track betting agencies, trivia games or vending machines of any sort. The bartender, a person with a wealth of knowledge, is able to answer any question at all: where can I buy bag of dog food? Is it going to rain tomorrow? How do I dispose of a body? They are part beverage provider, part psychiatrist, ready to pour you a cold one and also tell you when to “get a grip for Christ’s sake and shut the fuck up.” On Sundays a real pub features a roast special for lunch. The lucky patron will have a choice of beef, pork or lamb with sides of vegetables, chips and Yorkshire pudding, all slathered in rich flavorful gravy. But what make a pub a “real pub” is the quality of the patrons. Even the most picture perfect pub can be ruined by a few stuffy young urbanites eager for some traditional flavor and a willingness to be obnoxious.
On my first trip to Ireland I was deeply smitten by pubs, so much so that I spent a considerable amount to time in them. My writing from that time always begins with enthusiastic descriptions of the scene only then to decline considerably as my intake of Guinness progressed from one pint to several. It is not hard to find a story worth the telling in a pub in Ireland. My story begins in a small pub off the usually tourist route in a town called Macroom. It had been an incredibly rainy December day in Ireland (surprise, surprise) and as a result I found myself seeking shelter from the rain. I was there with three friends (two from America and one from England) intending to spend the winter roaming from pub to pub and taking in all that Ireland could offer. This pub was the typical affair, small, dark and full of memorabilia; a small coal fire burned in the back and made the whole room smell like an old locomotive. My friends had entered the bar and promptly arranged themselves at the only table, taking up the three chairs that came with it. Left without a place to sit and departing from my “friends” with a haughty “well I guess I’ll go sit at the bar, you bastards,” I bellied up to the bar and asked for a pint of Guinness. Properly lubricated and feeling the warmth from the coal fire, I settled into that contented state in which all travelers find themselves when they are in a place that has filled their thoughts for many nights and days.
As I sat there and tried to put my overall contentedness into words in my journal, the door swung open to reveal a new guest for the publican. With a mumbled “Bless all here” and a dissatisfied harrumph, this new fellow strode forth into the pub calling to the bartender for “a wee nip o’ the Irish and a pint of the black stuff Patrick, and pour it as flat as you can.” Impressed with such an entrance, this gentleman now had my full attention and I began to write, “this guy has just walked in and ordered some whiskey and beer in the coolest way…” Taking a short draw his Jamison’s and a long pull on the ale his gaze settled on his surroundings. Casually circling around the bar and noting everything that differed from the last time that he was there (probably only minutes beforehand) he eventually settled on me and my journal. “What the hell you write’n there fella?” he asked in the strong accent of the Irish working man.
“Ahhh, just some notes about visiting Ireland,” I said carefully, not wanting to offend him by saying that I was, at that very moment, writing about what a hard case he was.
“Ya like it here then?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” I replied, “especially the pubs,” hoping that my support of an institution that was so clearly an everyday part of his life would net me some brownie points.
“Ya here alone then?” he continued, looking me up and down.
“Actually, my friends are sitting over there,” I answered. Noting my Australian accent he asked where I was from, and on hearing that I was from Down Under, he inquired after my friends booming “They aren’t English are they? I hate the fucking English, blood sucking bastards if you ask me.”
“No, they are all from America actually” I lied, thanking whatever god my friend Alison might have believed in that I was not yet intoxicated enough to rat out her English-ness to a possible enemy.
I quickly discovered that my new friend was a local bricklayer who had knocked off early that particular day due to the weather, and had decided that the best idea would be to spend the rest of the afternoon getting hammered. Amongst other opinions, my new buddy blamed the Irish government for ruining pub culture by being overly strict about drink driving laws, outlawing smoking inside public buildings, and allowing women to drink in the same rooms as men. It was quite a speech, and as he paused to take a pull off his pint I made the rather significant mistake of asking what had led to this intolerable sate of affairs, only to realize that the object of his derision was the nation of poor Alison who sat not 15 feet away. “The English,” he sniffed turning up his nose up as if he could smell the country from his bar stool and it was redolent of horse shit. As I sat there trying to make the leap with him, he cringed, as if bitten by something that I couldn’t see and screwed his eyes up tight, “Fucking Cromwell,” he exclaimed. Now, I am a guy that has heard some wild shit in my day, but never, never ever, have I witnessed a person expressing what amounted to a 350 year old grudge. This sentiment – animosity directed towards the English – is, of course, not uncommon in Ireland. But blaming a guy that lived in the 17th Century was a feat worth celebrating! My new friend continued to wax poetic about the various injustices wrought upon his homeland by Great Britain before suddenly running out of steam, turning to me, and in a serious dire tone beseeching me to let Australia (the whole country apparently) know that Ireland was still a great place to come for a pint. Never having doubted this particular truth, I assured him that I would carry this message to my homeland and see that the information was distributed to the entire populous. With his fears of Australian prejudgment allayed, he lunged forward, grasped my hand in the iron grip of someone who had spent his entire life working hard, and strode towards the door. Muttering something about “the fucking wife cuttin’ me balls off if I miss cabbage and bacon for dinner,” I caught my last sight of him trying to negotiate his way through the pub entrance and spectacularly clashing with the door jamb on the way out. Not appearing to have suffered any ill affect from his collision with a 300 year old piece of oak he disappeared down the street cursing Cromwell and the English all the day as he went.
And with that I shall leave you with a quote from another old Irish bastard, Cathel O’Loughlin. Cathel was, and still is, for all I know the owner of O’Loughlin’s Pub in Miltown Malbay. Cathel was born in “the burren”, an area in Ireland with a rocky arid landscape thanks to a curious geologic uplift. Upon hearing that we were planning on visiting the burren that particular day he told us the following. “Twas Cromwell that said, the burren doesn’t have water enough to drown a man, nor quench his thirst, trees enough to hang a man, nor soil enough to bury him.” Now I have to say, in observation, Cathel actually used the word twas in everyday conversation, which is certainly worthy of celebration, but he also confirmed for me two important facts about the Irish. If you are going to hold a grudge, do it properly for fuck’s sake, and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Cromwell never said any such thing. It was a surveyor called Edmund Ludlow, and I’m pretty sure the wording is a little bit different.
Bless the Irish, I hold no people in higher regard.