Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Tale of Two Bars.

Driven by a simple desire for a quiet pint of Guinness I slip into the bar of the hotel round the corner.

The Snapper is waiting there, sitting on a barstool facing a dark middle-aged man, who stands with his elbow on the bar, his other arm waving as he talks at her.

She turns to look at me with a forlorn expression.

In the Pain In The Arse Premier League, this gobshite is Manchester United. He’s the New York Yankees making kissy-kissy with the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team. Also, he’s fairly drunk, but I don’t think that makes any difference. He just knows everything. He knows Londoners better than this Londoner. He knows that I don’t know a good pint of Guinness from a bad pint of Guinness. He knows that he is always right and everyone else is always wrong.

Contrary to his opinion, my pint is glorious, going down smooth and creamy like a country pint. A rare find in the city. I turn to him.

“Must be a fantastic place to live.”
“What’s that then?”
“The Land of Always Being Right. Very safe, very lovely, knowing that whatever happens, you’re always right.”
“’Tis, ‘tis, ‘tis a great place. I like it ver’ much.”

As I drain my pint, move towards the bar and order another, yer man yells to the barmaid that he’s getting this one for me. I look her in the eyes and tell her I want to pay for it myself.

While the Guinness sits on top of the bar waiting for its 2nd fill, Captain Painhole carries on ranting, this time to the barmaid. Evidently she knows him and dislikes him as much as any decent person would. He’s been locked out by his wife but ‘showed her’ by staying in a 5 Star hotel. The barmaid is upset with him because he left his dog in the car for 2 days, but of course as he explains, she is the cruel one because she can’t even look after her cat.

My pint is ready and I offer her a fiver, but Captain Painhole yells again that he wants to pay. On the bar is a pile of his cash and a tab. I look her in the eyes and tell her I want to pay for my own pint. She holds my stare and slips some money off the pile on the bar, trying to tacitly say

“Just take the prick’s money.”

I’m certainly not going to argue with her, but as she hands over my pint I say calmly and gently

“Thanks, but you should have let me pay for it.”

In a misguided attempt to do me a favour she has now put me in a position where I must raise my glass to Captain Painhole and say thanks. Doesn’t matter who he is or what he’s like, if somebody buys me a drink I cannot completely free myself from debt until I thank him and buy him one back. Tonight I leave in debt to him, because we cannot stand his company for one second longer than it takes me to skull that Guinness, and because I know that he’ll never accept a drink from me.

For some reason this episode irks me. I just wish she’d let me pay for my own drink.

The week before I sat at the bar of another hotel, in the village of Cong. Despite having driven though the place a thousand times I’ve never stopped, because between the world-renowned Ashford Castle Hotel and the marauding hordes of Irish-American fans of the ‘Quiet Man’ movie, the wee place feels like a theme park for 8 months of the year.

But on a Monday night in February the village is lovely. The roads are empty, the cold night air scented by burning wood and turf. I’m sitting at the end of the bar, with a young wiry T-shirt and jeans American lad two stools down from me, and an older barrel-shaped local gent in a jacket, ironed shirt and tie at the far end.

We are all siting quietly, but I can feel excited energy pumping from the lad to my right. I suspect that he’s not used to being drunk.

Behind us, an older man leaves the pub with a much younger woman, and inexperienced in the ways of quiet Connemara bars, Wiry seems to deem it worthy of note. Unfortunately  his voice pierces the air like a discordant bow stroke on an out-of-tune violin.

“Wife or daughter? Wife or daughter?”

I refuse to engage, so he turns to BarrelShirt.

“Wife or daughter?”

Sitting silent and immobile, my mind wanders off to the scene in Bill Forsyth’s wonderful film, ‘Local Hero’, in which an American arrives in a tiny Scottish village. Seeing an infant surrounded by a crowd of local fishermen, he asks “Whose baby?”, to be greeted in response by seven silent staring faces.

Wiry is making me cringe for him, still adamant that he gets an answer, and finally BarrelShirt offers

“Girlfriend, as it happens.”

There follows an uneasy routine in which Wiry asks BarrelShirt a series of personal questions, to which BarrelShirt replies openly and honestly. Trouble is, because of the local accent, Wiry doesn’t understand a single word that BarrelShirt is saying.

As a compassionate man who has sat at the bars of many foreign countries (even though Ireland is my home, it’ll always be a foreign country to this Englishman!) I feel it’s only fair to offer Wiry a translation of the Connemara man’s responses. So we have a 3-way conversation, in which I feel a little like a United Nations interpreter. 

Once in a while I point out to Wiry that he already asked that question a few minutes earlier, to which he insists that he’s drunk so he doesn’t know. Gradually I grow to gently enjoy the dynamic, filtering the idiom of the local man into a wit which the New Yorker might appreciate. The conversation inevitably drifts towards Ireland’s current predicament: being bankrupt.

BarrelShirt raises his pint of Smiddicks and turns to us both. Speaking loudly and slowly, with self-confidence and assurance, he states

“A country, a whole country doesn't fail. A whole country cannot fail, because it has people, good people in it.”

On that admirably philosophical note he says good night and leaves.

Now that it’s down to Wiry and me, we talk easily and I discover to my delight that he is, like myself, an atheist Jew. He’s working in on a medical scholarship in Israel, because apparently the health system there is the best in the world.

I tell him that it’s rare to have a secular Jewish man at the bar beside me in the West of Ireland. He admits he was really hoping the pubs would have more life in them. I tell him, much to the barman’s amusement, that having 3 of us at the bar of a country pub on a Monday night in February was two more than I expected.

We buy each other several whiskies along the way, as is my pleasure. Even the most raucous of catgut strings can make sweet music when tuned well, and both of us is willing to listen to, learn from and enjoy the company of the other.

Captain Painhole must be very lonely.


Paz said...

I too have been that soldier, even tonight while trying to have my coffee in a hotel lobby and using the wifi I have to put up with a Socialist Party meeting, who have the cures for this country.
I too hate getting bought a drink by someone like that, I prefer to owe nothing, working class guilt or something.

Charlie Adley said...

...or maybe just a strong sense of honour coupled with a healthy dose of manners!