Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Ireland: A ballad for every occasion

Add a comment
Guinness on tap should take 119.53 seconds to pour properly, according to the brewery. Photo / Thinkstock
Guinness on tap should take 119.53 seconds to pour properly, according to the brewery. Photo / Thinkstock

She reaches for a pint glass and a half.

"T'will be the usual then?"

It is the third evening in the same pub in Donegal town, so far north in Ireland that the pub doors shut for the night almost before the twilight closes in. Almost.

Is it good or bad that the barmaid knows what we'll be drinking? I have time to ponder this as she pours the Guinness.

Guinness on tap should take 119.53 seconds to pour properly, according to the brewery. Three-quarters of the glass is filled, left to settle, then slowly, slowly, the glass is topped up. Guinness, dark and creamy, is not to be hurried, at least not on the pouring. It is sometimes downed a little quicker.

The Reel Inn perches above the dark and silently flowing River Eske but apart from a small terrace used almost exclusively by smokers, the patrons have little truck with admiring the view or even catching elusive rays of sunshine, a rare commodity this Irish summer.

"The sun's out. Let's sit on the terrace," I say to Frank, an Irish friend from Kerry.

Frank looks at me with undisguised horror.

"Outside?"

I'm used to dodging cultural gaffes in far flung parts of the world so am taken aback that apparently I've manage to commit one in Ireland.

"Guinness is an inside drink. Take it outside and the temperature's wrong and it goes flat. You go if you wish but I'm staying in here."

Whatever the truth of the perfect ambient air temperature for consuming Guinness, I discover for myself that being "outside" gives me the Dickensian feeling of being abandoned in the snow, nose pressed to the window, while inside is all warmth and festivity.

I push open the door and squeeze back in. The musicians have arrived and with them it a wave of patrons. The landlord John is playing the button accordion, eyes closed. Across from him is the most un-Irish sight of a guitarist with a half-mohawk. His guitar strap is a length of tape stamped with "Police: Do not cross". Between them is the singer, also on a guitar, a glass of Guinness gripped in a holder on his music stand.

It is standing room only in the space around them which accommodates only about half a dozen small tables. Beyond is the bar where the local stalwarts gather, there being a number of tourists near the musicians.

Clusters of Guinness, waiting for the final pour, are lined up behind the bar where John's wife and one barmaid are struggling to keep up with demand.

The musicians kick off with the Fields of Athenry.

It's a song to break the heart, as so many Irish ballads are. It's not enough to have lyrics that are multi-layered tales of political oppression, resistance, doomed love and loss (and that's only the more cheerful ones) but the melodies too run the gamut of emotion from raucous, to weep-into-your-glass.

Frank is pointing at a freshly-poured half of Guinness on the bar. I dodge among the crowd: more Irish from down south, their table crammed with empties, a gaggle of French who sit stoney-faced and drinkless.

An elderly Irish man appears at my elbow.

"Now my darling, we're having a hard time in Ireland at the moment, could you see your way to a small loan?"

He lurches towards me slightly and I lean back, only to find myself up against another man of similar vintage.

"And where did you find this fine looking woman, Seanie?" he slurs.

I try to catch Frank's eye to come and rescue me. He waves cheerfully, delivers my drink and turns to go.

"They're fierce friendly in here aren't they?"

"Leave me and you're a dead Kerryman," I tell him.

The musicians stop playing around midnight with everyone standing, no matter how unsteadily, for the national anthem, sung in Gaelic.

In Lanigan's Bar in Kilkenny the professionals are on stage: The Gypsies.

"Where are they from?"

I yell at Frank above the din, this being a bigger and much busier pub, full of locals on a weekend night out and a polyglot of tourists.

"Listen to the accent, you should know by now," shouts back Frank, who has been schooling me in how to identify the Kerry lilt, the Cork rise at the end of the sentence, the harsher, harder-edged Dubliner.

"Dublin?"

"Good girl, you can have your Guinness now."

The Gypsies, amplified, belt their way through my hitherto favourite Irish song, Black Velvet Band.

So come all you jolly young fellows a warning take by me
When you are out on the town me lads, beware of them pretty colleens
For they feed you with strong drink, "Oh yeah", 'til you are unable to stand
And the very next thing that you'll know is you've landed in Van Diemens Land

"You know," says Frank, "I never realised 'til now that the poor sod ended up in Tasmania because of a woman leading him astray."

In Dingle the evening begins in a pub that is ominously full of people clutching their Lonely Planets.

We slip out into the rain and take refuge in O'Flaherty's, a pub that has changed little since it opened in 1849. It's one square room with a stone-flagged floor and walls crowded with photographs of local celebrities and sportsman (especially Gaelic football teams), cartoons and posters recounting decades of Irish history. In one corner is a tiny "snug", where the locals escape the visitors.

The publican himself, Fergus O'Flaherty, is the one-man-band. During the course of a few hours he plays the guitar, the mandolin, the banjo, the accordion and the whistle.

He's singing now:

I wish I was in Carrickfergus, only for nights in Ballygrand
I would swim over the deepest ocean, the deepest ocean for my love to find
But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over and neither have I wings to fly
If I could find me a handsome boatman to ferry me over to my love and die

When he finishes he invites Frank to sing.

Frank - who for an Irishman is unusually shy - backs towards the door. We push him back.

"I can only remember the words to two songs."

"That's ok," I say. "He only wants you to sing one of them."

He looks at me.

"You're becoming more Irish than the Irish."

Frank, after a long swig of Guinness, stands beside Fergus, blushing slightly and sings us Home From the Sea, the unofficial anthem of the Irish lifeboat crews.

Another night, and another bar - this time The Blind Piper in Catherdaniel, a two-pub village on the southern shores of Iveragh Peninsula, which is encircled by the Ring of Kerry.

In The Blind Piper the musicians are clustered in the corner couches. There's a young woman on the fiddle, an elderly man on the Uillean pipes, a bodrahn (drum) player and sundry singers and guitar players.

As the night progresses and last orders never seem to be rung, the combination of musicians ebbs and flows. The piper makes a foray to the bar.

"I'll have a glass of wine," he says, surprising me a little.

"No, be done with it," he adds, "may as well take the bottle."

Amid the noise of conversation, the rattle of glasses behind the bar, the band tentatively work their way into a Fureys' song I've never heard before - a story of fleeing from "the Troubles" in Belfast.

Steal away, let's steal away
No reason left to stay
For me and you, let's start anew
And Darlin' let's steal away

Let's steal away and chase our dreams
And hope they'll never find us
The weary days, the empty nights
We'll leave them all behind us

A hush has fallen over the pub. Then the patrons put down their Guinness, their mixers, their orange juices and join in.

I look at faces and guess to where each is stealing away. Chasing dreams, every one.

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 01 Aug 2014 20:30:29 Processing Time: 830ms