Paul Healy’s Week – 24th February

Can pubs launch counter-attack?

In the pub in Rooskey, on grey Fridays brightened by the promise of the pension and companionship, the old men sat around the bar counter.

Most of them were of the land, decent, salt-of-the-earth types with rugged features, their hard hands a mirror on the lives they had led.

It was the early 1980s. Each Friday the men arrived in the pub direct from the post office. In their pocket, an envelope with their pension – and in their hearts and minds, nostalgia for the past fused with the philosophical outlook old men have for the present and future.  

They commandeered most of the bar counter, like giddy kids, caps laid to one side…ready to while away a few hours…gossiping and joking, reminiscing and idly speculating.

It was a Cabinet meeting with little confidentiality applying. They mischeviously dissected all that was happening in Rooskey village, or all that they surmised was happening. And they foraged through the political drama of the week, Bad Charlie v Good Garret, or Charismatic Charlie v Dull Garret, depending on where their allegiance was. 

Sport…politics…rumours…the land…people, and what they were alleged to have said or done…all were fair game for the men at the counter, with their craggy foreheads and their canny insights.

And they always got at least five minutes’ value out of talking about the weather.

I was behind the bar, serving them, and it was quite an education. I had a high regard for them.

High stool philosophers, they were.

I remember at one point in the early 1980s the price of a pint was 93 pence. There was speculation about another price rise.

One of the old men at the bar shook his head.

‘If it ever goes to a pound, I’ll not drink it.’

His motion was agreed unanimously.

I thought of these characters, and of the heyday of the Irish pub a few times in the past week or so. 

Indeed I was reminded of those days when, much to my frustration, I encountered this week’s ‘Pint Baby’ story online. It seems social media went a bit crazy at footage from a pub in Clare – taken in 1997, but it looks like the 1970s – in which a baby sups from a pint of Guinness. This image reminded me of pubs in the past, not because we served pints to babies – but because of the drab décor, and also the sense that nobody present would blink an eye at a pint being held up to a child’s mouth. (We’ll leave it at that; different times!).

And how is the traditional Irish pub now? Still in a long-running battle for survival, I’m afraid.

I don’t pub-visit much these days and wasn’t aware until recently that several bars in the county are now closing on at least one night a week, usually Tuesday. It is an alarming trend.

For many years now we have become used to a majority of pubs scaling back their opening hours, but the phenomenon of closed doors on a Tuesday night is sad, if entirely understandable.

The pub is under threat for all sorts of reasons. Obviously many of them will survive, particularly in bigger towns and cities, but many more will disappear, as Ireland continues to undergo significant cultural and social change.

And while I don’t ‘pub-visit’ that much these times, the last fortnight or so was an exception, and I did find myself at a few bar counters. And it was great; mainly because of the good conversation, the company, the social interaction.

Meanwhile, almost thirty years on since I was pulling pints in Rooskey and Strokestown, there are more older people in society – but less high stool philosophers. In many villages, the old men have long since ceased the great tradition. Lack of transport is a problem, so too the feeling that ‘nobody else will be out.’ For some of these elderly men, the companionship deficit must be huge. For some of them, pension or not, their Fridays are just grey.

I will finish with a story from The Kon Tiki, which my parents opened (near Rooskey) in 1970.

It was a Sunday afternoon. In those days, there was a great tradition of going to the pub after Mass. After an hour or two, Packie Joe was fairly well on it. A neighbour offered to give the bachelor a lift home. Down the avenue the kindly neighbour drove, turning right, then left, then right again into Packie Joe’s driveway. The neighbour waited until Packie Joe was safely inside.

The Good Samaritan then decided to return to the Kon Tiki to give a lift to some other locals. He turned left, right and left and up the avenue. He parked up and walked in. The first person who greeted him at the bar counter was Packie Joe.

In a stunning feat, Packie Joe had doubled back on foot, across the fields – the way the crow flies – and got back to the pub before the motorist!

Sitting at the counter and smiling, Packie Joe was drinking a bottle of Guinness.

It was tense for a minute or two – it’s been funny for over forty years.

Simon says: He just might…(in national interest)

Ah, the modesty and selflessness of some  politicians…

When Minister for Health Simon Harris – who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly playing a blinder – was asked if he would look for Enda Kenny’s job, he could have said:

 “Well, I’ve only been a senior minister for nine months…so while I’m flattered that you’ve asked, I obviously don’t see myself as being qualified for the role of Taoiseach just yet. Frankly, it’s a ridiculous proposition!”

Instead, what he actually said was: “Age to me is immaterial, I look to be judged on my job and the job that I am doing, and I am working as hard as I possibly can at that job.

“I try to provide leadership in whatever role I am given…there is no vacancy in the Fine Gael party. If and when one does arise I will consult with colleagues at that point.”

The riveting speculation about a possible Harris candidacy has the entire nation er…agog with speculation.

One homeless person in Dublin confided to another: “Wow…things are finally looking up.”

On two trolleys in Portiuncula Hospital, two old but patient patients gave one another a thumbs-up on hearing that the beleaguered Minister for Health might build on his current momentum and actually go for the top job!