The Avondhu - By The Fireside
SPOILED FOR CHOICE
If Covid and its associated restrictions has taught us anything, it has been the importance of regular and uninhibited social contact to our mental health and wellbeing.
The imposition of social distancing rules presented for the first time, a barrier to that which we have taken for granted for millennia, that most basic of human delights, the freedom to meet and greet our fellow compatriots in a variety of settings.
A SOCIAL SERVICE
I am reminded by my own personal guru Tadhg O’Donoghue of the late great Irish mystic John Moriarty, who spoke passionately about the importance of creating and maintaining a ‘Third Space’ in our lives. A space, unlike but in coexistence with, our two principal spaces of home and work. A space where we are free to mentally roam, to observe, to admire, to condemn, to impress, to unwind, to partake or to just exist for those few heavenly hours where accountability is banished to another time. A space where we can explore the impossible, dream of the improbable and perhaps even enjoy the ridiculous. This ability to ‘check out’ to our own mental oasis on a weekly basis is, he says, the secret to a healthy mind.
There are few places in Irish society more suited to the cultivation of this ‘third space’ oasis than the rural Irish pub and when it comes to the quality and diversity of offering, in Kilworth, we are certainly spoiled for choice.
A late debate many years ago in the Three Counties Bar on the merits of travel for the education of youth heard another intellectual heavyweight, Willie Kearney declare that “All cities are identical unless you venture behind their walls”. By this he meant that the beauty and the story of a city cannot be found in its bustling streets and night clubs, but rather behind its public facade in its cultural sites and museums.
I would suggest that our pubs are no different, in that every pub looks similar on a busy Saturday night, the noise, the hustle and bustle and the rush for that last drink before the staff disappear without even saying goodbye. It’s not until you sit at a bar with the locals on a quiet night that you discover the true culture of that pub. The habits and rituals of the locals in that bar as well as the behaviour and personality of the proprietor, all feed into that pub’s individual identity. The ability then of a public house to reveal and display that identity without imposing it upon its patrons is a refreshing and valuable trait which serves to enrich the visitor’s experience in an atmosphere of proud and loud neutrality rather than quiet and deep insurrection.
Fortunate are those who succeed in finding just one such establishment which resonates with their soul and so blessed am I in Kilworth, for I have found four.
As a blow in from the Cork/Limerick border 12 years ago, my ritual would involve visiting all four pubs on a night out, beginning in Aherne’s, then crossing to Cotters, crossing again to The
Village Inn and finally, the Butcher’s Bar. There was no logic to my route other than being conditioned as a builder’s labourer at a young age to always load the furthest scaffold first so that as your energy weaned, your journey got shorter. Old habits die hard and so this remains the route of choice to this day.
Early interactions were confined to polite exchanges with occasional in-depth conversations but as time went on, the acquaintance base broadened and the conversation deepened to the point that it became difficult to fulfil the 4-pub crawl in the time allotted. This was a testimony to the richness and diversity of the individual houses which made it difficult to leave once the performance had begun.
Some of these performances had been played out night after night for many years before I came on the scene and may only have been visible through the eyes of those of us who were not inter-woven in the village fabric and whose names were not yet included in the local story book. There was a distinct advantage then in having blow-in status in that it afforded us the privilege of meeting all creatures, great and small, without fear or favour and discovering the wonderful characters which were often hidden behind their history.
We are very often precluded from discovering the true value in people by virtue of their published past and it can take a certain level of maturity to put that information aside when we meet them. Starting with a blank canvas in a new location with no prior perceptions gives us the ability to speak to everyone at eye level, which after all is the essence of human respect.
TIPPLE OF CHOICE
Having been an avid proponent of the large bottle (‘the Danno’) for over twenty years, I was introduced to the more subtle merits of Jack Daniels whiskey by a most unlikely Australian in 1999. Having been advised by this seasoned whiskey drinker at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon that my transition to ‘JD & Coke’ might be “heavy going” for a while, the aforementioned advisor was carried on my back from pub to pub until we got home sometime later that night. When he finally surfaced two days later, he informed me that I had been one of the lucky ones, as JD just suits some people and it’s been suiting me ever since.
As Gaeilge, ‘whiskey’ translates to “uisce beatha” meaning ‘water of life’ and for me it has certainly given life to many an occasion down through the years and will hopefully continue to do so.
It’s Thursday evening and the unassuming black bay window facade of Aherne’s Bar in The Square is a welcome sight having resisted the temptation to call in to the other three pubs on my way here. A 9pm, ‘right-shoulderfirst’ entry through the spring loaded half door reveals a vibrant, youthful space where groups and individuals alike can dwell in comfort with a choice of TV viewing and spacious outdoor seating areas. There is a distinct sporting atmosphere here and both the proprietor Joe and his son Justin, have a deep knowledge of the subject.
In this sector of the hospitality industry, the window of opportunity is narrow with just a few hours every night to try and generate sufficient revenue and so family involvement here is important. The customer group, dynamic here, is well established and jovial insults and banter is the order of the day with an overarching premise of respect. It makes for the perfect launch pad then for an evening out with any postwork tensions being quickly dissipated by the presence of so many like-minded cafflers.
Seating at the bar is prohibited for now due to Covid distancing rules so the normal conversation with the bar staff will be difficult. What is the accepted protocol now? Should I sit at a table with others or should I sit away at a table on my own? What’s considered appropriate in this table only faze of lockdown?
Thankfully, the proprietor Joe, anticipates my unease and invites me over to his table where he and local plasterer Kieran Hynes are deep in conversation. Having settled into their entertaining company, I can’t help noticing the immense work which has been done to facilitate customers during these challenging times, so that nobody feels left out.
There is a full sign language-based table service in full operation here and the response times are impressive. My two table companions have travelled long and windy roads with rich stories of lime mortar projects and ministerial escapades and while, on another night, I might gladly walk every mile of it with them, tonight,
I have miles to go before I sleep and so all too soon my second glass is empty. Given Justin’s heavy hand however, I fear I may have closer to three consumed, but that’s just another feather in this pub’s cap.
And so, I bid goodnight to my compatriots and make my way back through those sprung doors. As they close behind me I hear a voice from the distance, “Thanks John see you later”, a simple but nourishing desert, so often absent in establishments today.
Crossing the road tonight in just a T-shirt feels unseasonably warm, but it’s late September now and the nights are definitely closing in. As I approach Cotter’s Bar, the tinted glass on the front windows makes it difficult to survey the scene until I am inside and committed. Once inside however, Einstein’s complex time theory of relativity becomes a little clearer. This is a slower pace of life. The subtle lighting and the glowing fire give a cosy atmosphere where the greeting ‘good evening’ is appropriate and the presence of some character with a hat sitting in the corner with a coffee and a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses would not look out of place.
The layout of the counter lends itself well to the engagement between those seated at either end of the bar and the clever use of high tables close to the bar, provides a familiar feel for the regulars while complying with the current regulations. The proprietors John and Anne, are pleasant and courteous and clearly run a very tight ship with a place for everything and everything in its place.