I chose this title carefully although my first choice was ‘over the bar’, but, unfortunately, that was taken. What’ll ye have? is a question put to people countless times a day, the length and breadth of Ireland.
It’s a greeting, an invitation and a specific enquiry. First, since the first to ask it on stepping in to a public house or lounge bar, has declared their intention to play host and buy the first round.
Second, it’s an invitation to their guests to name their poison, so to speak.
And thirdly, it’s a request to inform the bartender or curate of your choices so he, or she, can set about lining them up.
None of these priorities are named in any sense of preference although, as we shall see, there is a certain logic applied, particularly in an Irish bar, but more of that later.
I’ve worked in pubs, on and off, all my life. An uncle owned a pub and guest house in Sligo and I used to spend two or three weeks of my summer holiday there, every year for five years, between the ages of 5 and 10. During that time, to while away the summer days, I collected eggs from the hens in the barn behind the bar, every morning. Then, I’d be dispatched to stock the ballad lounge bar with soft drinks and bottled beers. Back then, we’re talking the mid-’60s here – pubs bottled and labelled their own bottles of stout, provided in barrels from Guinness’s James’s Gate brewery in Dublin. Our job was to fill the bottles and cap them, using a hand yanked stamp press and then apply the labels from a tray of a milky adhesive substance, mixed by my uncle. It was great fun and whiled away the afternoons, after which we were rewarded by a glass of cold lemonade.
I pulled my first pint of stout there, a progression that was considered a rite of passage in my informal apprenticeship. I remember it well. I was ten and it was in the main bar or public house, at the front of the building. On one side there was a bar, about six foot long, that curved at one end. On the other side, nearest the front door, there was a grocery counter that sold household essentials like milk, butter, sausages, bacon and sliced ham, cigarettes and matches, sugar, flour, salt, jelly and custard.
On the left of the door, opposite the food counter, there was a small room, a snug, with two bench seats and a small table and a hatch that opened at the end of the bar.
The snug was for ladies who, while, by custom, were not welcome in the male only bar, could take their ease with a glass of stout or sherry, while they waited for their grocery order to be filled. Ladies were always welcome in the Lounge bar but that didn’t tend to open until late in the evening, after the evening tea had been served and the children washed and put to bed.
This is said by way of observation of the times, without comment or judgement. Bars tended to have their own etiquette and rules, some common to all and some peculiar to the house you were in. On a first visit to a pub, a person was best advised to keep their head down, order their drink and respond, with geniality, to the colloquial openers, such as the state of the weather or one’s thirst. This way, one could ease themselves into the company without challenge or offense and then learn the pub’s own customs by acute and silent observation.
Sport, of course, was another good topic of conversation and a working knowledge of the top contenders in Gaelic football, hurling, rugby and football, enough to interject intelligently and occasionally, but never enough to invite contention or challenge.
Horses, too, were an essential ingredient in an interloper’s pub argot. To speak form and recent results could put one in good standing; to tip a winner could put you in prime position and the toast of the company.
Politics was avoided, unless it was among friends and fellow travelers, although a well informed acquaintance with the day’s headline stories, was always a good icebreaker. Jokes, too, were always good, as long as you didn’t start with one. Get the foot in the door, first, so to speak and, once people are smiling , throw in a joke.