Music in the local, Nightmare or Nirvana

night1There are two kinds of people who drink in bars; those who like music and those who don’t. I grew up in a world where the thought of a band or a jukebox were considered sacrilege in a pub and the electronic beep of a one armed bandit or the ring and ding of a pinball machine were considered the rhythmic flap and beat of the flames of hell.

In that same world, no-one batted an eye when someone stuck a finger in their ear and struck up a come all ye, usually about the wicked ways of drink and faithless women, or men.

It’s all there in the songs, whether it’s folk, country, blues or jazz. One of the classics is from Frank Sinatra’s For Only the Lonely, Capitol Records album. The song is called ‘One for my Baby’. On the Live from The Sands album, Sinatra offers his own explanation for the song, ‘drunk songs are set in small bars or bistros in the wee hours of the morning and they’re talked or sung by a fella who’s got problems, like his broad flew the coop with another guy and all the bread, so, if you will assume the position of a bartender, this the way these guys behave…the classic, tinkling piano intro and those magic words, ‘it’s quarter to three, there’s no-one in the place, ‘cept you and me.’

And Hank Williams could not have put it any better with ‘There’s a tear in my beer’, when he sang, ‘there’s a tear in my beer, ‘cos I’m crying for you, dear, you are on my lonely mind.’

Shane McGowan of The Pogues took a different stance on this, in ‘Streams of Whiskey’, when his protagonist encounters Brendan Behan in a dream who offers him advice on how to deal with life’s travails and then concludes, ‘there’s nothing ever gained by a wet thing called a tear, when the world is too dark and I need a light inside of me, I’ll walk into a bar and drink fifteen pints of beer.’Pogues – Streams Of Whiskey Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Of course, there is the ‘in vino, veritas’ argument, too.

My personal favourite is Rosie Flores’ simple and succinct toast to bars and music in her rockabilly classic, ‘This Ol’ Honky Tonk’, from Dancehall Dreams, ‘here’s to the bar room and here’s to your dreams, you can bury all your worries in the honky tonk scene, your heart has a home, if you’re feeling all alone, just forget all your troubles, tonight, this ol’ honky tonk makes it alright.

All this musing was prompted last night while I sat, alone, at the bar of The Thomas House in Dublin’s Liberties and listened to the deejay spin old punk, pub rock and ska classics from my youth, to a bar full of people with an average age in the mid 20s, and I didn’t feel alone. I had conversations with a couple of people and exchanges laughs and jokes with a few others.

People choose their pubs for the company they can meet there and often, their decision is tempered by the music they’ll hear. If you like to natter when you’re in a pub, don’t go to pubs for hard line folk fans or jazz enthusiasts. If you like heavy metal, avoid country honky tonks or easy listening, pop joints. It’s a horses for courses situation.

In my teenage years I often went to folk clubs and bars where the insistent jeer of ‘ciúnas‘ (quiet) was part of the territory, however annoying. If you want to hear great singers sing great songs, find those pubs. If you want to hear the blues, find a blues club or pub and so on.

All publicans know that music draws customers and happy customers buy drinks. It’s a simple equation, or so it seems but if the balance is wrong, it’s a recipe for disaster.



Have I no compassion?

In my job I deal with the public, every day and in every mood and circumstance. A man, or a woman,image walks into a bar and most of us know a punchline that could round off that statement with a laugh.

But why do we walk into bars? For a whole variety of reasons, I can tell you. Some people are thirsty and want a drink. Others are tired and want to take the weight off their feet. Some want to use the toilets. Others are hungry and figure a bar is a good place to have a decent, no nonsense meal in congenial surroundings.

Those are some of the most obvious reasons but they barely scratch the surface. Yesterday, a lady came in to the bar because she’d just come from an interview and signed a contract to work in the health industry in Abu Dhabi. Delighted with her good fortune, she treated herself to a glass of wine and a light snack. She spent most of her afternoon there, sharing the news of her good fortune with family and friends, on her cell phone. She had a heavy bag with her and asked me for directions to her hotel. In the end, she had another glass of wine and decided to take a taxi to her hotel. We had a laugh and I congratulated her on her good fortune.

But while she was enjoying her good fortune, another regular but unwelcome visitor, one of our local street beggars and hustlers, was not having a good time and decided to share his discomfort with some of our guests who’d chosen to sit outside, in the spring sunshine. Now they were all sitting within our licensed seating area, separated from the street by a wind breaking glass and metal barrier. I intercepted him before he shuffled to the first table, his open hand, outstretched. This happens every day and sometimes, several times a day. He walked away.

As he left, a young man in a mobility scooter, arrived and I opened the door to facilitate his entry. He asked me to find him a table, which I did. It turned out he could walk but only with assistance and only then, very slowly. He parked his scooter beside the table I found for him. Then he asked me to help him to the toilet. Unfortunately, as our bar is in an old building, there are no facilities for disabled people and the toilets are down two flights of stairs. So I walked with him to the stairs. He held my arm, as tightly as he could, with both his hands. He was a determined young man. We got down the stairs and I helped him to the toilet and stood outside, waiting for him to finish. When he’d completed his ablutions, I helped him back upstairs and to his table. All this time we carried on a conversation about the pub and the kind of food he might have. He was interested in eating something that was popular and particularly Irish, maybe some fish. But after I’d told him about our fish pie, our salmon dishes and the beer battered fish and chips, he settled on Beef and Guinness stew. Intrigued by the notion of stout in a dish, he asked me some detailed questions about the makeup of the dish and, in the end, he loved it, washed down with a couple of glasses of Guinness.

No sooner had he left when I was confronted by a woman who’d walked in, off the street and who asked me, ‘have you no compassion?’

The subject of her rage was our homeless vagrant friend, mentioned earlier, who had by now curled up, asleep, in the street, directly across the road from the bar. Why did I not help him? Why did I not call an ambulance?

I explained to her, with all the patience and goodwill I could muster, that I knew the person in question, that I’d already had an encounter with him and that he was simply sleeping.

She didn’t like that. No, she had done volunteer work, she was a Christian, she would never pass a person lying in the street without inquiring about their welfare. So I told her the same person’s regular spot on the street was standing by the ATM, intimidating lone females, that occasionally he tries doing the same with our customers and just the previous week had threatened me with a bottle. But that’s all in a day’s work, I told her and if she felt compelled to be concerned for his well being, she could go right ahead. My job was keeping this chap from bothering my customers. And though she seemed a little dazed by my response, she accepted it. I wondered why the burden of this exchange had fallen to me and not the manager on duty, who had pointed her in my direction. And ten minutes later I wished she had hung around to see two junkies fight over a spot by the ATM and I stood watching, helpless and hoping they didn’t come my way.

In many ways and for a whole raft of reasons, you can say, it’s all in a day’s work and these are the things you have to deal with. You don’t sign up for fun and games, 24/7. First, you have to make that possible, so you scrub and clean and prepare. And always remember, no matter how much you prepare, people will and do surprise you. Take Trip Advisor, for example. It’s a great idea, on paper and it does help a lot of travellers as it’s other travellers, sharing their experiences. But somewhere down the road, that has changed or is changing. For a start, angry customers are the most likely to write reviews and they will, inevitably, be bad. Never mind that you’ve served 99 satisfied customers (who haven’t written about it in Trip Advisor), it’s that one customer who has had a bad experience, who will. The trick is, of course, don’t have dissatisfied customers and that, in my experience, is impossible. But that’s a story for another day.

My final tale is about a customer I encountered on a sunny, summer evening, last year. Himself and his three companions had had a few drinks. They were happy, getting a little messy but manageable. Then one of them went off to a local shop and bought a stash of peanuts and crisps. Now, since we don’t sell either of these items and have a full menu of decent meals available for customers, I felt this was taking a liberty and setting a bad example/precedent for other customers. So, I told them so, respectfully, and asked them not to eat their snacks on the premises, pointing out there were plenty of snack options available on the menu. They didn’t argue and put their snacks away. Or so I thought. Five minutes later I was walking by their table when one of them suddenly slumped over their table, clutching his throat while one of his female companions began to scream and shake him.

I ran over and took a look. There was an open packet of peanuts on the table and the man was having trouble breathing. In fact, his face was such a high colour, it was turning from puce to an angry blue. The girl was still screaming and his other companion was staring at his friend, slack jawed. I pushed the man upright in his seat, got both my arms around his abdomen, under his arms. Then, my hands joined in a fist, I jerked forward, driving my joined fist into that space at the centre of his abdomen, below his ribs. He sputtered and coughed out the peanut I suspected was caught in his oesophagus . His female friend stopped screaming and sobbed, silently. The other one still stared, slackjawed. Not a word was said and they left, five minutes later. Did they say, thank you? No.

So, regarding the question of whether I have any compassion? I must answer, yes. Whether that’s a good thing, I don’t know, anymore.

What’ll ye have?


cropped-img_0880.jpgI 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.