Failing to meet The Ginger Man
A parable for St Patrick's
Not long after my Cohen-and-Kelly wedding to Theresa O'Connor, we had a call at our home in London to say that her granny in the West of Ireland was dying. We flew to Dublin, booked into the Shelbourne for the night, had a pint of Guinness in the hotel's Horseshoe Bar (to establish residence), then walked down the road for another at Doheny and Nesbitt's, said to be a haunt of the literati. That night, there were no famous writers in the bar, unless I count myself.
We had another pint at Neary's, in Chatham Street, where we saw no famous actors. Then we had a further draft in Poolbeg Street, at Mulligan's, where the Guinness is said to be the best in Dublin (and therefore the world). I did some provisional research on that last question, without reaching a conclusion. I am still working on it.
Next morning, we met Theresa's three aunts, a nun, a barmaid and a nurse, and took the early morning train West. In Ireland, even the fast trains seem to stop at every station. It is a sparsely-populated country, with few cities and endless villages; if the train is to stop at Maynooth or Kilcock, then it must certainly halt awhile at Mullingar. At each stop, new people boarded the train and renewed acquaintanceships with other passengers, and these friendships were cemented with pints of Guinness in the buffet car. It was like a mobile village pub, in which the gossip and news from one community passed to the next. The three aunts rediscovered friends at every stop, and each was celebrated with a round of drinks.
As the train passed through County Westmeath, Theresa observed that J.P. Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man lived there, and would surely board the train. He didn't, and that was the first of many occasions upon which I have failed to meet J.P. Donleavy.
As the train passed through County Westmeath, Theresa observed that J.P. Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man lived there, and would surely board the train. He didn't, and that was the first of many occasions upon which I have failed to meet J.P. Donleavy. I did, though, mention in one of my early books that he had speculated upon the possibility of being dissolved in a barrel of porter. By the time our train reached its destination, around noon, the five of us were all but dissolved in Guinness.
The train terminated in the town of Sligo, but we still had some miles to go, to a hamlet called Braeghwy, on Donegal Bay. Only one person in Braeghwy owned a car, and he came to collect us. His name was Joe McDonough, if I remember right. He had not seen the aunts for a year or two, and greeted them with the warmth of the long lost. He was also pleased to meet Theresa and myself for the first time, and suggested we raise a glass on the town square before our long car journey, which would be at least 20 miles. There was a pub on each side of the square, and it was thought advisable to have pint in each, so as not to cause offence.
Finally, we set out, on roads so slow and winding as apparently not to mind the Guinness. About half way to our destination, we passed the graveyard where the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats was buried. Joe insisted that we stop to look at his grave, after which we had a pint at the pub opposite.
Having come on the only train of the day, which everyone in County Sligo knew arrived at noon, we did not get to Braeghwy until dark. There, we were greeted by Theresa's uncle Rory, wearing the pin of The Pioneers, Ireland's temperance movement, to which the Braeghy branch of the family subscribed. We slurred a few excuses concerning the well-known inefficiency of railways, and went to greet granny in the bedroom where she lay dying.
The five of us took it in turn to bend over and kiss her, and she no doubt inhaled more hop and malt aromas than she would have done in whole Friday evening at McLean's (Braeghwy's bar, grocery store, post office, and undertaker's). She immediately rallied, to such an extent that, after a week of waiting in vain for her to pass on, and acquiring a worse hangover each night in McLean's, Theresa and I returned to London.
There are within walking distance of my home in London at least a dozen Irish pubs, some patronised largely by emigrants from one particular county or region.
After an extra, unscheduled, month of life, granny finally did join the Pioneers in the sky. We were notified by phone, and went to the nearest Irish pub to raise a glass to her. There are within walking distance of my home in London at least a dozen Irish pubs, some patronised largely by emigrants from one particular county or region. The nearest was ecumenical in this respect, and very keen on playing the Irish national anthem at closing time. Despite this, it has a very English name, the Duke of York. When the last-but-one landlord left, it suddenly became a gay pub, featuring acts that wore leather. Then, overnight, it returned to being an Irish pub, exactly as before.
Every big city in Britain has Irish neighbourhoods, with pubs to match. These are usually very basic boozers, quite different from the fake-Irish "theme pubs" currently beloved of Britain's national brewery groups. It is quite hard to spot a genuine Irish pub, though some do display banners announcing that they will be showing Gaelic football matches on their large-screen televisions. Fake Irish pubs have names like Scruffy Murphy's, Shamus O'Donnell's and P.J. McGinty's, often tacky, pseudo-Celtic, decor.
(The Ginger Man may have been Irish, but J.P. Donleavy was born in New York, like everyone else. I have for years savored that sentence, from an article in New York magazine).
Where does this leave the Ginger Man pub opened in New York City by Mr Bob Precious? I am on record as saying that Mr Precious' first Ginger Man, in Houston, Texas, is one of my favorite pubs in the United States. This is not only because it has a fine selection of beers (a feature hardly ever found in Ireland, where Guinness suffices) but also because it is a true pub, where it is possible to indulge in conversation without having dubious entertainments or food pressed upon one. Despite its name, it has no oppressive theme, either as a literary bar or as an Irish tavern. (The Ginger Man may have been Irish, but J.P. Donleavy was born in New York, like everyone else. I have for years savored that sentence, from an article in New York magazine).
A New York radio station once invited me to discuss beer and pubs. It was running a week of reports from London, and recording the interviews on the stage of a West End theater. The guest before me was J.P. Donleavy. I was invited to to climb some steps on to one side of the stage just as he descended at the opposite end. Yet again, I had failed to meet him.
Around that time, my wife Theresa made a premature departure from this earth. I later took up with a lady dangerously called Paddy, who has red hair and green eyes and traces her origins via Cardiff and Liverpool to Hibernia.
Paddy gets mad at my long absences beer-hunting. I was in Portland, Oregon, one week when I had a call from Bob Precious inviting me to the opening of his new Ginger Man in Austin, Texas. I phone home and left a message for Paddy: "I've been invited to Austin, but I really think I ought to come home." She called the hotel saying she had made plans to spend the weekend away, so why didn't I go ahead and enjoy Austin? The hotel never gave me the message, and I flew back to an empty house in London. Apparently Donleavy was in great form in Austin.
Shortly afterwards, Paddy and I spent a weekend in Dublin. Across the crowded bar in The Shelbourne, we spotted Donleavy taking what looked like a very peaceful drink.
We let him be...
Published Online: MAR 5, 2001
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1996
In: Ale Street News
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