The Antique Tavern, Enniscorthy
THE TAVERN, ENNISCORTHY
At one pm, a car drew up on the quayside; the driver smiled and waved. It was Larry O’Gorman, the famous hurler. We wedged Bosie on the back seat and set off on the thirteen-mile trip up to Enniscorthy. Larry was a lean, tanned man with a wide grin. I knew absolutely nothing about hurling but I suspected from the reaction back at the radio station that Larry was to Irish hurling roughly what David Beckham was to English football. Felt rather tongue-tied but blurted out:
“This hurling. I hear it’s quite dangerous?”
Larry turned his head full on and I saw a real shiner of a black eye.
“It can be” he said. “I got this last weekend. But if you know what you’re doing, it’s not too bad. It’s usually just the fingers that get broken. If you want to learn something about the game, the All Ireland Final is on Sunday week.”
Within twenty minutes we crossed over Enniscorthy Bridge and stopped outside a pub called the Antique Tavern. Larry drove off for the next match and, presumably, the next injury. I refrained from the usual theatrical salute of ‘break a leg’. It seemed in rather bad taste.
Took my first look at Enniscorthy for thirty-two years. It was still as pretty as I had remembered: a tall castle in the centre, steep lanes climbing up to the market square, the battlefield site of Vinegar Hill to the south-east, the Slaney winding between the houses and then through the hills. The extraordinary thing was that the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil had just finished; the bunting was still flying in the streets. It was the biggest traditional music festival in the country and moved from town to town on a yearly basis. This had been the first time that Enniscorthy had hosted the event for – thirty-two years!! The odds that my only two visits here should have coincided with the only two occasions that Enniscorthy had held the Fleadh must have been astronomical. But it had happened.
Located the venue in a side street on the eastern side of the bridge. It was called simply the Tavern. Although small, there was just about enough space for the show. The landlady herself was absent but her sister Pauline had been informed of the arrangement. Asked for directions to the nearest B&B and Pauline replied:
“Go back over the bridge and you’ll see a dry cleaners shop. Go inside and you’ll meet a man there. He’ll tell you what to do.”
She made it sound like a Cold War spy novel. ‘You vill find ze secret codes behind ze pastry counter in ze Café Mozart.’
Followed her instructions to the dry cleaners and, sure enough, a young man appeared from behind the racks of coats. He led me next door and into the hall corridor, then shouted up the stairs:
“Hallo, Mary, there’s a new man here for a room. He’s got a big shopping basket with him. It’ll be heavy to carry up. And he’s got some mud on your new carpet from the wheels. Oh, and now he’s knocked over your vase of flowers.”
Grinning, he helped me gather up the scattered tulips before calling again.
“Mary, you’ll need to bring a cloth to mop up all the water. And you’d better bring a brush to clean off all the mud.”
Then he left with a smirk, leaving me to face the coming wrath of the hotelier. Manhandled Bosie out of the debris as a figure loomed at the top of the stairs. I expected Mary to be a vast virago filled with justified rage over my clumsiness. Instead, she turned out to be a very good-looking brunette of about thirty, with a sensual sway, vivid blue eyes and a wonderfully low, sexy voice that would make a murmuring brook sound like Ian Paisley.
Stumbled out apologies about her vase; she giggled: “No problem” and together we carried Bosie up to the bedroom. I told her about the Wilde tour; she said that she had contacts in the local schools and that she would try and recruit some of them as audience.
“The term’s just started so they’ll probably all be too shattered. But I’ll try all the same.”
Her husky, drawling brogue coiled through the room like a cat around a chair leg. She left and I shook myself out of the spell.
Felt tired but decided that I had at least to make a gesture towards the publicity drive. Walked up to the Castle which was occupied now by a tourist office.
Four hundred years ago, the building had been inhabited by the poet Edmund Spenser – yet another of his various Irish castles. It had been loaned to him by Queen Elizabeth I as thanks for the highly flattering portrait of her that he’d written in ‘The Fairie Queen’. Not a bad reward, considering that all a modern Poet Laureate can expect is about five quid a year and a barrel of cheap plonk.
Handed over a poster to the tourist guide. His face lit up.
“Ah, yes, I was reading about this in the paper. And it’s all for one hundred pounds? I tell you, I think you’re fecking mad.”
I nodded “Yes, I began to realise that after about the first two days.”
He laughed and stuck the poster to the castle wall. I bought some food and returned to the B&B feeling dog-tired.
Turned on the radio and listened to a phone-in programme. It seemed that a few days ago a well-known Irish singer had announced that, although she was unmarried, she was intending to have a child and rear it alone. An elderly country priest was reported as having delivered a sermon in which he denounced her as a ‘harlot’. When I first came to Ireland this type of sermon would have been a quite normal reaction from the Catholic Church and, in most people’s eyes, perfectly acceptable. Now, however, it produced a storm of protest from the radio callers. I’d never dreamt that priests had become such targets of abuse in Ireland. Even the church authorities appeared to have disowned him. It was an extraordinary shift in public opinion.
On the other hand, I suppose, there always had been a refreshingly blasphemous streak in Irish thought. It had been a Dublin Catholic friend who had most thoroughly debunked the worship of religious statuary. A couple of years back, the Hindu world had been agog over the fact that apparently the statues of their sacred cows were drinking the milk offered to them. It was a widely reported world phenomenon. Presumably hoping to emulate the miracle, a gentleman in Dublin had been discovered in a church standing on a stepladder and attempting to feed a Baby Powers whiskey to a statue of St Patrick. My friend had commented at the time:
“And then the saint wiped his lips and said ‘Sure, and a glass of stout chaser would go down a treat.’”
Felt too tired to follow the train of thought – there had been three consecutive nights of boozing, only five hours sleep last night, plus all the events of Wexford. Set the alarm clock and passed out at 5.30pm.
Even on waking two hours later, I wasn’t much better; still dozy and definitely feeling that the last thing that I wanted to do this evening was to stand up for an hour spouting Oscar. Reluctantly packed the gear into the rucksack and wandered over to the Tavern.
There were only about five people in the pub, two of them absorbed in eating meals. In the back bar, a large man in a suit was talking animatedly to a couple of farmers. Apart from that, the only sounds were the mutter of a radio and the occasional roar of passing cars. Realised that I’d have to shout over the traffic to compensate. Went through the motions of preparation; I was really not looking forward to this show one bit; I was far too tired and nobody looked in any way interested. Still, at 10pm, I steeled myself, asked Pauline to turn off the radio, and went ahead.
“Artistic enthusiasm of a kind did flourish in America. While in Kansas City, I received a telegram from a town called Griggsville: ‘Will you come and lecture us on beauty’. I sent a reply, also by telegram, ‘Begin by changing your name’. However, I was not without opponents. In Denver, I received another message that if I went to the town of Leadville, as I proposed to do, the tougher spirits there would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager. I immediately wrote and told them that nothing they could possibly do to my travelling manager could intimidate me, and went. I spoke to the audience, consisting entirely of taciturn miners, about the early Florentines and they slept as peacefully as if no crime had ever stained the ravines of their wild mountain home. I described to them the pictures of Botticelli and the name, which seemed to them like a new drink, roused them from their dreams. I read to them passages from the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed highly delighted. I was reproved by my listeners for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some time which brought the reply ‘Who shot him?’
The delivery was far too fast and the timing was off but somehow the show started to get laughs. And the bar started to fill up. Towards the end the atmosphere was quite buzzy and I finished to good applause. The hat collection produced forty-two pounds. Totally against the grain, it was a hit and I had no idea why? The performance had been bad, the audience at the start almost non-existent, and the traffic had drowned out some of the crucial passages – but it had worked? Once again, I conceded that I would never understand the dynamics of performance. On one hand, the sure-fire venues that go belly up, on the other, this. Still, it was enjoyable, no matter how unexpected. When I sat down to wipe off the make-up, a small queue formed for autographs. It turned out that they had heard about it on South-East Radio. A glimmer of comprehension dawned. God bless Alan Maguire.
When the scene had quietened, I moved to an alcove and drank with Margaret and Pat. They were a very companionable couple in their sixties; Pat was originally from Wexford but had lived in London where he had met and married Margaret. A few years ago they decided to retire to Enniscorthy. It was interesting to compare notes with people who knew both London and Ireland.
“It’s a lot more democratic over here” said Pat “Probably because everyone meets in the bars.”
He nodded over to the back bar and to the large man who I’d noticed earlier.
“He’s the local T.D. and he used to be the Minister of Agriculture in the last Fianna Gael Government. That’s what I like about Ireland; you never know who you’re going to find. I mean, outside of photo opportunities, how often would you see a British Minister shooting the breeze in the local pub?”
I replied “And I like the way that nobody takes a blind bit of notice about time here. I haven’t started a show at the advertised time since I arrived in the country.”
Margaret smiled “Ah, well now, we actually did arrive on time. I heard it on the radio and I said to Pat, we’d better get there on the dot because he’s English. They’re always punctual.”
“Not any more, I’m not. I’ve learned the lesson.”
They were very enthusiastic about the recently ended Fleadh Cheoil. Margaret said: “Everyone’s been saying that it’s been the best Fleadh anyone can remember.”
Pat chuckled “Before it started I met one of the publicans up in town. He was standing round the back of his inn staring at a pile of two hundred and forty barrels of stout. Now, that’s about one hundred thousand pints. For one weekend. For one pub! And he was worried that it wasn’t going to be enough.”
Margaret added: “There were over two hundred thousand people drinking here for three days. And there were only four arrests. And they were locals. But the visitors were great. They’d be drinking all day and all night up till three in the morning. But they’d always apologise when they fell over you.”
We drank on. A card school was in full flood in the back bar – closing time had clearly been abandoned yet again. About 1.30am, decided that I needed sleep and walked back over the bridge to the B&B. It was amazing – an evening that I’d been dreading at 8pm had turned out to be really good craic. Slept at 2am.
DAY TWENTY-EIGHT: FRIDAY
Woke early again – 7.30am. It was beginning to become a pattern. Lay in bed and considered the next move. According to the plan, the next town was due to be Arklow. However, there were certain factors working against it. There were no contacts there at all, whereas, if I chose Gorey instead, not only had I been given the name of a likely venue, but Gorey was just within range of the South-East Radio effect. There might still be some spin-off working, as there had been last night. Decided to drop Arklow; Gorey was now the target.
Went down to breakfast. Mary, the gorgeous Gaelic princess, was busy frying up bacon and eggs.
“Do you like it well done?’ she asked in a voice that made the teapot swoon.
The only other occupant of the dining room was a thickset, middle-aged man who supported his head with one hand while fumblingly trying to fork up his breakfast with the other. We spoke briefly. He was from Dublin and had been at the Fleadh.
“It ended last Sunday but I just haven’t got around to going home yet. You know how it is. You have one for the road, then another. Before you know it, it’s the evening and the music’s started again.”
I sympathised “Yes, I know. The same thing happened to me thirty two years ago.”
Repacked Bosie, said goodbye to Mary, and headed out to the front door. My breakfast companion stood outside in the street.
“Jaysus, the wife in Dublin is complaining on the phone. She said that I only came for one day. That was a week ago. I’m going to be catching hell when I get back.”
He peered disconsolately up the road to Dublin, then reached his hand out to test for non-existent rain. More cheerfully, he shook his head.
“Sure, and the forecast isn’t good, you know. Maybe I shouldn’t risk travelling today. You never know.”
He walked back up the street towards the Antique Tavern. The last survivor of the All Ireland Fleadh.
Enniscorthy Fleadh guide