The Wilde statue and NJT
THE DUKE BAR, DUBLIN – PART THREE
A ‘Whats On In Town’ supplement happened to be lying on the bar counter and I glanced through it. Noticed an advert for a ‘Literary Pub Crawl’ that started off at a bar called the Duke at 7pm. Now, in a pub that catered even peripherally to literary fans, there might be a chance of getting a fair hearing.
The Duke turned out to be a comfortable pub just off Grafton Street and almost opposite the more famous Davy Byrne’s. The manager was called Tom. He listened carefully as I burbled out the request. I don’t think that he could have failed to respond to the onslaught of naked pleading.
“How much will it cost me then?” he smiled.
“Nothing at all. It’s all free. Honestly.”
He tapped his teeth with a pencil. “It’s just for the craic, then?”
“All right. You’re on.”
Seized his hand and shook it fervently in case he changed his mind. Fan-fecking-tastic! The last venue settled and the last time I’d have to drum up a theatre out of nothing. Tom showed me to a large room upstairs which was ideal. He added that the literary tour would be gathering here earlier but the space would be clear by 8.30pm.
“You can start your play whenever you like. There’s no rush.”
Tom was obviously aware of Irish theatrical conventions. Not surprising really; he’d spent over thirty years in the Grafton Street pub trade.
We walked back across the river to the Eden Quay airport bus stop.
Lyndon shouldered his bag and said: “Well, I didn’t know Ireland before and I only came over here for a photo opp. But, to be honest, I don’t really want to leave it now.”
“You’ll be back” said Una. “That’s a promise.”
He climbed aboard the bus. As we waved him off, the drizzle turned to a downpour and we ran for the nearest bar.
It turned out to be a hotel that was packed with hurling fans waiting for the start of the Final on TV. Bought drinks and squeezed into a corner. Remembered Larry O’Gorman back in Wexford suggesting that I should watch the match to get some idea of the finer points of the game.
Up on screen, the President and a row of dignitaries stood to attention for the National Anthem, the Cork and Kilkenny teams limbered up, and the referee took out two watches to check the time. Presumably, this being Ireland, it was a necessary precaution to have two watches as one of them was bound to be wrong.
Then the game began.
Or rather, to someone who was completely ignorant of the regulations, a totally unrestrained and ferocious free-for-all fight broke out. Two groups of large men started attacking each other with clubs. There appeared to be no rules at all, as far as I could see; you could hit the ball with your club, pick it up and throw it, kick it, and when you’d finished with the ball you could do the same to your opponent. It was like playing rugby while armed with a cricket bat and with some tag wrestling thrown in for good measure. Bob said that the game was so fast that it could only be played for seventy minutes – any longer and the players would collapse; extra time being unheard of. When yet another player was laid out unconscious there seemed to be no stoppage of play. A stretcher was hurried on and the victim hustled off as the brawl continued to swirl about him. As one player savagely hacked at another’s legs and blood spurted from the defenceless kneecaps, the referee shook his head and tut-tutted before himself having to leap clear of a flailing cudgel.
I’d sometimes heard from American friends about how dangerous American football was; frankly, I couldn’t see them lasting five minutes in this maelstrom. And the Yanks were as well protected as medieval knights. The hurlers had virtually no protection at all; a few wore cycling helmets, some wore gloves, but in general it was just shirt and shorts. As another club lashed out along the ground to hack an opponent’s ankles from under him, I thought back to the histrionics of English soccer, where the gentlest push could end with the offender up before a tribunal and being crucified in the tabloids. Here, the most grievous of bodily harm was being inflected and nobody turned a hair. The match gouged its way on to the final whistle.
As we drove back to Leopardstown, Bob turned on the car radio for some light relief. A deejay was reminiscing about the embarrassing moments that he’d come across in his career.
“The one I remember best was an incident concerning a young lady announcer. She’d been playing a record by Harry Belafonte called ‘There’s a Hole in my Bucket, Dear Lisa’ but she had to fade it out in order to fit in a traffic report. Her words as she turned down the music were ‘And there we have to leave Harry Belafonte with his Hole in a Bucket’.”…
After a siesta and food, we were back at the Duke by 8pm. Which was when I remembered that I had failed to provide any publicity for the show. Hurriedly sellotaped a poster to the front of the pub and crossed my fingers. Bob, Una and I sat and waited. At 8.20, about fifty people followed a guide down the stairs from the stage area. It was the ‘Literary Pub Crawl’ setting off. Watched regretfully as an almost perfect audience for Oscar disappeared out of the door and as all those wonderful dollars disappeared with them. Hey ho.
Went upstairs to the performance room, set out the stage and waited. By 9pm, we had an audience of ten: seven Americans and three French. Considering that the only advert was the poster on the wall, it was not too bad a turnout. Started at 9.10pm.
“After I was sentenced to imprisonment I was taken down a long dreary corridor from the dock to the cells. Robbie Ross was waiting there, so that before the whole gaping crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as handcuffed and in convict dress, I passed him by. Men have gone to Heaven for smaller things than that.”
Well, I can’t claim that it was one of the all-time memorable performances because it wasn’t. It would have been nice to say that the sparkling wit soared on silver wings of oratory until the audience rose spontaneously to their feet with a roar of dizzied approbation. But they didn’t. Combined with the Moyvally non-show, it was a true anti-climax when it should have been a triumph. The delivery was hoarse, the fluffs plentiful and the audience underwhelmed. Reached the last line:
“When the Last, Last Trumpet sounds and we are all couched in our porphyry tombs, I shall turn to him and whisper “Robbie, Robbie, let us pretend that we do not hear it.”
A tall man sitting in the front row gave a disgruntled grunt:
“Is that it, then? You left out the quote when Wilde said either he or the wallpaper would have to go.”
He turned to his girlfriend and whispered audibly: “Not a patch on the Stephen Fry film.”
She gave a superior sniff of agreement.
Wondered what the legal penalty might be for battering audience members to death with a Parisian café chair leg? And if I could claim mitigating circumstances? Reluctantly decided against it and instead went walkabout with the outstretched cap. Nine quid. Shit – barely enough to cover the cab fare home.
However, despite this soggy ending, a warm feeling of completion crept over me. The job was done; the twenty shows finished. OK, the last two had been bad but at least eight had been good and three of them great. And most of them wonderfully crazy. In any case, it was dawning on me that whether they’d been crap or brilliant didn’t really matter. Theatre was like that – you couldn’t tell what was going to happen; you could only count on the unexpected. This was what made it fun. Something that the worlds of TV or cinema could never capture, something that could not be replicated by machines, or turned into a slick commodity. It was human being talking to human being – by a fireside and with a pint in the hand. It was live theatre and genuine pubs and real people. It was as Irish as the Shannon. In a word, of course, it was the Craic.
We moved downstairs to the main bar. A young Bostonian couple who had been in the audience joined us – Patricia and Dan. We settled down with a round of drinks as a traditional music band began playing in another corner.
Patricia pulled out a small paperback book.
“I bought it today. W.B. Yeats. I’ve never read him before. He’s awesome.”
She flipped to a marked page and asked me:
“Would you read that one? ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’. In your accent?”
Started to recite it quietly.
“I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head…”
And the long slow glide of lager down the throat and the soft keening of the fiddle music and the glory of Yeats’ words and the presence of good friends – the end of the bet and the end of the road.
At midnight, Tom the landlord wandered up collecting glasses.
“Did you have a good night, then? I don’t mind helping out the culture at all. They’re decent enough lads. Jaysus, the pub has a claim to fame in the culture stakes itself. It was the birthplace of the poet Thomas Moore. Did you ever hear of him?”
DAY THIRTY-EIGHT: MONDAY
DAY THIRTY-NINE: TUESDAY
Woke at 7.30am and came down to the kitchen. Bob, Una and John each had jobs to go to and were hurrying through breakfast. As my plane to London didn’t leave till midday, I could take a more leisurely pace.
“You should get a copy of the Irish Mirror today,” said Bob. “I heard on the grapevine that the photo should be in it.”
“You’ve finally got some national publicity”, added Una. “Two days after you’ve finished the tour.”
As I waved them off down the front path, I felt a slump of deflation. It was bad enough to say goodbye to old friends, but there was also a sense that things were drifting back to the humdrum. Packed Bosie for the last time, locked up the house and walked towards the bus stop. A middle-aged bloke dragging a large shopping basket. Now that the aims of the trip, no matter how ridiculous, had been achieved, that was all that was left really.
Caught the bus to St Stephens Green, walked down Kildare Street and bought a copy of the Irish Mirror. Then strolled through Lincoln Place and settled down on a bench in Trinity College Park. The hot morning sun bore down on the cricket pitch.
Flicked open the newspaper. Wow! Karl had done me proud – a large photo and a four column story. Admittedly, I was described firstly as ‘eccentric’, followed by ‘nutty’, then ‘balmy’, and ending with ‘madcap’. And that was just in the first four lines. However, the article continued with a glorious description of the trek. But what really blew my mind was an accompanying paragraph in the editorial column:
‘It’s a massive round of applause for madcap actor Neil Titley. He put his money where his mouth is and hitched around Ireland to win a bet. Most of us make drunken boasts in the pub from time to time, but who can be bothered to carry them through? Not many – especially when the idea is wackier than your wildest dreams. And especially when it involves dressing up as Oscar Wilde and relying on your wit to earn a crust for 40 days. Not to mention the energy and effort needed to perform the same play single-handed 20 times in as many different venues.
Which is why Englishman Neil has taught us all a thing or two about fun and determination with his whirlwind tour of Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes.
And somewhere in the Aran Islands, a group of academics is still wondering what hit them early one morning when Neil sprung on a captive audience. Slainte, Neil.’
Jaysus H Christ! I‘d had good reviews before but never one so flamboyantly generous and rousing as that. All sense of flatness went – this was champagne to the ego. What a fantastic thing to do? To write an editorial so ungrudging and warm about a complete stranger and a foreigner to boot? With a full heart, I let out a rebel yell that sent the pigeons flying and turned the heads of the Trinity tourists. Slainte, Karl!
Caught the airport bus and travelled out of Dublin on a euphoric high. Within half an hour, we reached the airport itself and I dumped Bosie at the check-in. Entering the departure hall, I noticed that there were a series of plastic illuminated panels portraying various Irish writers, Oscar Wilde among them. The times they had a’changed indeed. After one hundred years of notoriety and ignominy, Oscar had been so restored to grace that he was now part of the airport decorations.
There was one last thing to do and that was to buy a copy of Tony Hawks’ Fridge book. I hadn’t looked at it for six months and could remember very little of the actual details. I’d deliberately avoided it on the journey because of the temptation of being influenced by his impressions. But, by now, I was intensely curious. Began to skip-read it in the passenger lounge, then continued on board the plane. What was surprising was that, considering that we’d journeyed much the same route, the experiences had been quite different. Started to realise just how subjective and random travel could be. In the future, there could be dozens of people taking exactly the same path all with entirely different adventures.
Then, suddenly, I shot up in my seat with amazement. Tony Hawks and the Fridge had not only called at Matt Molloy’s bar in Westport but had actually stayed overnight in the flat above! The very flat that had been the scene of the Co Mayo flag waving incident. How utterly extraordinary? The coincidence that both Bosie and the Fridge had occupied the same bedroom was beyond belief.
Looked out of the plane window. The coast of Ireland was slipping out of view. Sat back and considered the position. I’d won the bet and still had fourteen pounds left; I’d lost five socks and a stone in weight, acquired a suntan and fallen in love five and a half times. Six and a half, counting Ireland. And I think that one was going to last.
There are not many places left where economic tigers can still afford kindness, where rules and regulations are regarded as optional, where joking is a cherished duty, where poets rank above share dealers, where clocks are for decoration not time-keeping, where people cheer on travelling players in an internet age, where so many people can treat such a preposterous jaunt as normal and where so many others can shake their heads and say ‘You’re feckin’ mad’ and then become cheerful accomplices in that madness. No, not many places left at all.
It boiled down to the genuine gift of not taking things too seriously – that was the reaction to the tour. It was also the spirit of Wilde and, quite possibly, of the land itself. As Oscar once said:
‘Humanity is far too earnest about itself. It is the world’s original sin.’
Perhaps the world is guilty as charged.
But Ireland? Well, Ireland’s different.
Thanks for reading – hope you enjoyed ‘Cider with Bosie’.
All the best, Neil Titley. August 13, 2019.