MATT MOLLOY’S BAR, WESTPORT – PART TWO
Noticed there was something wrong with my watch and checked the town clocks. One stood at 8.30, the other at 11. I had yet to find a public clock anywhere in Ireland that showed the correct time. There’s Greenwich Mean Time – there’s pub clock time – and there’s Irish clock time. The latter two bear no resemblance whatsoever to the former and display an admirable contempt for the tyranny of time.
Bought a copy of the Mayo News and unexpectedly, hidden amidst the obituaries and cattle auctions, saw that there was a small article about the show. Reading it in print jerked the trip back into focus just as it was in danger of losing itself in Pooh sticks. Felt real gratitude to the anonymous reporter who’d followed up the story.
At 3.30pm, got to Matt Molloy’s Bar. It was a small but distinctive pub on the main Bridge St and, entering the front bar, the first people I saw were the two musicians from Zachs in Donegal. They explained that they had played here last night and pointed me through to the performance area in the back yard. It had a glass roof, a raised and railed musicians’ stage and looked like a good place to play. There were several framed memorabilia around the walls. Matt Molloy, of course, was the flautist with the renowned Chieftains music group and the photographs were a tribute to his career. One large poster recorded the time when the Chieftains had triumphed in Paris, while other photos showed them with Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor and, surprisingly, with the Rolling Stones – Keith Richards with his arm draped over Matt Molloy’s shoulder.
By this time, though, I was flagging and in need of a siesta. Yvonne the barmaid took me upstairs to a small flat.
“You can use that little bedroom there. You won’t be disturbed.” Thanked her and slept.
Woke to the sound of pounding music from the bar below – the roar of Friday night drinkers and wild reels. The time was 7.30pm. Felt a moment of trepidation about having to go and impose Oscar on all that. It’s scarier to hear an audience than to actually see them. However, for the first time so far, I had a dressing room. Adjusted the costume in a mirror – this was bordering on luxury. Then concentrated and set off to make a grand entrance down in the yard bar. Reached the door of the flat. It was locked.
It was a heavy, no-nonsense country door and there was no way of breaking it open. Examined the side windows but they looked as if they hadn’t been opened since the Easter Rising. Repeated tugging had no effect at all. I crossed over to the front window overlooking the main street and hauled at the sash. It rose about four inches and then stuck dead. Looked at the skylight in my bedroom but it was far too small to squeeze through. There was no other way out. Firstly it struck me that I was trapped and secondly it struck me that I was due on stage in ten minutes.
Tried to think rationally. There was no phone in the flat and, of course, the mobile didn’t work. I could have tried stamping on the floor but, with the racket from the music, if anyone had noticed, they’d have assumed that I was joining in the session. Jesus! This was a genuine fix. Returned to the front window and gazed helplessly at the crowds parading up and down Bridge St. below. There was no way to contact them.
Then I noticed that there was a flag projecting from the window – a Co Mayo football flag. If I crouched up on the window bay, hammered at the glass pane and waved the flag, surely that would have some effect? So I tried it. For twenty minutes.
The few people who did casually glance up gave no reaction whatsoever. The attitude seemed to be that, once you’ve seen one Oscar Wilde squashed on a window ledge waving a Co Mayo football flag, you’ve seen them all.
Finally a woman did look up and seemed to sense that all was not as it should be. I bent down and yelled through the four inch gap:
“Help, I’m locked in!”
She smiled uncertainly, then she opened her car door and seemed about to dismiss the incident. Frantically I waggled the flag at her, then remembered the Morse code. Three short jabs of the flag, then three long ones, then another three short ones – S.O.S. She puzzled for a moment, then walked inside the pub. Bless her cotton socks – she’d understood! Two minutes later, there was a rattle of the door lock and Yvonne burst in, her face flushed with laughter.
“Oh, Jaysus, I’m so sorry. I’d forgotten all about you sleeping up here. Come on down, you need a pint after that.”
Stood at the Yard Bar and talked to John the barman. A few tourists waited patiently for the show to begin but I needed more audience. Molloys was the only place where I knew there had been advance warning, even a newspaper article. So where were they? John leaned on the counter and commiserated.
“We’ve never had theatre here before, you see. It’s always the music. This is a first. Maybe they’re not used to it.”
He wiped a cloth up and down a beer pump judiciously:
“Also the Furies band is playing Westport tonight. There’ll be a lot of people at that. And that advert you put up. You spelt Molloys wrong on it. You wrote ‘L E Y’. That might have confused some of the visitors.”
He continued in a cheerier voice:
“Still, never mind. There’s some good stage lights rigged up for you. They were left over from last night.”
I decided to delay the start for half an hour.
By 9.40pm, there were enough people out front to justify starting. Stood in the shadows, announced “The time is 1898. The place is a café in Paris”, then strode on to the candle lit stage. John pressed his lighting switch and I was bathed in a sea of multi-coloured psychedelic fluorescence. It was spectacular but a café in Paris it was not. Breathed deep and went on with the speech.
“I have been driven to desperate measures to survive recently. Last month, I accepted an invitation to stay in Switzerland with Harold Mellor. A rather dreadful combination. Mellor is an extraordinary man; he has a face like a long dripping candle. I don’t think that he possesses a single redeeming vice and, although he has no enemies, he is thoroughly disliked by all his friends.”
The performance had been tired and there had been a fair deal of distraction caused by the constant to-ing and fro-ing across the front of the stage to the Ladies lavatories positioned by the side. Nevertheless, it received a good reaction. I’d got used to the idea of collecting by hat and tail-ended the show with some aplomb.
“It’s a free show but any donation would be gratefully received. The minimum contribution is one penny. The maximum hasn’t been worked out yet.”
Not exactly Petticoat Lane patter but it got a laugh and raised £33 – not bad really. Went back upstairs and changed. Accidentally kicked a pint of lager over the Wilde costume and the rucksack. Shit! From now on I’d be stinking of beer as well as all the other odours of the road.
Drank a supply of free pints provided by Yvonne and talked to a holiday-maker from Derry called Kevin and his twelve year old daughter. The talk drifted round to life in his hometown. Mentioned that I’d been in Derry last weekend.
“Nothing happened at all but coming into Ulster out of the blue and with an English accent you can’t help but worry a bit. I suppose it was just paranoia but there did seem to be some tension in the air.”
Kevin shook his head.
“No, that wasn’t paranoia. It’s the Apprentice Boy’s March tomorrow. It could be a nasty weekend up there. I grew up with the Troubles. Paisley’s Third Force paraded just outside our house when I was a kid. My brother was aged ten and he waved the Tricolour at them from our bedroom window. It was scary.”
He ordered another round.
“Still, we’re here for a holiday away from all that.”
He smiled fondly at his daughter. “Did you see her watching you on stage. She was spellbound. She wants to be an actress.”
The little girl nodded shyly and visibly searched for a compliment. “I thought the lights were great.”
A couple called Liam and Caroline came up to chat and it turned out that they worked with a theatre-in-education group in Ballina, a town about thirty miles north of here. Caroline asked where the next show was due. I groaned.
“It’s meant to be in Clifden. It’s a weekend tomorrow so there won’t be any lifts and the only bus doesn’t leave till two thirty in the afternoon. Which leaves me five hours to get to Clifden, find accommodation and persuade somebody to loan me their pub. Then advertise the show and then perform it as well. On a Saturday and with no contacts. It looks like a disaster. I really don’t know whether I can get it together in time.”
Caroline looked at Liam then said “Why don’t you do it in Ballina? We know people there.”
I started “Well, you see, Clifden is the next town on the schedule.”
Then I stopped. Why should it be? The schedule wasn’t carved in stone. The deal had been twenty towns in forty days but the actual choice of towns had been random to say the least. Certainly I would be travelling in the wrong direction, north rather than south, but it would be far easier to find a venue where I had a contact rather than going in cold to a town where there was none. Time for flexible thinking and a quick decision.
“You’re right. Do you think that it might be possible to find somewhere for tomorrow night?”
Caroline nodded “I think so. Ring me tomorrow morning.”
The die was cast.
By midnight, the pub had emptied. Asked Yvonne where I could get some food.
“You could try the Blue Thunder.” She paused and thought. “But I don’t advise it.”
The main street was packed with drunken teenagers and guarded Garda. However, collected a curry and chips without incident and returned to the flat to discover that I was sharing it with three builders currently working for Matt Molloy. We sat in the front room, each chewing curry and chips. It appeared to be the essential diet of apres-midnight Westport.
Lay in bed and realised that I’d only drunk four pints of lager tonight. Back in the Magdala, everyone, including myself, had agreed that the major obstacle to the success of the tour was that I would be ambushed by the liquor. But because the shows were starting so late there simply wasn’t enough time for serious drinking. It was the secret weapon that simply had never crossed my mind. Ah ha.
DAY EIGHT. SATURDAY
At 7.30am I woke to the sound of clattering crockery in the kitchen and wandered out to join the builders over a pot of tea. Rain beat against the windows and the conversation sagged desultorily. It was not a good morning. Then the foreman tried the outside door. Unbelievably we were locked in again. Oh God, not another Mayo flag job?
This time, however, one of Matt’s barmen was also sleeping upstairs. A few irate minutes of rapping on his door and he emerged blinking in a dressing gown and bearing the key. The builders left and the barman wordlessly returned to bed. I sat drinking tea and watching the rain bounce off the grey slate roofs across the yard. Everything depended on the phone call to Caroline. If the Ballina contacts failed, then it was going to be a frightful hassle getting Clifden together.
Levered Bosie down the narrow staircase then walked along Bridge St to a phone box. Caroline’s voice sounded cheerful.
“Yes, it looks as if things are OK. There’s a pub in Ballina called Gaughan’s. Ask for John.” Oh, Caroline, you total darling!
Rang Brendan in Galway to tell him about the switch. “I know I’m going north again but generally I’m drifting south. Rather like the plague.”
Brendan sounded sleepy.
“We may have a problem in Galway as well. The place I was thinking of, the Roisin Dubh, has got a music festival running. I don’t think you’ll be able to play there. Still, don’t worry, I’ve got a Plan B.”
“These days, Brendan,” I replied “I’m living on Plan B’s.”
Ducked into a café and ate breakfast and chips; then out into the rain again and checked the bus timetable to Ballina. There was nothing at all till four in the afternoon. Although it would be through fairly deserted country and it was a weekend and it was raining, there was no choice but to hitch. Walked along Bridge St looking for a signpost to Ballina. Suddenly my arm was grabbed and a man peered uncertainly at me.
“It’s Neil, isn’t it?”
A woman walked up smiling and stood beside him. Stared at them, then recognition flooded through.
“Liamy! And Geraldine!”
How completely astonishing! The last time that I’d seen them was in a pub called Minogues in London over ten years ago. Liamy had been the bar manager and Geraldine, his girlfriend, had worked there with him. We exchanged news excitedly. They were married now and had returned to Ireland to live in Westport.
“I read somewhere that you were touring about” said Liamy “That’s how I recognised you. Look, come on back for a cup of tea.”
“The trouble is that I’ve got to hitch-hike to Ballina by this afternoon.”
“We’re driving over to Dundalk later today. We can give you a lift to Ballina.”
Oh boy, when Fortune smiles!
Sat and chatted in their kitchen as various friends and relations dropped in and out. Liamy and Gerardine had always managed to generate a wonderfully friendly atmosphere whether in a bar or, as now, in their own home. It was genuinely good to see them again – they were the sort of people who make life glow.
All the same, as Liamy explained, they had experienced some difficulties since the London days.
“We lived in Luton for a while before coming back. It’s taken me three years to get Luton out of my soul.”
The conversation shifted to reminiscences about life at Minogue’s Bar in Islington a decade ago.
“My favourite character in the bar” said Gerardine “was the old piano player. He was a total alcoholic but he really had style. He went to his doctor once and the doctor asked him how much he was drinking.
‘Twenty two pints a day.’
‘Twenty two pints?’ went the doctor.
‘Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration but, ye see, with my condition ye tend to see double.”
Liamy took up the story.
“One night we got a call from the local police saying that there’d been a bomb threat to the pub. We used to get them all the time so I wasn’t too bothered. But I thought we’d better evacuate the place for a bit just in case. Everyone was standing out in the Liverpool Road chatting for a few minutes while I had a quick look around. Suddenly an upstairs window flew open and the piano player appeared in his pyjamas.
‘So, ye Fenian bastards! Ye’d leave the Protestants to burn, would ye?!”
It turned out that Liamy now worked as a journalist on Mid-West Radio. Immediately we both leapt on the idea that the Wilde tour could be broadcast as another ‘Tony Hawks and Fridge’ phenomenon. Then, remembering the recalcitrant mobile, I shook my head.
“There’s no way that I could keep in touch.”
Instead we had a costumed photo call on the road outside followed by a taped radio interview. Explained the basic idea of the trip and then told him the story about being locked in at Matt Molloys with the football flag.
“Hm” mused Liamy “It strikes me you would have been in the perfect position to write the Ballad of Westport Jail.”
At 2.30pm, we drove out of town back along the Castlebar road. Relaxed and thought about the terrific friendliness that I’d met so far. Somewhere in Donegal, I’d seen a tea towel designed for the tourist market with the inscription:
‘In Ireland, there are no strangers. There are just friends you haven’t met yet.’
My city-ingrained cynicism had readjusted the saying to:
‘In London, there are no strangers. There are just people who haven’t mugged you yet.’
But strangely, the cynicism was beginning to melt. Maybe the tea towel was right after all?
NEXT WEEK on Tuesday February 26 – Ballina, the Moonlight, and the Horse.