TAYLOR’S BAR, GALWAY
It had to be the bus this time. All the anti-hitching factors had come into play – a Sunday, a country road in the West, and a hangover. It was a jackpot of excuses.
Travelled south down the lovely Moy valley and arrived back in Castlebar at 3pm. This was the third time I’d been here in three days; it was getting to be a habit. A change of buses, then further south through the flat Plains of Mayo, along the broad main street of Claremorris, over the Co Galway border, and skirting the square church tower of Tuam.
This was an area of more Wildean reminders. To the west, Lough Corrib and Moytura had been one of the summer haunts of the Wilde family. His father, Sir William, had written a popular book about the lake and it obviously had been a favourite spot for Oscar. He wrote about summer days by the water and of ‘the great melancholic carp, too lazy to be afraid, that swam up for titbits from the children’.
On a less halcyon note, the town of Tuam provided me with a flashback of my own. At a Fleadh Cheoil in the Seventies, I had managed to remain ensconced in one pub for 42 hours non-stop, an impressive bash even by Fleadh standards.
[NB. 15 years later I travelled back through this area with my son Sean Titley and after three hours of searching came across the grave of the all round Renaissance figure and great Irishman Oliver St John Gogarty. This film was taken then.]
It was a hot, sunny afternoon by the time we drove into the bus/train station of Galway City. Excavated Bosie from the luggage compartment and trundled it on to the concourse. I wanted a newspaper and the only place to buy one was at the far end of a small crowded café. Manipulating the ungainly bulk of Bosie through the cramped tables was difficult enough but, on exiting, the doorway was blocked by two French students busily involved in conversation. Annoyingly, they did not bother to move and the only option was to squeeze between them. Bosie’s left wheel ran over an unwary foot. I apologised profusely to the hopping man, while being unable to suppress a certain inward glee.
Walked out into Eyre Square, a green field in the heart of Galway City, an expanse of grass, trees and backpackers stretched in the sun. On one of the pavements fringing the square and right in front of a bank, an old bearded man also lay prone, resting his head on a paving slab. Passers-by stepped gingerly around his out-flung beer can-clutching hand. It reminded me of a glorious line that I’d read somewhere; I think it was from JP Donleavy’s ‘The Ginger Man’:
“He’s not drunk, he’s just listening to the heartbeat of the city.’
Phoned Brendan and arranged to meet him at the Roisin Dubh bar later, then made my way down the main pedestrianised street looking for something to eat. After a week in the quietness of Donegal and Mayo, it was a surprising shock to be back in the crowds and the racket of city life. Had a cod and chips meal while crushed in the aisle of a ridiculously popular café, as the queues jostled and clambered their way over Bosie. It was like dining on a rush hour tube train in Tokyo.
Continued on down to the mouth of the River Corrib to where it entered Galway Bay. There was a wide bridge and on the western side a long quay that had been grassed over and planted with a few trees. Slumped down against one of them and let the fatigue seep in. I had reached the end of the tether – the foreshortened night sleeps, the travel, the booze, the ceaseless activity, the strain of performance, and the constant lugging around of Bosie had combined together. The exhaustion that had been threatening for days had finally bitten for real. Dozed on the ground, my head pillowed on the rucksack.
Woke at 7pm and brushed the earth off my clothes. The nap had taken some of the edge off the tiredness, but another evening of pleasure loomed unavoidably ahead. Strolled along to the Roisin Dubh. It was an excellent bar but crammed to the walls mostly with students, while a traditional band pounded away in the rear. Huddled in a corner and cautiously sipped a pint.
Brendan arrived. Despite my lacklustre mood, it was wonderful to see him. Apart from some extra facial lines and hair recession, he’d hardly changed from the old days – tall, immensely elegant and with the natural ease and courtesy of a Celtic chieftain. The father of three and grandfather of two, he had spent most of his working life as a bank manager and had only recently taken early retirement. But any images that might be conjured up by the words ‘bank manager’ were utterly at odds with the reality of Brendan.
He was yet another Bob Dylan addict (wherever else Dylan’s star may have waned, it was certainly alive and kicking in Connaught). Having acquired an interest in a local record shop, he was the main advisor on all aspects of rock and Irish music. For many years he had been an organiser and participant in the supporters’ club tours accompanying the foreign matches of the Irish football team – a club that had famously and mostly peaceably drunk its way across the world. As he stood before me, dressed in denim and a baseball cap, any resemblance to a bank official had disappeared completely. He looked more like the revered survivor of a Sixties American rock band. We plunged straight into a sea of news and reminiscence.
Brendan summoned a barman and Bosie was pushed away for safe keeping upstairs. We moved to join a group of Brendan’s friends clustered at the main bar counter, the senior common room of the Roisin Dubh. He introduced me to at least a dozen people – again and again I explained the Wilde tour while the pints kept coming. At one point Brendan, remembering the purpose of my visit, disappeared then re-entered about four minutes later with the news that the show could be performed tomorrow night in Taylors, the pub next door.
“Jaysus, I never thought theatrical promotion could be that easy. I said, do you want a play on here, and he said Yes, and that was that.”
Halleluiah – venue number five was fixed!
The evening wore on as my energy wore off. For one of the first times ever, I was thankful to hear the closing bell at eleven and say goodbye to the crowd.
The relief was short lived. As Brendan led the way round the back streets he explained that he had an ‘interest’ in another bar called the Crane. Furthermore, his youngest daughter, Aoife, was working there and we would be unable to leave till her shift ended at 2am. Followed him up some stairs into the new hostelry. Oddly enough, all the people to whom we’d just said farewell in the Roisin Dubh were now sitting in the Crane raising their glasses in welcome.
Sat on a bar stool with a new pint and talked to my neighbour, a carpenter from Cork. Mentioned that I was thinking of going to the Aran Islands. He replied that, contrary to what I’d heard, the only way to get there from Galway was on a cargo ship that left at 8am. Asked him whether it was permitted to erect a tent on the islands.
“Yes, that’s not a problem. The problem is that there’s no earth there. It’s pure rock. You’d never get the tent pegs in.”
“I’ve got a hammer.”
“A hammer, for Christ’s sake? Listen, you’d need a pneumatic drill before you’d get anywhere!”
Slowly but unstoppably, my eyelids started to droop. And for the first time in decades I fell asleep on the bar counter. Firstly, with that misty half doze where you can still hear the surrounding conversation, then right off into a dream.
Woke with a start ten minutes later to find the pub scene continuing with total unconcern. Felt a lot better. It was at moments like this that one remembers just how much one survives on basics. Normally, sleep and food are so routine that one almost forgets why one does it, but that short doze was like putting petrol into an empty tank. Brendan’s daughter, Aoife, placed a fresh pint in front of me. She was a good-looking eighteen-year-old with amused eyes. I apologised for the incivility of sleeping on her bar. She laughed and pointed at the far end of the counter. Two other men were gently snoring, their heads cushioned on their arms.
“Some of the guys come here each day like they were going to work. Their wives even make up bags of sandwiches for them.”
Finally Aoife closed the bar and the three of us left to find a taxicab office. As we walked through the streets, we could hear the sound of Abba singing ‘Dancing Queen’. The odd thing was that the noise never receded or increased; it accompanied us round each corner. It suddenly dawned that the radio in my rucksack had turned itself on. There are things that happen in the bottom of rucksacks that the human brain cannot comprehend.
The taxi turned out to be a London black cab – an unlikely spectacle in a Galway night, but a welcome one. We drove ten miles west on the Oughterard road to the village of Moycullen. Brendan’s house was a lovely old foursquare building with large rooms. The stairwell was dominated by a poster for Bob Dylan’s 1978 Blackbushe concert. Went to the bedroom, sat down to undress and keeled over fast asleep on top of the bed at 3am.
DAY TEN. MONDAY
Woke and looked at the clock – 8 30am. Damn it, even in extremis I could only manage less than six hours straight sleep. Went down to the kitchen where Brendan was making breakfast. No sign of Aoife; she still possessed the teenager’s enviable capacity for boundless hibernation. We sat and ate poached eggs while Brendan reminisced about his foreign football tours, particularly about the trip to Italy for the 1990 World Cup.
“One day, I think it was in Naples, there were a big crowd of us sitting round waiting for the match in the evening. The Paddies had come to town. Down the road some Italian workers were building a big wall about forty feet long and eight feet high and they were making heavy weather of it. About midday they all disappeared for a siesta. One of the lads suggested that we finish it off for them. Well, you had over two hundred of the most experienced builders you’d find anywhere; these boys were veterans of hundreds of sites. So, just for the craic, they rolled up their sleeves and went for it. Within a couple of hours they had the whole thing finished and topped out. Then they sat and waited. Half an hour later, the Italians came back. There wasn’t money in the world enough to have bought the expression on their faces.”
Brendan left to collect his car from Galway, while I had a very necessary bath and then wandered around the garden playing with the dogs, cats and rabbits. It was an animal friendly house; Aoife was even rearing bats in the roof. Decided to do a bit of forward planning and rang the next contact, Michaela in Dingle, who was covering the Co Kerry shows. It turned out that Dingle itself was fine but the planned show in Killarney was not. Neither was Tralee.
“It’s the week of the Rose of Tralee Festival. It’ll be almost impossible to find a venue there, it’s packed out.”
Michaela thought for a moment.
“But why don’t you try Listowel? It’s quite near Tralee and there’s a famous pub there called the John B Keane. The man who owns it is one of the last great Irish writers. He wrote ‘The Field’, that film with Richard Harris and John Hurt. I’m sure they’d be sympathetic.”
It looked like yet more flexible thinking was on the cards, even if it meant that the original plan was disintegrating.
Having roused Aoife at one pm, we drove back into Galway and parked in a back street. Brendan waved to a man on the far pavement.
Robbie was short and wiry with laughing eyes and a huge bodhran drum strapped to his back. He looked across at us, then went into a crouch with one arm stretched ahead and the bodhran level on top of him.
“Ninja Turtle” he announced. He straightened up and said that he’d been to a funeral that morning.
“I went up to the coffin to pay respects to the corpse. Jaysus, it was a woman in there, not a man. I’d gone to the wrong feckin’ funeral”.
We strolled on through the city with Brendan constantly greeting friends and acquaintances, most of whom were complaining of hangovers. It was the same at his record shop where two of his colleagues were blearily discussing the symptoms. After a quick meal at the Tomas O’Riorda restaurant, where the waiter grumbled about his hangover, we reached the Roisin Dubh where the ‘Monday Club’ of afternoon drinkers were sipping pints to recover from their hangovers. It struck me that the discussion of hangovers in Galway was the equivalent of the English discussing the weather.
“A couple of years back, Galway was invaded by the travellers, the Crusties. They all had dogs because if they owned a dog, they could get a seventy pound a year grant. But the Crusties weren’t exactly popular. One of them stuck his head round the door of Taylors one day and asked if it was all right to bring the dog in. The landlord said:
‘Sure, no problem, the dog can come in. But you can’t.”
We talked to another customer, a filmmaker called Kieran, who was bemoaning the fact that, having arranged a film unit and crew for a shoot, he’d had a row with the star. The star had walked off and Kieran was left with nothing to film.
After a return to Moycullen, a meal and the now obligatory siesta, we went back in Taylors by eight. However, the sleep had not worked as well as usual and I was still feeling wrecked. Also, and much more worryingly, the cold had developed with an additional touch of laryngitis. We checked out the performance space in the back bar – obviously it was not much frequented, with the result that, as the furniture had gradually broken in the main bar, the worst casualties had been moved into the back. Decided that, despite the imminent arrival of the audience, we would have to do some renovation with the aid of a hammer, masking tape and wet dusters.
While I made up, the first audience member came in and helped out with the dusting. She was a young woman with red corkscrew curls who said:
“This’ll be interesting because I don’t know anything about Oscar Wilde. We weren’t taught about him in school. I didn’t even realise that he was Irish.”
Nine pm was the projected start time and we had five people in the audience. But, by now, I was getting accustomed to the Irish attitude on punctuality. Anywhere else in the world and having five audience members out front at curtain up would be regarded as a disaster. Here, you just changed the starting time, sat back and lit a cigarette. Began to realise how Wilde had formulated his epigram:
‘Punctuality is the thief of time.’
However, forty minutes later, the bar had almost filled out and there was a distinct buzz in the air that quietened as the show began.
“Someone tried to commission me to write a biography of, oh, Lord Macauley, I believe it was. But I loathe biographies. I read one on Byron last week. It was detestable. Just the sort of biography that Guildenstern would have written about Hamlet. We used to canonise our heroes. Now we vulgarise them. Biographers – those second-rate literati who arrive with the undertaker. The body snatchers of literature. The dust is given to one, the ashes to another and the soul is entirely out of their reach.”
It started well and just got better. This time there were very few distractions, no loud queues at the bar or lavatory seekers. Only a few mobiles went off – ‘The William Tell Overture’ vying with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at one point – but, apart from that, the concentration was mutual on both sides. In fact, it was the best show so far and the audience erupted into cheers and foot stomping at the end. A girl who had been silently crouching in the aisle all through the performance leapt to her feet clapping and broke into a dance. It was all quite wonderful and, as I plunged through the audience with outstretched hat, over £60 worth of cash rained into it.
Sat down to take off the make-up. The girl who had danced came up behind me and said quietly:
“That was gas”.
I looked up at her – gleeful eyes, a sinuous body, a magnetic sparkle – she was simply the most stunningly beautiful girl that I’d seen in Ireland, and that was against some serious competition. Can you fall in love in ten seconds? Yeah, you certainly can. Then her boyfriend signalled from the door and she was gone. All those song lyrics about ‘sweet colleens’ suddenly began to make sense again.
The next visitor, though not quite so physically attractive, was the bearer of some terrific news. It was Kieran, the thwarted filmmaker:
“I’ve just phoned a friend in the Aran Islands called Michael. He’s a good guy and he’s mad for the Arts. He says you can do your show at his place and have free accommodation. It’s called the Bay Café.”
Fantastic! Destiny once more had skidded off in a fresh direction. Gort was abandoned and the Arans were on.
What with the uplift of Kieran’s news, the adrenalin of a good show, and with the added zest of being madly, if pointlessly, in love again, I re-joined Brendan and the crowd from the Roisin Dubh in buoyant spirits. The pints came rolling in and the head cold receded. Robbie, the ‘Ninja Turtle’ from this morning, sat down next to me:
“Sorry I didn’t see your play. It’s because I can never keep my mouth shut in a theatre. Whatever it is, I always get banned.”
A grin spread over his face.
“Listen to this. Did you hear about Cliff Richard’s last tour of Japan? Well, I’ll tell you. He’d done about two hours on stage and he’d got to the encores. So he asks the audience for requests. Somebody shouts out ‘Living Doll’, so he does ‘Living Doll’. Then it’s ‘Congratulations’ and he does ‘Congratulations’. Then somebody shouts out ‘Itchy Fanny’. Cliff stops and says seriously ‘I have never and I would never sing a song called Itchy Fanny.’ Well, that gets the fans all confused and they start shouting ‘But you do sing it. Yeah, we want Itchy Fanny!’ Cliff shakes his head and the fans get really frenzied. ‘We want Itchy Fanny! Look, here is your record of it’ and they start waving CDs at him. Then some of them start singing the chorus: ‘It-Chy Far-ny that we don’t ta-a-a-lk any more’.”
Time and Guinness passed. Ever since arriving, I’d been curious to know exactly what was the official pub closing time of the Republic and I asked the crowd. To most hardened drinkers in Britain, closing time is not just fixed in the brain but seared there in luminous numerals. Not here though – puzzlement all round. A barman said with creased brow:
“I’ll go and look it up for you if you like.”
By 1am, finally and lingeringly, the bar did shut. Found a matchbox with the pub insignia on it and had it signed by ‘Robbie the Bodhran’ as the wager proof of performance. An Italian woman called Maria added a rather nice message: ‘Ciao, bella, e buoni fortuna’.
Hurtled back through the rain to Moycullen in a very fast taxi, then stood in the kitchen toasting the success of the evening with mugs of tea. Said goodbye to Aoife – due to the early start for the Arans, there seemed little chance of seeing her in the morning. The ferries did run more frequently than I’d been told, but it would still be way before she got up. Slept at 2am.
DAY ELEVEN. TUESDAY
Looked out of the bedroom window at a brilliantly sunny morning. It was half past eight. But there was a problem. My throat was now raw and there was a hard brittle cough to accompany it. Downstairs, I joined Brendan for breakfast; he commiserated about the throat.
“That’s bad luck. And you’ve got another show to do tonight.”
I nodded glumly. “Yes. Still, I’ve got a rest day tomorrow.”
He looked askance and I realised what I’d just said.
“Hmm.” I continued, “Apart from taking a sea journey to County Clare and then somehow hitching through eighty miles of country lanes to the Tarbert ferry and then getting to Listowel and then persuading a world famous author to lend me his pub and then trying to find somewhere to sleep. Apart from that, it’s a rest day.”
We drove back towards Galway and Brendan pointed out Lough Corrib on our left.
“Ashford Castle is a beautiful place. The old rich may have been bastards but at least they knew where and how to build their houses. The new crowd don’t. It’s not ‘look at the view’, it’s ‘look at me and my house’. That might be OK if the houses were worth looking at. But they’re not.”
I recalled that Oscar Wilde had stayed at the Castle himself – it was a lovely place indeed.
Parked up by Taylors, then walked through the sunlit streets and alleys of Galway. Felt quite downhearted to be leaving Brendan and this lovely city. We halted at the corner turning to his shop and clasped goodbye.
“It’s good luck to part company on a corner.” said Brendan.
NJT between Oscar and Edouard Wilde, Galway, 2014
Edouard Wilde – a gift from Estonia, Galway
Next week on 12 March – an AMAZING trip to the Aran Isles;