Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Pub Grub

As with any story, we have to set the scene. Today, I find myself in a tiny village on the Ring of Kerry. I was in no rush, so I decided to explore and ended up finding a gem. I love villages. They have all you need, but in a handy size, villagers are the ultimate multi-taskers. O'Brien's Funeral Home, O'Brien's Hardware, and O'Brien's Ladies Fashions, occupied one small building, and of course, only one O'Brien. The epitome of Irish village life has to be, the combined shop and pub. A shebeen, (you say it She Bean). For those yet to visit Ireland, I will do my best to describe the one I sit in, now.

The front door is brown timber, with opaque glass, it's split in the middle, instead of opening fully from one side. The window facing the street is crammed with tins of beans, boxes of cornflakes, dairy milk gift boxes, dog food, light bulbs, to name a few items. High on one corner of the exterior, hangs an ancient Guinness sign, the only hint that a drink lay within.

Inside, the floor is natural limestone, polished to a dull shine, by years of shoe leather.The first half of this narrow building is home to the shop. The high counter is made of dark timber, worn light by years of goods passing over it. On the end of he counter, is a weighing scales, with stacks of cast iron weights. In the corner, near the door, you will find peat briquettes and sacks of potatoes. Along the back wall, a short bench huddles, with newspapers scattered atop it.

Behind the mottled counter, a massive fridge dominates the available space. It looks like an art-deco coffin, stood on its end. The back wall is shelved, from floor to ceiling. It is not the amount of products that is interesting, but eclectic variety on offer. There is the normal stuff, like bread, tea, coffee, sugar etc, are all represented. What's with the four tins of white paint, flanked by cigarettes and boxes of nails? Or the motor oil, hair brushes, fly spray and boot polish, that I could see? Clearly, they stocked in accordance to the specific needs of the people who shopped here.

Then, there is the partition. These shop/pub combos, differ in many ways, but the feature common to all, is the partition. It rises about six and a half feet tall, the timber bottom is scuffed with years of boot marks, where feet rested, while chats were held. The top section of that partition is dappled glass, so only shadows of those moving within could be seen. In the past, this partition served to protect the gentle nature of Sunday mass goers, from the rowdiness of drinking men. The fact that everyone knew who, and what, was behind the partition, did not matter in the slightest.

Walking through the partition door is like Alice walking through the looking glass. Nothing much actually changed while still being completely different. The shelves behind the counter were the same except filled with spirit bottles. The counter was the same but here there were high stools and beer taps perched on it. Small tables and  string topped stools dotted the polished stone floor. The bench covered outside with papers continued its journey along the back wall. Here it hosted men drinking pints of porter and chatting happily. The bar man bobbed from one side of the partition to the other.Shop assistant one moment, barman the next. It is the atmosphere which had changed completely. You were now a member in a different circle, the wilder few. Words that caused scowls the far side of the flimsy partition were welcomed and enjoyed in this drinking den. Eyes twinkled with naughtiness.

As I said, I love these places. They are a remnant of a gentler time. Despite the décor, having remained untouched, (thank god), for fifty years, you can't stifle progress. It seeps inwards like an ocean mist seeps into your bones. In the fridge, alongside milk and bottles of Guinness, nestle cans of Monster energy drink. The bar man, who once would have worn a peaked cap, but now sported an i-phone, most of the customers still sported wellington boots, but occasionally the bottom of the counter would feel the expensive brush of Jimmy Choo. What I really wanted to share with you, is a story the bar man told me.

In the mid eighties, Irish tourism was making its mark. Tour buses were a regular sight on the highroads and byroads of the country. The Ring of Kerry, has always been one of the places to visit when tripping around our Emerald Isle. The bus drivers would stop in this, very, village to give the camera toting tourists, a chance to click some real Irish people, doing what they did best, posing for tourists. 

Back then, this shebeen was owned by a man called Murphy, and logically called "Murphys". One memorable day, a few American people wandered in and ordered glasses of Guinness. Murphy was a renowned rogue, and liked nothing more than taking the micky out of his customers. 

Being accustomed to a better service environment, one American lady turned to Murphy and asked, "Sir do you have any food?" 
Murphy lifted his flat cap and itched his shiny head, thinking hard.
"I could make you a ham sandwich, if you wanted," he offered. 
"That would be lovely" said the woman. Whatever she had been expecting, it was not what happened next.

Murphy took a full pan of bread from shop, and ripped open the wax paper on the bar counter in front of the American Tourist. Pinching some bread between his meaty, callused, fingers. He tossed them directly on the bar counter, in front of the shocked woman. From the same fridge that still sits in the shop today, he extracted a full pound of Kerrygold butter. Murphy opened the foil with filthy fingers, before dropping the open butter beside the bread, while he went in search of a knife. After failing to find suitable implement, Murphy decided to use the beer strop instead. He didn't even wash the hard plastic spatula, before using it, to lather butter thickly on the bread.

From a hook over the fridge, hung a full smoked leg of ham. Murphy unhooked it, and slapped it on the counter, beside the bread. Still having no knife, he pulled lumps of meat free with his fingers, piling them on the greasy bread. The look of amazed horror, was nailed on the face of the poor American woman. As it happened, it was a warm summers day, and fly's were everywhere. One scooted down and landed directly on the mountain of ham and bread, laying on the bar counter. Murphy stopped what he was doing, and stared at the cheeky fly. He grabbed his greasy peaked cap from his head, and deftly swatted the fly where it stood.

Replacing his cap, Murphy flicked the flattened body of the fly off the ham, before slamming the top slice of bread home, with his filthy paw. Having no plate to hand, he slid the uncut sandwich across the bar towards the horrified tourist. 

Murphy fixed her with a devilish smile, 
"There you are misus. I'm a stickler for the hygiene,"  he said, with a wink to the locals, holding in belly laughs up and down the bar.

I am fairly sure that sandwich never got eaten.

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