One of the most evocative images of exile in An Spailpín Fánach’s fragile psyche, for whatever reason, is of Frank Ryan taking his last look at the Irish shoreline from the conning tower of German U-boat, on his way from Franco’s Spain to Hitler’s Germany, exile, and death.
An Spailpín resonated a little with how the incorrigible old Republican must have felt last night when a text message confirmed, once and for all, that Gaughan’s Bar, O’Rahilly St, Ballina, Co Mayo, is no more. The premises still stands, and the lunch trade of international renown continues, but from this moment on Gaughan’s is that most deconsecrated of churches, a pub with no beer. The license has been sold and from now on you can get nothing stronger across the counter than coffee, tea and porter cake. And a tremendous sadness settles on An Spailpín as he contemplates that thought.
When people talk about their locals, they try and pin down this ineffable thing that we refer to, with doubtful spelling, as “craic.” This is not the case to those that raised a glass in Gaughan’s, and left it down empty. One of the many delights of a Saturday night in Gaughan’s was watching the slow implosion of a visiting hen night in Ballina who made the mistake of visiting Gaughan’s instead of finding a hostelry that might have suited them better. They would arrive glammed to the nines, cackling happily around the big table just to the left of the door, their bottles of Smirnoff Ice clutched in scarlet talons. After half an hour, all hopes and dreams of the future would have left them. The chief bridesmaid would dream of nursing the poor in Mozambique or along the coast of Malabar, the bride-to-be’s sister would swear to dedicate her life to fighting injustice and inequality where-e’er she found them, while the inchoate blushing bride herself would think of taking the veil, and signing up with the Poor Clares first thing in the morning.
An Spailpín well remembers the night some broken hens left Gaughan’s in silence, trailing their wings out the door. One of their party had just come down from the ladies, and scurried out to rejoin her sisters. A knight of the back bar high stools put it best: “she took one look at us boys, she turned on her heel and she left.”
And fair weather after her – I hope she found better luck nursing beneath that Indian star. Her disappointment was only ever equalled by that of Gunther, Fritz and Johann who had bought Dubliners records by the dozen and had now come to Ireland to participate in this thing they call the “craic.” Porter ordered, smiles all around, one of that visiting tribe would push the chair back from the table, and launch into the Wild Rover or the Black Velvet Band. But before he could tell how he had spent all his money on whiskey and beer, or of a sad misfortune that caused him to stray from the land, the curate on duty would have materialised at his shoulder, and told him, gently but firmly, that if he wanted to sing he had better sing on the street, and not be disturbing the customers. Nonplussed is too weak a word to describe the typical reaction.
The singing ban was lifted for the Ballina Fleadhanna of 1997 and ’98, and An Spailpín is happy to remember that, as he drank what I now sadly realise was my last ever pint of stout in Gaughan’s, Mick Leonard was belting out that sad old ballad about the Boston Burglar, who went midnight rambling, breaking laws of God and man, and paid for it dearly. Why was Mick not shown the door now the Fleadhanna are eight years past? I guess we all get mellow towards the end.
Dreadful curmudgeon that he is, An Spailpín is not a fan of Christmas, but I will miss Christmas Eve in Gaughan’s dreadfully. The town is busy, and people go in and out, meeting, greeting, drinking and departing. There’s an excited hubbub at all times, and we exchange presents – almost invariably booze, as I recall, as if we hadn’t enough of the stuff as it was. Those Christmas Eves were all smoky as well, not just from that warm stove just inside the door, under the pipe racks, but from the fact that ever sinner in the joint was puffing gaspers. The smoking ban has been good for the people and the country, but for a bar that was famous as pipe-smokers’ corner, and that had pipes for sale worth hundreds of pounds, it was perhaps a premonition that the centre couldn’t hold.
And now it’s all gone, never to return. Is it allowable, I wonder, to think of those who have been and are also gone, or is it a sign of disrespect to their memory? It’s facile and juvenile to compare the closing of a bar with a death, but at the same time, it is the closing of another door, and presager of our own mortality, in its way. A way of life has ended, and while I mourn it, it seems unfair not to remember those with whom I shared happy times there, and on whom time was called early, in a manner that seemed neither fair nor just. And as such, in memory of those many nights together, I raise a final glass to Brendan and Bernie, one whom I knew a little, and one whom I knew a little better, and say that another little piece of the past has passed on with you. We that are left move on while those that are gone stroll the Elysian Fields, and while we’ll always have other bars there will never be another Eden, Camelot or Gaughan’s. We can only hope for that happy day when we’re all together again ar slí na fírinne, as that lovely expression goes, sharing a glass together. And even now An Spailpín can but smile as he foresees, just as the archangel takes a deep breath and raises the Last Trump to his lips, a man comes out from behind the bar and says “lookit, you can’t play that thing in here, disturbing my customers.” And so, until that happy, blissful day, farewell then, Gaughan’s; hail and farewell.
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