The Cork Arms
A Parched Throat
Irish pubs are an enigma. You can walk into any pub, anywhere, and be served a traditional Guiness, or Bushmill’s or tea or [mostly instant] coffee. The proprietor always has the interests of the till uppermost in his/her mind. What you get after that, is as unpredictable as Irish weather.
The clientele might be as friendly as your homeys back home, or they might be as unwelcoming as a snake in a mouse house. The pubs that we have been in, all seem to have two main drinking areas, one in the front, and one in the rear. In some the locals gather in the front, and non-locals in the rear, as it is in Carrigaholt, and in others, the inner sanctum is reserved for locals, and the outer room for visitors.
Being in the city of Cork last night, around eight or so, Ann and I decided to have a drink, so we started in the hotel bar, where I had hoped to become better acquainted with my new friend, Redbreast Irish Whiskey. I had to “settle” for Jameson, but after Ann finished her wine, and I my shot, we went back out on the main drag, and walked to the left for about a block or so. We walked past the very lively (read that as noisy) Murphy’s Pub, and settled instead on the Cork Arms, primarily because Eric and Ann had walked past this pub earlier, and noted that there was a sign that indicated that there was live, traditional Irish music, on Wednesday nights, beginning at ten o’clock.
We were all about it, and though it turned out that the live music was indeed available, it was not in the Cork Arms, but rather, another pub a block down the street. Since it wasn’t close to ten yet, we opted to stay where we were, in this little pub only a couple hundred feet from the Gresham Metropole, our hotel. We walked in, drifted to the left, and sat at the window table and chairs, at the very front of the pub.
There were three patrons already there, with a fourth going in and out having a fag. Smoke always ended up drifting back inside, as it did in all of the pubs, but I still find it interesting that tobacco restrictions are very similar here, to what exists back home. The Irish will smoke their fags, but they’ll smoke them outside. The current patrons were so toasted, that they were comical indeed. Annie said they had been there earlier, when she and Eric had stopped by, and their demeanor supported that observation.
Annie kept telling me that these folks were giving us a show, because they did not mind at all that we were foreigners, and they were holding nothing back. I could listen to them, and I could hear them, but I could not make out anything that was being said. Annie said she could, but in trying to convey the gist of what was being said, she lost some chunks, which made it kind of hard to follow the thread of the conversation.
That soon changed, as two things happened at the same time. Noel, the barman who had talked with Annie earlier, got off shift, and came around to our table and joined us. In the next few minutes, the original four patrons moved on down the line, and a whole new cast of characters came on board. During the course of the evening, there were as many as twenty-five people in there at one time, and never fewer than a dozen or so.
Seven of these many patrons gradually separated themselves from the mob, and became part of the tapestry that comprised our evening. The first was Noel, three years younger than me, an outgoing, gregarious bartender, who actually worked eight hours as an electrician, before he began his four hour shift as a barkeep.
Next was Jim, a gentleman probably ten years my senior, who was the quietest of the group. Once Noel had confided to us, that Jim drank twenty-three pints of Guiness a day, we had a better idea of why it was that he might have been slowing down a bit. Twenty-three pints a day can be construed as pretty impressive, depending on your point of reference.
The third member of our group was Ray Lloyd, “a barrister who didn’t practise law, and a bookseller, who didn’t sell books.” I am quoting from a book written by the fourth of our circle, David Monagan. The book is called Ireland Unhinged, and was printed in 2011. Chapter ten, I had been told, was set in this pub, and talked about Ray, who actually was a barrister, though he no longer practiced law, and who owned a bookstore in which he did not work. The most he would admit to was “occasionally stacking” some of his books. Next was Johnny, somewhere in his early forties, and the most obviously inebriated of our circle.
Sixth was Patsy, the owner of The Cork Arms, and a very competent bar keep, if ever there was one, and last came Claire, an Irish lass of indeterminate age, as young as twenty-seven or so, but possibly in her late thirties. Hers was a sad story, but none of that came out until pretty late in the evening. Claire had only been in the Cork Arms once before, on the previous day.
In attempting to convey some of the atmosphere of the pub, I recorded bits and pieces of conversation, some of it out of synch with other events going on, and some of it overlapping. Except for the opening minutes, Annie and I were mostly apart. It was noisy in the pub, and there is no way that any one of us could have spoken to all seven members of our little circle, at the same time, so most of the following dialogue is kind of stacked one exchange upon another, in such a way that two or three patrons were part of each snipppet, and many simply between two of us only.
Noel: (From behind the bar) “So what’ll it be for you?”
Mark: “The house red for Annie, and I’ll have a shot of Black Bush on ice.” I was watching, after the experience Eric had the other night, when he had ordered the same thing in Carmody’s, and had seen that there was no Black Bush. At one point Noel’s hand drifted to the Jack Daniels, but eventually strayed up to the Bushmill’s decanter, and that’s what he poured. Based on what he charged me though, I determined that even if he had not found and served the Black Bush, at least I had not paid the premium price.
Noel: “So whereabouts in California are you from? San Francisco?” indicating Terra Jean’s cloth home, which was the material with SF Giants all over it.
Mark: “Farther up north than SF by close to four hours. Mendocino County,” I added hopefully, thinking that might ring a bell.
Ray: “Oh, then do you like mushrooms?” Excuse me? What were we supposed to make of that question?
Mark: “Well, I hope to tell you. What’s not to like?”
Ray: “No, not mushrooms you put on your pizza, the other kind.”
Mark: “Magic mushrooms? Ones that get you high?” One look at Ray’s glowing face told us all we needed to know.
Ray: “Yes, that’s right. When I was in California, mushrooms were very popular. Of course, I was one of those, what-do-you-call ‘em? Hippies. I was a hippy.”
Mark: “No way. One of them?” I had taken my mustache out of its dreads, shortly before venturing out, because as funny as it seems, the braided facial hair, though less conspicuous, drew infinitely more notice than its unbraided cousin. Even though it was more predominant, flowing beards were not uncommon, whereas braids were.
To look at Ray now, with his very Irish hat, and his neatly trimmed white beard, he looked like anything but a hippie.
Ray: “I’m afraid so. Of course, that was in my younger days.”
Ray: “I’m afraid so. Of course, that was in my younger days.”
Noel: To me, “So what are you after doing, back in the States?”
Mark: “I was a school teacher, teaching English, among other things. This summer I was working on a construction crew, building a house. But what I do more than anything else, is write.
Mark: “Books, but not to publish them, just to write them. I write a lot.” Of course, Terra Jean was poking out from my SF bag, and I patted her. “I can write anywhere; I post it on my blog.”
Noel: “Ray’s got three pages all about him in a book written by a man who comes to this very pub, almost every night.”
Patsy: (Who by this time had replaced Noel at the bar, while he swung around to our side, and joined us at our table.) “Sure and he’s usually here by this time. Let me give him a ring.” She pulled out a cell-phone and plugged in the number. I noticed that she was very amused by what she heard, after she had placed the call. She kept redialing the number, and handing it to other patrons, to listen. Apparently the source of the entertainment, was the fact that David actually answered his phone in an understandable, and presumably sober, tone of voice. We understood better, after David joined us, why this was so intriguing.
The spotlight shifted to the juke box at that moment, as a classic Memphis oldie came on, and Johnny came sidling down the length of the bar to join our table, animatedly playing what appeared to be a combination air guitar, and country-western baton, which he continually sighted down as though he were on stage, and lining up the microphone with his adoring fans.
Johnny: “Sure, and this is the grandest music in the world.”
Mark: “You look like you’re having a good time.” He sat down in the chair next to me, turned in my direction and beamed. His left foot was against my right one, and there was heel to thigh contact between me and my new best friend.
Johnny: “Do you like it?” His smile was gloriously ambiguous. Was he asking me if I liked the music, or the fact that he was seriously violating what we call in Cali, my personal space?
Mark: “Sure and this is the grandest music in the world.” Is there an echo in here?
Johnny: “Do they have music like this in California?”
Mark: [Just as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” came on] “Not so much, but you can find Patsy Cline in every bar in the world, which serves English-speaking men, and I could probably make a case for bars in non-English-speaking countries as well.”
That was a lot for Johnny to take in, but before we could continue, a ripple went through the bar, as Noel came hustling back to us.
Noel: “Sure, and Claire is after singing for us. She’s a professional, you know. Here’s her card.” And there it was, with a profile done in red on the one side of the business card, and her particulars alongside. Sweet timing. Springing to my feet, I said to Johnny, “Well now, we’re sure enough lucky tonight, aren’t we?”
Johnny’s smile lost none of its vibrancy, as he stood up also while we moseyed over to where the rest of the patrons had gathered. It turned out to be a false alarm, as Claire decided that there was a hungry woman in there, bursting to get out, and she’d better have a quick bite to eat. It couldn’t have worked out better for me.
David appeared now, dressed in a white suit, which matched in color, his hair and close-cropped beard. He came in high-stepping, literally. He appeared totally bombed, and was a dancin’ fool, intent on touching base with his cronies, with his knees. It was hilarious.
Noel: “David, here’s Ann and Mark to meet you. Mark writes too.”
David: “You do, now. Do you have a card?” producing his, and handing it over to me. I looked at it enough to see that there was an internet address, and slipped it into a jacket pocket. David was not Irish, though everyone takes on the lilt to a certain extent. It turned out the he was from Connecticut, and had only moved himself and his family to Ireland in 2000. Noel filled David in on our bio, while David’s dancing seemed to have ignited the pub. Whoa, there goes Annie in the middle of two others, dancing to an R&B ditty, blaring out of the speakers in the back part of the pub. David sat down right next to me.
David: “So what do you write?”
Mark: “I am writing about my experiences here in the old country, right at the moment. I write about these Giants of mine, each morning, but as far as full-length pieces of writing, there are two. One is a piece which describes a trip that my son and I took to Chicago, not too long after I retired from teaching. The other covers my military experiences.”
With his face about six inches from mine, he asked in all seriousness, “So, Mark, do you grow marijuana?” No one had mentioned reefer, as far as I knew.
Mark: “I do. Strictly for medicinal purposes, you understand.”
David: [He was obviously not expecting that response.] “You’re serious, now? You’re not kidding?”
Mark: “I have a medical marijuana prescription, which allows me to produce my own medication, so no, I’m not joking.”
David: “Well, is it good stuff?”
Mark: “It’s the best there is.” I had only given my girls back home the most fleeting of thoughts, since I had arrived, and I now marveled at the idea that something which had riveted my attention for so much of the past three months, could so efficiently be set aside.
David: “There may be something in this. This is good. This is something interesting.”
Mark: “Do you indulge?”
David: “I was at Woodstock. Were you at Woodstock?”
Mark: “Are you kidding? No way. My folks had too tight a leash on me; I was seventeen when Woodstock was happening.”
David: “So was I. In fact I turn 59 in fourteen days.”
Mark: “That’s funny. I turned 59 three days ago. We were born seventeen days apart.”
David: “This growing marijuana thing is really intriguing. Would you be willing to talk to a member of the Irish press?”
Mark: “Of course.”
David: “You know, we might want to work together on something like this.”
Mark: “Sure, I’d like to collaborate on something that lets people over here know what’s happening in California.”
David: “How long have you been growing it? Are you one of those hippies like Ray?”
Mark: “Now, David, do I look like a hippy?”
David: Laughing. “No, of course not.”
Mark: “You never answered my question. Do you smoke the herb?’
David: “Oh hell yes, just not very often.”
Mark: “Would you like to sample something that I brought with me?” Any thought that I did not have David’s full attention, evaporated.
David: “And how did you do that? How do you get it through Customs?”
Mark: “I didn’t bring herb, I brought cookies. Cookies that I made using reefer oil. No one bothered me about my cookies. Would you like to sample one?”
David: “Good God, not tonight, but yes, I would.”
Mark: “No, tonight would probably not be specifically too good of a situation. Be right back.”
Annie had her head bent over next to Claire’s head, and was talking earnestly with her. As I walked past, I told her I was going up to our room for a second, and would be right back. And I waltzed right out that front door, leaving Terra Jean sitting in her SF Giants bag, on the front table of that zany pub. Which is where I found it, about five minutes later, upon my return from our hotel room to score a couple of gluten-free, home made, dank, oatmeal cookies. Leaving poor Terra Jean was a dumb thing to have done, but it sure made me feel pretty good, that nothing came of my lapse.
I walked up to David, and put the two cookies I had brought with me, up under his nose and told him to take a sniff.
David: “Oh, that’s fine, That’s fine.”
Mark: “So wait until you have a free afternoon, and eat one of them. If you eat both, you’ll see Buddha, so keep that in mind. He took the cookies, and was still sniffing them as I headed back to the middle of the pub, where Claire was getting ready to sing. She had had her snacky, she had drunk her tea, and she was now ready to warble. She sang four tunes, without benefit of any instrument, and it was as riveting as any music I have ever listened to.
Her songs included traditional Irish themes of social injustice and unrequited love, and every single patron in the pub responded to this unknown patron’s hauntingly beautiful voice, with reverence and respect. If someone got to prattling along to his neighbor, at any point, there was sure to be one or more cautionary rumblings of, “A little quiet now, if you please...” And Claire sang through it, a profoundly moving experience for Annie and me, as it threatened to bring the tears quite readily. I think this was the reason we were drawn to this comparatively nondescript little pub in Cork, Ireland.
Patsy was slightly heavyset, blonde and very much in charge of her own pub. At one point, after Noel noticed that I was waiting on the end of the bar for another Bushmill’s, he swung back around, preparatory to moving back behind the bar to get me my libation.
Patsy: “And what are you doing, Noel? Are you trying to light a fire under me? I’ll be after his Bushmill’s when I’ve a free hand.”
Trying to light a fire? Noel? Was it something in the name?
Noel: “Just trying to help a man with a parched throat, Patsy.”
When she did get my cocktail, she wouldn’t take any money for it. Annie and I compared notes, and determined that we bought our first two drinks, but after that, our drinks materialized before we could order them, paid for by our new friends. I did buy Noel a Guinness early on, and I took a Murphy’s out front to David, who was torn between waiting at the bar for his beverage, and wanting to be out front with a cigarette. There was a giant ashtray out front, the sign indicating that “cigarette ends” were to be kindly placed in this container.
Annie and Claire had disappeared next door, and were chatting as I finally decided that I had better bail out and head back to our room. Claire took this opportunity to give Annie a brief story of her life. It included the information, that she was a frequent pub crawler, as her music was tied up in performing in these cultural icons, but she was mired in a long-established routine of looking for company among the denizens of each night's confines. She saw her life as a series of brief connections, with nothing more substantial than a roomful of appreciative patrons, to lend credence to her existence. No wonder her voice sounded so plaintive.
I let Annie know that I was leaving, grabbed Terra Jean, and headed back to the room. As I plodded back up the block towards our hotel, Four Star Pizza beckoned on up the right, so I walked in at ten to twelve, not realizing that the place closed at twelve. Just under the wire.
Earlier, when I had sought out a diet coke, and ended up ordering a “fungi” at Paddy Torino’s, next door, I had skipped over Four Star, because I hadn’t seen any veggie fare on their menu. I now caught the veggie special available, which offered jalapeno peppers along with bell peppers, mushrooms and olives. As I waited, another worker came through the front door, closing and flipping the lock as he came back down the shop to the back.
Five minutes later, clutching my hot pizza with both hands, I went to unlock the door, and head back to my room.
“Hey,” the second fellow hollered out, just as the door prepared to click shut, and I looked back to see him gesturing frantically at Terra Jean, sitting on the counter, right where I had set her upon placing my order. Twice in one night. Poor Terra Jean. Poor befuddled Mark.
However, that did not stop me from making quick work of that spicy fare, once I got back to the room. I had noticed that Irish food lacked the pizzazz that was more likely to accompany the fare I generally consumed back in Cali. For this meal, at least, I had managed to alter that pattern, and so I enjoyed my burning mouth and watery eyes. I scarfed that baby down as though I were once more at Pompeii Pizza in La Puente, and Augie was footing the bill.
The only difference was that the pizza I was munching down was nine inches in diameter, instead of eighteen, but it was just one more example of less is more. I could still say that I could knock out a full pizza by myself, even if the pie was half as big. Don’t confuse me with the facts. Just dig the Tums out of the black travel case, there’s another fire that needs putting out, and I can’t blame Noel for this one.