Let me tell you an Irish story
I arrived on a shoestring and found this little youth hostel on top of Doran’s Pub in Marlborough Street. It was downtown North Side, the area was seedy, but the place was affordable and reasonably clean. I ended up in a dorm room with 13 other blokes, with complimentary smelly socks and deep thunderous snoring at night. The lifestyles of the lads were work hard and play hard, building construction by day and 101 pints by night. During the first few days I set out early in the mornings applying for jobs at bars, pubs and cafés. I was trying my luck out mostly over the bridge on the South Side in the trendy Temple Bar area.
By the end of the first week, a faint feeling of nausea settled in the pit of my stomach and increasingly made itself known. I was running out of money. By week two my search had covered the North and South sides in a 45-minute radius. Another week down the road I knew I was in trouble. I would only be able to last a few more days.
The guy at the hostel reception offered to let me stay “off the books”, if I promised to pay up later. Not even knowing at the time whether I would be able to do so, I agreed anyway. I did the circle for yet another three days and despair set in. It was drizzling incessantly and the single-figure temperatures blackened my mood.
Then, something unusual appeared on the always-empty hostel notice board. “Barman required for daily six-hour lunchtime shift at busy North Side pub”.
I was sceptical, but I found the place around the corner from Connolly train station. I walked in and spoke to an elderly gentleman with white hair. He said they would take me on for a week and see how I survived. In the meantime, he wanted to know, could I help them take in a delivery from St James Gate? He threw a black apron at me and pointed down the narrow flight of rickety wooden stairs.
The basement floor was sandy and I had to stoop low to not knock my head on the overhead beams supporting the pub floor. Through the musty blackness I aimed towards the muffled voices and sounds up ahead beyond the maize of pillars. I could see beams of light filtering through a trap door which opened from the pavement outside. Shadows broke the light as kegs of Guinness landed with dull thuds on sand bags, before rolling off and then being grabbed and stacked up against the wall by the pub owner. Having explained my unexpected appearance, he asked me to finish off the job and to report for an interview upstairs when I had done.
The following day I started pouring pints and this was a busy number, “number” being what you would call a part-time job in Ireland. Taking orders, delivering them, stocking fridges, clearing tables, taking in deliveries, taking out garbage, getting ice, helping in the kitchen, topping up pints, taking calls and working in the dungeon filled my shifts to the brim. I didn’t mind escaping down the hatch when kegs needed changing. In the basement the owner had an impeccably kept collection of empties bottles with Irish brand names such as TK, Cidona, Finches and Club Orange which needed continuous sorting and helped justify my longer absences.
Upstairs in the bar, the Dublin accent proved to be my biggest challenge. A Pack of Blue, a Pint of Bulmers and a Bottle of Bud all had a similar ring to my foreign ear. It took a while to distinguish them clearly as cigarettes, cider and beer. Pub regulars had to be instantly recognised when they walked through the doors and their drinks knowingly poured. Ideally, by the time they had sat down, their dram of whiskey was already in its glass on its place mat and their pint of Guinness was settling under the tap, almost ready for its head to be topped up.
Three weeks on, having settled some of my hostel debt, I could afford to buy myself a pint. Downstairs at Doran’s they tolerated us, as long as we stood to attention when the Irish anthem played. Blended in with traditional Irish songs and Thin Lizzy numbers, I had no recognition of the tune when it played the first time. I continued talking with a friend when everyone else had piped down. An elderly gentleman walked over and angrily confronted me over my disrespect for the Irish flag. So, I bought him a pint and that seemed to calm him down.
The following evening all eyes were on me, but I passed the test. The night after, along with others I was invited for a lock-in, which meant that those in the back bar could stay on after closing time. We left at four a.m. singing songs and feeling decidedly very Irish. Just down the road was another traditional pub in Talbot Street, called The Celt. It was smoky and dark and frequented mostly by regulars. When you walked in, there would be a few seconds silence until you had sat down. If you nursed your pint long enough, as you tend to do, a fellow might wander across, strike up a conversation and share with you stories of his childhood in Dublin or the unedited history of Ireland.
Days and weeks came and went and the gloomy weather persisted. In the mornings I walked past news stands on O’ Connell Street with poster headlines screaming about an imminent war in the Middle East. In the Irish Independent I noticed several articles about Irish neutrality. Shortly after that I decided it was time to move out of hostel life and managed to secure a small bed-sit in Drumcondra, not too far from Mount Joy Prison.
At the same time the travellers’ grapevine signalled alternative work opportunities and I got a lead about a retail placement agency offering full-time positions. I needed the step-up to afford my new rent. I visited the agency and within days they had an offer for me a distance away from the city centre. I gave notice at the pub, but the owner tried to persuade me otherwise. He said that in Dublin a person should rather avoid working in a neighbourhood with the word “kill” in its name. I told him that I had made up my mind.
The off-licence in Kilbarack was an hour’s walk and commute by D.A.R.T. I was issued with a uniform and trained in merchandising, stocktaking and store-keeping. Some of the staff were members of an Irish band with a Nordic name and the official team spirit was all about good music on the shop stereo. Pilot Light, Jeff Buckley, Damien Rice and Sigur Rós were headlining in loops, with Fiona Apple providing back-up.
My first pay-check turned out to be even smaller than my final one from the pub. It was revealed that I was paying emergency tax, being a new arrival in the Republic of Ireland. I adjusted my shopping habits and found the local butcher and green grocer closer to home. The food was quality; mostly coming in from small farms in the countryside and after a while I was being recognized along with some others as a regular local. Sometimes I got 50c knocked off the price when the sales lady was in a light-on-the-scales mood. I used toothpaste sparingly. In the bed-sit there was an old radiant heating system. It took 24 hours to heat up and about the same to cool down. I turned it on every other day to conserve energy and moved my bed next to the radiator.
Consumerism in the capital of the Celtic Tiger was most evident on the overcrowded side-walks of O’Connell and Grafton Streets. It was shoulder-to-shoulder shopping in the franchised retail stores, fast food joints and fashion outlets. Just a couple of side streets away you could find working-class folk bartering for fresh food and budget batteries at market stalls and discount shops, and in Henry Street one and all were united in turning the economy over.
In a city of contrasts, I found my lighthouse of reflection next to the River Liffey at the Winding Stair Bookshop and Café. The creaky steps spiralled upwards and opened onto three floors of sparsely-decorated rooms with plastic tablecloths and watercolour views of the Ha’penny Bridge. Here, surrounded by rustic book-shelved walls, I could sit peacefully, enjoy the view and spend my saved-up half-a-Euros on a filter coffee, while struggling my way through the first chapter of a second-hand copy of Ulysses.
On alternative cold days, I found my cellar of warmth and tranquillity in the unpretentious basement of Simon’s Café, across the river at the red-bricked George’s Street Arcade. The walls were covered with posters of the latest forthcoming gigs and musical events around town. Local artists, musicians and students could all come here and spend hours of anonymity, reading or talking in the comfortable and homely surroundings.
The Christmas season was upon us and my store keeping skills were well-honed. I could advise customers on pot still, single malt and blended whiskeys. I knew about New World versus French wines and there was hardly a world beer I hadn’t sampled. We were doing twelve hours a day, six days a week. A fortnight before D-Day, the shop was robbed. I was stacking the walk-in fridges and heard loud voices. By the time I got onto the shop floor, the balaclava-wearers were already behind the counter emptying out the till. Our daytime sales lady stood in shock and I stopped in my tracks at the sight of a sizeable butcher’s knife being waved at me. They didn’t get much and the police suspected they were local lads. Two days before Christmas they decided to visit us again, but this time I missed the action while having my coffee break at the café next door. All part of the silly season, I was told by the band.
After closing time on Christmas Eve we had a staff raffle and I went home with a bottle of Powers 12 Year Old Special Reserve, the finest whiskey I had ever tasted. Even today it lingers as an impressive pot-still experience, with slightly sweet and spicy flavours with a touch of pepper and honey, being light on the palette and possessing soul and bone-warming qualities, accentuated by a particularly cold winter in Ireland.
Text and photographs by J.J. Montagnier
Loosely based on events in 2002/2003
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