My mind wanders across some of the destinations in which I’d experienced some situational sweetness.
The late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was surely not speaking of romance when he stated: “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” But he, like many of Irish descent, had a love affair with the Emerald Isle and its people, anyway.
Each visit to Eire is a love story of its own.
Dingle, County Kerry
The night had been a filling mix of music, drink, and now, air. Four hours earlier I’d filled a bowl of lobster bisque with soda bread at the Half Door restaurant on John Street. The entire front of the Half Door is painted dark green. It is in the middle of the block next to Doyle’s, the entire front of which is painted red. I ate at the bar and read through the Kerry’s Eye newspaper.
After, I walked out into the near dark, turned right and headed up the hill, past An Droichead Beag, beyond James G. Ashe’s, and Banc na hEireann. Past Paul Geaney’s on the right and the Benner’s Hotel, with Mrs. Benner’s Bar, on the left. Just next door, Patrick Hennessy was closing up his Fado antique shop. We waved to each other, and I kept on through the dusk in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland.
A Walkable Village
At the top of the hill, I turned left onto Green Street, which runs back downhill in front of the church on the right and then on down to the marina.
Dick Mack’s Pub is on the left, across the narrow street from the church. The pub itself is a stubborn antique that retains its character through seemingly zero maintenance. Dick Mack’s occupies a space that first sold dairy products. It then became a leatherworks and shoe store during the day, and a public house after dark. No food or trappings. Just whiskey and porter.
If any paint had been applied to Dick Mack’s Pub in the last quarter-century, it was Oliver’s bit of memorable prose on the alley gate next to the pub: “Where is Dick Mack’s? Opposite the church. Where is the church? Opposite Dick Mack’s.”
The tiny nature of the pub and its local regulars can be intimidating. Unsuspecting travelers will come through the door, immediately sense the silence and feel the gaze of the regulars. It can seem as though they might be walking into a classroom or interrupting an IRA meeting. Some visitors turn heels before they get in the door.
On this night there was a black-and-white dog that was curled up on the cement floor. And there was a woman across from me at the workbench that I’d known to be a regular but had never spoken to. She was tall and thin with angular features and a crazy, curly bush of midnight black hair exploding from her head. Her eyes were dark and her teeth uneven and shaded. Her clothing was nondescript, and dowdy and she clutched a pint glass of Bulmers cider with ice in it.
The brunette had a large black Celtic tattoo encircling one of her biceps. Her English was barely discernible through her brogue and yet it was English she spoke to everyone around her. She laughed often with exaggerated expressions. Even though the drinkers in the pub created a rumbling din, I could hear her sometimes screeching cackles as she tossed her head back and threw her hair around from side to side as if she were chained to the stool.
What is her story?
“What is her story?” I asked a local to my left. He was a truck driver who drove fish from Dingle over the Conor Pass and onto Cork where it could be shipped to Spain. Sometimes he ran computer parts from Holland to Ireland via ferry.
“What’s her story?” he repeated to me. “Where does it begin and where does it end?”
We laughed and shrugged, but still I was curious about her. An rud is annamh is iontach: what is strange is wonderful.
She wore no jewelry, and she was difficult to make eye contact with even though I sat right across the workbench from her.
But after a gulp of Guinness, I managed to catch her attention by telling her, “Good evening.”
She was polite enough and gave a cursory nod before I attempted to extend the conversation.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“What’s your name?” she asked me back.
“Well that’s all you need to know then Michael.”
I looked away and drank to the bottom of my porter, which took a minute or so. Then I tried again.
“That cider will make you crazy, you know.”
“And why not?” she replied.
“I know your name anyway. The truck driver told me what it is.”
Her dark eyes examined me.
“What is my name then?”
“Agnes,” I joked.
She shook her head.
Then she got tired of the game.
“I am Mary. It is nice to meet you, Michael.” She extended her hand, and I took the gesture to mean that she admired the way I sustained her previous smack down and volleyed back.
“Nice to meet you, too, Mary.”
This time she extended the conversation.
“Our children are at home with the minder. That’s me husband there,” she said with a tilt of her head.
“I see,” I said, nodding and then looked across the room. He was tall and thin and pointy with matted black hair. His eyes were dark, too, and some of his teeth were absent. I heard him, in his work clothing, speak in a heavy accent while flashing a crazed wild smile most of the time.
This coupling was a reminder that I was in the far reaches of County Kerry and it might be best to stay in my lane. Or head to the next pub.
I walked down to the street’s dead end, Dingle Bay’s docks and harbor. I looked to my left down the street past the Betting Office in the general direction of O’Flaherty’s Pub and the roundabout that leads either through Inch to Killarney or over the Conor Pass to Tralee. To the right I looked past the alley and up toward the Slea Head Drive roundabout.
I chose to stroll west past John Benny’s Pub down the Strand when I saw a heavy, brown, wooden door. The door was closed, but it was the door to James Flahive, and it was always closed. I’d never been inside, but a bald-headed Englishman once told me about the place and implored that I make it a point to go in sometime.
It was something of a local legend because others told me that the James Flahive was permanently closed down. It looked like it tonight. But the Englishman maintained that if you knocked on the door some nights after 10, Flahive would open the door.
So, I knocked. I didn’t really expect anyone to answer. Just in case, I waited and listened. I read the words painted on the window above the door: Licensed to deal in wine, beer, spirits and tobacco for consumption on and off the premises 7 days.
The only other indication that it was a pub at all were the script letters painted on the stone above the transom: James Flahive Bar.
Knock and It Shall Open
The door creaked open.
“Oh, me God, it’s you! You finally took me advice, did ‘ya?” said the bald-headed Englishman who’d pulled it halfway open and swiveled his head to look up and down the lane. “Come in! Come. Come in now and meet James.”
I shook the Englishman’s hand and went inside. He closed the door behind us.
“I’m relieved you are here to show me the place,” I told the Englishman. I am not sure he heard me as he was rushing me in.
“Yank, look at this place. Is it as I described to you or what? It’s a place where you look around and say to yourself, ‘What the bloody hell am I doing here?’”
James Flahive’s Bar was much like Dick Mack’s Pub but smaller and, believe it or not, brighter. There were four wooden stools along the counter and no other seats. Crates and boxes – four cases of Club Orange soda were piled on the floor at either end of the room. Old pictures of Gregory Peck, who starred in Ryan’s Daughter – a movie shot in Dingle long before a Star Wars sequel was filmed there – adorned the walls.
The bar was no bigger than a living room with a drain in the middle of the concrete floor. Pulled, heavy drapes foiled any window peeps.
Only in looking around did I notice a plain looking fellow sleeping on a stool in the corner with his elbow propped on the countertop. Behind the counter there was draught Guinness and the man-himself.
“This is James Flahive,” the Englishman pronounced.
The unhurried white-haired man didn’t rise when I shook his hand, which was wide and smooth. He wore a gray jumper with an unbuttoned dress shirt underneath. I couldn’t see his shoes. I surmised he was about 85 years old.
“I’m Michael Patrick Shiels, sir. It is nice to meet you. Thank you for allowing me in.”
“Failte. Welcome…Michael Patrick Shiels,” Flahive stated in a grumble that was as gruff and low as a voice could be. “Where are you from?”
“Michigan, in the United States,” I answered.
The Englishman laughed at me as the corners of Flahive’s mouth rose a bit.
“’Michigan…in the United States,’ he says,” the Englishman mocked. “…as opposed to Michigan in Italy or Michigan, China, right, James? This one he’s from Michigan in the U-S-of-A.”
Flahive nodded at him and cast his molasses gaze back over at me.
“Well, there is a Georgia in Russia,” I said, in my defense, to the Englishman.
James Flahive didn’t ask me if I wanted a drink and I didn’t ask him for one.
I Was Unlucky
“It’s a pity you didn’t get here sooner,” said the Englishman, buttoning up his denim jacket. “I was just telling James about the time I drank so much after a football match in Dublin I missed me flight home to London on Sunday morning.”
“There are plenty of cheap flights,” I said.
“Yes, but when I left for the match on Friday, I didn’t tell me wife the game was in Ireland. I didn’t tell her I would be gone for the weekend,” he explained. “When I did finally get back home, she was gone. She’d left me.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“I was unlucky,” he rationalized.
I looked over at James Flahive. He had been looking at me.
“I was unlucky, wasn’t I, James?” the Englishman repeated. “Yes, I was unlucky.”
James Flahive looked at him and instead of answering, smiled a smile that looked as if it caused him some pain.
No Luck of the Irish for the Englishman
The Englishman told us another story about how he was once arrested for possession of marijuana. Since he’d had no other violations or citations on his record, he asked the officers if they might drive off, throw the bag of cannabis out the window and forget about the whole matter.
“The Bobbies told me they might be more inclined to consider such an idea if I was willing to tell them who the supplier was,” he explained. “I thought about that for a minute. Then I agreed to tell them: ‘Marijuana is a plant, you see. So as near as I can figure, God is the supplier.’”
“And I was unlucky again.”
He then took a drink of his beer.
“We’ve known each other a long time, my friend,” James Flahive said to the Englishman.
“We have, James. We love each other don’t we, James? Yes, we love each other.”
Ireland’s pubs are not open late. “Half-eleven” is usually closing time. It was past then but not midnight. James Flahive, the proprietor, made his point by rising from his stool. But he took his time doing it. The Englishman took note.
“May I buy the American a drink before we go, James? Now that he’s entered such a rarefied establishment it’d be proper to welcome him to the club, wouldn’t it, James? Would you pour something for your man at this late hour, James?”
Flahive, standing, looked straight at me from under his eyebrows.
“Uh, thank you. Yes,” I said. “Any chance of a Crested Ten over ice, sir, if you wouldn’t mind?”
The Englishman began poking through his handful of Euro coins. James Flahive began poking through his dusty whiskey bottles.
“Shiels is your name?” Flahive asked, but not in the tone of a question. He was reaching as high as he could to the top shelf from which he pulled down not a bottle of Crested Ten but rather the green bottle of standard Jameson Irish Whiskey. I didn’t object.
James Flahive’s back was to me when I heard the sound of him scooping ice from a plastic bowl and putting it into a glass. I also heard the Englishman.
“Goodnight, James,” he said. “I’ve left the quid for his whiskey on the counter. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow night…if you open, James.”
Without turning around, Flahive waved the Englishman off with one hand while pouring the Jameson with the other. The Englishman patted me on the back and then kicked the chair of his sleeping friend, who awakened with a start. With some help he got up and they made for the door. The Englishman opened it just a crack, stuck his bald head out, and turned it both ways again to look for the Garda. Only when he saw no police did he make his way into the night, closing the door behind him.