I missed the 1916 Easter Rising, but I had the fortune of being present for another of Ireland’s revolutionary moments—the beginning of the smoking ban in the work place, including Ireland’s public houses, or pubs. Beginning midnight Sunday, March 28th, pub smokers had to crush out their last pub-smoked fags and lead the charge in the European community against smoking in public places. This role has been embraced by most, it seems, but like in most charges not everyone wants to be the first into the breach. Now the rest of Europe watches, to see if Ireland, with its culture of smoky pubs, can suffer the effects of a healthier lifestyle.
I was at my usual dance-night table in Causkey’s, a pub in Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula, County Cork. Next to me, Savannah novelist Gordon Grant stared at his half-smoked Hamlet, one of those small cigars that he takes to when in Ireland. It had gone out for the third time or so since he pulled it from its box, and I thought he hesitated just a bit before he relit it, knowing that the clock’s hand had ticked past midnight. Other smokers at the bar were not concerned, for time here is not precise. So they smoked on and we waited for the musicians’ last song, which would be the national anthem. It was always the national anthem, and that has become my favorite part of these weekly sessions. We all stand reverently, the spinning and twirling, the quick stepping of the evening to rest now while the crowd of men and women, mostly women, sing aloud or just move their lips as if in prayer. I should know the words but I’ve only heard it sung in Irish. When the anthem plays, Irish will be heard.
I can hum it quite well, though, and have begun to learn it on the tin whistle. I practice alone on the mountain side, for playing such a reverent piece along with “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Mary and Her Lamb” seems somehow in bad taste, so must be taken up in solitary. Ironically Ardgroom, the village above which I play, is the hometown of the late Michael O’Dwyer, one of Ireland’s greatest tin whistle players, so somewhere in these mountains a spirit roams with spirit hands covering spirit ears.
The sheep have heard me play and move away when they see me leave the house to take my place on the stone wall. Even their new-born lambs, which now dot the hill side, react as if I were a fox. My tin whistle has joined the fox and the French as the only natural enemies of Irish Mountain Lambs, for after six months of feasting on mountain herbs and flowers and grasses, the fatted lambs from this region will be sent to France where they are held dear for their lean strong flavor. I try not to think of this as I play my music. I try not to think of the small lambs among the rocks and the French chefs each time I’m invited to dinner at a farmer’s house and have the pleasure of being served mountain lamb. For seasoned only with pepper, it tastes far better than the most perfectly prepared lamb I’ve ever had.
Though not a smoker, I can understand their plight; I can identify with their status as pariah, for I raved about a lamb meal I had to a sad-eyed Vegan. If she could, she would have gutted me, placed a spit we know where, and roasted me to perfection. So I’m with you a bit, smoking brothers and sisters. If only we could find that poison to kill just those who are sure they are right!
But back to the pub. Causkey’s fills between 9:30 and 10:00, as it does every Sunday night, when there is live music. The musicians play and the locals dance, usually two women together, in spins, and two-steps, and line dances like my favorite “The Siege of Ennis.” And the room becomes dizzy with movement. I have danced three times this night, once having been asked by Eileen, a woman who carries me around easily, like she does the hay and cows before she puts on her dancing shoes for her night out at Causkey’s. She’s a wonderful dancer, and for some reason she has made me her project. I study her steps and those of the other dancers, but my feet are heavy. She is patient and we laugh. Next week I’ll be better, I promise. (And I secretly practice the steps in my house on the top of the mountain, where even the sheep can’t see me to laugh.)
The music ends at a wee bit after midnight on this Sunday. I still see smoke hanging above the bar and tables, from the last cigarettes, for just as there is a reluctance for these men and women to leave, to return down roads and lanes to begin another week of farming the rough fields and mountains of the region, there is a reluctance to smoke that last cigarette in a pub. Or perhaps it’s a savoring. Not being a smoker, I don’t know.
Gordon looks at his ash, cold again, and makes two attempts to relight it. Instead, he drops it into the large “Players” ashtray, the centerpiece for the pint and whiskey glasses that nearly cover the table. (I needed courage to dance.) There is a nest of Hamlets in the ashtray, more than usual for Gordon, the only smoker at our table. Maybe it’s that way in all the ashtrays in the pub, and in every pub throughout the Republic.
We all stand when the musicians begin the first notes of Amhran na bhFiann—The Soldier’s Song. There are tears around the room, also more than usual. There seems to be agreement among everyone in the pub that night that a way of life has passed, and we all shed a tear for its corpse, as we must.
Buffalo, New York
(The essay was written as Larry’s final report back to Nichols School in Buffalo, New York, where is he a noted Upper School English teacher. You can access the rest of his correspondence, his thoughts on his sabbatical experience, and a poem at www.nicholsschool.org.)