I spot Sheepwalk Bar on the corner, a shelter from the wind and rain of backcountry Ireland. I’ve been wandering around the town graveyard all morning, looking at Irish names like Mildred Dunleavy and Patrick O’Hara. (My favorite was “Padraic O’Connor” – pronounced “Porrack.” It’s a name I’ve never seen before and I find it absolutely fantastic).
Letting the deep green history of Ireland’s far-reaches settle into my pores, I step into the pub. It’s dimly lit. Large flowers crest the stained-glass windows on the door and the only seats taken are around the bar. I can see an empty back room behind the divider with a pool table and plenty of privacy, but I plop my back down on a stool next to the corner where the wall meets the bar counter and ask for a Guinness.
The horse races are on behind me and down the bar a collection of Irishmen are watching with varied levels of interest. The bartender, a young man with a bald head and a long, straight nose puts a pint on a coaster and slides it my way. “Oye,” he says and I nod my head in thanks.
The glass is tall and cool. ‘Guinness’ is written along the side with a tiny symbol of a harp above it.
“It’s not every day you see a girl drinking Guinness,” says the elderly gent to my right. His hair is completely white but his thin mustache is clinging to its peppery gray color.
“Have you tried American beer?” I ask. “Anything is better.”
“Where in the States are you from?” asks the barman.
“California,” I answer, taking my first sip of the bitter black beer. An older man, who looks rather like a goblin, at the end of the bar hears me and asks in a slurred brogue, “San Jose?”
“No, San Diego,” I say.
“I’ve been there, six months,” he says, holding up five fingers. “In California.”
“Where?” asks the younger chap next to him. “San Quentin?”
The bar breaks out in chuckles and the old man gives his neighbor a drunken glare that could kill a horse.
“So, is the stout a more southern thing, then?” I ask the barman.
“Yeah, a Beamish or a Murphy’s?”
“Oh yes, you won’t find those up here,” he said.
“What? A Beamish?” asks the red-head beside the goblin. “Those are much sweeter than Guinness. From Cork, I’d say.”
“Bad traveller,” mutters the goblin before breaking into a milk-curdling laugh.
A discussion breaks out about how far up the Irish coast a stout will travel. Unsurprisingly, no one quite agrees.
Mr. Mustache leans over to me and asks what I’m doing in Swinford.
“My family was originally from this area,” I tell him over the rim of my Guinness. “I teach English in Prague and we have a school break this week, so I thought I’d come over.”
The horse races behind us lose interest and the five Irishmen turn around to look at me.
“What’s your family name, then?” asks one.
“Nolan and Durkin,” I say. “But we’re also related to the Forkans and Morans.”
“Forkans,” says the young chap. “They’ve got a shop just up the street.”
“Durkins though,” says the red-head. “They’ll be farther up the county. Plenty of them.”
“Nolan and Durkin will be north of here,” says the mustached gent.
“Ardlee is where they’re from,” I say. They all nod and agree that that sounds about right. “I took a walk down there yesterday,” I added. “It’s a lovely area.”
“Sure, sure,” says Mustache Man. “Pretty enough. You walked all the way there?”
“Mhm. It only took about an hour.”
He gives me a look I can’t quite decipher and says, “Are you traveling by yourself, then?”
“Yes,” I say.
“That’s not often done.”
“Well,” I say, very used to this line of discussion, “It’s hard to find a traveling buddy. All my friends are working and, because I teach, I have a different holiday schedule than them.”
The young chap at the end laughs a bit and Mr. Mustache says, “You mean you get holidays and they don’t.”
I smile. Fair enough.
“Say, what’s your name, lass?” asks the goblin.
“Mary,” I tell him. There’s a small chorus of “aahhh”s and the goblin pats his chest respectfully. “Well, Miry,” he says with his brogue. “I’m John. Now, Miry, have you ever heard about…”
Despite leaning forward and keeping unbroken eye-contact, I was unable to distinguish the latter half of his sentence.
“Pardon?” I ask, as politely as possible. He says it again, and I still don’t understand. By this point, the other men at the bar are smiling to themselves and have turned back to the horse races (red-head has some skin in this game. “I’m always second,” he says).
“I’m sorry,” I say again. “I have American ears. What was it you said?”
“I’ll repeat myself,” he answers and launches away, a third time, into an uncollectable dialogue. I look at the bartender who is grinning at me with one eye, and watching the race with the other.
“I only got about fifty percent of that,” I tell him.
“You’re in good company,” he says.
Goblin John seems to have given up on me, though I notice I’ve become the newest victim of his rather intense glare.
The barman and Mr. Mustache are talking about immigration to Canada. The barman says unemployment rates are better because the unemployed are leaving.
“You know what, I’ll tell ya one thing,” says Goblin John. “I’ll tell ya, I’ll tell ya that…” He pauses, hand raised in dignified exposition. We wait patiently. “I’ll tell ya that Ireland only has two exports. Guinness and humans.”
Appreciative laughter follows – though none more shrill than his own raucous chortle – and someone says, “And Bailey’s.”
“Australia and Canada are where most folks go,” Mr. Mustache tells me. “Canada is closer, but Australia has such fine weather. They used to say, Ireland would be perfect if we could build a roof over it.”
“Now they say it’d be perfect if we could put some money it,” says the barman.
“What is the industry over here in Swinford?” I ask about the small town we’re situated in. “What do most people do?”
“Drink,” says Mr. Mustache. The barman laughs and refills a Heineken for the younger chap and his friend. “No, that’s a good question, though,” he says, turning to the younger fellows. “What’s our industry here?”
They look at each other for a moment and then say, “We have a Tesco.”
I’m quickly learning that conversation here is broken up by laughter and betting as each topic is bookended with either a joke or a stir in the horse racing carrying on behind us. Mr. Mustache explains that when the place fills out with younger guys on Sunday, they turn on football on the spare screens but that he likes this pub cozy and quiet – like it is now.
“I’ll tell ya something, Miry,” says Goblin John, catching my eye with his fastidious gaze. “That Olvr Croml, do you know him?”
“Who?” I ask, leaning in again.
I look at Mr. Mustache.
“We’re getting a bit of history now,” he says with a chuckle. “Oliver Cromwell.”
“Ah, yes, I know of Cromwell,” I say cheerily.
“Well, I’ll tell ya,” says John. “He’s a s*** awful bastard, he is.”
My mouth swung open slightly as John lets loose a slew of colorful language to describe what seems to be his least favorite historical figure ever.
“Why don’t you like Cromwell?” I ask when he seems to be finished.
“He owes him money, most likely,” answers the red-head.
“G**-awful bastard,” mutters Goblin John.
“That Cromwell was after the famine, wasn’t he?” encourages the young chap with a smile.
“Brought it on, himself,” says Goblin John with conviction. “Mary and Joseph, he did.”
Old Mr. Mustache tells me about his son working in Galway who’s been to California a few times. Mr. Mustache only has two children but is one of twelve (“That was before condoms,” he explains). I say I’m one of seven and he gives me a sly look and nods at the barman. “He’s one of nineteen. Ask him to name them all.”
I give the barman a smile and he glowers at Mr. Mustache. It takes a bit of coaxing to get him started but he gets to sixteen without a problem (his own name being, “Matthew”) as I count down on my fingers, then pauses. The young chap’s friend looks over the bar counter at him and mouths out a letter. (“They’re brothers,” Mr. Mustache tells me). Matthew gets the last two names and lets out a little sigh. His brother laughs at him and then turns back to the horse racing.
“You must not like Guinness,” says Mr. Mustache kindly, observing my half-empty glass. It’s been about an hour and my progress has been slow.
“No, it’s good,” I assure him. “I’m just a slow drinker.”
“You should squirt some black currant juice in there,” suggests one of the men. “That’s how the ladies take it.”
“I’ll tell ya what, you know,” starts Goblin John loudly at this. He says something that I don’t quite catch and a few abashed chuckles find their way out.
Mr. Mustache leans over, a little red, and asks, “You didn’t get that, did you?”
I shake my head.
“Good,” he says.
“Well,” offers up the younger chap, “You’re a good girl to take drinking if you tackle a Guinness like that. Won’t be embarrassed by you, I’d imagine.”
“You know what,” begins John again. “Spring is a funny thing. Spring is a funny thing because farmers and chickens…”
He stops mid-sentence and we all wait.
“He’s not going to get it this time, is he?” asks the bartender’s brother as Goblin John sits perfectly still, mouth ajar, eyes groping for the next line of his well-aged joke.
“Well, he’s had a few,” says Mr. Mustache. “Help him out.”
“Spring is a funny thing, becaaaaause…” says the brother with the patience of a kindergarten teacher.
“Because what’s the bird do? Lay eggs. And what’s the farmer do?” Goblin John pauses again but is unable to remember what the farmer does so he continues. “And what’s the hen do? He prays. The Hindu. He praaaays.”
Bemused chuckles fall at Goblin John’s expense – not that he can tell the difference.
“Now you’ve met a real Irish character in a real Irish bar,” says Mr. Mustache to me in a low voice. I don’t tell him that I think he’s much more the real Irishman I’ve imagined stumbling upon than poor Goblin John.
My Guinness is getting low and the men are paying for the last of their drinks as the horse races finish. Mr. Mustache insists on paying for my Guinness. I thank him and then lean over.
“So that’s John at the end there,” I say. “And who is the red-headed man next to him?”
“That’s Petey Moore,” he tells me. “His family owns the pub up the street. He works there once a week but spends the rest of his time down here with us. Knows about everyone in the county, he does.”
“And the bartender’s brother?”
“Jon – Well, Jonathan,” he tells me. “They’re about the same age. Jonathan is older with a sister in between.”
“His friend, that younger chap at the corner?”
“Also John,” he says.
“Three Johns in one pub?”
“We’re a quaint group,” he tells me.
“And your name, sir?”
He gives me a wide smile and bats his soft, Irish eyes.