Sam McAutry - A pub of my own.
THE MAYPOLE HAS gravity and style. I don’t like pubs where good talk is slain by Musak and I don’t like pubs that serve food, because this attracts people who eat when they should be talking. I also dislike pubs where the television is on all day long, not for the customers’ benefit, but for the pleasure of barmen whose heads are so empty that if they were to be rapped with a set of knuckles they would reverberate like bodhrans*.
And I don’t like pubs made up to look like the old ones of pre-World War Two times because such places have become so popular with television companies anxious to get dug into the Irish dimension that the regular customers have become seasoned bit performers. They spend most of their pub time rehearsing for tricky cutaway shots and saying little to each other except: "Rhubarb, rhubarb..." Big pubs don’t attract me because the further a man has to travel to the Gents the greater the chance of his being stopped by people full of pints and of being asked to settle arguments, like who made God.
We have now arrived by a process of elimination at the Maypole Bar, Holywood, County Down. It is not a big public house; it is plain and straight and squarely designed, with two rooms, open plan. The windows and the walls and the floor are plain, the door has a plain, old-fashioned spoon handle and once inside, the purpose of the establishment is plain - it is a place for drinking and talking. If it was ever wired for Musak the wiring has long ago been ripped from the walls and used to flay the one who first suggested it. The Gents can be reached from any part of the drinking area in four regulation paces and nobody asks who made God, because we all know that a new God came out in the 1960’s, made in Japan.
There are three barmen and they are all called Carty: Eamonn, Raymond and Brian. Observing their bearing behind the counter, the customer is impressed by their confident manner and lack of subservience: this is because they own the place, so they can’t be sacked because of customer- complaints.
Outside the Maypole Bar is a real, 100 per cent maypole, 84 feet high. There’s been one sticking up in Holywood since at least the 17th century In olden times virgins danced around it. We talk about that, sometimes, we Maypole customers: it’s probable, we say, that virgins didn’t even excite comment amongst the watchers in those times. By heaven, we add, they would cause talk now, all right. The roll of regular customers in the Maypole includes doctors, dentists, lawyers, a psychologist, a newspaper editor, a film maker, a PR man, a restauranteur, a microbiologist, plasterers, gardeners, an estimator, whatever that is - I must ask him; joiners, motor mechanics and historians.
One of the Maypole regulars, Basil Wilson, now sadly passed on, translated more than half of James Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish and when he wasn’t doing that he was picking arguments with me over nothing. He needed to be annoyed, he once explained, before starting on the Joyce fellow. Holywood, only four miles from city centre Belfast, is a lovely, relaxed town on the eastern shore of Belfast Lough. As far as I can see, everybody in the town goes to the funerals of everybody else’s relations - an indicator of the ease with which the two main persuasions get along together. In the Maypole Bar there is only one question asked of a man before acceptance by the rest and that question is this: is he boring? If so there’s a strong chance that he could be barred.
One area in which the Maypole is pre eminent is the sports talk; when post-fight discussion takes place it is informed, not barleycorn babble. For every big fight in the city of Belfast up to 20 regulars book ringside seats; for every rugby international up to 30 would head off and for a hurling final you would get the like of eight or ten travelling to Croke Park. A Maypole- sporting opinion, therefore, has gravity and weight, based on personal, expert observation. If Irish pubs were hooked into a circuit, the Maypole would constitute the final appeal tribunal for sporting arguments. But we’re also very good on the subject of veterinary medicine, or the role of the carbon atom in the origin of life - you name the subject and the Maypole Debating Society has already, long ago, been into it in depth.
In my time I have drunk in some pubs. Laid end to end they would form a shimmer reaching from Fair Head in Antrim to Mizzen Head in Cork, but the Maypole Bar is the only inn that I know which has pure unadulterated, wall-to-wall style. It embraces you the minute you walk through the door. I once introduced a little Belfast window cleaner to the place and once inside, he took to describing himself as a glass polisher. The Maypole effect takes different folk different ways. It was a near thing for that window cleaner; he was very nearly expelled for being found on the premises showing off He failed the plain language test, you see. So watch yourself if you visit the Maypole; if you’re working down the sewer say so, don’t be saying you’re in methane marketing or there’ll be a motion to bar you. ~~~~
*Bodhran a hand held drum used in Irish Traditional music
Up the Maypole
Every time that the world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan fought, he fought in front of at least a dozen regular customers of the Maypole Bar in Holywood, Co. Down. They had this ongoing arrangement with McGuigan’s manager, and, no matter how scarce tickets might be, the Maypole Mob were sure to be in position for the first bell.
This means that when post-fight talk breaks out in the bar of a Saturday afternoon, it’s informed talk, not just barleycorn babble. The same goes for soccer and rugby internationals, the Superbowl and other major sporting occasions. A Maypole opinion has weight and gravity. If Irish pubs were hooked up for communications purposes, the Maypole would be the ultimate court of appeal for sporting arguments. Ask them how they know and you’ll be told: We were there.
No matter who wants me if it means Saturday afternoon away from Holywood, then the reason
had better be more pressing than life and death The World Cup Finals in Spain took me away from Holywood; the Grand National at Aintree interrupted my Saturday routine; a date to meet Teofilio Stevenson in Havana meant that my place in the pub was vacant: this is the level of priority needed if I am to be marked absent on the Saturday afternoon roll- call. Don’t ask me to interview the Taoiseach or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when television horse racing is on in the Maypole Bar on a Saturday. I might consider breaking my routine for Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey — and indeed, come to think of it, have— for he’s a sporting man, and a man who has bred good horses in his time, and he wouldn’t be out of place in our company, provided he didn’t blather about politics, for that’s one thing we leave behind when we push open the bar door.
Were not sure who’s Catholic and who’s not, and we don’t care. We’re in there in a warm interior still faithful to the 1920s, to consider much more important matters, like the NASA space programme, Halley’s Comet, veterinary medicine, whether, if you toss a coin from now until infinity, it will come down on each side exactly the same number of times, and the reason why salt, sprinkled on beer, reduces the fizz.
Outside the Maypole Bar is a maypole 84 feet high. It was floated down the Belfast Lough from the shipyard in 1956 and hoisted up by giant crane: there’s been a maypole in Holywood, off and on, up and down, since at least the 17th century. In olden times virgins danced around them. We talk about that sometimes. And we talk about the time, in 1744,
when there was only one Catholic in the town. He was coachman to a local squire, and when he drove into Holywood the locals all rushed to their doors to see what a Catholic looked like.
Holywood, only five miles from Belfast’s centre, was once a place where the city folk came to bathe in the sea. It is on the eastern shore of Belfast Lough, and it is a lovely, relaxed, civilised town where the tobacconists know my brand of cigars, and the people are too well-mannered ever to mention the views expressed in my latest column. Instead of retailing stories about the Troubles, Holywood folk tell tales about the maypole: e.g. in 1895 Lord Roberts was present at the erection of a new pole. He spotted a local man who had been his servant in the army when His Lordship won his Victoria Cross for gallantry at the Khyber Pass. He gave the man,
Mahon, £1, and Mahon went into the bar where the Maypole Bar stands today, knocked himself cross- eyed with the whiskey, and got arrested for disorderly conduct: “Don’t blame
me,” he said in court, blame my army comrade, Lord Roberts.” He was acquitted, and I should
jolly well think so. He had style.
The tradition is still maintained: Ned or any other Carty, who owns the Maypole Bar today, won’t serve uninteresting customers.
They assemble down at the Maypole Bar, at a quarter after five
And it only takes a beer or two to get the chat alive
For all the village gossip, Big Ned keeps them up to date
There’s no worry when they’re early, but he panics when they're late.
The first one there is Regan, who quits at half past four
Though it Isn't long till Joe Mc Keown comes rolling through the door.
With hat in hand and glasses on, he arranges all the seating
And quietly waits for Seamus Gill to speak of Central Heating
Meanwhile along the by-pass, comes the man from N. I .T.
He always likes a Scotch or two before going home to tea
But he turns to the right at Shore Street, and steers for his favourite bar
He used to frequent Gerry’s but the walk was much too far.
Occasionally Joe Barratt calls just to say ‘‘hello”
And tells of a thousand tons of tea he’s flogged in Sandy Row
For the conversation varies when you listen at the bar
Mc Kinty talks of water taps and Tully talks of tar.
At six o’clock the butcher calls, he causes Brian no trouble
With a knock on the door and “Good evening all” he has his pint of double.
Then he takes his seat at the table where the crack is usually good
Where Gullery’s stout can make them shout, though you couldn’t call it food
They Speak of Politicians though the information's sparse
When Jack remarks Brian Faulkners right, Ned’s comment is “me arse”
And as the time approaches, when they all go home for tea
The only sound of action is, big Mick who's trying to pee.
Banker Paul arrives at last, accompanied by the dog
And trips three times over Hubert’s feet on his way out to the bog
Big Barney and Pat Reqan call and they of course are soakin’
And if Big Ned says “what a lovely day’’, Pat says, ‘‘you must be jokin"
Now as the evening lingers on, a solitary figure is seen
Approaching from the library, it is teacher Brian Green
He walks in to the Public Bar, among the builders yells
And quietly asks young Raymond for a bottle and a Bells
And when some of the boys return again before the night is o’er
They hear the three Magees and Sprux talk of the days of yore
There’s times indeed when the bells not heard when Ger from Glenmachan moans
‘Tis the songsters in the corner, Roy Clarke and the Malones
Saturday night is the best of all, when match of the day is on
If Tottenham Hotspur drop a goal, the barman's face is long
But Raymond Duffin tells them all that the night should end with dancin'
And smartly sets off for the Social Club on the arm of Danny Johnston
And when finally Ned calls it a day, with “Gentlemen if you please’’
Everyone heads for the Shore Street door, some of them on their knees
The only thing that can happen now to cause the staff more sorrow
Is a telephone buzz from the local fuzz, organised by Sergeant Morrow
Call it Carty's or Ned's or the Maypole
They're one and the same to us all
And there's a remarkable number of people
Who can't make it home till they've called
But whether they're late or they're early
They share gossip and scandal illicit
And no matter, sex, creed or religion
All agree, the pints are exquisite
There’s a snug which does time as a cloakroom
There’s a seat that’s christened Death Row
There’s a corner, set aside for the media
Who know a lot less than they think that they know
There’s conversation, philosophic
Boasts and toasts and moans
And scorn is heaped upon your head
If someone rings your mobile phone
The management, is tolerant
The brothers they are kind
If a glass you should knock over
It’s cleaned up, in no time
But do not dare to enter
If liqueur elsewhere you have tasted
You’ll be out the door you just came in
Your journey will be wasted
Brian’s the one with his spectacles
Perched on the end of his nose
If it’s lessons in history you’re after
There’s none of it he doesn’t know
He’s also in charge of the heaters
Those knobs you never must touch
Unless you want to receive an earful
That would make Bernard Manning blush
Eamonn’s mad keen on the golf
And his constant, burning ambition
Is to beat the bejasus out of the Seaside
At their annual competition
Although he’s not given to secrets
There’s one he will never give up
That’s the horse he’s thinking of backing
For this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup
Now, Raymond, he’s just turned fifty
But old age has gone to his head
For he’s given up living in Holywood
Residing in Bangor instead
He astonishes all with his swiftness
To see him so nimble and trim
And the way the zip on his fleece
Is fastened right up to his chin
Call it Carty’s or Ned’s or the Maypole
It’s one and the same to us all
And there’s a remarkable number of people
Who can’t make it home till they’ve called
But whether they’re late or they’re early
They share gossip and scandal illicit
And no matter sex, creed or religion
All agree, the pints are exquisite
My finale’s a cautious reminder
To those who are drinking within
Your manners should not be forgotten
If you expect an invite again
These portals are sacred and precious
So, remember, as you leave
Hurry up, you’re letting the smoke out
Shut the door, were you born in a field?