A Night at Ellen's|
Ellen's was a country pub which we learned about by accident. We had stopped at a little country store for a few supplies for our little rented cottage on the coast, northwest of Sligo. It was a small cottage and we wanted some eggs for the next mornings breakfast. It was a cute little cottage and the advertisement said it had black satin sheets. That didn't attract us so much as the location, but I can tell you that they are slippery to sleep on. We wound up putting a blanket over them because the bed was not quite level and we tended to slide the same direction. The store had a small sign in the window that said "Live Music TONIGHT at ELLEN'S". Having been on a goose chase or two before, trying to find a place and arriving a day late we asked if "TONIGHT" meant tonight or was that yesterday's sign. The woman at the cash register was not really upset. That would not describe her facial response exactly, but she was sort of in a state of disbelief. Yes, "'TONIGHT' means tonight! We take down signs when they no longer apply. Ellen's is straight out the road to the right about 2 miles and then take a right for 1 and 1/2 miles. You can’t miss it." Interpreting directions given verbally in Ireland is an art form. For some reason we naively accept the acknowledgement of a destination as a good start and realize that any hope of actually finding the location based on the instructions given is an act of faith. I can remember several times when we asked someone where some place was that they promptly got in the back seat and directed us refusing a ride back to where they got in the car, saying they knew the way back. Once when we asked a person if they could recommend a B&B in the next village two kilometers down the road he replied he'd never been there. He said he'd heard it was a nice village but he'd never actually been there. He said he never saw the need to travel there. Admittedly this was in the early 1990s and the lifestyle was not as it is now. Bicycles were more prominent then if you didn't own a tractor. Now almost everyone has a car and the use of tractors for getting about is somewhat diminished. This rise in the use of cars is directly related to the "Celtic Tiger" economy. One wonders what the downturn in the economy will bring - more bicycles?
Excited to be looking forward to an evening of music we ventured back to the cottage. The black satin sheets were definitely the highlight because we started to notice things about the cottage that we were not so sure about.
The cottage was located out N15 north of Sligo passed Drumcliffe where W. B. Yeats is buried to Drumcliffe North and left through Coolbeg along Orchard Grove road to Carney then out near Lissadell House famous for Countess Constance Georgine Markiewicz, born Constance Gore-Booth (February 1868 – 15 July 1927). She was an Irish Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politician, revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist. She was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, though she did not take her seat and along with the other Sinn Féin TDs formed the first Dáil Éireann. She was also the first woman in Europe to hold a cabinet position (Minister of Labor of the Irish Republic, 1919–, the only women imprisoned in the 1916 rising. Needless to say the cottage was located in a historically interesting place.
There was a house next door with chickens clucking about everywhere impervious to the fox. There was a derelict cottage across the road and huge black plastic covered rolls of hay. Behind the derelict cottage was a large field beyond which was the ocean, viewable from the bedroom window.
Our difficulty with the house was the size. The rooms were small such that having tea across from each other, knees touching, in the sitting room was not comfortable. But it wasn't the horizontal dimensions so much as the low ceilings and ducking to go through the doors, speaking of which there was only one to the outside. A definite hazard in case of fire. We didn't spend a lot of time in the house because there was so much to see including the beach. It didn't rain much so we were out and about practically everyday.
One such outing was the Lissadell House itself. Intending to just drive near the house for a look see, we serendipitously found that tours were being conducted and decided it was meant to be. There was just a few curious tourists in the small group that was led about from room to room with a narration that was lost on the uninformed which included me. I was unaware of the Countess and her exploits at the time. I was suitably impressed by the house and its contents. It had the feel of a house that had become the store for numerous personal effects gathered on many excursions and had a wonderful feel of both feminine and masculine artifacts and yet unrelated. The furniture was worn and it had the homey feel of a Sunday morning after a sleepy Saturday and no guests were expected. The juxtaposition of the mundane with the exquisite gave the house a special feeling. Of course the rooms were not available to lounge about in although they beckoned to you from the other side of the rope. You could see your self sitting by the window in that big yellow chair reading the latest paper having your morning tea.
I remember going up the wide staircase in the back hall wondering if the former occupants would actually have taken these stairs or were they for the servants. They seemed rather plain and stark; however a few animal heads were mounted and a few paintings added some antiquarian charm.
We were told that the kitchen was in the basement and that the servants came in through a tunnel the entrance of which was several hundred yards away, such that they were not to be seen. Interesting division of class - the unseen servants toiling away in the basement coming and going via a tunnel. We saw the tunnel entrance on our way back to the main road. It was an education in lifestyles, a postscript on an era of wealth. It was only later that I learned about Countess Markiewicz and her relationship to W. B. Yeats.
I watched the Irish news with interest when the house came up for auction a few years ago. It is now open for tours and has been "restored" with period pieces of furniture and the like. It even has a gift shop. How lucky I was to happen on it that bright sunny day when it was open for tour before it was restored and when the contents were genuine to the Gore-Booths and later the Markiewicz family. I like my servings of life served warm.
One afternoon we were sitting having tea when there was a knock at the door. The house was near the end of the road and we didn't know a soul. A man stood on our porch with a basket of fresh vegetables. He was going door to door with his van selling vegetables. They have these cute little mini vans in Ireland and you see them everywhere making deliveries. We thought what a unique idea. This was years before the Webvan service caught on in the United States. We chatted a bit about the service he provided. He said his best clients were the elderly and those who didn't want to travel to the nearest market which could be quite a ways or they were in between market days. The farmers market was always a good bet to get fresh produce, fruit and some fish and meats but not all areas were served equally well. We had seen a number of the farmer's markets over the years and my sense was that they were not the farmers but instead middlemen and that did not buy from farmers at all. Where would a farmer get oranges for example? There are road stands in Ireland now and then when certain crops are in season. We would often see a sign that said fresh strawberries or Dublin Queens ahead. A car would be pulled over and a sack of potatoes would be in the boot (the trunk) with the trunk door up. The strawberry salesman usually had a card table with his baskets neatly lined up. It is fun driving through the Irish countryside eating fresh strawberries. The small family markets or stores have changed considerably over the years with the larger chains expanding further and further into the villages where ever the foot or the vehicle traffic will support the cost of operations. When we first went to Ireland we were amused by the food selections available in the small stores and large stores were only in the larger towns. Most of the food was dry or canned with a large selection of candy. I thought this unusual until I read some where that Ireland was one of the highest candy consuming nations per capita in the World. Probably not true anymore but the quote sure fit what I saw on the shelves. I can remember my dismay at looking in a store front and trying to figure out what the store sold. In One store window I saw several paper back books, some fishing tackle, a pair of Wellies and a doll laying there without clothes. It had a name in big block letters across the top in capital letters that said MCCARTHY. In some villages each of the buildings had a name in block letters at about the same height. Most of them were pubs and some you could discern the type of business but many were like the one I described above. Mind you this was many years ago but it caused me to wonder. A book called the "Irish Countryman" explained it for me. In brief the store was set up as a creditor for a family and their relations. It worked like this: a farmer wanted to raise wheat, the store would acquire the seed for the farmer and extend credit until the crop came in and then collect what was owed plus interest. So the "store" functioned as a creditor for the family to acquire needed equipment and other required items that required a large sum of money. Hopefully you get the idea that it wasn't a store like we think of one. If you want a better understanding get a copy of the book - the author does a great job of explaining how it worked. Of course all of this has changed. The distribution of goods is pretty even throughout Ireland now. Even the smaller cities have most everything while it is true that for some specialty items Dublin is still the place to go. There are some things that the unsuspecting American tourist will get tripped up on. For example some fruits need to be weighed before you reach the checkout stands and you will pay for the bag that you will fill yourself. If you don't know these things check out can become a little uncomfortable. The larger stores in the larger towns now have everything you might want under one roof. In several towns the old facade looks the same but has been hollowed out to contain a number of stores or a large store with the old store fronts maintaining the old look. In Kilkenny for example we entered what looked like an old store but the inside had been gutted and was replaced by a thoroughly modern department store. In Letterkenny the same outward appearance but inside were many different levels of shops with at least one level excavated below ground level with escalators to go between floors. In Killarney the grocery story looked like an old building but inside it was huge filled with all the food stuff you could imagine. Such are the changes in the markets of Ireland.
On the night of Live Music at Ellen's it was clear but cold and extremely dark. When the sun goes down in Ireland the countryside is very dark and except for the occasional dimly lit house in the distance it can be as if nature has extinguished all light until the morning. Music in the pubs is listed as half nine or half ten which means 9:30 or 10:30 p.m. Since we know that the musicians usually take a half hour to warm up we leave at 9:30 for Ellen's. By luck we find the store again and take the road we were told and travel into the darkest of nights. Few houses are out this way but we see a few. In the middle of nowhere we come across a well-lit castle or at least a big house that looks like a castle complete with castellation and all. We have been out this road during the day and never saw it before which makes us wonder did we miss the road. In the darkness we come across a turn to the right and take it but it comes to a dead end and we double back and continue until we come to another right turn. After a few minute more we passed by a house with a red light above the door, a number of cars parked on both sides of the road and a few people standing around the door. Someone’s having a party we assume and continued on. The darkness consumes us and almost simultaneous we ask was that Ellen's back the road a ways. We turned around and parked near the red light. The teenagers look rough and a few are smoking but when I ask them if this is Ellen's they respond politely and almost sweetly - yes - this is Ellen's. Finally there, we enter the establishment which does not fit the model of a pub. On entry there is a short bar along the right but it is in a big open room with a pool table directly across from the door and a long bench along the wall to the left. A musician is warming up - one, two, testing, one, two, testing. There is a small table at the end of the long bench. After retrieving a few pints from the bar we are ready for the music - one, two, testing. The musician has a cowboy hat, a guitar, a harmonica bar around his neck and a drum and cymbals hooked up - he is a one man band and he will play American Western music and a young man at that. Thinking back to the sign it said Live Music TONIGHT but it didn't have the key word "TRAD" meaning traditional. We found a seat on the bench just beyond the eight or so women who is filled most of the bench. Once we were seated with pints we leaned back against the wall and decided it would be a nice evening regardless of the genre of music played. For the next two hours we took in every nuance of this remote pub.
. The women, were perhaps as old as seventy but definitely past child bearing. They were enjoying themselves and a gentleman was working his way down the line asking each one to dance in turn. None refused and they did the Irish version of a polka or fox trot. I really should find out the name of their dance step. It is quick but graceful and all the old set seems to know the steps. The gentleman was dressed in a suit with "floods" (pants that are cut above the ankle) but neat and clean. He seemed to know all the women as though this was a regular endeavor. He would return a dancer to the bench and ask the next woman on the bench to dance and back out on the floor he went. He was a "serial" dancer. It reminded me of when we had chickens and the rooster would come out of the little roosting house I built first and "greet" all of the hens when they came out. Looking at it from another angle they all got some exercise and a chance to dance. Someone recently told me life was about dancing, dancing with abandon and this group qualified.
Near the bar was a group of about fifteen men drinking and talking. There were an equal number of equestrians and farmers based on their dress. The equestrians had riding pants that ballooned out at the thigh with tweed jackets with patches on the elbow while the farmers were dressed in suit coats and trousers. To be a fly on the wall would have been interesting. For me it was like seeing two classes of people standing next to each other with very distinct differences at least from appearances.
They seemed to share in a topic of interest to both groups but there were several mixed groupings so it was difficult to really guess what the conversations were about. Animals or sports would be a good guess. They really take their sports seriously in Ireland even on the local amateur level. Once in Roscommon we were about two miles outside of the town when the road narrowed to one lane with cars parked on both sides. Fortunately no one was coming the other way for the next two miles. The town itself was nearly deserted and it felt surreal until someone pointed out the stadium about two miles away on the slight rise to the north. You could see that the cars were parked all along the road all the way out. Later the pubs were filled with winners and losers and the comments cast about the room had barbs that you could feel even though you were only listening in - how could you not - whispering was not the mode of the night.
At the end of the bar sitting on a stool a girl sat directly under a spot light - it was like a halo. She was dressed in a white sweater which glowed. Her hair was black and shiny. She looked angelic and pure. A boy with slicked back hair stood in front of her. He was a bit smaller because of the stool she sat on. The boy was definitely hanging on her every word and movement while she seemed to be indifferent to him. "Puppy Love", perhaps the most innocent and rarest form of love today because of the sophistication of the time in which we live.
Beyond them against the far wall was a pool table with about 8 prepubescent children trying to play pool. It reminded me of the Keystone Cops - a picture of ineptitude. They were climbing on the table arguing about whose turn it was and two or three shooting at the same time - pure pandemonium but enjoyable to watch. Fortunately they were not too noisy and blusterous. Maybe they were noisy but we just couldn't hear them with the "One Man Band" playing his heart out.
Bill Barich's book "Pint of Plain" has just been published this year - 2009. I have found him to be an enjoyable read. I first ran across a book "A Fine Place to Daydream" about horse racing in Ireland and you know if you've read my story "A Tip From Dublin In Ballinrobe" that I really enjoy the sport in Ireland. I did a little research on the author and found that he wrote a book "Laughing in the Hills" while living a few miles from my home about the area. Now living in Ireland he has taken up the subject of pubs and tried to give us a glimpse of the future. I find that I enjoy an author if the book tends to agree with my own observations and thoughts. I foresaw the difficulty in Ireland with the "Celtic Tiger" and the aftermath which is the nature of a capitalistic economy. I warned a few friends in Ireland to prepare for the bust during the boom years. I am not sure the accusations of paranoia were justified and watching the economic downturn currently taking place has assured me that they were not. It is sad to watch but in the end the economic upturn has caused or been part of the cause for many changes, some good, some not so good. Perhaps it is a stretch but tying a rosy future into the banning of smoking in pubs seems plausible. The fact that life seems worth living is cause to give up smoking cigarettes which are killing you prematurely. Clamping down on driving under the influence and excessive drinking are two more issues tackled by the Irish Republic. These efforts change the culture of drinking and smoking in the pubs and are some of the factors that are reducing the influence of the pub as the cultural center of the villages. Of course There are other factors as well, including the television and I believe the cell phone. The latter has reduced the need to go to the pub for a good conversation and a drink. Drinking at home is now more popular because it is available in the stores and the preferences for liquid refreshments are changing. Wine is becoming more popular. In the "Pint of Plain" Bill surveys the pubs in Ireland to find the "perfect" pub and to record the changes that are taking place. If you've been to a number of different pubs in Ireland over the past twenty years it will seem very familiar to you. If you are observing the social phenomenon taking place in Ireland today it will give you cause to reflect. I recommend the book. Of particular interest to me was Bill's take on Ellen's. Like us he travelled through the night trying to find the place and was not particularly impressed by the interior. His description was close but he felt it was shebeen-like. He did see the possibilities of the place provided the craic was good which is apparently what we found on our trip. The number of people beyond he and his friend were only three which makes craic sparse but it was more evidence for him that the country pub life was declining. Ellen's was considered a lively spot for those returning to Sligo after a day at the beach.
The craic was definitely good while we were there. Two women, a man and a small child were sitting at the small table to our left and were laughing out loud continuously. You know how it is when people are laughing - it is hard not to laugh in concert. They appeared to be a family with the mother-in-law in tow. The little girl was cute with a head full of curls and was laughing as hard as the adults. Finally we were splitting a gut and had to ask what was so funny. The man replied in a thick brogue that his three year old daughter put her knitted sweater over her head so that she was looking out one of the arms which was dangling in front of her face. He said that the daughter said she was an elephant. You could see it too and we laughed some more. We continue to chat for a while finding other things to laugh about.
It was half eleven time for us to leave. Still very black out with no lights anywhere to speak of we found our way back to the cottage with little difficulty. I was expecting a challenge. When we parked the car I noticed about nine or ten tractors racing around the field across the road. At first I thought it was some sort of tractor destruction derby. They all had lights on the tractors and it reminded me of a ski slope I'd witnessed where everyone skiing down the slope had a torch - it was kind of fascinating and pretty at the same time to watch. One of the tractors brought a black plastic wrapped bail over to near we were standing and I yelled out what's happening. The tractor driver yelled back it is going to rain hard before morning and we are "saving the hay".
The black satin sheets were just visible that night as the tractor lights reflected from the dresser mirror. I fell asleep anyway but woke about two thirty with the first flash of lightening and crash of thunder. The rain was really coming down and pelting the window without mercy. The tractors were gone and in the morning I could see all the black plastic wrapped hay they had saved - it was significant as was the smell of fresh mowed hay after the rain.
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