An Irish Interlude

With all of the problems in the world, the small moments of refreshing human contact should be appreciated. Last Friday I was on the metro line 6 in Paris going from Bir Hakeem (the Eiffel Tower) to Etoile (the Arc de Triomphe). An Irish family entered the car at the same time I did. It was a typically cool February day in Paris and listening to the Irish accent of the parents with their kids, I began to think of a pint of Guinness.

I was on my way to a restaurant in Montmartre to have dinner with my wife near where she was working. I also planned to do my daily walk in Paris. It is about two miles from the Arc de Triomphe to the Moulin Rouge. The walking route passes through Parc Monceau. It is a lovely greenspace, bubbling with children at play,  an emerald set in a fashionable neighborhood of luxurious Hausmannian townhouses. The neighborhood changes, literally across the tracks, the several lines leaving Gare Saint Lazare. Here it is much more commercial with not the same level of affluence. The route continues through the Place de Clichy, where  François Truffaut set much of his classic The 400 Blows. Just past there, 100 m from the Moulin Rouge, I found Corcoran’s Irish Pub.

I was more than one hour in advance and only five minutes from the restaurant, so I stopped for that pint of Guinness that came to my mind on the metro. The place was almost empty, surprising to me it being 6 PM on a Friday night, so there were plenty of free places at the bar. Just after my pint was served four people tumbled into the pub and placed themselves at the angle of the bar next to me. There were two women in their 40s, and what I thought was an attractive young couple in their mid 20s. They were in a jovial mood and immediately ordered four Baby Guinnesses. I thought they must be small, half-pints of Guinness. In fact, a Baby Guinness does not contain Guinness, but is a shot of coffee liqueur and Irish Cream made to look like a Gunniess with the white cream floating on top of the black liqueur (more below). As the four shots were being prepared another was ordered for the bartender. And in short order a sixth was ordered for me.

Drinks lead to conversation. First, they were incredulous about my name. The name IRA is not common in Ireland except for a certain organization. The women in their 40s had lived in Paris even longer than I have. We talked about being expats and raising children with English speaking parents in France. The young couple were in fact brother and sister, and the nephew and niece of one of the women, and had just arrived from Ireland to visit their aunt. We talked about where they lived near Dublin. Then I mentioned my knowledge of Ireland and the town of Sligo. This was also the favorite Irish town of my new friends. There was not a word about Covid, Ukraine, ….

Back in the last century I was watching the John Wayne film The Quiet Man. This viewing incited me to use my frequent flier miles for a trip to Ireland. I was living in San Antonio, TX so I was in search of cool and wet weather in the summer.  Experiencing the Irish weather in August was like a reprieve from the inferno. The morning after I arrived in Dublin I walked down to the Connolly Train Station and took the next train out of town, leaving the destination totally to chance.  To my good fortune the destination was Sligo on the northwest coast of the island.  It was a tight little town with many small shops, churches on the hills, and the picturesque Garavogue River flowing through the heart of it into Sligo Bay.

I spent two nights in Sligo, mostly in pubs reading and then chatting.  I limited myself to 10 pints of Guinness per day.  Of course, that is, unless I wanted more.  Patience (or forethought) is required in drinking Guinness.  The bartender first fills the glass with a brown and white mixture from the tap.  It takes a couple of minutes for the white foam to rise to the top and the dark, almost black, liquid to settle on the bottom.  You might call it an apartheid drink.  When the settling process is almost complete another spurt from the tap is added and then it is served.

When I first set out to explore the town there were police about and a large traffic jam.  I thought there must have been an accident.  I learned in a pub that it was a bomb threat that caused the commotion.  Sligo is only about 60 miles from the border with Northern Ireland, but the IRA had called a cease-fire and there had never been an incident in Sligo before.  It happens that no one claimed responsibility for the hoax.  The next day the scuttlebutt in the pubs was that animal rights activists were the perpetrators with the intention of disrupting the horse races.  For it turns out my visit to Sligo coincided with the two-day meet of the Sligo County Races. I ended up only seeing one race because of some mistiming and a misstep.  But I was there long enough to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere and win a few pounds on the favorite in the last race.  The Sligo Racecourse is located about one-half mile out of town.  On the grounds there is a scenic view of fields and Benbulben Mountain.  The track itself melds with the fields.  It is a one-mile turf course that descends about 100 feet along the hillside as the horses run from the stands.  A carnival atmosphere is created by the swarms of children, the beer hall, and the bookies.  Bookies are individual businessmen (I only saw one female assistant) who take the bets (there was also parimutuel betting).  There were probably 50 of them at Sligo.  After my horse came in there was a photo finish for second.  I thought it was humorous that several of the bookies started giving odds on that result.

My first full day in Sligo I walked about 5 miles along the bay up the Knocknarea Peninsula to the little resort town of Strandhill.  It is the surfing capital of Ireland.  The next morning I hiked to the summit of Knocknarea Mountain that dominates the peninsula.

Have I not bid you tell of that great queen
Who has been buried some two thousand years?
from The Old Age of Queen Maeve by W. B. Yeats

I have not mentioned that Sligo is Yeats country and Maeve is Ireland’s famous Celtic warrior queen, who according to local legend is buried at the summit of Knocknarea.  Knocknarea has a similar shape to the rock of the Prudential Insurance Company.  I ascended the path from the more gently sloped back end.  About three-fourths of the trek is through cattle and then sheep pastures.  The sheep were pleasant enough, only occasionally noticing my presence.  The last bit is covered in what I would call gorse, a thick low-lying shrub which is the terror of Scottish golf courses.  The morning of my ascent Knocknarea was shrouded in mist, really a cloud;  visibility being only about 200 feet.  Therefore, as I trudged up the last steep bit I did not notice until I was upon it the tomb of Queen Maeve, a pile of stones perhaps 30 feet high.  I was pleasurably winded as I sat at the base of the tomb, in the cool, crisp morning air, while tufts of mist passed by my ears;  blown by the freshening breeze.  The relatively flat top of Knocknarea is approximately 200 yards long with the tomb located on the back end.  As I relaxed the mist started to clear so I walked to the far end of the summit.  As the cloud broke-up I could enjoy the fabulous view of Strandhill, the peninsula and Sligo Bay.

Well, one round leads to another. After I paid for their next round of Babies, they bought another one for me and then another pint of real Guinness. After drinking two pints of real Guiness and two babies in one hour I needed to leave to meet my wife for dinner. To be honest, I can’t handle drinking like I could back in the day when I had visited Ireland. I drink much less and I am prudent and drink plenty of water with the alcoholic beverages. My little adventure inspired a little poem.

A Drinking Consultation
Beer and wine are fine in moderation,
A cocktail or two are a nice change on occasion,
Perhaps a finger of whiskey is just right for relaxation,
Even some shots can be the proper highlight for a celebration,
But for God’s sake, never forget: hydration, hydration, hydration!

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