Taxis in West Clare are sparse and hard to find, ranging anywhere from unmarked station wagons to negotiations with late-night deliverymen, which I would find dangerous in America, but I find charming here.
At the end of one particularly long, West Clare, July Friday night, for example, I rode in the backseat over an overstuffed maroon Astrovan after the pub owner offered to call his friend Michael to get us home. At best, Michael was an erratic driver with borderline sobriety, but he was also “Clare sound” — a term coined by two in our party to describe the specific shirt-off-their-back, out-of-their-way type kindness found in the county, which might be rooted in the partial-truth of Clare’s “surfers, farmers, and writers” stereotype.
I don’t know whether Michael was a surfer, a farmer, or a writer, but I do know that he didn’t need to pick us up, and he certainly wasn’t getting rich off the transaction, but he was friendly, with a thick accent, and delivered us without complaint.
That made him “Clare sound.” Whatever that’s worth.
But tonight, there are no station wagons, pub telephones, or wayward delivery men: it’s March, the roads of West Clare are decidedly more bare than on my last visit, and the Michael’s of the world are hibernating. Luckily, though, the early evening weather cooperates, and allows for walking. It’s pleasant for this time of year, with no threat of rain in the immediate future, so with fourteen hours left in Ireland, I strike out on foot, and follow a short, straight-ish road from Lahinch to Ennistymon.
Neighboring towns, Ennistymon is a five-minute drive (or a thirty-minute walk) from Lahinch, but given the time it would take to find a cab, my worn-out pair of Vans is the fastest available route, and I pass from a sleepy, seasonal cul-de-sac in the corner of Lahinch, onto the main drag, towards the big smoke of Ennistymon: to my left, a herd of unassuming livestock settles into the twilight, and to my right, some grave religious icon sits along the roadside, because in Ireland, grave religious icons sit at intervals along every roadside, lest you forget the path to salvation on the way to Tesco.
It’s one of the things I’ve become acutely aware of about Ireland, over the last year.
Ten hours from now, my alarm will crack the silence of Clare’s quiet, offseason coast. I’ll rinse, change into the last set of clothes still outside of my suitcase, and leave Ireland with no plans to return for the first time in a year, following that infinite summer in a tiny apartment on Cork’s Western Road, and this trip, which spilled over from that trip, when I’d stepped back into a former life, as if I hadn’t been six months gone.
But morning — and all that will come with it — is still a half turn on the earth’s axis away, and tonight, I’m staying at a friend of a friend’s rental house in Lahinch, offered because of its proximity to the airport, and accepted because of its proximity to Eugene’s — a pub on Church Street in the center of Ennistymon, along N68, essentially the only road in town.
According to a slew of Trip Advisor reviews, Eugene’s is “not to be missed.” It’s “amazing, just amazing,” “a feast for the eyes,” “the best pub in the country.”
…of course, in the same batch, Eugene’s is described as a “Venus flytrap,” the operation of an “ignoramus,” and an establishment totally undeserving of business.
So as manure mixes with peat smoke in the coastal breeze, and occasional cars wind over gentle hills, passing me by on the wrong side of the road, I keep walking.
America and the morning hang over every step.
The pungent romance of Clare dances in the air.
A meeting with an ignoramus lying a half-hour up the road.
I never noticed if there was a barber shop in Ennistymon — perhaps the resourceful townspeople cut their own hair — but I do know this: if one of Eugene’s patrons was to receive a hot lather, skin tight, old fashioned, straight razor shave just before stepping into the pub, then took a passing look at every picture, patch, business card, stein, sign, piece of stained glass, bottle, mug, painted table, souvenir, rope-wrapped post, hand-strung light, frame, coaster, poster, and postcard inside, when that patron eventually stumbled back out onto Church Street, they would be bearded, aged, and unrecognizable, like Rip Van Winkle returning to his sleepy village after a twenty-year nap in the Catskills.
Simply put, Eugene’s is the most meticulously kept pub I’ve ever seen — maybe the most meticulously kept place I’ve ever seen — with not an inch of space wasted or item out of place: its aesthetic comes together like some surgical collage, like pub-turned-pointillism, where each detail stands alone, but fits in concert with the larger landscape around it. It’s a dizzying thing to step into, but there’s a careful organization to it all, and soon, one can’t help but appreciate a precision where something new emerges with every scan over the pub’s carefully crafted walls.
In a way, that makes Eugene’s difficult to define, because it is traditional, but also totally askew from many of Ireland’s classic pubs, and thus, he only way I can really think to quantify is this: at the center of Eugene’s pristinely polished, perfectly lacquered, chocolate-colored counter top, there’s a sign that stands a foot-or-so off the bar, encased in wood, and glowing with back-lit red, yellow, and green stained-glass, which reads DRINKING EMPORIUM.
Of all the things you could call Eugene’s, that feels like the most accurate, since, at least in decor, it goes beyond “pub,” and just short of “museum.”
From the outside, Eugene’s is striking, the building’s yellow façade stretching three stories, and telling a story across every floor: at the very top, there’s a hand-painted picture of James Joyce, celebrating the pub award named after Ireland’s favorite son, which Eugene’s has received. Next to that, there’s a portrait of the four principle characters of Father Ted — essentially Ireland’s version of Seinfeld — which was filmed not far from the pub; after shoots, the cast and crew made frequent visits to Eugene’s, becoming regulars during filming, and while the show ended after only three seasons nearly twenty years ago, it remains beloved Irish television, playing in syndication nearly every night, and serving as a constant cultural reference point, leading to endless jokes that had to be explained to me after the fact.
A floor below, a green overhang reads McNamara, Est. 1712 AD (which I assume is Eugene’s last name, though I never asked), and below that, two Georgian paintings depict a local couple in two landmark moments, “The Proposal” and “The Marriage.” In the first, the man looks considerably drunk as he’s taking his future-wife’s hand while he’s laid back in a wicker chair outside of a bar, but come the wedding day, he’s much more put together, standing finely dressed next to the Inagh River, which runs through Ennistymon.
On the ground floor, Eugene’s is spelled out above stained-glass windows and a half-door that features another depiction of Father Ted, and a sign instructs patrons to “mind their step” as they pass from the sidewalk, to sunken slate floors, to the bar, and the tidal wave of detail that meets them inside: flags and scarves hang on the ceilings, plaques, pictures, and posters hang on the walls, and stained glass hangs over the bar in colorful, glowing depictions of GAA kits and fisherman in rowboats; the tables and stools are all hand-painted with red, yellow, and green diamonds, which is something of a logo in Eugene’s; around the bar, there are display cases for the pub’s rarest whiskeys, with back-lit bottles encased in glass, appearing more like gallery pieces than drink orders; charming, old adverts blend into the more-recent décor around them, and pictures lead down a staircase to the bathrooms, where some of Eugene’s favorite cartoons sit framed above the trough — something to read mid-stream.
And everywhere, business cards cling to each available inch, literally wallpapering the pub, spaced equidistant apart, carefully stapled at the top and bottom edges, looking like they were placed by a machine, not a man. Numbering in what must be the thousands, there are business cards from anywhere imaginable, with any random sampling from any random corner of the pub having arrived at Eugene’s from Dublin, Seattle, Zurich, Cardiff, Melbourne, Providence, Madrid, Phoenix, Omaha, Lisbon, or Lahinch.
Oddly, though, among all that’s to be seen upon entry, the fireplace is Eugene’s central feature, demanding immediate attention, just as fireplaces do in almost every one of the Ireland’s truly great pubs.
Sitting just a few feet from the center of the bar, the warmth of the hearth bites at one’s back when cash changes hands and beer settles. From that spot, a newcomer’s order is often caught in the crosshairs of banter that pings from a well-worn stone seat at the edge of the fireplace, to the two cushioned benches on either side, to the stools at the counter, and up to the bartender, who stands just beyond the beer taps, but does not always feel like talking.
Through a gentle, wooden archway, the heat from the fire spills into the pub’s back room, which features the same chaotic unity that’s found in the front of the house, in a room that boasts the very best of Irish feng shui: out back, each table is tucked into its own corner, private enough for intimate conversation, but with just enough openness to allow for a one-off friendship with the party across the way. Of the eight or so seating options back here, the most prominent is also the most visited — the Father Ted booth — where the host of the show’s memorabilia is kept: above the cushioned seat and the painted edges, there’s an autographed picture of the cast, the sign from the back of the late Dermot Morgan’s chair, an invitation to the show’s Christmas party, an invitation to the show’s wrap party, and an encased clapboard, with the details of one of the show’s final scenes still chalked out. Aided by the pub’s proximity to Father Ted’s famed Parochial House in nearby Lackareagh, fans often finish their pilgrimage, head for the coast, and end their trip with a drink at cast and crew’s once-favorite watering hole, should they’ve been tipped off to its locale.
But for all the character packed into the physical confines of Eugene’s — and for all the characters who have passed through the quirky, little pub in the west of Clare — the only character that really matters is the man himself.
Bartender, proprietor, namesake: Eugene McNamara.
(If McNamara is, in fact, Eugene’s last name. Otherwise, like Bono or Prince, just “Eugene.”)
But before I offer my first-hand account, I’d like to list some opinions of the man from TripAdvisor’s active usership, in the hopes of cultivating a fully formed, democratic perspective. Without comment:
“Mean.” — Ann Marie D
“Foul mouth.” — wwcas
“Owner is a jerk.” — IslaMike
“Bitter, bitter little man.” — Nicola M.
“Extremely rude.” — IreneDavey987
“Rotten egg.” — Deauville
“The most ignorant bar man in Ireland.” — Brian
“Does not deserve business.” — dibmc
“A sandwich short of a picnic.”- Shocath
“The most ignorant pub owner I have ever met in my life.” -MotoSullivan2013
On a Friday in July nine months before this walk from Lahinch to Ennistymon, Laura and I drop a friend of mine off at the airport.
On the drive out, he threw up in the backseat of her car, and is now head-ached and puked-stained, facing a seven-hour plane ride back to Boston, while I clean the leather interior of Laura’s car with a butterfly towel and make up wipes.
Vomit aside, this is a convenient trip to the airport, because it brings us from Cork City towards Clare, where tonight, we’ll meet up with Laura’s friends, who I have never met before: there are Aoife and Donncha, who are famous to me through anecdotes and Instagram, Cassandra and Julie, who will be famous to me after this trip, and a fellow that everyone just calls Beans, though I initially have trouble referring to him as anything other than “Paul.”
Tonight, we’ll stay at Aoife’s family’s caravan in Lahinch, then take the ferry to Inis Oirr in the morning for a weekend on the island, but even after a thorough cleaning of Laura’s car, it’s only 11 AM. Everyone else is at work until five, and we are left in limbo, with no place to hang our proverbial hats.
And so the Uncle Buck Tour of Clare begins.
With the international terminal at Shannon Airport in Laura’s rearview mirror, we follow thruways west, which ride like any other highway in any other major city. But the closer we get to the coast, the more rural the roads become, and before long, Laura is pinging around little country lanes with a casualness I find discomforting: despite the amount of time I’ve spent in her car, I still don’t have my bearings on Ireland’s reversed roadways, so as we wheel around the bends of ill-traveled, pastoral towns, I feel my balls jump to my throat, and try to comfort myself with the idea that, if death comes today (and, at times, I’m confident it’s only moments away), it will be picturesque: I’ll be slammed headlong into a scenic stone-wall, or t-boned by a charming, bucolic farmer, my lifeless body will be tossed out onto a field of a thousand shades of green, which is what people come to Ireland for in the first place.
I met Laura six weeks ago, and she invited on this trip a few weeks after that, however reluctantly: Laura likes me, I think, and I like her, but I’m also an American with a return ticket at the end of August, playing make believe in Europe for a few months. I don’t represent a long-term romantic option, and am probably not someone that needs to be introduced to friends, since I won’t be a continuous presence in their lives. But, eventually, we see each other enough for a certain YOLOness to prevail, and I’m grateful to be included in this weekend getaway, even if the ratio between apprehension and excitement remains in constant flux.
On the first of June, I landed in Ireland, dragged my luggage through the blocked off streets of Cork’s annual city marathon, got the key to my apartment, and spent my first few weeks in a constant state of semi-lost, navigating without local knowledge or an internet connection, but breathing the city deep into my lungs along the way: I read in the park, went for jogs to acclimate more than exercise, and turned up roadways I didn’t recognize to find whatever was to be found; I went to the gym to play basketball with the Chinese grad students on Mondays and Wednesdays, and after a shower, I’d chat with Dan, the bartender at Slate’s Open Mic Night; I went to the market, enjoyed my interactions with one of the butchers at Tim O’Sullivan’s, and stopped at familiar pubs on the way home, sometimes just to get WiFi and text my family that I was still alive; other times, I stopped at unfamiliar pubs, but which looked friendly enough — once or twice I was wrong — and I sat, and I watched, and I didn’t speak all that much.
I went to Kinsale early one morning, and saw the countryside from the window seat of a bus, then went to a soccer game in Dublin the following Sunday, and tried to convert the road signs from kilometers to miles; I took the train to Cobh one morning, got a tip about Ballyvourney, and followed a story to Mitchelstown, a place that was later described to me as “the scab on the knee of Cork, which Cork wishes it could pick off, and give to Tipperary.”
Then I met Laura.
It was a Sunday afternoon in Fitzgerald Park, and that day, we drove out to the Cork City Marina, got ice cream, and walked around.
When I got out of her car at the end of the day, I said, “I had fun. We should do this again sometime,” which was, apparently, a laughably American thing to say.
“American,” like how I wore “backwards caps” and “basketball tops,” and how I ordered drinks all wrong, and, embarrassingly, carried my few worldly possessions in a backpack around the city center.
But despite all the visible carryovers from my Star-Spangled home, Laura agreed to see me again the following Friday. That night, I walked into the Oliver Plunkett, and found her sitting in a snug window, looking like a vision: she wore a maroon tanktop, white pants, and a gold necklace, each item bouncing more prominently off the tan glow of her early summer skin than the one before it.
Everything she did seemed effortless: the way she walked, talked, laughed, and moved — the way she made the city her own, and held it in the palm of her hand.
After the first pub, she brought me to the side door of Rearden’s, the busiest bar in Cork City, where we cut the line outside, had our covers waved, took side staircases to floors I didn’t know existed, and slipped out a hidden exit to the back alley, avoiding the rush at last call.
We turned down the sidewalk towards my apartment, and said goodbye outside of Chambers, a gay bar on the corner of Washington Street, where she’d once performed during Pride Week as part of The Saturdays, an all-female, glam-pop cover band, who were met with wild adoration.
As we parted, she told me to be careful walking home by myself, as if there was any crime in Ireland worth worrying about, or I hadn’t been walking home by myself since I’d gotten here.
If not in the city then definitely in Rearden’s, I got a reputation as the Yank Laura was hanging out with, which was accurate, albeit dismissive: whenever anybody called me “Yank,” it never felt like an insult, but it also never really felt like a compliment, either. Still, it was a fair characterization, since most nights, I’d follow Laura to this pub or that bar, where she knew a bouncer or the owner, or to some restaurant or chipper which had something I had to try while I was here, and I’d take her shortcuts through side streets and back alleys to the places an unaffiliated American wouldn’t have found on his own.
We left the city, too, and much of my memory of that summer comes from looking out of the passenger window of her car, never really sure where I was on a map, and even less sure oncoming traffic would stop: we went to Inchydoney Beach a few days after the first night at Rearden’s, then to Youghal, then to Barleycove, then to Killarney, and along the way, we passed through all the little towns that crisscross Ireland, threading the country together, each with their own reputations and stereotypes, some more worth stopping in than others.
With Aoife and Donncha still at work, Laura and I fill our afternoon by stopping in a lot these types towns — Doolin, Lisdoonvarna, Liscannor, Ennis, Ballyvaughn, Fanore, Kilrush, Milltown Malbay — and by taking two separate naps in the parking lot of Lahinch Beach, which proves a necessity after the previous night turned into the present morning, and flipped the stomach of at least one in our caravan on the way to the airport.
The second nap ends. Afternoon heads for dusk, friends I haven’t met yet approach the end of their work week, and Laura decides we should make one last stop in a pub just down the road from Aoife’s caravan.
It’s a pub I should see while I’m here, but which comes with a distinct warning: beware of Eugene, local proprietor and famed curmudgeon, whose moods shift like Clare’s coastal weather.
He is, Laura tells me, the opposite of “Clare sound.”
The last time Aoife and Laura were at Eugene’s, they walked in carefully in the early afternoon, having encountered the prickly barman in the past. But that day, they found Eugene gregarious and outgoing, like maybe he was on the verge of a massive stroke: notoriously eccentric — an excuse people often give for those who are generally cold and grumpy — that afternoon, Eugene was counter to his reputation, nothing of the man they’d met before or the one described on TripAdvisor.
He was all chats, and tea, and a guided tour of the pub to show the girls some of his prized memorabilia.
Charmed (and a little worried), they rushed back to the caravan to brag to Donncha about their afternoon with Eugene, who freshened their cups of tea and had a warm heart beating inside of him. For Donncha, an individual as universally well-liked as anyone I’ve ever met (so well liked, in fact, that’s people’s fondness for him brings frequent ribbing — Perfect little Donncha! — from Aoife, his now-wife) this was particularly troubling, first, because Donncha is a mini-historian that appreciates a “good pub” more than anyone, and second, because Eugene may be the lone individual left in the Republic of Ireland not taken by Donncha’s charm and button nose.
This was something that needed to be seen to be believed, so three hours later, the girls went back to their new-friend-Eugene’s, with Donncha in toe
And when they got there, the new Eugene…treated them like the old Eugene.
He was curt, flippant, and did not remember the previous interaction as fondly as the girls did. He barely took notice of their presence, looked through them, according to Laura, like one would do with a pile of old bar rags on a forgotten shelf, which is, of course, metaphor, since everything in Eugene’s — down to the piles of old bar rags on forgotten shelves — are immaculately kept.
But all things considered, Laura laughs, this would’ve been Eugene on a good day, had they not seen his rare mood earlier that afternoon.
And with the comfort of that anecdote ringing in my ears, Laura parks along Church Street, and we find Eugene’s half door open.
Leaving the last of the afternoon sun at the doorway, I cross the threshold into the dimly-lit pub, the contrast blurring the place in front of me. But as my pupils dilate, Eugene’s “not-to-be-missed” billing becomes clear: if it’s possible for a pub to feel unlike any place I’d ever been, all while having the sensation of stepping into one of the countless gift shop postcards I’d seen in my few weeks, then that is Eugene’s.
But that’s also a feeling that doesn’t come until later, perhaps not until I write this.
When my feet land on Eugene’s sunken slate floor, my focus falls immediately to the man behind the counter, who was allegedly born upstairs and still lives there, won’t allow music unless it’s played live, tells patrons he doesn’t have a TV even though everyone knows there’s one hidden somewhere in the bar, will cut customers down for forgetting a coaster beneath their beer, and famously says, “If you’re going to get comical with me, let me be serious with you…” if someone oversteps their bounds, and gets a little too comfortable for his liking.
An older patron sits on a barstool at the counter, and a neighboring shop owner momentarily pokes his heads in, breaking the pub’s silence like a pebble skipping across a pond at rest, but Eugene is mostly unmoved, and doesn’t take notice our entrance, standing firmly behind the bar, appearing like a load-bearing part of the building’s architecture.
Not a tall man, nor a young man, Eugene has the sturdy posture and steady build of someone that’s spent the last twenty-five years standing on slate floors, adhering to the “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean” school of pub ownership. Not yet entirely bald, he maintains a soft, black-turned-gray crown of hair, and a shiny, aged, bulbous nose. Either a wind-whipped red or a neon tan, his face has a warm, almost welcoming coloring to it, with a certain knotted-ease that I hadn’t picture from Laura’s story. Impeccably dressed, his outfit reminds me of my grandfather, who wore slacks in even the most oppressive heat. Though it’s July, Eugene wears a monogrammed shirt buttoned at the sleeves, with his initials stitched across the breast pocket. A black belt hugs his waste, holding pleated pants in place, his shirt tucked seamlessly in, and though his feet are hidden behind the bar, I’m certain this is a man that wears shoes, not sneakers.
And though he’s yet to look up, I sidle to the bar, having been prepared to order since I was in Laura’a passenger seat.
But as she often does, Laura takes her time deciding between a glass of Heineken, a glass of Bud, a glass of Peroni, or a glass of Hop House, so whatever favor I’m prepared to curry with a decisive “Pint of Guinness, please,” is undone by her hemming and hawing. When she eventually decides, I step forward, and look Eugene in the face, trying to bury my accent in brevity. (Call it a hunch, but this doesn’t seem like the type of man man who carries a particular fondness for Americans, tourists, or American tourists.)
But immediately he detects it.
“Are ye from America?”
Laura replies quickly, telling him that she’s from Cork, “but he’s a Yank.”
“Just taking him on the tour,” she says.
“Where in America?” Eugene asks, his eyes looking me up and down, just before he turns his back to top off the beer.
“Massachusetts,” I say.
“Boston?” he asks, and even though I’m from Springfield, some 90 miles west, I say “Yes, Boston,” because “Springfield” hasn’t been a particularly helpful conversation starter around here.
Eugene delivers the Guinness with care, taking it from under the tap, and placing it on the beer mat that he’d laid in front of me before money had even changed hands. He looks up.
“I’ve a cousin who’s a priest in Boston,” he says, and in moments, he’s out from the behind the bar, whisking us into the backroom, showing off his whiskeys from Boston, his business cards from Boston, his police patches from Boston, and recounting the well-worn stories that accompany each piece. Even when his accent prevents me from understanding him, or when I only have the faintest background on a subject, I nod, and smile, and follow suit: when Eugene asks if I’ve seen Father Ted, I say, “Of course I’ve seen Father Ted,” even though I wouldn’t recognize the Father if he walked into this pub and spit in my beer.
Eugene carries himself with a knowing, dry sort of charm, which permeates everything he says: he talks about the good old days, when the cast used to stop in — he and Dermot got along famously — tells a story about the wrap party, and begins to say something about one of the actors who played one of the characters I don’t know, but is cut off mid-steam when another customer enters. Begrudgingly, he leaves Laura and I at a table in the backroom to tend to his bar, and the girl from Cork sits across from me, and guffaws. Out of all the times she’s been to Eugene’s, he’s only been friendly that one time, and that one time, he wasn’t that friendly.
We laugh excited laughs, tell bad, giddy jokes, and celebrate this win, which feels much bigger than it should.
Then, as as the bottom of my glass is about to come into focus, Laura’s phone rings with news that Aoife and Donncha are out of work.
We finish, and pass back through Eugene’s half door, and on the way out, Laura tells him that we’ll be back in a few hours, which he’s allegedly looking forward to.
And as promised, a few hours later, we return to Eugene’s, stepping in from the rain that’s now battering Clare, having added Aoife, Donncha, and Donncha’s friend, Stephen to our party.
I first met everyone at dinner, where I was mostly lost in Irish accents, Irish banter, and the non-Irish parts that come with being the new kid at school, which was not an unfamiliar feeling of late. Graciously, though, when I was in the suburbs of their conversation, Laura brought me into the fold by recounting our afternoon at Eugene’s, and how the stone-hearted barman took a peculiar shine to a falsified Boston native.
Having all encountered the Eugene of his reputation, Aoife, Donncha, and Stephen begin to volley stories back and froth across the table. Laughs follow, and underneath the burst of this sunny, early evening exchange, something like worthiness whispers to me, like I’m beginning to understand some requisite shorthand.
Or that I’m finally in on a joke.
Or that I’m not quite so far from home.
And as I bury that feeling in my belly, we head to Eugene’s — the central pillar of my expat identity, as far as tonight goes.
The bar is busier than in the afternoon, but not busy, with only a few regulars peppering the front barstools and tables. While I want to say that weather has something to do with this, I don’t verbalize that, because it’s American logic, which has no home in this famously rainy country. The only response to the wind and the rain in Eugene’s comes form the fireplace, which is now alive and jumping out of the hearth, doing well to dry out soaking bones. As we step towards the bar, Donncha says, “Feels good” in a hushed whisper, like he doesn’t want the teacher to catch him talking.
Eugene doesn’t seem to notice, and just as he was before, he stands unmoved and meticulously dressed behind the beer taps, but this time, is found conversing with a handful of old faces at his counter.
I arrive at the bar first, staple my hand to the glossy, chocolate wood, and wait for Eugene to appear in front of me. I’m silently adamant I get there first — without anyone knowing, I insist on getting there first — because in the whole of my life, I’ve arrived at a single, universal truth: if an individual wants to endear them self to a group of people, that individual should buy that group of people alcohol, and since I desperately want to endear myself to this group of people, I will myself to the front, and hope to draw Eugene to me before Laura or Aoife or Stephen or Donncha can even put a hand to their wallet.
Eugene sees, and steps away from his conversation at the other end of the bar.
“What’ll it be?” he asks with the familiarity of a stranger.
I look over my right shoulder to collect the orders, and find the girls are some fifteen back, talking to one another, and Stephen off to the side, a few stools down, talking to a stranger. Only Donncha stands behind me, on his toes, hesitantly looking over the taps, ultimately landing on Guinness, but I don’t think he actually wants that. He just knows that I’ll order Guinness, so out of convenience or solidarity, he does the same.
The rest of the orders lie in stalemate.
Eugene looks at me blankly, impatiently, with no humor written on his speed-bag-face.
“Are ye just going to stand there?”
I wind my head around again, hoping to prompt the newly acquainted at my back, but to little avail, which is to say that everyone would’ve been seen as friendly, polite, and prompt — had this been any other bar.
Or, rather, any other bartender.
Eugene lets out a heavy, burdensome sigh, and gives an intended look to the patron on my left. “This fucking guy,” his eyes say, to which my eyes have no response, and I’m left frozen, feeling more acutely Yank than I have since arriving in this country.
“Two Guinness,” I puke out. He turns to pour, lets the beer settle, turns back, and looks prick-ish, at the terrible inconvenience in front of him.
I think I’ve bought time with this half-order, but Eugene returns quickly.
“That all?” he asks, knowing full well that’s it not all.
Again, I have no answer. Again, he sighs. Again, calamity for the burdensome American, out of place, imposing on this country, its people, this pub, this girl, and her friends — calamity for someone whose often guilty of believing he knows more than he actually does, and is clumsily alien, when a bitter little barman shines a light on his ignorance.
Eventually, Donncha herds the sheep, and I pass the rest of the requests to the front, and Eugene rings a total. I fumble with brightly colored money, receive brightly colored change, and stuff the bills in my pockets. He completes the transaction without another passing word, and defeated, I limp to the backroom without leaving a tip (but only because tipping is not customary in Ireland).
Despite his fondness for Boston only a few hours earlier, Eugene is happy to see me go.
I duck under the wooden archway, pass the Father Ted booth, the bottles of whiskey, the never-ending business cards, and find Aoife, Donncha, Stephen and Laura sitting and talking — but not too loud — about how Eugene was born upstairs and still lives there, like his father before him, how he won’t allow music if it’s not played live, how he famously says, “If you’re going to get comical with me, let me be serious with you,” and how he actually does have a TV somewhere in the bar, but tells everyone the opposite, even though, one afternoon, a couple of the local lads got him to put on the GAA Finals.
Either no one paid attention to my failing, or they are too kind to say anything.
Donncha thinks Eugene’s unpleasantness is only an act: he likes the way people talk about him, he likes the reputation.
He’s all bark, no bite, according to Aoife. Unless you forget a coaster, that is.
And Laura nods, and Stephen nods, and I am friendly but quiet, and the stories continue, and the conversation shifts in new directions, and I look around at the flags and patches and pictures and postcards, at the rope-wrapped posts and the hand-painted tables and the back-lit bottles and the endless little details that flow from floor to ceiling, and think — after the string from out interaction fades — that, without Eugene, this is just a country pub with a bunch of shit on the walls.
Because up in Galway, there’s a place that’s not all that different: it has countless little knickknacks, cluttered corners, and a never-ending supply of visuals, but I can’t remember the name, or its congenial owner.
I went there once, had a drink, left, and haven’t though about it since — and they were kind to me.
But down in Ennistyom, you make it a point to stop in the country pub with a bunch of shit on the walls to see what type of mood Eugene is in that day. Then, you take your drinks, retreat to the comfortable privacy of his backroom, and tell well-weathered stories in hushed, giddy tones about how he was born upstairs and still lives there, like his father before him, and how he won’t allow music if it’s not played live, and how he tells patrons he doesn’t have a TV even though everyone knows there’s one hidden somewhere in the bar, and how he cuts customers down for forgetting a coaster beneath their beer, and how he famously says, “If you’re going to get comical with me, let me be serious with you…” when some gets a little too comfortable for his liking.
How he huffs and puffs if someone’s not prepared to order, gives tours around the bar to those who claim to be from Boston, and shoots the this-fucking-guy eyes to one of his regulars, if a Yank he’s never seen before keeps him waiting.
No one says anything about my failing, I tell myself, because that’s how you start a weekend in Ennistymon.
And, now, I’m in on the joke.
Or I’m not quite so far from home.
At the very least, I understand some requisite, local shorthand.
That night — that particularly long, West Clare, July Friday night — starts in Eugene’s, and more than once, Donncha grabs me by the arm, takes me around to one of his favorite details, and says “Great old pub,” half to himself, as he often does when he’s in great old pubs like this.
We stay for a second round, maybe a third, but soon, it’s clear that the direction of our night intends to run counter to the quiet corners of Eugene’s quaint, gently filled, little tavern.
He loses no sleep at our departure.
Eventually, we find our way down the street to a hotel bar, which is fresh off something called a “Ceili,” (from what I gather, that’s essentially Irish line dancing night), and we spin the old ladies on the dance floor, the girls jump on the furniture, and we shout requests to a cover band that brings us to the “VIP Section,” thrilled that we’ve lowered the median age to a not-so-embarrassing level.
We hit another bar, another pub, and when last call comes, Clare Sound Michael picks us up, takes us home, and the next morning, we’re on a choppy ferry for Inis Oirr.
But we’re back in Eugene’s again in the not-so-distant-future, because even Eugene can’t keep you away from Eugene’s. Or even we can’t keep ourselves away from him.
It’s my second night there, but the first night I meet Aidan and Niamh, two more of Laura’s friends who weren’t able to make the first weekend in Lahinch, because Aidan’s grandmother (his words, not mine) was “circling the drain.”
That night, unannounced, Aidan brings a case of Sam Adams Boston Lager and a handful of football jerseys, which he makes everyone wear to “make me feel at home.”
And that’s the feeling I’m chasing when I step out to a quiet cul-de-sac in Lahinch, heading for Ennistymon, and the inhospitable man tending to his inhospitable pub.
To my left, there’s livestock, and to my right, there’s a grave religious icon, and up the street, there are no cabs in sight, and behind me, the faces of friends from a former life are fading.
Fourteen hours left: morning hangs in the air like a car backfiring, the sound ringing out in a hollow night.
And when I get to Eugene’s, the famed curmudgeon will look at me and say, “You wanted to spend your last night in Ireland in my little pub?”
And I’ll say yes, but mean that I couldn’t spend it anywhere else, then retreat to his backroom, to sit and sip, and linger among the ghosts.