CLIMBING Croagh Patrick was clearly thirsty work even for the patron saint himself, who, it turns out, was not only busy banishing the black birds with his clog dubh but also had the luxury of a personal brewer and confessor, Mescan. Apparently, St Patrick’s own beer was reputed to have been ‘very sweet, having hints of bog myrtle and heather, with a low alcohol content’ and a special infusion of gentian.
Fifteen hundred and seventy five years later, or so, not only is there a microbrewery (situated in the foothills of the holy mountain) named after the expert herbalist but a modern-day bard – well, writer – has written a fascinating tale about our nation’s colourful relationship with alcohol. Indeed, Kevin Martin, the author of ‘Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History Of The Irish Pub’, was sitting just down the road from his family home on Bertra Beach, in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, when the muse (it had to be, Mescan) inspired him.
From shebeens to spirit grocers, snugs to early houses, ‘bona fides’ to Brehon laws, super-pubs to gay bars, Martin’s recently published book is a treasure trove of intoxicating anecdotes. Significantly, it also weaves a cultural history of an ever-evolving entity that is central to the Irish way-of-life. Time to get over it, Myles na gCopaleen: “A pint of plain is [no longer] your only man.”
While the genesis of the book happens to have academic roots (see below), the telling of this yarn flows better than ancient ale with a cocktail of exotic liquors served up at a late-night lock-in in a dimly lit pub down all of our streets.
RAISED from the age of six in Crossmolina, Kevin Martin attended Gortnor Abbey before studying English and PE at Thomond College (now subsumed into the University of Limerick) from 1986 to 1990.
It was while teaching in Edenderry, Co Offaly that he undertook a Masters degree in DCU and wrote a thesis on the subject of the Irish pub.
He tells The Mayo News over coffee on his sun-soaked deck: “I didn’t address the subject to my satisfaction and so I decided I’d come back to it if I ever got the chance.”
First though, there was five years travelling, during which time he was a “Manny” (a male nanny) and private tutor to two adopted boys whose very rich parents lived in the Hamptons, on New York’s Long Island. Then, it was off to Australia, with his then girlfriend and wife-to-be, Maria Carroll, from Murrisk, where he taught for a year as an English teacher .
The global odyssey then brought him on to Japan in 1997 while Maria returned home. Three years later Martin was home and married.
“On my return I began to work in third-level education, first in GMIT and then I taught Cultural Studies in ITB (Institute of Technology Blanchardstown). But by the late 2000s I had enough of commuting and since my wife has a busy job, which also involves travelling, I became a full-time home carer,” he explains.
“I had always liked writing and, of course, wanted to contribute to the family income. So while sitting on the beach at Bertra one day, I thought about writing a book and my thesis on pubs immediately came to mind,”
What helped Kevin was that he remembered the plethora of references to pubs in many of the books he had read in the intervening years since he he had written his thesis.
With huge support from Maria, and, of course, Caitlín (12) and Joey (10), he started the book on April 1, 2015, the anniversary of his mother’s death, and finished it six months later in September.
“Once I got the children off to school each day and my jobs done, I would start writing,” he says.
Barely on the shelves of bookshops throughout the country, ‘Have Ye No Homes To Go To?’has already been given the thumbs-up in the print and broadcast media. And since Co Mayo was once renowned for its shebeens and the town of Claremorris cited in the British House of Parliament as a particular repository of such hostelries, there could yet be a whole new chapter on the history of the Irish pub
Did you know?
- Under Brehon Law each local king was required to have his own bruigu or brewer. A bruigu was obliged to have ‘a never-dry cauldron, a dwelling on a public road and a welcome to every face’. He had to provide hospitality to all comers in his bruidean. The bruidean had to be located at a crossroads; have four doors, one on each of the approaching routes; have torch-bearing greeters on a lawn outside so nobody would pass by unwelcomed; and stay open 24 hours a day. There were strict rules on provisions: the bruigu had to stock three uncooked red meats, butchered and ready to cook; three stewed meats, cooked and kept heated; and three types of live animals, ready to slaughter at short notice. Three different cheering sounds had to be heard in the bruidean simultaneously: the cheers of the ale-makers going happily about their work, the cheers of the servers bringing alcohol from the cauldron, and the cheers of young men playing chess.
- Pubs were once allowed to store dead bodies. The Coroners Act of 1846 decreed a dead body had to be brought to the nearest public house for storage until further arrangements were made. The beer cellars were cool and slowed decomposition, and it became common for publicans to have marble tables in their cellars for autopsies. This legislation was not removed from the
- statute books until 1962, and the dual role of publican and undertaker is still common in Ireland.
- Travellers used to be legally entitled to a drink outside normal opening hours. ‘Bona fide’ houses utilised a legal loophole – a hangover from the days of coach travel – that allowed a genuine traveller three miles from his place of residence to partake of alcohol outside normal hours. If you lived in Dublin city, the limit extended to five miles from your habitual residence. According to the law, the customer had to have ‘travelled in good faith’, not for the purposes of taking refreshment; travellers could go into an inn for ‘refreshment in the course of a journey, whether of business or pleasure’. It was a legally fraught area. In order to prove a public house was taking advantage of it, the court had to prove the publican did not believe his customer was a bona fide traveller when serving outside normal hours.
- In 1932, The Irish Times denounced the cocktail, warning readers: “It is supposed by the many to induce an appetite and to stimulate intelligent conversation; in fact, it absorbs the pancreatic juices and encourages cheap wit.”
Have Ye No Homes To Go To? The History of the Irish Pub by Kevin Martin is published by The Collins Press and on sale in bookshops throughout Co Mayo, with a recommended price of a14.99.