The Christmas holidays are over and the emigrants who returned for the festivities have boarded ferries or planes for Britain, for Europe, for North America, for Australia. Do they still gather in pubs in their new home towns on Friday nights and listen to ballads and airs from home – or are such times now long past?
There were two pubs in Manchester we would go for music; one was crowded and had a younger clientele, the other was more spacious and had a more attentive audience. People would stop their conversations and listen when the musicians played, and when songs were sung every face would turn to the low rostrum where the singer would be sat on a high stool, flanked by her accompanists. The Cliffs of Dooneen, From Clare to Here, and The Rare Old Times had a poignancy about them. Star of the County Down invited lively participation; My Lagan Love was a time to be quiet and reflective.
There was a man who sat halfway down the pub, in the same seat whether you were there on a Friday, a Saturday or a Sunday. He sat alone, his pint of Guinness on the table in front of him. Each week, the same flat cap and the same distant look presented the exterior of a man who seemed filled with an unspoken sadness. Perhaps he had once been married and his closest friend and companion had died; perhaps there had been a sweetheart whose love he had lost. He would stare into the middle distance, without a sign of emotion or awareness of anyone around him. His face was timeless, the lines like the contours on the map of his life. No-one would interrupt his reverie; perhaps no-one knew him well enough to speak; perhaps they knew him too well to speak.
Sometimes, in retrospect, the man’s lot seems an enviable one; to sit with a pint of stout and listen to music that would move the heart, without fear of disturbance, without being annoyed by the trivial and the banal.
Some Fridays, a man with a large basket would come through the pub selling shellfish. His arrival was a moment marked by the band striking up Molly Malone. The man never bought a bag of cockles; he barely looked up. Perhaps he was not from a coastal town; perhaps seafood was no part of the diet on the farm his family worked; perhaps it was simply that he did not like shellfish, or that the pension could better be spent on another pint from Saint James’s Gate. He’d be long dead by now; maybe they played an air at his funeral; maybe someone sang a lament. Maybe his friends raised a parting glass to their old friend.
Are there still men like him sitting and listening? Or has the music been lost, like another generation of Irish young people?