Yesterday was St Stephen’s day. This is probably the busiest day, after St Patrick’s day, for pubs in Ireland. After spending a whole day eating turkey at home, the Irish need to go back to the pub to celebrate amongst friends. Many people are back home for the Christmas holiday and St Stephen’s day is the occasion for meeting at your local those you have not seen for a year.
Instead of going to the pub as I could not face a crowded bar, I read a story from a collection I received at Christmas: Great Irish Drinking Stories. A section of this book is dedicated to pub stories and I thought one of them would be appropriate for the day.
Indeed, in “The Heat of the Sun” by Seán Ó’Faoláin, Johnny is back home on a week leave and after briefly visiting his parents rushes to his local,where he expects Alfie, the barman, to fill him in on the recent gossip.
“Why couldn’t they understand that when you cabled, ‘Coming home Thursday stop love stop Johnny,’ it meant you wanted to see them okay, and you were bringing presents for them, okay, but what you were really seeing was the gleam of the bottles, and the wet mahogany, and the slow, floating layers of smoke, shoulders pushing, hands shooting, everybody talking at the top of his voice to be heard and old Alfie grinning at you like an ape. God Almighty! When a fellow has only seven lousy days’ shore leave…”
It is often told of Ó’Faoláin that he writes about ordinary people. Indeed, this passage reveals what most Irish person coming home feels like doing, even nowadays. Social life in Ireland revolves around the pub and this story captures life around the pub accurately. Moreover, the beginning of the story is told in the second person and it increases this feeling that the character of the story could indeed be you.
However, when he gets to the pub, Johnny is disappointed not to see Alfie behind the bar. The barman is integral part of a pub and there is a sense of Johnny being lost when he does not see Alfie. He has to wait for his friends to arrive to discover that Alfie is in hospital dying of cancer. The second part of the story takes us to Alfie’s soon-to-be widow’s house where the group of friends go to bring her a few drinks to comfort her. She knows them through stories her husband might have told her and they know of her, although she had never really been a reality for them. This part of the story focuses on her sorrow, despite the fact that her and Alfie were separated, and reveals her loneliness.
I think that this story gives a strong feeling of pub life in Ireland and the shift of focus onto Alfie’s wife reveals the two sides of the barman: his public versus his private self. The first part though is difficult to follow as it alternates between the present and general scenes that might happen in the pub, between dialogue and narration. It is a good story in the way it captures the characters’ feelings and Irish life, but I would not rave about it. I must admit that I found this story a bit boring.