Gerry Savage has recently returned to Galway for the third time having previously left for England in the 1970’s, Australia in the 1990’s and again to England in the Noughties. A native Galwegian, he has worked in IT for over 30 years. His previous publications were in the Coláiste Iognáid fifth year magazine of 1974.
By Gerry Savage
Telephones were a rarity in our part of Galway in the 1960’s. As a result, my mother, anytime she wished to contact any of her brothers – my various seafaring uncles – would regularly take me with her to the Manhattan Bar in Galway where I would wait outside the phone booth while she placed a long distance call to “The Brown Bear” pub on Dock Street in London. This was the home from home that my uncles would frequent while passing through London when signing on or off the various merchant ships on which they travelled the world.
Once connected by the operator, she would usually find one or other of them had been through recently and she would leave a message arranging a time to call back in order to relay whatever news or make whatever inquiries had necessitated the call. Alternatively, if they had recently shipped out or were due to return at some time soon, this information would be relayed back as the staff or other regulars usually had an idea of the most recent or next expected sighting of one of the Kelly boys.
The eldest of her brothers, Michael, was fond of the drink in the way that fish are fond of water. Said fondness resulted in him acquiring the nickname of “Stomach” among his contemporaries. However, to be precise, it has to be pronounced correctly in the true accent of his home turf – “Shhhtummuck” may be the closest approximation that a written word could come to relating its proper enunciation.
In his sober state he was the most gentle and pleasant of human beings. He was also one of the very few people I have met either before or since whose pleasantness and gentleness actually increased as his sobriety diminished. This was unlike many of his contemporaries for whom it was quite frequently said – “the drink did not suit them”.
I suspect this was at least partly due to the fact that, almost invariably, his beverage of choice was Guinness draught stout – and usually quite a few pints at any given time, with only the rare nod towards the top shelf for the occasional whiskey chaser. In fact the only times I saw him touch the whiskey with any regularity would have been as a cure the morning after a particularly heavy session when he would pour a small measure of whisky into a glass into which he would proceed to break an egg. A single stir with his finger to break the egg yolk, he would then ease the cocktail down his throat in a single smooth movement. It certainly seemed to have the required reviving effect as he would then follow it up with the rest of his breakfast – a cup of strong sweet tea and a Woodbine cigarette. This would serve him through the morning until, in his own words, the sun was above the yardarm and he could then amble down the town “for a pint”, his seaman’s rolling gait on the outward trip being noticeably more pronounced when he would next be seen, tacking his way home.
The places he frequented were a number of insalubrious drinking establishments which could generally be said to be on “our side” of town. These included, Brennans’s, Delargy’s and Sherlock’s on the docks, The Malt House on the High Street and Bluey’s, Maguire’s and Coyne’s Claddagh Bar on Raven Terrace as well as The Manhattan Bar on Lower Fairhill. The closest of these was a 5 minute walk from my grandmother’s house while the furthest was 5 minutes further walk at most. The choice was sufficient that to venture any further was deemed unnecessary. While each of these had their own unique take on décor and comfort, the one trait they shared was the fact that, no matter which one you went to, you would eventually wish you were in one of the others.
For Stomach, the affordability of the few pints – whatever about the occasional chaser – was usually dictated by the state of his finances, or, when necessary, the state of his drinking buddies finances. He seemed to belong to a loose affiliation of compadres who, if they were not to be found in one of the aforementioned hostelries, were most likely in transit from any one of them to another one of them at any given time. From what I could see, this group operated one of few practical working examples of the Marxist theory of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. This meant any one of them could be reasonably sure at any given time that at least someone in the company was in funds so could either pass the loan of a pound note or stand a pint on the basis that the reverse situation would most likely pertain in the not too distant future. In my experience, Stomach, when flush was one of the most generous people I have ever met and repaid, I am sure many times over, any generosity of which he was the recipient.
The eldest brother in my mother’s family of 11, he first went to sea as a teenager in the 1950’s, a course which was eventually to be followed by his 6 younger brothers. His seafaring experience was probably what laid the foundation for his drinking since, as was not uncommon for men who went to sea in those days, he travelled the world, but rarely got past the first pub in the many ports – exotic and otherwise – that he visited. In between trips to sea, he would return home to Galway, flush with funds and then spend the following weeks meandering around his old haunts until such time as his stash was depleted and, finally, no doubt feeling the balance of Marxist economic theory weighing against him, would ship out once more.
During his outings, The Manhattan Bar being the closest to his home, served the purpose of either being the first port of call on the outward journey, or the last port of call on the return – It quite often served as both.
Not one for the late night pub, he did most of his drinking in the afternoon or early evening. His rambles home usually meant passing our house, which would always be a stopping off point for a cup of tea before going home to my grandmother’s house around the corner. Being a firm believer in never arriving with one arm as long as the other, he would always bring a treat. This could consist of a large parcel of fish, chips, sausages and peas – and whatever else Courtney’s chip shop, near The Manhattan, was cooking up. There was usually enough to feed a small army, which required the younger kids in the house being roused from their beds for an unexpected feast. Sometimes he would arrive with a large box of ‘Tab-Nabs’ – various cakes with fillings of cream and jam topped with bright coloured icing bought in Griffins bakery next to The Malt House before heading home. Other times, he would have a bag loaded with a variety of fresh fish picked up from the trawlers which were offloading in the docks as he passed. You could usually guess which pub he had consumed his last drink in by what he had under his arm when he arrived.
Sometimes a surfeit of pints combined with feeling extravagant – usually in the early stages of his trips home from sea – meant he travelled in style, by taxi. He once called a taxi to Coyne’s pub and when the car pulled up, he sat in and on being asked “Where to” by the driver, stated “The Manhattan” as his required destination. The driver somehow held his composure since The Manhattan was just across the road, literally, a distance of no more than 20 yards and hardly enough to even come out of first gear. The Taxi had come from the taxi rank at the other side of town.
On other occasions he would emerge from a taxi outside our front gate and then gather every loose child on the street and lead them, like the Pied Piper, into Maggie Rushe’s shop where he would buy almost her entire stock of sweets, blackjacks, lollypops and lucky bags and distribute to the excited swarm. He obviously had a positive impact on her turnover as she would often ask me when he was next expected home after he had gone back to sea.
I once remember him exploding cartoon like – all swinging arms and wobbly legs – out of the back seat of a taxi with 2 budgies flapping wildly in a swinging cage – a new pet shop had just opened across the road from the Malt House and this had caught his eye – by the time I got to him, one of the budgies had made an escape from the open door of the cage but the other made it safely, cage an all, into the house. My mother worried that he would make a habit of bringing more exotic animal life home but thankfully, normal Tab-Nabs and chips service resumed shortly thereafter.
There was the odd occasion when he decided he needed to give up the drink. He once told my mother he was on his way to the church to “take the pledge”. Since he knew no one would believe him, I was commandeered to accompany him as a witness. Sure enough, he went to the church and, as far as I can tell he went ahead with it – at least he spent an awful long time in the confessional with the priest. Back home later, I duly confirmed what I had witnessed to my unbelieving mother and again later had to repeat it to my grandother who then raised her eyes to heaven, made the sign of the cross and silently mouthed a little prayer of gratitude.
Over the following days, without the trip to the pubs, he would take me for walks to fill his idle hours. On one of these walks he bought me a bamboo cane fishing rod complete with a glass float, a hook and coloured feathers as a lure. He told me he was taking me fishing the next day. Sure enough, late next morning he arrived and off we went, me with the bamboo cane slung over my shoulder, hooked feather lure swinging dangerously as we passed other pedestrians on our way. As it turned out, the only possible route to the proposed fishing spot at the end of one of the piers at the docks involved passing the Manhattan Bar, Coyne’s Claddagh Bar, Maguire’s, Bluey’s, Sherlock’s, Delargy’s and Brennan’s. While he didn’t fall at the first fence I could see his resolve progressively weaken. Suffice to say, we didn’t make it to any fishing spot that day. We instead rambled through a number of his regular haunts and after a couple of hours “the pledge” was completely forgotten. Eventually, when it was time to head home, we stopped off at a fish shop where he bought a whole fresh mackerel which he duly hooked on the line of my fishing rod. We headed back home, this time with the mackerel dangling from the rod over my shoulder. My mother only shook her head and asked which pub we had caught the fish in.
About 10 years later, aged about 19, I got my first job in Dublin, and he continued the cycle of being at sea, coming home and then heading back to sea again.
On one of my week-ends home in Galway, I was told that he was at home and had to be admitted to St. Luke’s hospital in Dublin for some tests. Apparently a visit to the dentist had found something which required further investigation. I arranged to meet him off the train and to accompany him to the hospital. I took a half day from work on the day of his appointment and met him at the station. We then got a taxi which, in my innocence, I thought was bringing us directly to the hospital. However, we instead took a detour – first to the Star of the Sea seaman’s mission on Eden Quay where he met with ‘the padre’ – he told me he took confession. We then proceded to various dockside hostelries where we had a few pints before eventually landing up at the hospital.
I visited him daily while he was there and the tests eventually confirmed what I suspect he already knew – a particularly advanced cancer. The next few months were difficult for him as attended the St. Luke’s regularly. The radiation therapy and the surgery took their toll – not least on his speech and ability to swallow. I would visit him and we would wander up the road to a nearby pub where he would order a glass of Guinness. Unable to swallow, we would sit for an hour while he would just swill a couple of sips around his mouth before leaving it behind and heading back to the hospital.
He died, at 46 years of age in the autumn of 1977, a combination of the tough seafaring life, his illness and the medical treatment leaving him looking many years older.
About a year later, and now working in England, I arranged to meet an acquaintance for a few drinks close to his home in central London. Toward the end of the night, we were meandering through a darkened warehouse lined street. For some reason, I asked my friend whether Dock Street was anywhere close by. ”This is Dock Street” he replied. I then asked if there was a pub called “The Brown Bear” anywhere close by. He pointed at a solitary pub lantern about a hundred yards up the road – “That’s it there” he responded inquiring why I asked. I did not answer but asked if we could go in for a drink.
While I had never been in this particular pub before, it was, in many ways, familiar in that it had the same ambience of the dockside pubs I had frequented with my uncles in Galway – Brennan’s, Delargy’s or Sherlock’s. The faded linoleum floor, the wooden bar with the ingrained tackiness of years of spilled drinks and cigarette burns, the clientele obviously as much part of the fixtures and fittings as the furniture.
We ordered our drinks and, it being obvious to all that we were not regulars, I could see some of the regulars giving us sideways glances. After a short while, the barman, having noticed my Irish accent asked what part of Ireland I came from. When I replied “Galway”, he asked if by any chance I knew the Kelly brothers… I told him they were my uncles. He then asked about Stomach. When I told him he had died some months back he was quite shocked – the rest of the brothers having drifted away from the seafaring life over the previous few years the locals had not heard the news. The barman then passed the news to some of the regulars. Having stepped in for “one drink”, the next couple of hours were spent with various acquaintances of my uncle’s – regulars in the pub – shaking my hand while quietly offering condolences, and insisting on buying my friend and I a pint. Over the following couple of hours of reminiscing, I tried more than once to return the favour and buy a drink for the company but they were having none of it.
I looked around the pub but nowhere could I see a picture of Karl Marx. However, I was certain his spirit lingered somewhere in the general vicinity, along with the spirit of my uncle, Michael “Stomach” Kelly.