Dying For A Drink In Ireland by Kieran Devaney

Master Carpenter Michael Kelly, a sprightly man in his early eighties, insisted on driving to Austies Bar in Rosses Point even though he lived less than 100 yards away. 

His little Terrier Butch was always with him on the passenger seat of his battered old blue Ford Cortina Estate.

“I’m not a young man,” he told us at closing time as he downed his last half one and put on his flat cap. 

“I’m far too tired to walk home and Butch can’t  drive.”

The genial Sergeant was sympathetic but he had to uphold the law.

He gave Michael Kelly 46 verbal warnings before, at 2.00 am one Monday morning a major police operation worthy of Miami Vice swung into operation.

Michael had barely turned the ignition key  when the Squad Car mounted its ambush and the Sergeant ordered him to blow into the bag. 

‘You dirty little bastard,’ said Michael. ‘I only bought you a pint last night.’

‘Orders from headquarters,’ said the Sergeant.

But even he was surprised that Michael was only four times over the legal limit.

The next morning at opening time Michael Kelly was ensconced with our local solicitor Joe Carter at the Captains Table in Austies. 

Michael confided in Joe.

‘I’m dying.’

‘For a drink?’ asked Joe.

‘No, I have the Buck, the cancer.’

‘I only have six months to live.’

‘I’ll have a word with the judge in the pub tonight and I am sure I can get the case put off for a couple of years,’ said Joe.

‘I’m only a poor carpenter. How much will that cost me?’

‘A Crested Ten Whiskey and you might fix my draught excluder?’

So Michael Kelly continued to drive his Ford Cortina Estate 100 yards up and down the road to Austies safe in the knowledge that he would be elsewhere before his case came to court.

 In Dingle, in Kerry, Seamus the accordion player lived up the mountain but drank pints of Guinness and played his box every afternoon in a bar down in the town.

 At 72 he was younger than Mick Kelly.

His problem… how to get up and down without losing his driving licence or paying fifty euro each way for a taxi.

Every day in Dingle, Seamus went into the post office bought a stamp and a postcard and addressed the postcard to himself.

When the card was delivered the next morning he would hitch a lift with the postman.

Someone would always leave him home.

My friend Tom Mathews, the raconteur, cartoonist and rock musician told me a great story about a wedding he went to in Dublin. 

The reception was in full swing and nobody noticed the six-year-old boy wandering around drinking the dregs from the glasses.

When the young one started to fall over, an uncle was told by the bride to drive him home.

The uncle was well over the limit but agreed to be a taxi man.

They’d only just weaved their way out of the driveway of the hotel when their car was stopped by a young Garda. 

‘I’ve  good reason to believe you have alcohol consumed,’ said the Garda. 

‘I require you to blow into this machine.’

The uncle blew into the breathalyser and it showed he was three times the legal limit.

‘I’m arresting you on suspicion of drink driving,’ said the Garda. 

‘That’s ridiculous,’ said the uncle. ‘The machine must be faulty. I took the pledge at my confirmation and I’ve been a pioneer all my life. If you don’t  believe me try it on this six-year-old.”

Dressed in full admiral’s uniform Alan Devlin told the audience in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre “f**k this for a game of soldiers” in the middle of a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s  HMS Pinafore… and stormed off the stage.

Because he was still wearing a radio mike the stunned audience then heard him cursing his way through the stage door, through the alley at the back of the theatre, and into Neary’s pub.

in full costume, complete with ceremonial sword he ordered a pint of Guinness and told the barman,  ‘The audience are a bunch of w****rs tonight.’

Alan was unceremoniously fired – but when the play transferred to London’s West End, impresario Cameron Macintosh, realised the publicity value of Devlin’s name on a billboard.

He told his agent, ‘Get him back, just make sure he’s sober this time.’

Alan was one of Ireland’s most colourful actors, but a dreadful man for the drink.

He ended up homeless in Dublin, London and Galway at various stages of his acting career but always bounced back.

He played an East End criminal in Wilton’s Theatre in the West End, was directed by Ken Campbell in the Half Moon Theatre, and gave one of the best performances of his life in Chekhov’s The  Seagull.

Nobody  ever shat on him.

‘He has always been a lucky man,’  joked a mutual friend , the artist and architect Dennis Banister.

But Alan’s battle with the demon drink was becoming a problem and he was soon to be the architect of his own downfall.

He drank everything he earned and often fell out with fellow actors and directors.

Even worse he fell out with his best friends – the Dublin publicans and barmen – and was barred from almost every boozer in  the capital.

That’s not to say he couldn’t get the cure when he was dying for a drink.

One Sunday afternoon when I lived on Baggot Street I was looking for the cure myself and ventured across the road to that well-known  Dublin watering hole, Dohenny and Nesbitts, where a crowd of drinkers had gathered on the pavement.

Alan was the only one without a glass in his hand.

‘Do me a favour Kieran and buy me a pint,’ he said.

‘I thought you were barred?’

‘I am but I have an arrangement with most of the establishments around here. If someone gets me a jar I can drink it outside.’

It was an Irish solution to an Irish problem and it wasn’t the only one.

People were always dying for a drink on Good Friday. Such was the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland that up until recently almost all pubs and bars were closed. So too were the off licences.

But for those in the know there were always exceptions.

In Dublin the Annual Dog Show had a special licence.

In Rosses Point the golf club was allowed to sell alcohol because the West of Ireland Championships was taking place.  People who wouldn’t know a four iron from a smoothing iron suddenly developed an interest in the game and the clubhouse was packed.

Those travelling were also catered for and you could get a drink in a railway station bar if you could produce a train ticket.  Proof you were going just one stop was sufficient.

And then there were the trains themselves. One Good Friday evening I was returning to Sligo from Dublin by rail in a bar packed with alcoholic priests, lapsed pioneers, and other people who planned to spend the six hour round trip drinking.

Oh I forgot – there were also a few regular commuters.

Somewhere outside Longford Christie the barman had just poured me a creamy pint of Guinness when his mobile phone rang.

He listened for a minute or two and told the caller, ‘No problem. I can do that.’

Then he vanished into the back of the bar and returned a while later with two full Tesco carrier bags.

When the train pulled into Carrick On Shannon a big burly man was sitting in a four wheel drive truck which was parked on the platform. The truck window was open. Christie slid down the carriage window and passed over the bags. Money changed hands and soon afterwards we continued on our journey.

“What was that all that about?” I asked.

Christie smiled.

“A bunch of farmers are having a house party up the mountain. They’re running out of booze so they called to order fresh supplies.”

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson had lauded it over Dublin’s O’Connell Street since 1809 and by March 1966 he was feeling pretty secure on his Pillar as he stared down on his subjects below. But Nelson’s reign came to an abrupt end when Republican Liam Sutcliffe sent him into orbit with a bomb which he  had made on his kitchen table.

Before he died in 2018, at the age of 84, Liam told me over a pint in Grogans Bar, “The local Special Branch Sergeant knew damn well that I was the culprit but nobody died and he never came near me. For the next 15 years I never had to pay for a pint in a Dublin pub.’

During the Covid Pandemic when pubs were closed the Irish government announced an easing of restrictions to allow a handful of businesses to re-open.

The artist Brian O’Neill, a Grogans regular, posted a photoshopped picture of the hostelry on Facebook. Emblazoned across the black canopy which hangs across the front of the pub where the words: “Garden Centre”.

The infamous British hangman Albert Pierrepoint executed more than 450 people including 13 in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail during his illustrious 25 year career. When he retired he bought a boozer in Oldham in England and named it ‘Help the Poor Struggler’.

Albert spend the last four years of his life in a nursing home in Southport where I interviewed him before his death at the age of 87 in July, 1992. 

He proudly showed me his noose which he kept in a wooden box under his bed.

‘I enjoyed both being a hangman and a publican,’ he said proudly. ‘I liked a drop before a drop.’

Rosses Point is separated from the Lower Rosses by a golf course.

In the Lower Rosses there is a thriving community but no pub and to get to Austies the villagers face a two mile drive through twisting roads which pass the Garda Barracks. The only alternative is to walk across the golf course at night in pitch darkness.

My great friend Noel Kilgallon used to walk home regularly after closing time with his German Shepherd Cross Collie called Dante. 

Now Noel was announcing a great change to his lifestyle.

‘I’ve taken up golf,’ he said. I’ve  bought a buggy and a set of clubs. I can drive across the course to Rosses Point, park the buggy at the clubhouse, walk to the pub and drive home at closing time. I’ll  be on private property so the Sergeant can’t touch me. And what’s more, I’m teaching Dante how to drive.’

There were always people willing to inform on those who drove under the influence.

Dermot Healey,  a writer friend who lived in Maugherow in the back of beyond, had his own solution.

He did his drinking in pubs where he knew nobody forgetting that he was a household name in Sligo and much of the rest of Ireland …. and everyone knew him.

One night he missed a bend in the road and drove his ancient Volkswaggon Golf into an electricity pole plunging much of Maugherow into darkness. He got out unscathed and ran into Ellens Bar for help.

His neighbours decided the car wasn’t worth much and took the tax and insurance discs off the windscreen. They also removed the number plates, filed off the engine and chassis numbers and hid the car under a haystack.

There was a big wind that night and in the morning the car was lying in the field for the Sergeant to find.

Despite the neighbours’ efforts the Sergeant knew it was  Healy’s car. On the back shelf he’d left a signed copy of his best selling novel ‘The Bend for Home.’

Another writer friend Leland Bardwell was Dermot’s neighbour. 

When she was well into her 90s she was driving home from our regular Sunday lunchtime session in Harry’s Bar in Rosses Point.

She was flagged down by an American Tourist.

‘I’m trying to find Maugherow,’ said the tourist. ‘Why don’t the streets have name’s out here?’

Leland replied: ‘Because we know where we’re f****ng going.’

The following lunchtime on her way to Town to draw her pension, Leland was stopped by the Sergeant. 

She wound down the window. 

The Sergeant reached in and took the keys out of the ignition.

‘Your driving days are over,’ he said. ‘But before I take you into Sligo would you sign a copy of your book for me?’

And he handed her a copy of her international best seller: ‘Girl on a Bicycle ’.

Dermot Healy was sober by the time the Sergeant called at his cottage so he escaped a driving ban but he was later ordered by the Court to pay two thousand pounds to replace the ESB pole.

It was all too late for Michael Kelly, the master at dodging the breathalyser.

As he lay in his bed in Rosses Point surrounded by his family and friends, he opened his eyes for one last time.

 ‘Look after Butch my little dog,’ he said.

‘Drink to my health in Austies.’

‘And tell that Sergeant I will be seeing him soon.’

And then he died.

Kieran Devaney

Kieran Devaney was born in the east Dublin suburb of Liverpool in 1954. He lives in Rosses Point in County Sligo. He has written extensively for the London Times and other world-wide publications. During a 30-year-career in television he has reported and produced programmes around the world for TV am, Channel 4, ITN and Sky News in the United Kingdom, CNN in the United States and until his retirement he produced the Vincent Browne Programme for TV3 in Ireland.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Kieran must have enjoyed the report of one of the last prosecutions for serving drink on a Good Friday, somewhere in county Meath – he was detected because his punters were allstanding utside the bar smoking…

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