The last Irish post

Since it was a travel day, and since I’d been saving this one up …

When we were in that restaurant and pub on Inisheer in the Aran isle I found this newspaper story framed on the wall. I read it over a steaming bowl of beef stew and thought I’d like to share it. There’s no masthead or other note about where the story was published, but it appears several years old. He wrote a fine tale, which was titled “The landlord that time forgot.” It has a second deck headline: “Heard the one about the island with no police and the pub that never closed?”

Geraint Jones writes:

The switchboard light flashed angrily at the Aran Islands’ only police station. Sergeant JJ Bourke stiffened when he heard the voice at the other end. “Yes sir. We’ll get something done straight away. Leave it to us now.” JJ looked hard at the young constable who shared his office. “Sean, it’s those Sandies on Inisheer again,” he said. “The Super wants a result. I think it’s a job for you.”

Ad so, here in their station at Inishmore, the largest island, the two policemen hatched their plan. One that would ensure Garda Sean McCole’s place in the rich folklore of Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, the three lumps of limestone off Ireland’s remote west coast that make up the Aran isles.

Over the centuries the islanders, a robust and independent breed, have learnt to put up with just about everything – grinding poverty, winds from hell, and the British, to name but a few. But through it all, one cherished pastime remained secure. A drop of something to cheer was always available, be it morning, noon, night or well into the wee small hours of the following day. The men of Aran like a drink. And they don’t like anyone telling them when they should stop.

So when JJ Bourke told Sean McCole how the Superintendent in Galway was tired of getting phone calls from Inisheer women complaining that their menfolk were seeing more of the inside of Padraic Conneely’s bar than of their own homes, Sean said he would do whatever was required. Sean, a strapping 30-year-old, is new to the islands. He came a year ago, after a stint patrolling the mean streets of Dublin, and he believes the law is the law. As he says: “Once you start choosing which bits to enforce and which not to bother with, you’re lost.”

Inisheer, at only two miles long, is the smallest of the islands. There are just 270 people, one shop and three pubs. But this pimple on the ocean has an intelligence network to rival that of Josef Stalin. Nobody arrives or leaves Inisheer without everybody knowing about it. Since there is no police presence on the island, the Gardai have to rely on a less-than-regular ferry from Inishmore to get there. JJ knew that if Sean went over in uniform the words immortalised during the days of illicit poteen – “Ta an garda ag teacht” (the policeman is coming) – would be ringing in the ears of the island’s three landlords long before yer man stepped off the boat. By the time he arrived at the pubs, everything would be “in order.”

The police plan was for Sean to travel to Inisheer undercover, disguised as a backpacker, one of hundreds that visit the island in summer. To cover his tracks, Sean would take the ferry from County Clare on the mainland and not the one from Inishmore, where spies abound.

It was a balmy Saturday evening in August when the cheery traveler set foot on the white sands of the island which give its people their nickname – Sandies. Sean went to the campsite, pitched his tent and waited. At 12:55 a.m. he strolled along the moonlit beach to Padraic’s bar. There was a crowd outside, singing the old songs of Aran under the stats. He went in. The tourists were enjoying themselves noisily. In the recesses, ruddy-cheeked locals wrapped fingers the size of Cumberland sausages round their glasses and supped with a silent rhythm.

Nobody paid the stranger any attention when he left a few minutes later. Sean went back to his tent, pulled his uniform out of his backpack, smoothed out the creases as best he could, and strode purposefully back to Padraic’s. It was 2:20 a.m. The night air was still full of songs and the drink was flowing. Until, that is, they saw the police uniform. Ignoring suggestions that he would be better employed fighting crime than stopping people enjoying themselves, Sean completed the formalities of the charges and left.


(Caption: No man is an island, but landlord Padraic Conneely and locals like Eanna O’Conghaile remain defiant of the law.)

The island’s other two pubs also received a visit, and their landlords, Mairtin Flaherty and Rory Conneely, met the same fate. Each was fined by Judge John Garavan at Kilronan District Court on Inishmore last month. Padraic was hit with 100 pounds, Rory 30, and Mairtin, who refused to appear in court, was given a 200 pound penalty. No Aran Island pub had ever been raided by the police before.

“It’s not our job to make the law, only to enforce it,” says Sean McCole. “Also, there are two sides to every story. You have to remember that for every 60 men sitting on the tall stools, there are 60 wives back home waiting for them.” He cannot stop a smile of satisfaction creeping across his face as he recalls the reaction of the drinkers to his uniform. “They were so shocked. They couldn’t believe what was happening.”

And what of Padraic Conneely and the men who enjoyed a pint? And what of their wives back home? Who was it who blew the whistle? At Conneely’s bar the questions are debated with gusto. Padraic – slight, dark and eloquent – is the spokesman for his florid-faced, luminous-eyed companions who depart from their native Gaelic tongue only when absolutely necessary. “Fancy coming here undercover … it’s ridiculous,” he says. There are nods of approval from the locals at the bar.

These men are proud of their island, its heritage, and, most of all their independence. Outsiders have not done much to help them over the years, they say, so why do they want to interfere when the locals are only trying to help themselves? As Padraic explains: “We have a short summer season. You have to make your money while you can. If I tried to close at 11 o’clock, the customers would laugh at me. There’s nowhere else for people to enjoy themselves and they know full well there isn’t a police man on the island.

“It’s not as if I run a disorderly house. There’s no trouble here. People just like a drink and a singsong and the crack. I do try to get them out eventually. Then they take their drinks outside and sing under the stars and I pick the glasses up in the morning. This way everyone is happy.”

Not quite everyone is happy though. Galway police apparently received several complaints from wives on Inisheer. But true to the islanders’ tight-knit traditions, no one will admit to spilling the beans. “No one will want it said that his wife is giving him trouble over him liking a few drinks,” says Padraic. “Me? I’ve got no clue.”

Anyway, Padraic wants the good Gard to know that there will be no more late drinking at his bar. He has learnt his lesson. He has bought one of those clocks where the numerals go backwards. “Now,” he says, his eyes twinking, “the longer we drink, the earlier it gets.”

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