Published Jan. 18, 2013
A pint glass of Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale accompanied me the other night as I played Irish jigs and reels on my fiddle. My violin and bow calling forth traditional tunes that resonate in the deepest recesses of my musical being and the toasty ale made in Yorkshire, the ancestral English home of the Whitacres, transported me. I felt as if I were playing in a British pub rather than in my bedroom. The problem is that the pub I see in my mind doesn’t exist, not in this country at least, not that I know of.
I picture an old-fashioned pub, something like you see in “The Quiet Man.” In that movie the men gather at the pub not merely to drink “black beer,” as John Wayne calls it, but to socialize and learn of community doings. It’s like a living room for the extended family of a close-knit village, and one of my favorite scenes is when a singer playing accordion launches into “The Wild Colonial Boy,” quickly joined by other patrons:
“There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name; He was born and raised in Ireland, In a place called Castlemaine; He was his father’s only son, His mother’s pride and joy; And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.”
It’s one of my favorite Irish songs, and in the movie it’s performed in a relaxed manner — a performance that would never survive in today’s world of loud and flashy sports bars. And that’s why I dream of something different, perhaps something from long ago, a pub that would likely never make it in today’s wall-of-sound society.
The pub I imagine would be characterized by what it lacks as much as it what it has. It would lack mainly two things: televisions and recorded music. Of course those two things would make a dramatic difference in a public gathering place (“pub” comes from “public house”). Many sports bars, and I use that phrase with great distaste, stock every wall and corner with glowing screens, and recorded music can be played loudly and throughout the house through dozens of speakers placed all about the room — in the ceiling, on the walls, wherever silence threatens to invade the carefully cultivated atmosphere of noise and bright lights.
My imaginary pub would also keep the kitchen in the back, where it belongs. My wife and I ate at the Frankenmuth brewery in the city of the same name, Mich., a few years back, and I was dismayed at the abundance of noise. It seemed the room was purposely designed to create maximum clamor, din, hubbub, racket and pandemonium, the bedlam of the kitchen behind a low wall off the dining area handily reflected by the ceiling of open metal rafters. My fiddle would be heard no farther than the next table in such a place, and all the little nuances I put in Celtic music would be lost even to me, the player.
That’s what I don’t want. Here is what I want: A small room, walls made of wood and plaster, a wooden floor, oak beams overhead, a wooden bar, a fireplace for warmth and ambience, a roomy corner set aside for musicians to gather. It should be quiet enough that a musician could come in and play or sing without fighting noise emanating from electronics and kitchen machinery, and so patrons needn’t shout across the table at each other. It would encourage playing of checkers and chess or whatever patrons want to play. In this last respect it sounds a bit like a coffee shop, except coffee shops keep their noisy machinery up front, and they don’t sell ale and good Irish whiskey.
Perhaps my pub is just a pipe dream — I doubt anyone would have the nerve to open such an establishment these days. People who came in looking for sports on TV or the same tired old songs on the jukebox would make an abrupt about-face and head to a chain restaurant, where they know what to expect and the menu holds no surprises. But I can always dream.