An Irish barometer… The bottle of whiskey! Upside-down, opticated, one golden eye glowing… right side up, in the home shadows, acutely reflecting human change.
Do the Irish still drink whiskey was the question.
Do the Irish still breathe is the answer!
The barometric image is accurate. We celebrate our births with whiskey. We toast our marriages with whiskey. We mourn our deaths with it, salute our heroes with it, brace ourselves against life’s slings and arrows with it, warm our old bones with it, wrap it around the warpings of our lives. Remember its true name; where it springs from. The Gaelic word—uisce beatha—the water of life.
Our barometer. It occupies a special place.
If I try to explain that special place I think it is best emphasized by this: there are very few houses indeed throughout Ireland which do not have a bottle of whiskey sitting quietly in some corner—usually out of sight. The other side of that coin is that there are many hundreds of thousands of homes where there is no other alcoholic drink of any kind under the roof but that bottle of whiskey.
There it sits, in its special place, the true spirit of this island in every sense of the word, the Irish barometer. The bottle of Paddy or Powers or Bushmills. The label does not really matter as long as it is good strong whiskey.
In this land of the pub culture, where two out of every three drinks are consumed in Ireland’s thousands of pubs, the social centers of a merry land, I believe it is the solitary presence of the bottle of whiskey in so many homes which most strongly hallmarks the special niche we have for uisce beatha, for the water of life… and death.
And in a pub culture, especially the rural pub culture, so heavily dominated by the pint of Guinness that it is usual enough to enter a bar and see nothing else being consumed, then the continuing usage of whiskey as a special drink for special occasions—and we have so many of these!—is guaranteed, now, into the forever of the years ahead.
When you see that opticated golden eye blurring and blinking rapidly in a country pub you can be certain that it is not an ordinary day, not an ordinary occasion. Maybe it is to celebrate the sale of a farm, the return home from the fields of emigration of a local son or daughter. Maybe it is to mark a great sporting win in Gaelic football or hurling (the best small ball game in the whole world!). If the sporting win, or any other triumph, for example, is such that it brings a silver trophy into the bar then that cup is always filled to the brim… not with beer… but with golden whiskey, even if it takes two bottles. And if some man has fathered a new son, or lost one, or has married, or is mourning a death, then that is always done, too, with whiskey. And whiskey alone.
The special place—our real barometer.
We have a phrase which, in many ways, says it all. We say, on the great occasions which are being celebrated publicly—pub-licly indeed!—that it is an occasion for “the top shelf. ” It was upon the top shelves of the older pubs, you see, far above the porter kegs and beer taps, that the bottles of whiskey stood in rigid ranks and files, overlooking all. In the undisturbed few pubs that survive to the lip of the millennium they still stand there, spare, superior, elitist more than a little, awaiting those tides in the affairs of the mortalities below which are high enough to alter their levels and their equilibrium.
My father died in the seventies, in his time and season. We gave him the traditional old-time wake—already going out of fashion even here then—laid out in his best suit in his own bedroom in his own bed and the aroma of whiskey as close as the mutteration of prayers and sympathy. He was waked the way his father was waked, and those before him. I am the eldest son. I had several special duties in that role.
Probably the most important and ritualistic of these was to take two bottles of whiskey by the neck, on the morning after he died, and bring them to the Arney cemetery where his grave was being rudely crafted through the earth of the Mac Connells that have always been buried there. And stand at the edge of that grave and talk to the neighbors turned gravediggers by tradition and ritual. My great-grandfather’s huge dome of a skull turned up once again in the digging, yellowed and eternal, as it will turn up also when I am being buried. They had set it up once again on the lip of the new grave and even mentioned that strange man’s name—stuttering Mickie Mac Connell—as I spoke the ritual elder son’s words to them. But that is another story of course. What was required was done as, please God, a long time from now, my own eldest son Cuan will do it. And, in an almost Victorian quirk, neither I nor he will ever see that grave whiskey being swallowed direct from the bottle by those who dig the Irish graves.
I drank whiskey then. With my father’s old friends, and with his enemies too, coming in shyly from the shadows, enemies in the petty sense of being divided from him by politics or by sporting affairs. An enmity drowned in wake whiskey. And I drank whiskey for my mother, in her time and season, and, Lord love her, for my dear wife Ann, taken long before her time and season by a destiny whose twistings and turnings, beyond our ken, so often require us to stiffen our courages from those shadowy kitchen-pressed bottles of whiskey, waiting there for just such moments.
And I drank whiskey, more than my share, when each of my children were born, and born healthy. And my brothers’ children. And the children of my friends. And for the deaths and marriages of all those who I know and love. Sweet whiskey, sour whiskey, always the same taste, mark you, but flavored by the occasion that is in it.
The Irish barometer. . . the bottle of whiskey. . . . . solitary in so many homes. To be mixtured with boiling water and cloved lemons for the colds and chestiness of the old. To be egg-spooned into the dental cavity of the child that cries in the night when the dentist is sleeping. To put color into the shocked white faces of the bad occasions, to add more color to the ruddied cheeks of our joys. To seal deals, pacts, and promises, to say farewell and to say welcome home. The supreme spirit to punctuate the fluctuations of the Irish lives of both yesterday and today. And tomorrow.
Since the time of stuttering Mickie Mac Connell, who was a genius, and who was able to billet rats from one farm to another, always sending them from the farms of his Catholic neighbors to the farms of Protestants, by way of some kind of black art, until he was stopped by the clergymen of three churches. But sure that’s another story altogether and, to tell it right, with a sense of occasion, both ye and I would have to reach for the top shelf.
Do the Irish still drink whiskey?
This was the question?
Does the barometer ever stop a-rising and a-falling?
That, my friends, is the answer.