The Galway pub was shaped like two boxes put together – a squarish first one on entering from the street, the bar on the right, and a narrower, elongated one further back, flush with the right-hand wall behind the bar. The pub was gradually filling up – already installed at the bar was an old man in a nondescript brown raincoat, almost completely bald but for a wash of white round the back, as if the tide had come in and stopped there, clean-shaven by local standards, with pale blue eyes behind round pebble glasses. Some of the locals began to unpack impressive-looking cases, but he took no interest in the proceedings, supping his pint of stout and apparently trying the memorise every single bottle on the shelves in front of him.
A banjo-case can be recognised at fifty yards, but a wooden crate with a telescopic shaft? The owner pulled some thickish string from his pocket, hooked it over a nail at the bottom front of the crate and pulled it up to the top of the shaft, where a plug secured it in a small hole – the bass player.
A third man produced from a inner pocket a fistful of penny whistles – a C, a D and a G with mouthpieces of blue plastic. He saw me gazing at them. ‘These three, sir, cover all the keys known to man! Well, to an Irishman.’
The trio got to work. The stout flowed. Another man joined in on a kazoo. The jigs got merrier. There were choruses joined in by an appreciative audience, with much fall-a-diddle-daying and tooray-laying all round. The ‘band’ had placed themselves at the end of the bar, successfully blocking the path to the toilets at the back. This led to natural breaks in the music. During one of them, the old man shifted from one buttock to the other, then drew his chair across towards the others. There were no rules about who could join in – if you had an instrument with you, you were a fully paid-up member. But the old man had none. None visible that is. And then, from out of his raincoat pocket he produced two spoons, apparently welded together in some way at the tip of the handles. They were a whitish grey, with no gleam to them at all. When the next number began, the virtuoso of the spoons joined in. Holding with his right, he slapped the open palm of his left hand and an ear-splitting clack-a-tee-CLACK! assailed the ears of all the unsuspecting stout-drinkers. The old man’s face went red at the exertions required for the execution of his art – one he could even vary by substituting his left thigh for his palm. This had a timbre of rolling thunder, rather than an express train at full tilt, a donk-a-tee-DONK.
The poor players were baffled. Courtesy required them to smile at the old man, and despite the ‘Jaysus, ye can’t even hear yerself TINK!’, they gave it all they had got, trying to upweigh the geriatric cacophony in their midst. But to no avail. They played a couple more and gave up. The old man took this as a natural end to the playing.
‘Ah Sir,’ he said, turning to me as I tried to collect my scattered wits, a beam now suffusing his crimson face, his glasses half-misted, ‘the spoons, sir – are they not a superbly aggressive instrument!’