Saturday, February 05, 2005

A long way for a drink

Things were different then. But it was still a long way to go for a drink.

From Naas to Kilcullen is only seven miles. But via Shannon Airport was kind of the long way around. Especially in the early fifties.

All the best stories begin with the characters. My Dad, Jim Byrne Junior. Second generation publican in Kilcullen. Not yet as world famous as he was to become. His brother Tommy, my godfather, and operating the family hardware and drapery business as well as doing a bit of auctioneering. A North Kildare farmer, Davy Lalor. A horse trainer with his place on the edge of the Curragh, whose name I can't remember along with sundry others with drink-on parts. It's a pity now, but there's nobody left to ask who they were.

In an era when pubs were the milestones for travelling, like my Dad's place in Kilcullen, Lawlor's Hotel was the stopping place in Naas. And it was there where the lads were boozing one night until finally the staff said 'nuff, and kicked them out. It was only midnight. Where to go? Home never seems appropriate at such times.

In the tale as told, many times and by various of the protagonists, it was never really clear who made the suggestion.

'Let's go to Shannon Airport. We can drink all night there.'

'But sure Shannon's a hundred and twenty miles away.'

'Darby Kennedy'll fly us.'

Darby was a former Chief Pilot with the young national airline, Aer Lingus, and a friend of Dad's. Just now he was out on his own, running an air taxi service from Weston Aerodrome near Celbridge, a patch of land which he'd bought and from which he hoped to make a living. Any job was acceptable. Even one booked from a public phone outside Lawlor's Hotel at midnight.

Somehow the six managed to make their way to Weston. Darby looked at them.

'You sure you still want to go?'

'Shannon, Darby, Shannon.'

The aviator shrugged. 'OK, then.'

When the lads loaded up he gunned the engine of the plane and rolled it along the field in the darkness. Ahead of him a pair of red lights seemed to move at the same speed. Most of the travellers had hit the sleepy stage as soon as they found themselves in seats. But the one up front beside the pilot could still take some view on what was happening.

'What's them lights, Darby?'

'That's the wife, in the car.'

'Wha ... what's she doing?'

'When she turns, we have to lift, or we go through the hedge.'

There were no further questions.

The red lights ahead turned left. Darby pulled back the stick and suddenly the bumping smoothened in a noisy grabbing for height.

Twenty minutes out, one of the lads woke and went back to the plane's tiny toilet. As he sat on the high-altitude throne he noticed that the facility was also where the radio was housed. It was a rudimentary piece of equipment, and, for no particular reason, he reached across and pulled out one of the valves.

Some time later their pilot tried to connect with Shannon Airport, but the radio wouldn't work. It meant he had to land without permission. Being familiar with the airport anyway, that wasn't a real problem, but he'd have to make a pass over the control tower to get somebody to turn on the runway lights.

When the plane landed, the passengers headed for the bar. It wasn't hard to find — the airport was a small place, only built at Rhineanna in recent years as the land alternative to the Flying Boat base across the estuary at Foynes.

The barman was polishing a glass. Slowly. There weren't many to polish just then, and he needed to stretch the activity out until the next transatlantic plane came in. He looked at them, though without the kind of smile he gave to visiting Americans.

'We want a drink.'

The man thought about it.

'You have to be in transit,' he said eventually.

'We ARE in transit.'

He raised an eye. Clearly he'd heard this one before.

'We're in transit, all right. We're going from ... Naas to Kilcullen.'

That stopped him in mid-polish. He was momentarily silent. Then he banged the unfinished glass on the counter. That it didn't shatter seemed something of a small miracle. 'Well, feck it, you ... you can't come THIS way!'

The intrepid six just looked at him. He sighed then. It was a quiet night and he might as well be serving paying customers as polishing glassware.

'So, who's havin' what?'

After being asleep most of the flight, the lads were on their second wind, and set to consuming drink in respectable quantities. There was singing too, and occasional bawdy conversation. Darby, of course, stuck with soft drinks and coffee.

After some time, between songs, Dad noticed two men standing inside the door of the room. One looked familiar.

'Bill? Is it yourself?' he called.

'Jaysus, Jim. I was just wondering was it you?'

'It is, Bill. What're you doin' here?'

The man Dad had previously known as a detective in Naas grinned and nodded to his pal to follow him as he came forward. 'That's my question, Jim. I'm stationed in Limerick now. Airport management called and said there were some rowdies here we should keep an eye on. All a bit out of your way, aren't ye?'

Dad clapped him on the back. 'C'mon, have a jar.'

The surveillance operation ended at that point.

To shorten a very drunken story, as all such should be, the party eventually did make its airborne journey home again.

On the way, the pilferer of the radio valve found the thing in his pocket, to his own bemusement. During a necessary visit to the toilet/radio room he managed to replace the item without damaging anything. Which made it all the more puzzling to the owner of the plane in the following weeks when he had to carry on a correspondence with the Shannon authorities as to why he was flying at night without proper radio facilities.

Arriving over Kildare in the early morning, the horse trainer woke and asked the pilot to take a pass over Brownstown so he could see if his lads were riding out the horses.

The course also took them on a line over Kilcullen, and Dad could see his father standing outside the front door of the pub, looking up at this noisy intrusion to the early day.

Grandad was probably wondering at just that time where his two sons had gotten to. They should have been already at work, getting the businesses ready for the day. Grandad lived over the pub, but, having given over his various enterprises to his two sons by that time, he felt the right to complain when they didn't always seem to take business as seriously as he was supposed to have had.

I never did find out how long it took them to get home after they'd landed at Weston. I'm sure, knowing well how that crew operated, that it took the most of that day.

It was indeed a long way to go for a drink. And if anyone out there thinks I'm telling an Irish tall tale, well it was recorded in a local newspaper at the time.



No names, though. And no detail. But now you have some of that. The rest is mostly buried in the solitude of several graveyards, or the depths of unretrievable memory.

But while they lived, they really lived, didn't they?

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