Monday, May 23, 2005

Screen One, and Two, in Gibraltar

In the early seventies Dad and Mum went for a holiday to Gibraltar. There were times when they wanted to do different things. Like Mum wanted to have a siesta while the shops were closed in the afternoon, and Dad was content to do something more fruitful, such as checking out the local pubs.

As a publican himself, many of his ideas for the place back home had often been conceived after seeing something abroad. So that made excellent sense. Or the best of excuses.

This particular afternoon, it being hot and sunny and the open areas not places for a sensible man to be out in, he found a little place he hadn't been to before.

"Good afternoon, sir. What can I get you?"

Dad had already found there was no language barrier in Gibraltar pubs, and the barmen were invariably friendly and efficient. One was never left waiting for a drink.

Not that there was any reason to be kept waiting here, as he'd already noticed that there was only one other customer.

He checked out the back bar, and, dusty on a high shelf, he saw a familiar label. "Is that a bottle of Jameson?"

The barman gave the already spotless counter another wipe. "Yes, sir. You'd like some?"

"I would. And maybe a beer to wash it down?"

The barman nodded and turned to the task, and Dad looked along the bar again. It wasn't his style to drink alone if it wasn't necessary.

The man at the other end had turned too. He raised his glass. "Another Irishman." He had an unmistakable Dublin accent.

"And you're as far from home as I am. Will you join me?"

The Dubliner cocked an eye at his almost empty beer. "I didn't notice the Jemmy bottle, so I'll have one of those, if that's OK?"

The barman had poured Dad's Jameson and was lifting a beer out of the cold cupboard.

"Bring it up here, will you? And give my friend a drop, too." Dad picked up his own glass and walked to join the other man, who put out his hand.

"I'm Joe O'Donnell. From Dublin, as you've probably noticed."

Dad shook with him. "Jim Byrne. I'm from Kilcullen, in County Kildare."

In one way he wasn't surprised that there was a reaction, because he was a very well-known publican, and he'd made his pub world-famous for a variety of reasons. But O'Donnell's recognition wasn't the usual kind.

The man backed off ever so slightly, then reached for the Jameson which had just been poured. "You wouldn't be a publican, would you?"

"I am. The Hideout in Kilcullen. Maybe you know it?"

O'Donnell had the glass in his hand, but it was stopped in a limbo before his lips.

"And would you have been in the cinema business, in the forties, by any matter of chance?"

Dad hadn't believed anybody would've remembered that. "I was. In Kildare, and Portlaoise, and Kilcullen. And a few other places."

A grin came over his new acquaintance's face, and O'Donnell lifted his whiskey and drank it back fast. Then he signalled to the barman to pour them another brace of glasses.

"I know you more than you know, Jim Byrne," he said. "But I never expected to be able to buy you a drink. And certainly not this far from home."

His glass refilled, he raised it. Dad quickly finished his own and picked up the second Jemmy that had just been put down for him. They both drained their whiskeys, though more slowly this time.

"And how do you know me, Joe?" Dad nodded to the barman to set them up again.

O'Donnell grinned. "I work with the Department of Justice. And I have a file—" he lifted his hand almost a foot above the counter "—this thick, about you."

Dad thought for a moment, then, remembering the earlier questions, smiled. "Cine-Variety?"

O'Donnell nodded. "The Cine-Variety. And the Locker Lounge."

There was only one bottle of Jameson in the bar, but they found other equally useful beverages as the rest of the day turned into reminiscence ...

In the early thirties, concerned that live theatre performers were losing their livelihoods because of the popularity of the new cinematography exhibition venues, the Irish Government imposed a national tax on such 'cinemas', although exempting a number of Dublin theatres because they provided both forms of entertainment on a more or less equal basis.

This was fairly well accepted until after WW II — the 'Emergency' in Irish terms — but in the autumn of 1947, in a Supplementary Budget and following representations from the cinema halls most burdened with the tax that they were being unfairly treated compared to the Dublin theatres, the Government introduced a national tax waiver for any cinema that provided in its programme a 'live' performance for a fifty percent of the total show.

It was well meant. But in post-war cinema, 'good' films were getting longer, and the requirement for such a ratio of live shows to film resukted in not just an extra cost, but also very late endings of the programme in a time when very few people had personal transport to get home, apart from their bicycles.

Which is where Dad first came to the attention of the Department of Justice. He and two pals, Tommy Kelly of Portlaoise and Wattie Kehoe of Carlow, had gone into the cinema business some years before, and, because the other pair were heavily involved in their own enterprises, Dad was the managing partner.

In the rural venues where they operated, he found that there was a kind of Hobson's Choice in the business. Either they paid the full cine-variety tax so that they could show films only, and in the process price themselves out of a significant part of the entertainment market in very depressed post-Emergency times, or they could offer the 'dual' live-performance and film show, but time constraints would only allow them to show fairly short films.

So he hit on the idea of 'opening' the cinema at teatime, paying local musicians and dancers to perform until eight o'clock, and then running the full film programme until ten-thirty or whenever. Plenty of time for the customers to enjoy a full-length contemporary movie and still be able to leave in good time to get home at a reasonable hour, or to have a 'jar' on the way home.

Technically the 'show' started at teatime, but in practice the customers only came in for the movie.

Also, because it meant there was no tax to pay, he was able to lower the ticket prices even after paying the live 'performers', so more people could afford to come to the cinemas.

Word got out, and quickly the idea was taken up by the vast majority of the country's 300+ cinema operators. Some managers, though, instead of paying performers to play in the 'dead' time, actually offered their stages to local music teachers for a small fee, as a place for their pupils to be put through their paces. Officially during those sessions, the night's paid entertainment was open to the public.

In June of 1948, following long parliamentary debates, an Amendment to the provisions of the Supplementary Budget ended the 'loophole'.

But the file on Dad had only started ...

In 1960, the then Minister for Justice Charles Haughey TD brought in a major revamp to the liquor licensing laws in Ireland.

It was a 'root and branch' set of new regulation to a tranche of laws which hadn't changed much in more than thirty years, and in some instances a century beyond that. Among the provisions was the elimination of the old 'bona fide' law which allowed anyone who was more than three miles from their home to be served drink beyond the standard closing time. In effect, as 'bona fde travellers', they could be served twenty-four hours a day if the publican was so pleased to do.

Most publicans, though, didn't want to be kept up all night by a couple of doggy-men coming back from Shelbourne Park races, slobbering over a couple of pints. But the new Act did do away with a genuine excuse for having people on the premises 'after hours'.

Over a few drinks with a lawyer pal — later to become a County State Solicitor — Dad came up with an idea to get over the more stringent regulations on closing time, which had become seriously important because his public relations abilities had made The Hideout a very popular pub indeed.

As with all best ideas, the essence was in its simplicity. The pub had a specifically licensed area in a map lodged with its licence, but on the property there were yards and stores which were not licensed to sell alcoholic drink.

Now that there was no 'bona fide' excuse to serve people 'after hours', he set up a lounge in one of the store areas. It had a piano, was comfortably furnished to the same level as the pub itself, and didn't have any direct access to the licensed part of the premises.

What it did have was a room of lockers similar to those which could be found in the changing rooms of a golf club. And customers of the pub could rent a locker for a nominal sum.

During the day any of those locker 'tenants' could ask for, and pay for, any amount of drink they wanted to be put in their lockers. And when closing time came and they had to leave the pub, all of the company simply trooped out the front door and around the corner into the 'Locker Lounge'. Those who weren't 'Hideout Tenants' could be invited as guests by those who were. And could carry with them their own share of drink in 'carry-outs' if they wanted to. With no more disruption than might be involved in going to the toilets, they could all carry on with the fun of the night. But now, for the tenants, using the prepaid-for drink delivered into their lockers.

It was a small thing that got swiftly very big, making the lead story in the Sunday Irish papers and later even featuring on the front of the Sunday Times almost half a century before it had an Irish edition.

The Department of Justice was annoyed, to say the least. But when its experts looked at the legal underpinnings, they found that Dad had 'driven a coach-and-four' through the Act.

Which was not surprising, really, because the barrister who had helped him draw up the legalities of his scheme was later to become an Attorney-General of Ireland.

The local police were equally unhappy, but I'll draw a veil over the embarrassment caused to our Garda Sergeant of the time, who became obsessed with the situation — which was a long way from when he was able to have his own private after-hours drinks in the snug at the end of our public bar.

Again there were 'copycat' followers, and the situation quickly reached the same farcical situation which had required a legal 'fix' for the Cine-Variety 'problem'. It took the Goverment legal eagles two years to get on top of this one, and, if he'd wanted to, Dad could have carried on simply by changing a few words in the 'tenancy' agreement.

But he'd had had his fun. Again. And his publicity, also again. And by the time they closed this loophole also, he'd already moved far along to other things.

Which are for later stories.

"I'm glad to have met you at last, Jim," Joe O'Donnell said as he raised his glass. For which number of times that day, neither could remember, nor needed to by then. The circle had been completed.

But I'd love to know what bar it was in Gibraltar where the Department of Justice met the Hideout in Kilcullen.

It sounds like my kind of place.

[NOTE: This account is based on my current memories of chats with Dad, who is dead now for two decades, and minor details may be slightly fuzzy or awry. But the essential story is pretty well on the ball. The name 'Joe O'Donnell' is ficticious, of course, though the person — and the meeting in the pub — is not.]

1 comment:

Gary said...

Excellent stuff, Brian. An entertaining account.