Wednesday 11 December 2019

Celtic Roots Craic 57 – 'Uisce beatha' or a pint a' 'double'

'Warrior Maid' moored in Groomsport Harbour

The sad news is that my boat, Warrior Maid, has sustained a fair bit of damage to the keel over the winter. In fact, it actually sank just before Christmas – though I managed to pump it out later the same day and get it floating again. I had to spend most of the following night during high tide travelling up and  down to the harbour and pumping it out every hour and a half, as the water was coming in steadily. Next day when the tide came up again I pumped her out again and we moved her up the slipway, where she can't possibly sink again. In the wintertime the slip isn't too busy but, even so, I need to get the boat lifted out onto dry ground ASAP. Now that I've got my boat trailer back from a friend, I'll be able to get the crane down to lift her out.  

So, I've been working out in the cold quite a bit – making adjustments to the trailer, cutting, welding, angle-grinding, de-rusting and painting – while I have the chance. Once the boat is on the trailer, I can forget about it for a wee while and start to get some work done on converting my stone barn into a home. The other day, the sun was shining in a clear blue sky, with very little wind, and I worked until it set – by which time it was getting pretty cold. On the way home I was driving west with the remains of a beautiful sunset lighting up the sky in front of me and a huge orange full moon rising behind me. Spectacular!

Well, it's getting close to St. Patrick's Day again, and lovers of Celtic and Irish music and culture all over the world will be wantin' to celebrate the fact. It's amazin' that they don't do this with St. David's Day, St. Andrew's Day, St. George's Day or any other saints day that I know of.  What is it about an Irish saint that has made him so popular? St. Patrick's Day is celebrated enthusiastically in north America, Russia and Israel – as well as many other places where there are Irish immigrants.

I've been to Israel a few times and one of the best Irish pubs I've been to is called Molly Bloom's – right beside the beach in Tel Aviv. The food is great and the music and the atmosphere is even better. The first time I was there was a few weeks before St. Patrick's Day and even on Friday evening (not always the best time for entertainment in Israel) there were around twenty musicians playing in a session there. There is music Monday, Wednesday and Friday – it just starts earlier on Friday. There were guitars, banjos, bodhrans and fiddles galore – and a girl singer with a beautiful 'Irish' lilt …  But there wasn't an Irish person among them!  Every single one was an Israeli. And all over Israel you can find other bars that play Irish music on a regular basis – even in Arad, down in the Negev.

Apparently, Irish culture – and recently especially the northern Irish accent, etc. – is the most popular around the world. No wonder then that when I go abroad – even though, being from Northern Ireland, my passport says 'British' – I don't claim to be British, but Irish.

Locke's Distillery, Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath

As well as welcoming Irish culture and music around the world, people internationally seem also to have got more and more of a taste for our national spirit – Irish whiskey. Or 'uisce beatha' as it's said in Irish. 'Uisce beatha' is simply a direct translation of the Latin, 'aqua vitae' – 'water of life' in English – and it used to be brewed by monks in monasteries around Ireland. Today there are really only four major distilleries of Irish whiskey in Ireland – so nearly all the different brands of Irish whiskey come from one of these four. One is based way down in Co. Cork, in Midleton;  another is just across the border in Co. Louth, on the Cooley Peninsula, and they also now own the third, originally Locke's Distillery in Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath. The fourth distillery is in Co. Antrim, at Bushmills on the River Bush.  

I've been on a tour around this distillery – famous for it's Black Bush and Coleraine whiskeys. At the end of the tour you get a free sample of one of the products. That reminds me of the Irishman who once drowned in a vat of whiskey – apparently, he got out three different times to go to the bathroom! That didn't happen to me, thankfully, as – believe it or not – I'm not really a whiskey drinker. I do like the odd pint of the beor dhu mind you – the black stuff, Guinness, that is.

There is a story told – whether true or not, I wouldn't know – of Arthur Guinness witnessing the extreme drunkenness of many Dubliners one Sunday morning, due to their consumption of Irish whiskey the night before. According to this story, Arthur decided that he would produce a much less alcoholic drink that would be much more difficult to get drunk on – hence the birth of Guinness. Arthur actually started by brewing ales, following in his father's footsteps. His father, as land steward for the Archbishop of Cashel, was responsible for brewing beer for the workers on the estate. After he'd been going for a while, a black beer, called porter, brewed in London, became popular in Dublin. Arthur decided to brew this porter himself and soon he was exporting porter to London. After 40 years of brewing he decided to focus his attention on porter, or stout, only.

Many years ago you could go into a pub and order either XXX stout, which was much stronger, or XX, but Guinness withdrew the XXX variety. Even today, you can go into most pubs in Ireland – excepte maybe the trendy ones – and order a pint of 'double.'  With no further explanation required, a pint of Guinness should soon appear. In fact, in most country pubs, just ordering a pint will produce a Guinness, unless you specifiy some other beer. Although porter, or stout, was a relatively new invention, there is mention of vats of black beer in ancient Irish legends such as The Tain – so maybe Guinness is just the latest edition of something which is really as old as the hills.   

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