Television: Why there’s no lock on the Ladies, and other Irish pub tales

Review: ‘The Irish Pub’, ‘Inside the Ku Klux Klan’, ‘The Sound Barrier’

The man behind the counter: Paul Gartlan, the publican star of the RTÉ documentary The Irish Pub

The man behind the counter: Paul Gartlan, the publican star of the RTÉ documentary The Irish Pub

 

‘You go into a pub abroad and they nearly ignore you. You go into one in Ireland and they’d go up in your arse to find out who you are – name, address and creamery number.” That’s Paul Gartlan, standing behind his bar in Cavan, his deadpan delivery honed over years of pulling pints. In one sentence Gartlan captures much about the traditional bar.

Alex Fegan’s film The Irish Pub (RTÉ One, Monday) is an atmospheric, almost elegiac homage to traditional bars from Dingle to Donegal. These are the ones with the nicotine-stained ceilings and shelves behind the bar that heave with memorabilia, from ancient advertisements for Player’s Navy Cut to notices of the parish lotto.

For such a unique part of Irish life – and a concept that has been widely exported – it’s a wonder more isn’t done to promote and protect the traditional Irish pub.

Tourist mandarins, though, might be a little wary of Paul Gartlan. The publican recalls that an American once complained that there was no lock on the toilet door in the Ladies. Gartlan told her that his grandfather founded the pub in 1911, and that he had taken it over from his own father – the tourist must have been charmed by the history lesson – before rounding it off with “and in all that time no one ever stole a shit out of it”.

If Dave McSavage, whose Savage Eye features Mick “the Bull” Daly, a searing satire on the traditional Irish publican, didn’t write that gem down, he’s missing a trick.

Fegan unearths a seam of Irish eccentricity, and the subtly complex soundtrack, by Denis Clohessy, captures an almost melancholy mood; overall, the pacing is as measured as an old-school barman pulling a pint.

The Irish Pub is a true observational film; there is no voiceover or presenter, no questions from behind the camera. The focus is on the publicans, who tell their stories with great ease, direct to camera. Significantly, most are the third generation of the same family to stand behind the counter. The customers are few and elderly.

There’s a strong sense, especially in the small rural pubs, that these are businesses that survive only because costs are low. And, even at that, they’re dying out anyway.

Covering the Klan

Not completely dying out, or so we’re told, is the throwback white-supremacist group, of which even Atticus Finch was a member, apparently, featured in Inside the Ku Klux Klan (Channel 4, Monday). The Bafta-winning film-maker Dan Vernon spent seven months with the Traditionalist American Knights of the Klan in a middle-of-nowhere town in Missouri.

Vernon’s documentary begins by suggesting that recruitment for the chapter is booming, but there is no real sense – or, indeed, proof – of that. What we see instead is a sad group of ageing, mostly beardy inadequates – what is it with hate organisations and straggly beards? – dressed in ridiculous robes and pointy hats.

“Remember, they’re polyester, so stay well back from the fire,” advises the imperial wizard just before the Klan’s centrepiece ritual, in which they burn a giant cross in the forest.

I would laugh at that advice if I weren’t too busy murmuring, “What is wrong with these people?” Where else would a guy like Frank Ancona, a van driver, get to be a leader of men, wear elaborate robes, conduct complex rituals and be given the title of imperial wizard, observes Vernon, who questions and comments off camera throughout.

In the middle of filming, the activist hacker group Anonymous makes public the list of the chapter’s members. This causes some new recruits to leave, including a young couple in their 20s who joined because they’d been a long time on the housing waiting list, which isn’t right for white Americans – and, anyway, joining made their marriage stronger.

Many in the chapter, who portray themselves as wounded and misunderstood, say that being a member is much the same as being in any sort of club. Deeply ugly racist things are said, although I suspect that these Klan members are trying hard, with occasional telling slips, to put their least offensive foot forward.

In one scene the “grand klugg” – the titles make excellent fantasy-fiction fodder – stops a teenage Klan fan from giving the Nazi salute because of the negative impression it gives. “Have a white day,” he says cheerily as the teen wanders off.

The members come across more as pathetic gun lovers looking for something to identify with than ideologically driven hatemongers.

Towards the end of filming the race riots kick off in neighbouring Ferguson, prompted by the police killing of a black teenager. This leads to the unspoken conclusion that this Klan chapter – with their dress-up box robes, stupid cross-burning rituals and racist-spouting website – are at least obvious. The really dangerous racists, the ones with real power, don’t reveal themselves so clearly.

Hear, hear

In different hands The Sound Barrier (RTÉ One, Tuesday) could be laden with saccharine: four deaf people – man, woman, toddler, baby – receive cochlear implants, and, hey presto, they can clearly hear their loved ones for the first time. Cue tears all round and a million hits on YouTube.

This sort of neat narrative drives the hearing specialists mad at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. The implant doesn’t switch on perfect hearing; it’s a process.

In the course of the documentary we get to know the four patients, see them at home, learn how their deafness affects their lives, and witness the gruesome-looking operation. By the time their implants are activated we have become heavily invested in their stories.

It’s heart-breaking to see the disappointment of the parents of Tegan Kavanagh, a profoundly deaf one-year-old, after the electronic device is switched on. No matter how many rattles are rattled, Tegan still obviously can’t hear. The audiologist reassures them, and we see the baby later at home with her happier parents, this time reacting to sound.

The well-thought-through documentary also tackles the broader political issue of implants: deaf people have their own language and culture, and some would prefer that was validated more by society.

Still, when the cochlear implant of Gemma, a Lucan woman, is switched on, and her face light up in pure joy as she hears her husband say her name, it really will make a classic YouTube moment.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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