Echoes of home on streets of San Francisco


Emigrants both recent and of longer standing gravitated to bars in the US city to watch the All-Ireland football final

THE STREETS of San Francisco are rather chilly at seven o’clock in the morning. And for those of us who were suffering from jet lag on Sunday, September 23rd, things took on a bit of an hallucinogenic quality.

The house of the Grateful Dead – or one of their houses anyway – was only a couple of blocks away. But we were focused, or trying to focus, on watching the All-Ireland football final.

Even we could tell the bar was open by the small knots of smokers standing outside. The man who let us in and stamped our hands in exchange for the $20 admission fee was very small and civil and looked as if he was maybe from South America. The Kezar pub on Stanyan Street is a sports bar, we had been told, called after San Francisco’s Kezar stadium, which was once home to the San Francisco 49ers football team.

If the front bar was a slice of a hyper-real Ireland – there was sawdust on the floor; we nearly died – the back bar was showing the Manchester United v Liverpool game and there were quite a lot of Americans in there, watching the soccer. One man was bringing in his toddler sons.

As my friend’s American husband started to count redheads – “five”, he said after we had been in the place three minutes – we ordered tea for two. It came in a big stainless steel – or perhaps aluminium – teapot.

“Jesus, you could be at home,” said the man at the bar as we all gazed at it admiringly. Of course you don’t get tea in pots at home any more. The man, Pete Smyth, was a construction worker from Cavan. How did he like San Francisco? “It’s better than f***ing Cavan, anyway,” he said.

Some things do change, however. At half- time all the mobile phones come out and the texting, a slow telephonic ripple during the game, becomes a flood.

Breda McDermott is from Donegal and one of the star Donegal players, Neil Gallagher, is her cousin. She is sitting at an Ulster table with women from Armagh, Donegal, Derry and Monaghan.

Breda was in national school in 1992 the last time Donegal won an All-Ireland. Now she is a bartender and a care-giver in San Francisco and having a great time, she says. On her phone she has a picture of her baby nephew Oliver which she took of him when she was at home in May. Oliver is dressed entirely in the Donegal colours. Her phone receives another text. “That’s my mother,” she says.

“Eleven,” says the redhead counter. But he can’t possibly tell in this light.

Paul Mullin’s father sent him his jersey. Both Paul and his friend Séamus Breslin are from Donegal town. Paul is a programme manager with Google at its headquarters here in Mountain View.

He was one of quite a few Irish people, he says, who made the transfer from Google’s European headquarters in Dublin. He arrived three years ago. Séamus is a bartender and has been here for 13 years. “I get sworn in as a citizen next week,” he says.

There are four televisions behind the front bar at the Kezar. Two hang on the back wall, facing the drinkers. Then there is a television on the perpendicular wall at each end of the bar.

The two televisions facing the drinkers are showing the All-Ireland. The two televisions at either end are showing Arsenal v Manchester City and Manchester United v Liverpool.

There are replays everywhere. How much pleasure – or pain – can one country stand? In the second half of the All-Ireland, when a Donegal player hits a Mayo player as he’s lying on the ground, the heads at the bar jerk back involuntarily with the blow. “That can’t have been a Donegal man,” says someone, laughing.

GAA is big in San Francisco, people say. Tomás O’Shea is a very handsome man. He was on the panel of the Kerry footballers in 1962, he says. He plays golf, he plays racquetball, he tries to start a conversation with me in Irish.

He has Irish from the cradle; he is from Dingle and now he lives in Berkeley. He’s retired now, but he worked in education. “I’m a US citizen and I’m going to be buried here,” he says. The best of both worlds, I say, like a fool. “Maybe,” he says. He’s married now, but a long time ago he used to be a priest.

David Cawley is from Glenisland near Castlebar. “I think they showed great character,” he says. “I’m still proud to be a Mayoman.

They had The Hills of Donegal ready to go. I wonder did they have The Green and Red of Mayo on standby?

This would seem, with the best will in the world, to have been highly unlikely. Poor Mayo. “My dad goes to every game,” says David. He is a manager with Symantec, another computing company that has its European headquarters in Dublin. He lives in Walnut Creek in the East Bay area with his Filipina wife and their two young children.

“Life here is good,” he says. He looks round the Kezar, which has emptied noticeably. “This is like being at home,” he says.

Then he says he’d better be going home, to the kids. We each set off into a San Francisco Sunday morning, leaving Donegal to its celebrations.

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