Soft Pint, Thank God – An Irishman’s Diary about Micheál Ó Nualláin and cold Guinness

Micheál Ó Nualláin – artist, savant, and brother of the comic genius Brian

Micheál Ó Nualláin – artist, savant, and brother of the comic genius Brian

 

Readers with long memories might recall the short-lived and highly uninfluential Campaign Against Cold Guinness which I launched in another corner of this newspaper in the early years of the century. It was provoked by the introduction of an atrocity called Guinness Extra Cold, a three-degrees-Celsius version of a product that, even at the by-then-usual six or seven degrees, many of us thought was already far too chilly for a wind-swept island in the North Atlantic.

And while it lasted, the campaign attracted numerous expressions of support from oppressed stout drinkers, especially those who could remember a time when it was still served at a balmy 15 Celsius (which as I write, by coincidence, is the air temperature in Dublin 8, half a mile from the brewery).  

As I learned then, certain customers had been radicalised by this progressive refrigeration and had resorted to desperate remedies to defrost their pints: sometimes asking bar staff to sit the glass in hot water for a time, or even to give it a blast in the microwave.  

Then there was the publican in Ballina who offered customers a choice of “cold or natural” Guinness and, in his cold room, kept the keg of “natural” in a lagging jacket.

Alas, as I also discovered, our movement was doomed from the start by one of those splits for which Irish politics is infamous: in this case between those of us who thought that even six Celsius was too cold and the moderates (curse them) who objected only to the three Celsius stuff.

And it’s a source of regret that I didn’t persist with the campaign long enough to learn that the now-late Micheál Ó Nualláin – artist, savant, and brother of the comic genius Brian – had been an affiliate of the fundamentalist wing.

Naturally we didn’t keep a list of members, in case any of us should ever be lifted by the G-men and subjected to market research. But to the end of his 88-year-old life, apparently, Micheál was in the habit of heading into Dublin every day to his favourite pub, The Confession Box on Marlborourgh Street (also No 88). Once there, he would order “room temperature” Guinness, with chill removed by the aforesaid technique of a purgatorial spell in hot water.

Not only was he was a member of our movement, it might even be said that he died on active service. He took what proved to be a fatal (but painless) “turn” last July, shortly after his final visit to The Confession Box. I think that’s what they call dying in a state of grace.

Micheál will be remembered again at next month’s International Flann O’Brien Society conference in Salzburg, and in the latest edition of its in-house journal, The Parish Review, which includes a special tribute.  

The Salzburg event continues a biennial series that began in Vienna in 2011 as “100 Myles” (taking its name from Brian O’Nolan’s other main literary franchise). And after similar events in Rome and Prague, it shows no signs of running out of Myleage yet. The latest instalment runs from July 17th to 21st, opening with Dr Maeb Long’s keynote address: “This is not about a bicycle: Brian O’Nolan and the politics of friendship.”

(Not) speaking of bicycles, and getting back to The Confession Box, there is an interesting, O’Nolan-esque circularity about that pub. It acquired its modern name from a combination of intimate size, location near the pro-cathedral, and reputed use during 1919-21 as a place where devout republicans were given absolution by sympathetic priests.

Before that, it was the Maid of Erin. But before that again, it was the birthplace of Dionysus Lardner, a once-famous science writer, whose work was mentioned in Marx’s Das Kapital. His writings aside, Lardner also achieved notoriety through extra-marital affairs, one of which was with Maria Darley Boursiquot, the wife of a Dublin wine merchant.

Through her, he was and remains presumed to be the father of playwright Dion Boucicault, whose successes included an 1860 box-office smash, The Colleen Bawn.  

That was based on an 1829 novel, The Collegians, by Gerald Griffin, which was in turn inspired by a real-life murder case in Limerick.  

Both works involved a character called Myles-na-Goppaleen. In the novel, he was a semi-heroic outlaw and seanachaí. In the play, he was more a comic, stage-Irish figure.

And his evolution continued when he was reincarnated in The Irish Times in 1940, his name slightly amended, to become the shape-shifting author of a column called Cruiskeen Lawn.