Fresh draughts of literary history

The marketing wheeze is done, the 250-year-old tradition of brewing continues, but the literary history of the pint of plain …

The marketing wheeze is done, the 250-year-old tradition of brewing continues, but the literary history of the pint of plain is stout and illustrious too, writes ALAN O'RIORDAN

IN 1956, GUINNESS began sponsorship of a national poetry awards, with cash prizes of £300, £200 and £100; the best 60 or so poems were collected in an annual anthology. But the role of Guinness in Irish writing has long been more complicated than simply that of patronage; by the 1950s, stout itself had become such an accredited theme that the Guinness awards could have included a category dedicated to a uniquely Irish sub-genre: the poetry of the pint of plain.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Charles Dickens with literature's first mention of Guinness, in 1836. This notwithstanding, the writers of Guinness's native city are the ones who have most honoured it. So much so that, unlike Dickens, the Irish writers do not even have to introduce the drink by name. As Brendan Behan wrote in his Irish Sketchbook, "Guinness is universally drank in Ireland". Thus, the Irish poets can be familiar. "Pint" means a pint of Guinness; "stout" and "porter" (a distinction little appreciated nowadays) similarly take the same brand in the mind of the reader. This holds true despite Maria Edgeworth's early mentions of porter from Cork and Samuel Beckett's later nods to mugs of "Beamish's porter".

Of course, writers and alcohol have had a long relationship everywhere. But the specific kind of drink rarely matters much, save perhaps for absinthe among Paris bohemians. Not so in Dublin: the writers’ pubs were Guinness pubs. One of the city’s popular tourist attractions is its literary pub crawl. It does not start with wine or lager – and for reasons that reveal much that is sad, mad, bad, glad and true in the story of Irish writing.


Thus, Louis MacNeice could not leave his poem, Dublin, without mentioning The brewery tugs and the swans / On the balustraded stream / And the bare bones of a fanlight / Over a hungry door / And the air soft on the cheek / And porter running from the taps / With a head of yellow cream . . .

And even those more abstemious had to include a mention of Guinness. Austin Clarke wrote: I could never drink their fill. Stomach / Would never bottle the joy in glass or tumbler / Guinness was bad for me / I groped to Duke Street / By the back entrance at Davy Byrne's to puke

UNDOUBTEDLY, THE most famous celebration of porter comes from the poet laureate of stout, Flann O'Brien: When food is scare and your larder bare / And no rashers grease your pan / When hunger grows as your meals are rare / – A pint of plain is your only man . . .

O'Brien's Workman's Friendcontains what might just be the most quoted verses on our present subject. Yet the joke on reciters addressing a creamy pint is that the poem began life as O'Brien's entry in a UCD contest to write the most banal poem.

That said, O’Brien – who once even approached Guinness offering to write ads for it – has made contributions to our subgenre that are anything but banal. Myles na gCopaleen’s research bureau, for instance, patented the “emergency trousers” with pockets the exact diameter of a bottle of stout to deal with “the nuisance of those brown-paper Saturday-night parcels”.

The narrator's first journeys into drink in At Swim-Two-Birdshave a lot to answer for in terms of boozy Irish literature: "A civil man . . . brought us two glasses of black porter, imperial pint measure. I adjusted the glasses to the front of each of us and reflected on the solemnity of the occasion . . . The porter was sour to the palate, but viscid, potent".

How potent the porter of At Swim-Two-Birdsis can be inferred from the deposition of "buff-coloured puke" on overcoats and the floorboards of pubs during the novel. But the lyric touch usually prevails: "The stout was of superior quality, soft against the tongue but sharp upon the orifice of the throat, softly efficient in its magical circulation through the conduits of the body."

Flann O'Brien's mixture of stout and mullioned snug, written at a time when, as Derek Mahon has noted, literary pubs had as yet no pictures of Yeats and Joyce / Since people could still recognise their faces, their voices,has cast a long shadow. Or possibly a stain. There is an obligatory note, for instance, in Claire Kilroy's All Names Have Been Changed, her novel of much stout and many writers. Her somewhat cliched great Irish writer, Glynn, even has a "smattering of buff matter clung to his lapel" – a definite instance of textile intertextuality.

Kilroy is not alone in feeling the presence of the black-hats-and-porter generation; as Declan Lynch has noted: “I never pass McDaid’s without getting some race memory, of a time before I was born, when Behan and Kavanagh and Myles used to drink in these places, when alcoholism was regarded as little more than a form of self-expression, one of the few you could get away with.”

Sean O'Reilly, in The Swing of Things, even has an alter ego becoming the drink: "Pints appeared in front of him. He drank them down like they tasted uniquely of himself, brewed from every failure in his life."

This "race memory" often inspires a lyrical note, as Kevin Barry shows in There Are Little Kingdoms: "Mr Kelleher attended to the stout. Each fresh glass he filled two-sevenths shy of the brim, with the glass delicately inclined towards the pourer's breast, so as the stout would not injure itself with a sheer fall, and he set them then, and there was the rush and mingle of brown and cream notes, and the blackness rising, a magic show you would never tire of."

What such a passage seeks to describe is the Irish equivalent of terroir. The French use the word to explain the metaphysical effect of three apparently simple ingredients of wine: soil, weather and grapes. They have their vintages; the Irish have the pint, an apparently standardised product that in truth depends on the alchemy of pub, barman, pour and draw.

But while a life of pubs and scribbling was what Anthony Cronin describes as "the vie lettres locally approved" for a long time, it did have a dark side for the artists involved, as Patrick Kavanagh knew. In The Paddiad, the "devil Mediocrity" is Kavanagh's patron of Irish letters: Souls that are fusty safe and dim/ These are the geniuses of the land to him.

Greatness, in the shape of "Paddy Conscience" – a Joyce or a Yeats of the kind who "bother Ireland with muck and anger" – is shunned, the better to get back to Monday's/ Colloquy on trochees, spondees down the pub. When such a genius dies, usually in exile, it is then that Kavanagh's Devil sighs: The Emerald Isle / Must bury him in tourist style.

Where writers gathered in mid-20th century Dublin, and talk and Guinness flowed, Joyce was always the absent presence. Kavanagh hints at the feeling that Joyce was not only the greatest, but the abstemious one, the one who got away. Yet Joyce’s disdain for drunkenness was more a part of his self-image as the artist apart than the reality. Under the tutelage of Oliver St John Gogarty, Joyce was an enthusiastic taker of “wine of the country”.

He duly grants the Guinness brewery a place in the thoughts of Leopold Bloom: “Be interesting some day get a pass through Hancock to see the brewery. Regular world in itself”. Bloom also makes a contribution on the subject of stout terroir: “Brewery barge with export stout. England. Sea air sours it, I heard.” He goes on to consider the vats of porter. “Rats get in too. Drink themselves bloated as big as a collie floating. Dead drunk on the porter . . . Imagine drinking that!”

These are perhaps the words of the mature Joyce, the wine-drinking Joyce. Combined with Stephen Dedalus’s guilt about carousing with students whom he knows he must reject, and the advice of a similar note from Bloom (which we infer Stephen will heed), it is fair to deduce that Joyce, unlike Buck Mulligan, did not believe “the sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue”. It was one of the nets he had to fly by, and as such it probably suited him to discover that Gogarty’s aim had been to “make Joyce drink to break his spirit”. In the end, exile, the love of a good woman and productive daytime sobriety ensured Joyce’s spirit was never broken.

The decline of the man who could have been Joyce’s successor, Flann O’Brien, sadly owes much to drink. Like Joyce, he had the pyrotechnical talent to transcend mere realism. But whereas in Joyce we behold an example of a man who won the war with his own talent, O’Brien was his talent’s victim. He exhausted his lightning quick genius on journalism, something often overlooked because Myles na gCopaleen is so well loved.

Judging by The Dalkey Archive, O'Brien, who never experienced the succour of success, could never forgive Joyce his. O'Brien casts Joyce as a barman in Skerries. He makes him deny authorship of Ulysses, written instead by a collaboration of "dirty minded ruffians, muck rakers, obscene poets, carnal pimps, sodomous sycophants". Joyce, who graduated from Dublin's boozy scene, is dragged home to renounce his genius. The man who said "I will not serve" now finds himself doing just that, with pints. This is the ultimate Oedipal revenge of the stay-home-and-drink Irish writer. And yet, there might be something in it – after all, Irish literature has often shown there's poetry on tap.