An Irishman’s Diary visits The Irishman’s pub

‘Among the better-known guests to have stayed in the Railway Hotel was George Bernard Shaw, who became intimately connected with Carlow’


On a GAA-related visit to Carlow recently, I stopped into a pub called, of all things, The Irishman’s. Curious about the name, which seemed a bit superfluous, I learned that it derived accidentally from a previous proprietor, in the days when the business was known as The Railway Hotel.

The gaelgeoir owner, Miceál Ó Nualláin, had his name thus printed over the door. So ever afterwards, the pub was identified locally as “The Irishman’s”, as if to confuse tourists.

Among the better-known guests to have stayed in the Railway Hotel was George Bernard Shaw, who became intimately connected with the town. This is because an uncle bequeathed substantial properties in Carlow to Shaw’s mother and, through her, to his six stepsisters, provided that these remained unmarried, which none did.

So the properties devolved instead to a reluctant Shaw, with whose socialist beliefs landlordism sat uneasily. Over time, he donated them all to the people of Carlow.

As well as being a socialist, Shaw was also famously a vegetarian. And in a county whose natives are nicknamed the “scallion-eaters” (a vestige from the 19th century when Carlow supplied Dublin and much of Leinster with onions, while presumably making do with the leftovers itself), he might have expected some sympathy for his condition.

But on his 1918 visit to the hotel, as he would later recall, the woman of the house offered him a join of “Carlow pig”. Shaw declined, primly, on the grounds that he did not “partake of dead animals or their product”. To which the woman replied: “You won’t last long without.”

In fact, he lasted another 32 years. And there’s a story that shortly before he did expire, he had been given soup containing meat products, although being 94 at the time, it could hardly be blamed for killing him.

Gratuity in translation

The Carlow Miceál Ó Nualláin is not to be confused with the man of the same name who I mentioned here recently in connection with another famous Irish writer: his brother Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien.

That Mícheál Ó Nualláin was a Dubliner. And the pub he was most connected with, certainly in later years, was known as The Confession Box, for reasons including its proximity to Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral.

But speaking of confession boxes, one of the many things I learned at the recent Flann O’Brien Conference in Salzburg was the German word for “gratuity”: trinkgeld. I first noticed it written on a box at my hotel reception counter. And I had just enough German to work out that it meant: “drinking money”.

At first I thought this a local joke, until I remembered that the French have something similar. There, a tip is a pourboire (“for drinking”). Other European countries have their own versions. In Hungary, the word is borravaló (“for wine”), while the Poles say napiwek (“small beer”).

I’m told that in Germany and Austria, trinkgeld is also used by street beggars, if there are any. Which seems admirably frank, given that in Ireland and Britain, social convention demands that even the most abject Buckfast-drinker must pretend to need the money for a “cup of tea”.

But then I learned that trinkgeld need not imply any planned dissipation at all. In Austro-German ears, it has long shed the smell of alcohol. It just means “small change”, more or less, which was even more disappointing to hear after I had dropped a tenner in the hotel box.

The word “frank”, by the way, comes from that part of the world, being associated with the eponymous Germanic people who ruled much of western Europe at one time. The original Franks derived their name from the Latin francus, meaning “free”. Since only they had full freedom in their empire, frank-with-a- small-f came to be an adjective for unguarded speech.

It was a then King of the Franks, Pepin the Younger, who promoted the career of the Irish St Fergal, aka Virgil the Geometer, Bishop of Salzburg, mentioned here yesterday. Pepin the Younger was also known as Pepin the Short: a suitably frank nickname. And that tradition continued with two of his successors: Charles the Bald and Charles the Fat.

Charles was a big name in the dynasty, which also included Charlemagne, Pepin’s son. Interestingly, given where this column started, Pepin’s other son was called Carloman. But of course the aforementioned Virgil was not a Carloman, in any sense. On the contrary, before emigrating to Salzburg, he had been an abbot in what is now Laois.