Counter Culture – Frank McNally on the challenges of trying to watch sport in pubs

An Irishman’s Diary

I have never played rugby in any form, which is just as well. Because even trying to watch it, in my experience, can be tactically challenging. Take last Saturday, when I went to a Dublin pub to see the European double bill involving Munster and Leinster.

From the many TV screens in O’Neill’s, I picked one near the Trinity Street side-door, before taking the calculated risk of sitting on a stool at the bar.

On the plus side, this offered a guaranteed line of sight to the high, wall-mounted screen. A customer ordering in front of me would have to be seven feet tall to block the view. And I knew the only seven footers in Dublin on Saturday, probably, were on the pitch at Lansdowne.

On the other hand, sitting at the bar counter does leave you prey to occasional crowding, as people push in to shout orders. You also run a higher than usual risk of conversation.

So it proved here. Regular visitors to the counter included an affable New Zealander who discovered from close inspection that what looked like my Leinster top was in fact a Monaghan GAA one and decided this was the basis for friendship.

He was a nice guy, deeply immersed in rugby. Unfortunately, he was also deeply immersed in Guinness and past the point where he could concentrate on Munster v Toulouse.

Instead, he was more interested in the rivalry between Ireland and the All-Blacks, saying things like: "You guys have our number now." This forced me to make to explain how, every time Ireland thought they had New Zealand's number, the number was quickly changed again. Come the world cup, we would realise it was an old number we had for them, since disconnected.

Unfortunately, while saying such things, I would miss another dramatic moment in the Munster game. My kiwi friend’s several visits to the bar coincided uncannily with the key scores.

Worse, as the pub grew busy, I now had a lot of noisy customers on my TV side, shouting orders.

So, before the Leinster match, I decided on a slight positional switch.

The row of stools at a bar counter is like a defensive line in rugby, with their occupants spread out at intervals and standing customers trying to attack the space between.

I was near the end of the line, in the outside-centre position, with only a winger nearer the TV. If I closed that gap, the customers would have to queue behind me instead.

The tricky part was that the “winger” was by then a glamorous young American woman, who had just secured the last stool and ordered an Irish stew.

I had to close the gap without invading her space or looking like a creep. Fortunately, it took only a small adjustment to force the attacking customers back inside me. Now I could watch the game undisturbed.

Then the American tourist said “hello”. Or maybe she asked a question. And with that, of course, the dreaded conversation broke out.

Annoyingly, she turned out to be a really interesting person. She was an opera singer and an associate professor of music. She was also a travel blogger. For added interest, her first name was Alethea, a new one on me.

While I was learning all this, Leinster had gone 10 points up, unwatched. Then I found out that despite her exotic forename, Alethea was Scots-Irish on her father’s side, which is why she was here.

Her father had died not long ago, a big shock. Now, still missing him, she was on a journey to discover his homeland.

While she was saying this, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Robbie Henshaw had crashed over for another try. But I desperately resisted the urge to glance at the screen, however briefly. That would have been rude.

Instead, we went on to discuss the placenames in Ulster where her forebears originated and the places in Dublin she should visit.

But at some point, the subject of James Joyce came up: she knew of him mainly through the composer Samuel Barber, who set some his poems to music.

And just then, as serendipity would have it, a man I know who happens to be both a Joycean scholar and a singer, not to mention a professor of philosophy, chanced by. “This is Alethea,” I said. “The Greek for ‘truth’,” he pointed out. “Yes!” she said.

After that, the rugby was sunk in a sea of philosophical, musical, and literary discussion. Despite my pub defence strategy, I had lost both games, heavily.

Still, as coaches always say, there were some positives in the performance. I just have to dust myself off now and go again next week.