The word shebeen may be in danger of dying out in its country of origin, but as the Rugby World Cup final inadvertently reminded us earlier this month, it’s alive and well in South Africa, which is probably now its true home.
Post-match interviews with the winning captain Siya Kolisi were remarkable for several reasons, not least the fact that he was more modest in victory than his opponents were in defeat.
Then there was the way he listed all the fans watching the game at home, careful to leave no-one out: “people in the taverns, people in the shebeens, people in farms and homeless people [. . .] thank you so much, we appreciate all the support”.
Having grown up in a township – one of the underdeveloped and overcrowded urban areas traditionally reserved for South Africa’s non-white population – Kolisi would have been well aware of the historic importance of the shebeen, which like here, started out as an unlicensed pub, usually selling home-made drink.
Most of the former shebeens are legal these days. In fact, inevitably, many have become gentrified, at least in the bigger cities
Such establishments had existed there since the 19th century, but they took on a new life in the 1920s with the passing of a Liquor Act that formally banned black people from entering bars or selling alcohol. From then on, and more so with the coming of the full Apartheid system in 1948, shebeens became a crucial meeting-place for a people who couldn’t assemble anywhere else.
Home brewing being considered women’s work then, this gave rise to another phenomenon: the “Shebeen Queen”, a South African version of the bean an tí, who made the beer and ruled the roost.
By the 1960s, there were countless thousands of such shebeens. If you saw Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom, you may recall that the white newspaper editor Donald Woods underwent part of his re-education about politics in such a bar, courtesy of Steve Biko. The movie soundtrack included a tune called Shebeen Queen.
Most of the former shebeens are legal these days. In fact, inevitably, many have become gentrified, at least in the bigger cities.
Vogue Magazine recently listed several must-visit examples for tourists, including Johannesburg’s oddly named Radium Beerhall, which started in 1929 as a “tea-room” (selling stronger beverages on the quiet) but is now a bar and grill with jazz music reverberating nightly from its “vintage tin-embossed ceiling”.
No doubt Ireland also had a few shebeen queens once, even if their role was not quite the same.
In Charles Kickham’s classic novel Knocknagow (1873), a priest berating parishioners for overindulgence at a recent wake in a nearby village, quotes as a respected witness “ould Peg Naughton, that keeps the shebeen house at the church, [saying that] though she is there goin’ on fifty-two years, ’twas the drunkenest little funeral she ever laid her eyes on”.
Shebeens were still common enough in Ireland as late as the revolutionary years, when they also sometimes took on political significance.
In Bureau of Military History statements, the one for William Stapleton – a member of Michael Collins’s “Squad” – mentions in passing that a certain John Ryan was “a brother of Mrs Becky Cooper of Corporation Street who ran a shebeen which was a favourite haunt of many of the British”.
Anyway, shebeens are a thing of the past now in Ireland, although for different reasons they might yet make a comeback
Ryan was a military policeman blamed for the arrest of three IRA men subsequently killed in custody during the reprisals of Bloody Sunday. Stapleton was part of the group that shot him dead in another pub on Corporation Street.
But since that was part of the notorious Monto district, there may have been some euphemism involved in the description of Becky Cooper’s vocation, which earned her several other mentions in song and literature, including the ballad of (Poor Oul’) Dicey Reilly.
Anyway, shebeens are a thing of the past now in Ireland, although for different reasons they might yet make a comeback. Some years ago, in a music pub in Clare, I overheard a conversation among fiddlers lamenting another local bar that, like so many in rural Ireland, had recently closed.
The woman of the house was a widow and had let the licence go when her husband died. Now these musicians were talking about reviving the pub, on an informal basis, for old time’s sake. “We could organise a session there once a week maybe,” suggested one. “You know, like a kind of shebeen.”