‘The White Stag’ is packed. It is ceilidh night. This is an Irish pub in inner city Leeds. Not a themed Irish pub. The only themes this pub has are pent-up anger and drinking-til-you’re broke. This is a pub frequented by real first, second and third generation Irish people. There is a Territorial Army barracks just 400 yards away, but you will never see a uniform in here.
I’ve been coming here since I was sixteen. I used to be a member of a left-wing splinter group which met here on a Monday evening. Then one of my school-friends, Weirdo Paul, got into Irish folk music, and we both started coming here. Actually, people don’t call it the ceilidh: they just call it the session.
Weirdo Paul plays the bodhran and the penny whistle (not at the same time, you understand) and sings. Fat Matthew, another school mate, also plays the bodhran (rather badly) and sings (execrably). I would play the guitar but I can’t tonight because the room is so jam-packed that I can’t get it out of its case. But I can still sing.
I have just been paid, and Paul and Matthew have just collected their dole money, and there has just been a mix-up about whose round it is. On the table in front of us are fourteen untouched pints of Tetley bitter and Castlemaine 4X – all for us.
Tony, a small, wiry, bearded Irishman who is the spiritual leader of the session, sits and frowns in a corner and finishes his sixtieth cigarette of the day. I think the music is about to start. Yes, it is. It is usually something up-tempo to begin with. Tonight it is ‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down?’
Big Dave, who comes here every week without fail but never sings or plays anything, sits in the middle like a small hill and closes his eyes as the music flows around him. If you can get Dave to close his eyes while you are performing, you know you are doing something good. He holds his glass halfway between table and lip. The pint looks like an egg-cup in his hand.
Don’t think about work tomorrow. Don’t think about spending all your money and having to walk home. Don’t think about throwing up your curry in an alleyway behind the Lucas showroom. Just immerse yourself in music and beer.
We are more than halfway through the fourteen pints and Tony has now started his rebellion theme. ‘The Foggy Dew’ is the next one. I know this one, though Tony adds another verse on the end that I am not familiar with. Shane, and Jerome and a few others: the members of Sinn Fein and the IRA sympathisers and fund-raisers, they all bristle. You can see the alcoholic relaxation turn to a stiff, upright posture and a steely glitter of defiance flashes in their eyes. This is the only place they can stop pretending. This is the only place in Leeds they can go and openly admit that they want to hear about British soldiers being shot and their listeners think that that might be a reasonable proposition. Me, I have never felt so relieved to be English as I do when I am here.
The fourteen pints have gone. Paul has gone to the bar again and we are now starting on the Bushmills. It is past official closing time. The door has been locked, but they are still serving, illegally. The three of us love getting drinks after hours. The only problem is that they have to turn the light off in the gents, and so you have to go for a piss in the pitch dark.
It is around the time when they are going to stop serving, and I get nervous with anticipation. Recently I have started doing ‘The Parting Glass’, but it doesn’t deliver its full impact unless it is the very last number of the night. A few people have left and so I have been able not only to get my guitar out but also to tune it in between other songs. I know I am drunk. I know that whatever I sing and play will sound to me like the music of the spheres. I just hope I don’t forget the words. It doesn’t matter if I forget the guitar chords, and have to sing unaccompanied, as long as I keep on singing. And, please god, don’t let either of the McCann brothers start to take the piss out of my English accent and intonation, because then I will get angry and there will be a fight that no-one can win.
I’m going for it. This is me about to do ‘The Parting Glass.’ I do it slowly, but not as slowly as the Clancy Brothers. And the McCanns are both on the other side of the bar, immersed in conversation.
Phew. I’ve done it. I felt so confident by the end, I repeated the last line. I’ve never done that before. Three people clapped. An old man I’ve never seen before cried. Tony nodded.
Even Big Dave thought it was good. I know I am drunk and too full of myself, but he must have liked it because he closed his eyes. I hope this feeling lasts. I hope I can remember it on top of my hangover at work tomorrow.