Kilroy was Here » By the dozen

by Kevin Keating

As this is the month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I got to thinking about Ireland.

“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”

The Walrus did beseech.

“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk

Along the briny beach.”

“It’s a lovely day,” said the man behind the desk at Jury’s hotel in Galway.

In Ireland, it’s either a “lovely day,” a “soft day” or a “desperate day.” A soft day is when the rain gently down doth fall. When it’s raining sideways and the wind is strong enough to blow open the door of a pub, THAT they call a “desperate day.”

Some years ago I was in Galway for the great oyster festival. It’s a grand time of Irish music and dancing and celebrating the first oysters of the season — “wild oysters” from cultivated beds.

On my visit long ago the day was between “lovely” and “soft.” A fresh wind blew across the West Country. Rays of sunshine — the finger of God — brightened the fields. But there were thick, black clouds over Connemara. A splash of morning rain had wet the 2-lane road between the gray stone fences.

We drove to Kilcolgan and found the street packed with cars in front of Paddy Burke’s. (No true oyster man passes Paddy Burke’s without lubricating his throat with a half a pint of Guinness.)

2004 will mark the 50th anniversary of the festival: Sept. 23-26. If you plan to attend this year, write and tell me Paddy Burke’s is still in Kilcolgan. (Though it will break my heart if it’s gone.)

From here we drove to a great stone pier on Galway Bay.

We arrived early and young girl dancers in red skirts were practicing.

“The way of it is this,” explained my Irish companion. “The Queen says to her handmaidens, ‘Bring me the fruits of the sea.’ Do you see?

“The handmaidens then go down the steps and get fish from fishermen in a small boat. They bring up plaice and lobsters and such. Then the Queen declares, ‘And now bring me the finest fruits of the sea.’ And then they bring the oysters and do the dance around them.

“And the whole of it is presented to the Lord Mayor in his purple robes of office and his fine gold chain.”

The fiddlers then struck up a lively tune and the handmaidens danced down for the “finest fruits of the sea.” But when they came back, they were carrying only their shoes in small purses, for this was the practice session.

“And the Lord Mayor would rather be eating the shoes,” said my Irish friend, “as the current Lord Mayor can’t abide the taste of oysters. Yet at the festival, he must take heart like a good politician and put the first in his mouth.”

The Lord Mayor and his party then arrived. The Irish pipers in splendid green-and-black uniforms began to play.

The Queen commanded the “finest fruits of the sea.” And the girls in short red skirts danced down the steps and brought up the gray-green oysters.

They brought them over to the Lord Mayor. The Lord Mayor took a deep breath and tossed the first one down his gullet. Then he looked around with a pitiful little smile. He looked as though he was suffering from shell shock. A patriot and a man of courage if I ever saw one.

And when the ceremony was over, we all drove back to Paddy Burke’s pub. The day was becoming desperate and all of us were glad to get into the low-ceilinged room out of the sideways rain.

And there we stood with great plates of oysters and brown bread and butter. And pints of Guinness stout. Black and bitter with a collar of tan foam at the top of the glass.

And there was much singing and merrymaking, with songs like “The Old Plaid Shawl”:

“I courteously saluted her — ‘God save you, miss,’ says I.

“‘God save you kindly, Sir,’ said she, and shyly passed me by.”

Though it was somewhat desperate outside in the streets, it was lovely that day in Paddy Burke’s.