I must have been twelve or thirteen when I had my first prohibitive glimpse inside No. 1 Rutland Street.
My father had told me to wait in the car as he delivered a case of whiskey and a gift of blinking black & white dogs. He had problems negotiating the heavy door so I held it for him as he disappeared inside. There were two or three men at the counter and a brightly dressed women whose earrings flashed in the light that came through the window.
I went back to the car and waited for my father to come out. He refused to appease my curiosity regarding the bar as we made our way to the next port of call with our Christmas deliveries on behalf of O’Malley’s, tea, wine & spirit merchants.
Whenever I passed that alluring establishment on my way to the park by the river in front of the Custom House to fish for eels with my brother Mark, I longed for another peek but settled for imaginative conjurings of the mind.
I saw captains and their crew anchoring at the water’s edge, whiling their days between voyages round the bar room fire. Buried treasure along the estuary was argued over late at night. Such were my boyhood thoughts that as soon as I was old enough to take a drink that hostelry became one of my haunts. Gone were the captains and crew, the talk of treasure and the lady with the sparkling earrings. But something remained in the air. The small band of regulars had stories to tell but were tight lipped. In time, when I got to know them, they were sometimes forthcoming.
Sean, the proprietor, liked a calm house and opened when the mood was on him. He would serve the pint slowly, taking time to fill his pipe, light it, stoke the fire and finish the job with the swipe of a knife. When I had sufficiently established myself as an infrequent but faithful customer, I broached the possibility of a season of poetry and music sessions. At first he was reluctant but my persistence wore him down and he relented to making the bar available on Friday nights.
And what nights we had! There was Cyril, a Gaelic poet, his wife Kit, an accomplished singer and musicians from Mungret and Muroe. Willie English, the poet from Clonmel and leading stalwarts of the Castle Poetry Circle also attended as did the younger poets Mark Whelan and Anthony O Brien, along with Dublin writers Desmond Hogan, Neill Jordan and Lucille Redmond. My cousin James, Jim Chapson and the poet from Killaspuglenane Knute Skinner with Edna Kyle provided memorable evenings as did many others.
The fervour and excitement generated at those readings was a unique experience in the history of poetry in Limerick. Each night’s event was accompanied by an array of freshly made sandwiches and Sean’s hospitality and easy going manner in the thick of a packed house was much commented on. There were always three comfortable chairs set aside for Mrs Williams and her two daughters who lived down the road in the house where Catherine Hayes had once lived before she became Prima Donna in La Scala Milan. They ran a toy shop which, in itself, was also a Limerick landmark.
After the seventh Friday night Sean informed me that he was worried about the floorboards collapsing under the weight of the crowds that came to the readings. The Sarsfield Bar reverted to its true ambience and Sean’s five or six customers claimed their rightful perch. The Hunt Museum across the road made no difference. The craze for brighter and bigger bars all over Limerick had no affect on this oasis where one could still drop in of an evening and talk to Sean about his decorated cousin in Spain, our mutual friend, sadly missed, Raoul Peter Jackson, the politics of hurling and why Limerick can’t win an All Ireland, or the sudden sight of The Treaty Stone in the reflection of a parked bus outside the window. On occasions there might be a poem from Maureen Sparling or a song from Peig as the fire burned itself out and the blinking dogs were switched off.
From my table here in Madrid, as I write this, I know my good friend Steve Keogh, a life-long resident, will agree that, yes, you can see The Treaty Stone from The Sarsfield Bar. At least those of us who have been welcomed to its bosom will testify to its truth. May the developers keep that in mind as another landmark falls under the auctioneer’s hammer. And maybe Sean might now sail for Spain in search of his Spanish cousins!