During my donkey travels around the coast of Ireland in 1979, I had the good fortune to enjoy a pint of Guinness in 127 different pubs along the way.
One such memorable stop was at Brigid McShane’s, a 200-year-old public house in the village of Glencolumbkille, located in the western reaches of Donegal.
Once I sheltered my donkey, Missie, on that windswept November night, I received a warm welcome from Bridie herself, a lively woman in her 80s, and her middle-aged son, Jimmy.
Despite a strengthening gale, a score of ancient men began to spill in behind me. They were coming down from their thatched farmsteads in the “Poisoned Glen” to take a gander at an fear cluiteach asal — the celebrated donkeyman — whose location was being aired thrice daily on the Irish-speaking station, Radio na Gaeltacthta.
However, my attentive audience was soon upstaged by a diminutive, semi-inebriated Englishman who entered the premises and abruptly lifted his sweater to expose a purple scar that ran like a zipper from his sternum to his belly button.
“No need to be alarmed,” he assured all in the house, “for I’m sewn up as tight as a drum.”
As if his exposed chest wasn’t enough, he proceeded to roll up his pant leg to reveal a second scar that traveled from his hairless white calf to the heights of his inner thigh. “This is where they took out a vein for my new piping,” he added gleefully. “A jolly job, hey?”
Much to our relief, he went on to explain how he had recently had open-heart surgery in Manchester. Before the operation he promised St. Columbkille — the beloved “Dove of the Church” who resided in this vale in the 5th century — that if he survived the ordeal, he’d make a pilgrimage to the saint’s holy ground.
With his woolen sweater still bunched around his neck, he circled the room with great pomposity. “Imagine, all of you, to be sawn and drawn in half, much like a carcass of beef in a butcher’s shop. And when I came out of anesthesia — induced sleep, that is — I wished I were dead, for breathing alone was agonizing, and nurses coming in at all hours asking me to cough. ‘Cough?’ I’d say, ‘I’d rather haul coal to Newcastle!’ And, now, for several months, I have to take these.”
He opened his hand to expose nine colorful pills of all shapes and sizes, which brought on a chorus of gasps from the aged glensmen.
“I find these pills tediously difficult to swallow,” said the Englishman.
“I find it tediously difficult to swallow an Englishman,” mumbled a prankster behind me.
“And ye have to swallie those pills every day?” asked one patron.
“Every gifted day that the Good Lord gives me.”
“Why, I never! Mick, would you take that hape of tablets every day?”
“That, I wouldn’t.”
“I’d rather go with the blessing of the saints, I’m thinking, for what life is there when you’re counting on both hands the amount of pills you need to be taking just to draw a dacent breath.”
“This is the most difficult of the nine,” boasted the Englishman with great animation, holding up a tablet the size of a horse pill. “Why, it feels like a golf ball going down.”
“I’ll gladly put a mashie to it,” offered the prankster, winning great favor amongst his clan.
Undaunted by their blithering remarks, the Englishman placed the first pill deep in his throat, and washed it down with a shot of whiskey. That done, he called out to Jimmy for a second splash of Jameson, followed by another wincing ingestion of a pill.
“That’s two,” he proclaimed, pleased with both his progress and the rapt assembly he had gathered.
After the third, fourth, and fifth tablet went down in similar fashion, whispers began to drift around the pub like tendrils of pipe smoke.
“He’s skulling ‘em mighty,” chuckled one.
“I’m afraid the wee mucker will soon be bloody bollixed,” wisecracked a second.
“He’ll soon be snoring again with the czar’s daughter,” predicted a third.
Fortunately, before he could go completely blotto, Bridie handed him a glass of water for his remaining pills. “For Heaven’s sakes,” she scolded him, “if ye keep up this carry-on, ye’ll soon be laying dead on my floor, mended heart or not. Now, please, let my Jimmy walk you back to your lodgings, so ye’ll be as sound as a bell for your round of prayer tomorrow.”
Once Jimmy had ushered the tipsy pilgrim out the door, all eyes returned to the “celebrated donkeyman” of the airwaves.
“Tell us more, can’t you, about the women of Kerry?” resumed one eager bachelor. “Are there as many lovely redheads in that kingdom as they say?”
“Bushels of ‘em!” I replied to his obvious delight, as the hospitable Bridie McShane set another frothy pint before me.