The Best Irish Bartender I Ever Did See
One of the best bartenders I ever met worked at a pub by the name of T. Humphreys in Dublin. I knew him only as Sonny, and he passed away many years ago, so I’m afraid you’ll not get the chance to meet the man. I’m hoping that he’ll live on through reputation, though, because Sonny pulled one of the classiest moves I’ve ever witnessed in a bar, and thereby hangs a tale.
In September, 1973, when I was just 22 years old, I decided to move from Lancashire, England, to New York City. My first marriage had just gone sour, my ex and I had sold a house and a small restaurant that we’d built from scratch, so I had a few quid in my pocket, and Dave Ridings, a friend of mine from Lancashire, had been living in the Big Apple for about five years at that point. I called to tell him to expect me, and he told me to hold on. “I’m about to have a week in Dublin with some friends,” he told me. “Wanna come with me then we’ll fly back to New York together?” It sounded like a plan.
Shortly after that phone call I was in Dublin with Ridings—he liked to go by his last name most of the time—and we stayed with an Irishman by the name of Owen who had been Ridings’ roommate in New York for a while. It was a boozy sort of a trip. The three of us were all bartenders, and hey, it was a vacation, after all. Each night we hit a different bar, or a few different bars, but every night we started out by having at least one pint of Guinness at T. Humphreys.
The locals referred to the pub as Thumphreys, by the way, with the “Th” being pronounced as in “Thistle.”
It took quite some time to get a pint of Guinness at T. Humphreys, since was a perfectionist when he pulled a pint. As is the way with all good Irish bartenders, he’d fill the glass, place it on the backbar until it settled, and he’d top it up at least three or four times, letting the stout settle each and every time, until he deemed it fit for consumption. We’d often order our second pint as soon as we got our first.
Sonny was a quiet man. He made us feel welcome every time we set foot into the pub, but he was a man of very few words. I never saw him have a real conversation with anyone at the bar, but he was loved by everyone who met him. He was loved, and he was respected. You always knew who was in charge at T. Humphreys. Sonny was in charge.
A wiry little man was Sonny, too. Thin as a stick, as they say. And he dressed in traditional Irish barman fashion, wearing a long white apron, white shirt, thin black tie, and a very smart black waistcoat. He looked every inch the professional barman.
It’s important to keep in mind that all this went down during a very tough time vis a vis English/Irish relationships. It was the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, Ridings and I were welcomed heartily by everyone in Dublin during that trip. I guess that my Irish surname might have helped a little, but when it comes down to it, the Irish and the English get along very well indeed in social circumstances, and that’s what pubs are all about, right?
When I say that we were welcomed by everyone on that trip, I mean everyone except for two young guys who tried to pick a fight with Ridings and me one early evening at T. Humphries. They stood behind us making derogatory remarks about the country of our birth, hoping to goad us into a fight. This was worrisome to me on two levels. Level one: I’m a devout coward. Level two: Ridings was a fighter. Ridings was eyeing me, I was eying Ridings, and we were both waiting to see what would happen next. Ridings was ready to fight. I was ready to run!
What happened next was that Sonny stopped serving. Regulars at the bar were shouting orders to him, but he ignored one and all. He stood behind the bar staring at the two guys who were trying to pick a fight with us. One by one, every single customer at the bar turned to see what Sonny was staring at, and not more than two minutes went by before all eyes in the pub were focused on the two potential troublemakers. They felt the power of all those eyes, finished their pints in double-fast fashion, and they disappeared into the night.
Sonny went back to pulling pints, conversation resumed among the regulars, Ridings and I ordered another round, and T. Humphreys went back to being the fabulous neighbourhood pub that it was (and still is, I’m told). Not a word was spoken about the “incident,” and indeed, Sonny had stopped it from becoming an incident at all. He had handled a potentially volatile situation without saying one word. That’s what I call a fabulous bartender.
Fabulous bartenders use intuition to figure out what’s going down in their bar, and they react to tricky situations in such a way as to guide them toward the best possible outcome. Some bartenders might have confronted the guys who were trying to make trouble, some bartenders could have advised Ridings and me to leave, but Sonny did neither. Sonny just stopped serving and stared at the people who were threatening to disturb the peace in his bar.
Sonny, as I said, left us for that long stretch of mahogany in the sky quite some time ago, and Ridings is up there with him now—he died in 2000. I’m pretty sure that Sonny pulled Ridings his first pint when he got to heaven. Hope they’re both there to greet me when my time comes.
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