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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
The changing taste of Ireland
By Kieran Cooke
BBC News, western Ireland

A pint of Guinness
Sales of Guinness in Ireland have fallen by 3% over the last year

When Charlie eventually gave up tending behind the bar, Gaffneys pub gave a final beer and whiskey soaked sigh, shut its doors, closed the cellar one last time - and died.

Gaffneys, off the main street in a small town nestled on the Atlantic shore in the West of Ireland, was not in any way special - it was just like one of the many drinking establishments that once lined towns and villages all over Ireland.

In days gone by every other shop would be a pub. In addition, just in case a raging thirst would suddenly seize the unwary shopper, the grocer would have a beer pump on the counter alongside the bacon slicer - and bottles of spirits lined up on the shelves between the tins of baked beans and peas.

Community centre

Yet Gaffneys was special. It was the bar where we - garrulous journalists, dubious property developers, risqué finance experts, down at heel writers, farmers and fisher people, would gravitate to, a fixture in the town as much as the church on the bend or the newsagents down the street.

There would be a sod of turf on the fire - gently smoking away but scarcely throwing out any heat.

The bar stools were scuffed, the wooden chair seats like mirrors, polished by a thousand backsides.

First the local garage went - then bars shut down and the old shops expanded into supermarkets.
Long before community centres were established, bars like Gaffneys would also function as places to carry out important local business.

Charlie - his mother bought the bar in the early years of the last century and his father was a policeman - was a power in the town, tasked with keeping an unofficial eye on things, helping sort out disputes, issue fishing licenses.

There was a statue of the Virgin Mary and stern old family pictures on the wall.

Beer and crossword

By way of contrast, there were also portraits of long legged models draped in a series of sensuous poses - an imaginative fashion photographer had once arranged a photo shoot in the bar.

At certain times of the year Gaffneys would be full - conversation and laughter echoing off its green and cream painted walls.

At other times, particularly in the depths of winter, when the dampness of the surrounding bog lands and the sea mists would envelop the town, only Charlie would be present.

He was not a hail fellow, well met type of landlord - far from it.

As you curled round the door, Charlie would be sitting in his usual position behind the end of the bar, chin cupped in hand, cigarette between nicotine stained fingers, eyes watering in the smoke.

He'd be puzzling over 23 across or 10 down - Charlie was a crossword addict.

A pint would start to be poured, then allowed to settle.

Minutes would go by - you might exchange a few comments on the weather, or discuss the prospects for fishing but, like matches held to damp paper, conversation would soon die away.

Drink delivered and duty done, Charlie would return to the important business of solving the anagram of 15 down, the only sound of the tick of the bar room clock.

Silence is a precious, often undervalued commodity - but Charlie had plenty of it.

When he was younger, with no jobs on offer locally, he'd gone off to sea, joining the British merchant navy.

Perhaps it was there, working as a radio officer, he learned to embrace silence.

Dreams in Morse Code

Travelling the world, deep in the bowels of the ship - with only the churning of engines and creaking of the hull for company - Charlie would sit, alone, for hours on end.

Doing the crossword. Smoking. Waiting for the radio to give its messages, most in the old dot dot dashes of Morse code.

Charlie once admitted to having dreams in Morse. When, a few years ago, Morse was phased out, Charlie was upset - for him it must have been like being robbed of a language.

Perhaps he became more silent as the town around him changed: first the local garage went - then bars shut down and the old shops expanded into supermarkets.

Charlie died recently aged 81. Years ago he had returned to his native town, married and given up his seafaring ways, inheriting the family pub.

Gaffneys is being sold - Charlie's children, grown up now with their own lives in Ireland and elsewhere, are reluctant to take on a job long gone out of fashion and with few prospects.

There's talk of a restaurant, making a lively music bar - of young life and new beginnings.

The poet, Michael Longley, has for years been a Gaffneys' customer.

In a poem written in tribute to Charlie, he imagines what he calls "an ideal death," sitting at the bar, in company with its owner.

"I have just helped him to solve his crossword puzzle.

And we commune with ancestral photos in the alcove.

He doesn't notice that I am dead until closing time.

And he sweeps around my feet."

But it was Charlie who left the bar first.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 October, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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