'Fouking' Brilliant: My Evening at an Irish Social Club
Last night I went to a very rare place indeed. It was a bar.
You see, a “bar” cannot exist in South Carolina. Not with our law which only allows liquor licenses to be granted to those whose business is “engaged primarily in the preparation and serving of meals or furnishing of lodging.” Translation: You have to be a restaurant that happens to serve alcohol to get a liquor license. You can’t exist just to welcome people in and serve them a few drinks.
Unless (wink, wink), you operate a club. Because the law goes on to state a liquor license may be granted “to nonprofit organizations with limited membership not open to the general public.” A club.
My good friend Andy told me of such a club way out on Maybank Highway on Johns Island, called Seanachai. Not only do I appreciate a good bar, but one with an Irish name that means “storytelling” had me ready to go. Then Andy threw in the dealmaker: every second and fourth Wednesday of the month, the club features Celtic jams. Andy described storytelling singers, someone at the piano, fiddlers, tin whistlers, people taking turns hammering a rhythm on a bodhran, and possibly a squeeze box. I’m always in search of my Celtic roots through music and oil-black beer. So we planned to get there around 7:30 Wednesday....
From Mount Pleasant, we crossed the peninsula and cleared customs onto James Island, then Johns Island. Maybank Highway seemed to stretch long and dark as my throat grew dry anticipating a good pint. We found Seanachai across from the Fat Hen in a converted tackle shop adjacent to a lumber yard, and got ready to elbow our way into some good seats.
We entered and were greeted with.... An empty room, save one club member at the other end of the bar.
“Ay, ya Andy. Good ta see ya,” the 'tender said to my friend as we took our seats. He is Gerry Kieran, owner of the Seanachai Social Club. He’s the kind of guy you’ve known your whole life. Or if you haven’t, you ought to. He’s been out of Ireland a while, so his accent slips in and out. I expect more so if he were partaking in his own spirits.
“Yeah, Gerry, we came here for the music,” Andy announced.
“Aw for fouk sake, it’s not on tonight! Da fack, we decided we're only gowna have it once a month. Make it bigger this way,” he said apologetically.
When a guy like Gerry talks, you might hear the f-word at least once a sentence. But somehow, when delivered in that accent, it never sounds like swearing. It’s just part of the language of the room.
There are no kids in the club. No TVs. No pinball. A person comes in to drink and talk.
With Gerry, you’re going to get more talk than drink. “Ah, where you from?” he asked me after we were introduced.
When I told him I’m neighbors with Andy, he asked, “Ah, boyo! Yeah. So where do you like to drink around there?”
I told him I’ll go out of my way to hit Madra Rua for their good Guinness draw and rugby on the TV, or stay local with Foster’s Pub, or Dog and Duck, for a good, cheap meal and decent beer selection.
Instead of denigrating any of his competition, he went on a litany of what fine guys are at this or that establishment. How he hopes the new Southern Bar on Coleman succeeds. How the guys who run another club really know what they are doing and how to treat a customer.
I’m reminded, however, that I have to be a member to partake in any more socializing, much less drinking.
Signing up was a grueling task. First, the interview (detailed above). Then I had to prove I can read and write by completing the application. Then I paid the membership fee. Finally, there was an approval process. “Hey, don’t we gotta vote on it?” called out the lone drinker at the far end of the room.
We all laughed, raised drinks, and carried on. Vote complete.
While the lack of music disappointed us, there was no reason to leave. The room is dark in a welcoming and friendly way. Over the piano, three bodhrans hang on the wall and one hurly rests over the door. (A hurly is a wooden stick that looks similar to an axe. Made of only solid wood, it is used in hurling, which is a sport akin to baseball, lacrosse, and Gaelic football.) These aren't franchise props. You got the sense that the hurly might get taken down if a club member were late for a match and didn’t have time to get his good one.
Gerry kept us talking about everything and nothing. You know he can talk politics, but you learn early not to engage an Irishman in politics if you plan on leaving within the next three drinks.
On what he carries: “Aw fack, ya know, I sell more Bud Light than most. You wouldn’t foukin think it, but that’s what it is.”
On who carved the wood for the bar: “Yeah, ya know, I did that but fouk I can’t work with tools for nothing. That’s not something I’m good at.”
About the music on the sound system: “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m no fowkin good at picking songs. I leave that to someone else who is.”
And on and on. According to Gerry, there are a lot of things he is not good at doing. What he is good at is making you feel at home.
We asked about a single malt scotch behind the bar we’d not heard of before. Caol Ila. Suddenly two glasses appeared and we began tasting. Not only that, but the Laphroaigh—and then, reaching way above the bar—a bottle of Connemara. I’d never had Connemara before, and it immediately became a new favorite. Andy was driving, so of course, I had to carry on a bit more of the tasting than he.
The conversations shifted to music and I asked him about an Irish band called the Waterboys. He proclaimed, “Ahh, they’re brilliant!” I let him know they are working on a release of Yeats poems done to music. We agreed that CD could be brilliant. Lots of things were brilliant the later the night got.
I noticed at this point, I was letting the f-word slip into my conversation freely. The chatter went on. “Imelda May?” I asked. Within a few seconds, he has found her on the iPod and that Irish girl’s voice is belting out some great rockabilly through the sound system. “How about Rodrigo y Gabriela?” Gerry asked me.
“What’s a Mexican guitar instrumental duo have to do with a fowkin Irish bar?” I asked. Then I realized it sounded like the start of a joke.
“She’s from Ireland,” Gerry informed me as he changed the iPod. “Or they got discovered in Dublin. But they’re good so we can claim them.”
That’s the point of Seanachai—that if you’re alright, we can claim you as our own. There’s even a membership card to prove it.
Andy and I shook hands with Gerry and left the bar. It felt like we were leaving Dublin and walking out into the South Carolina night.
I’m looking forward to coming back when they have the Celtic jam session. Good people, terrific beers, and Irish melodies on traditional instruments.
If we can’t have true bars in South Carolina, I’m glad we can have our own clubhouses.