Bars like John Joe’s don’t exist much anymore. The pub is still there, now called the Quarry Cock, but 2 O’Connell Street, Cobh, Co. Cork will always in my mind have JJ O’Mahoney over the door. That bar as we knew it is long gone and even the JJ (John Joe) was dead long before we became regulars. Legend had it that he opened the wrong door on the Cork Cobh train, this was when you could open the doors yourself, never recovering from the subsequent fall.
The bar was then run by his widow Annie, a lady not at all suited to barkeeping with the result that none of her regulars liked her. Not one. Probably explains why it never became ‘Annie’s’ but always ‘John Joe’s’, even though she ran it on her own for a considerable length of time. This dislike of her united us all, obvious from the collective sigh which would go round when she’d come through the door from upstairs. Some men could time their drinking so as to leave before she’d appear. Every evening Annie would come down, just in time for the Nine O’Clock News, always complaining about the cold. The first thing she’d do was turn up the Super-Ser which sat in the middle of the floor. If it happened to be at full blast already she’d turn it down, complaining that it was too hot. When Annie complained you knew it, her shrill voice would cut sheet metal.
We were invited in by a friend Paul who started as a barman in early 1983. As we were still at school he only did Wednesday afternoon and all day Saturday. One of Paul’s tasks midweek was to clean the pipes, these being the tubes carrying beer from the barrel to the taps. Those days the pipes were cleaned by the bar instead of the brewery as is routine today. The cleaning equipment was as old as the bar itself. A brass pump was used to pump the detergent through the pipes and the fresh water afterwards that flushed them clean again. A vital job as unclean pipes affect the quality of a pint and the fact a professional does this today combined with the modern taps means a pint tastes almost the same anywhere. Time was when certain pubs would be avoided because they served a bad pint. Paul would spend an hour or so doing the pipes, filling buckets with detergent, then with fresh tapwater and we used to sit watching from the old high stools. But we were sitting patiently for a reason. After he was finished and the cleaning equipment put away fresh pints had to be pulled and tasted. Normally the first ones would have been thrown away but we volunteered as tasters, with four to six pints having to be pulled before the cleaning could be deemed a success. Oh how creamy those first pints tasted, how different they seemed from the ones later in the week.
The inside of John-Joes was decorated in deeply smoke-stained pale green and brown colours, more green than brown. The bar counter was L-shaped with a wide top of varnished pine. The lower part of the counter was half-barrels with bands of copper round their centre, top and bottom. Along the floor ran a long brass footrest. In the centre of the ceiling was a set of fluorescent lights and dotted along the walls were sconce lamps. These would be put on at night for a gentle effect, the fluorescents at going-home time. A television was on the high shelf in the corner behind the bar. This would be on at night but usually with the sound down maybe turned up if there was an interesting guest on the Late Late Show but always up for the News.
The windows were two high ones, running almost the length of the room. The Venetian blinds were up all day and lowered with the first sign of darkness. The sound of them being released was a notice that day drinking was over and the time for evening drinking had begun. It was that some men came in for a couple of early pints and liked to be home by dark, this being judged by the lowering of the blinds and obviously with a stretch in the evening that timing differed. Others would come in after a day’s work in the Irish Steel or the Verolme Dockyard, workbag thrown over the shoulder which had carried a lunch earlier. After a couple of pints they’d go home for dinner, some returning later, others not, only have an evening pint at the weekends. Very few men, if any, would be in all day and night, it certainly wasn’t encouraged and anyone who’d had too many would be sent packing.
Each regular had his drinking time and almost all had their seat too. It wasn’t a rule but at certain times you didn’t sit in certain seats, it wouldn’t be said, you just knew. Some men sat at the long length of the bar, some at the shorter part of the L-shape, others on the long, leather-covered padded seats lining the walls. There wasn’t a snug in John Joe’s but inside the door was a quieter spot where newcomers or women sat.
Regardless of where you sat the routine was the same, come in, sit down, with the barman pulling the pint without you having to ask. Some he chatted with, others he didn’t, he knew their style, knew what they liked. Over time there would have been a few different barmen but each was educated to what each regular liked. A barman graduated from in front of the bar to a week’s accompanied apprenticeship behind and only then allowed in on his own. Who liked what, who took a whiskey chaser with it and what whiskey he preferred, these important things you needed to know. Some men only took a whiskey on the second pint or before they left and this too had to be learnt. One man who sat in by the corner even had his own glass, a Liverpool Football club one with a handle, which was kept on the shelf with the others but only used for him. Glasses were hand washed, dried on the draining board and shined to a glint.
The bar would be fairly empty during Lent. The same men would go off drink each year and wouldn’t be seen for the forty days. Some would return on Easter Saturday, some on Easter Sunday but return they would. Not to a big blow out but to the same seat and the same drinking pattern. Funnily enough you rarely saw them during this time but they’d be back as soon as their Lent was over. No coming in for a mineral even, it was almost as if they were more off John Joe’s than the drink itself.
Another feature of the bar was no women’s toilet…Women only came in on Saturdays, normally accompanied and they had to use Annie’s bathroom, upstairs. They’d glance over at Annie and she’d nod back giving them the ok. Annie’s bathroom was only available after she came down for the evening, not before. We men had to go out the back to pee against the toilet wall, which got a wash down once a week with a bucket of water and jeyes fluid.
Annie eventually sold up in 1989, with a massive last night in John Joe’s. Tradition was that when a bar sold regulars were invited in for a last night of drinking and goodbyes. Annie’s farewell was exceptional. Routine went out the door, for once everyone was there early and Annie was down to greet them. The door was closed about nine and only opened to the invited. Keeping with tradition the drink was free and flowed freely. Men who hadn’t been in for years came to say goodbye, some had been friends with John Joe and had gone elsewhere after he died. A bagpiper played a few tunes, walking up and down the bar, deafening us all. Stories were told and songs were sung. The hymn “How Great Thou Art” was done with great gusto, all of us, being good Catholics, knew it by heart.
As Annie took herself off to bed around midnight the old song “Gentle Annie” broke out amongst the men. Usually this would have been sung only on certain nights and with a high hint of irony. Not on this night though. Serenaded by a bar full of men, all standing, all clapping, she took her leave for the last time, exiting by the side door and up the stairs as she had done for so many years before. As she went I looked around and most men had tears in their eyes, crying for the end of an era. Annie left for Cork the next day, never returning again.
With her gone, John Joe’s changed forever.