There’s a saying on the Emerald Isle, that a stranger is just a friend you’ve not yet met. During a recent visit to Galway, my wife and I learned how true this really was.
To understand the Gael one must first understand the pub and its importance in Irish life. Far from just a place to get a drink, the “pubic houses” is the preverbal soapbox of politics discourse, local news, and neighborly gossip. In the 20 square miles that makes up the Salthill area of Galway alone, there are over 60 of them. Each as unique as the people who frequent them. And it is a particularly good thing that the Irish (like the rest of Europe) do not share the American need for personal space. The typical pub isn’t much larger than a two-car garage. But despite this coziness, or probably because of it, there’s no hesitation amongst the locals to strike up a conversation especially with someone new. Such is how we met Patrick.
We’d just finished our dinner at Lohans and were sipping on the second half of our ales when I excused myself to the men’s room. When I returned there was a man standing beside our table chatting with my wife. The high-top put the two at eye-level and I could tell that she was completely captivated by the gentleman. I’m not good with ages, but I would guess that he was in his late 70’s and was so quintessentially, perhaps even stereotypically, Irish that one would think he was sent up by central casting. He was smartly dressed, overly so in my opinion, but perhaps it was simply his way. Beneath his plaid v-neck sweater he wore a dress shirt and tie, dark slacks and shoes. His snowy hair was just a bit too thin to cover his scalp, but was neatly trimmed and styled. He greeted me warmly and feigned his shock at trying to “steal” my pretty lady. His brogue was thick, but delightful and we had no problem understanding him. A dairy farmer by trade, he’d long since retired. He told of his wife, the love of his life, who has recently passed only a year earlier. Forty-nine years, they had shared, but the last six had been the hardest. He told us that she’d passed from a “softening of the brain”. I’d heard this term before when my father suffered from the same ailment. I figured it was easier for him to say that than admit Alzheimer’s. His face brightened as he spoke of his six children. With pride he spoke of his “four lovely daughters and two fine lads.” One now cared for the farm, one was in med school, two others were in business. There were eight grand-children with another two on the way. The lot were scattered around Galway, but not too far from dad. His tone was one of gratitude for his life. Then he dropped his chin, gave a mischievous grin and spoke conspiratorially about his new “job”. He confessed to a love of ballroom dancing, and spoke of the county dances to which he and his wife used to attend, but were impossible in her later life. His new “job” was that of (self-appointed) dance ambassador. He’d established himself as a regular at the Salt Hill Hotel where he would woo the young ladies and twirl them on the dance floor. He was also known to “crash” the occasional wedding reception and clear the floor with the new bride and her attendees.
It was getting late. Our glasses were empty and we had plans to visit the Crane Bar. We said our goodbyes to Patrick and called for our check. He gave me a warm handshake and my wife a warmer peck on the cheek. Before he left I asked him for a picture with my wife. A request he was all too eager to grant. The picture taken, he gave another farewell and moved toward the door. We watched as he removed a woolen cap from the rack and a shiny, black, gnarl-ended walking stick from the adjacent bin. I had to laugh. It was a shillelagh! My wife commented that she’d just met ME in 30 years. He stepped through the door just as the waitress brought our check. I fumbled for my cash and asked her if he was a regular. She asked to whom I was referring. “Patrick,” I said. “The older gentleman who’d been standing here.” She just shook her head and made an excuse about a busy night. My wife and I exchanged a glance and shrugged. We gathered our things and headed for the door. We were about to step out when something caught my eye. The wall was covered with picture frames. Some had letters, some sayings, but most were pictures of whom I assume were patrons. I happened to see one of Patrick with two other women. The caption told me his name was “Padraig Galway.” I was stunned. I mean, if someone was named “Galway” there must be a history. I made a note of the name in our journal and followed my wife into the night.
After we got home we started going through our journal and our pictures. It is our custom to draw from these sources to create a photo album. I read about Patrick and recalled the photo, and naturally wanted to include him in our album, but when we went through the pictures, there was nothing. That’s not exactly true, there was something. There was a blank. While this is odd in digital photography, we’d actually had it happen before for what-ever reason. We dismissed it as bad luck, but kept Patrick in the narrative. It wasn’t until almost two years later that old Patrick came up again. Several months later, we were entertaining some friends at our house. Over drinks, while they flipped though the photo album we told them about the trip. Patrick’s story came up and our friends decided to do some web searching. Naturally Patrick did not come up, but it got me to wondering. About a week later I started to dig through the internet, and while I had no more luck finding Patrick than our friends. I learn that Padraig is the Irish spelling of Patrick and is pronounced the same. I did find a picture of a dance at the Salt Hill hotel. In it was a picture of an older gentleman dancing with a young lady surrounded by a host of young ladies all cheering the dancing couple. I could only see a portion of the man’s face, but it certainly looked like Patrick, or at least my memory of him. The caption made reverential reference to the man as “our late ambassador”. The date was four years prior to our trip to Ireland. A coincidence for sure, right?