Paolo Tullio: A good serving of Nostalgia
My introduction to the River Shannon took place many years ago in my youth. In the Ireland of those days, there was just one television channel: RTE on channel seven.
Hard to believe now, in an era of hundreds of TV channels. Because there was only one, TV shows had an audience penetration that producers these days can only dream about, and the characters on TV had a national profile equivalent to movie stars.
There was a soap back then called 'The Riordans', a continuing story of everyday country folk that included the character of Eamon, played by an actor called Joe Pilkington. Sadly Joe is no longer with us, but I knew him quite well at the height of his fame. One day he asked me if I'd ever travelled the Shannon. I hadn't, and Joe thought I should, so he organised a cabin cruiser and I met up with him on the river.
Joe took his role as ship's captain seriously and met me with a skipper's cap placed jauntily on his head. It didn't take me long to realise this was not light-hearted -- he was the skipper and expected to be obeyed instantly in all things.
But what I remember the most about our trip was our reception at each and every drinking stop we made along the river bank. I can't believe that entering those pubs with Marilyn Monroe on my arm would have had any more of an effect. It was as though the world's greatest celebrity had just landed, and drinks flowed freely. Eamon was honoured and fêted and our progress down the river was ridiculously slow. I'm sure it's not the case, but it seemed to me there was a pub every 500 yards of river bank.
All this came back to me as I stood on the bridge in Tarmonbarry with my old friend Richard Fegen, looking at the flowing Shannon. I hadn't seen Richard for a while; he'd been living in England, where he found fame and fortune writing some well-known comedy shows, such as 'The Brittas Empire'.
We were on the road to Westport and hit Tarmonbarry just about lunchtime, so we made a stop. Keenan's is easily found, it's right by the bridge overlooking the mighty river.
Inside, we found the warm-welcome atmosphere that makes Irish pubs so unique and found ourselves a table. Around us were mahogany display cabinets with bric-a-brac, fishing memorabilia, old trade posters, shiny brass objects and, just inside the door, a photo gallery of the good and the great who have stopped here to enjoy the hospitality.
The bar menu is quite extensive, although quite standard. You won't find any unusual dishes, just old favourites such as Caesar salad, garlic mushrooms, steak and chips, and chicken dishes.
Richard started with the most unusual dish on the menu, the bruschetta, while I started with the homemade vegetable soup. Then Richard fancied a steak, so he ordered the sirloin steak, and I'd seen a lady at a nearby table get a fine piece of battered cod, so I ordered that. A quarter-bottle of Merlot for Richard and couple of bottles of sparkling water made up the drinks order.
With our order taken we relaxed and chatted, remembering the days when we were on the stage together doing revues in Trinity. Funny how much of our later lives were defined by those days.
We were interrupted by an abundant plate of bruschetta for Richard and a well-flavoured soup for me. I tasted the bruschetta and found it quite well executed -- the tomatoes had just the right amount of basil and enough garlic to bring out the flavour. I had a simple enough soup, but it was warming and nourishing, just right for a winter's day.
After the starters cleared away, the main courses arrived. Richard's steak looked exactly as it should and came with mushrooms, onions and chips, the kind of combination that traditionally we have always loved. My cod and chips didn't look at all like the one the lady beside me had been served. The batter was much less crisp, the colour less golden. Further investigation revealed a somewhat over-cooked fish inside the pale batter. Still, hunger got the better of me and I ate most it, all the while eyeing Richard's steak and wishing that our order had been reversed.
Despite the rather generous portions that we'd been handed, we still found room for a taste of dessert. There were a few to choose from: various crumbles, apple pie, brownies and, the one that caught both our eyes, profiteroles. There was a time when they were on every restaurant menu, so it was nice to see them again. We had a portion between us.
They arrived as they always did, a little pyramid of choux pastry balls filled with cream and the whole drizzled with chocolate sauce. We made short work of them and ended our meal with a couple of espressos.
In many ways, this was a meal from another era; with the exception of the bruschetta, you could have had exactly this combination of dishes 30 years ago. That's not a criticism, just an observation.
One of the charms of the West is precisely the fact that it has stayed relatively unchanged throughout the years of madness elsewhere. Dining rooms such as Keenan's evoke a kind of nostalgia for a time when the food we ate was simpler, less international and more traditional. The menu, together with the interior, took me right back to my week on the Shannon with Joe Pilkington all those years ago.
The only difference was price. This time, our simple lunch brought a bill of €72.75.