News Billy Keane

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Old places and faces take me on a trip down memory lane

Published 20/01/2014 | 02:30

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Queen Elizabeth meets fishmonger Pat O'Connell at  his stall in the English Market in 2011
Queen Elizabeth meets fishmonger Pat O'Connell at his stall in the English Market in 2011

'How's herself?" I asked Pat O'Connell. "Granny, is it? Oh she's grand. In top form. She was over to stay with us before the Christmas for the few days. She loves coming over. We did up her own room for her and it's very nice. She was delighted with it."

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Pat is a showman who performs six days a week behind the counter of his fish shop in the English Market in the middle of Cork city.

I was in the city by accident on Friday last and the shop was buzzing. There must have been a hundred different varieties of fish on view. We settled for hake fillets and a dozen scallops. I've been coming here since I was in UCC, a long time ago, back when I thought some fine day I would surely become the leader of the free world and now look at me. I'm the leader of a small pub and only then when the mother takes to the bed for about two hours every six months.

The queen called to Pat's stall on her visit to Ireland. That much we know for sure to be true. As for her visit to her new room in Cork at Christmas, well, maybe she slipped over incognito.

Kathleen Noonan's bacon stall has been another port of call since those student days. Her daughters run the shop now. I love their bodice -- spare ribs -- and the pig's head they gave me was the finest meat ever. The Cork people eat every part of the pig. It was back in those student days and I was in digs with Jimmy Boylan, a friend of my father.

Jimmy's father died at sea, not from drowning, but when he ate an infected tin of salmon. Jimmy never ate anything out of a tin after that and he was going to make sure I wouldn't either. He threw my beans on toast into the bin. "What did you do that for?" I asked. And with tears in his eyes he told me the story of his father's death. Jimmy was determined I would only eat fresh produce.

I came back to St Kevin's Square off Barrack Street late one night, after a big session with my pals. Jimmy had a few taken too. He brought a slice pan out first and then he put a plate of small tongues before me. The sheep's tongues were lovely. Soft meat it was, and it melted in your mouth like a Holy Communion wafer. Ever since I've been hooked on the Cork cuisine and the city and her people.

Kerry and Cork get on very well, other than the days we meet each other at football. I get very sad sometimes when I see the hatred spewed forth from certain websites. These nasty people do not represent the Cork I know and love.

I drove up to see the old digs. I couldn't see a single change. Then a story came back to me. One of the people living in the area used to go to the post office for the old-age pension for his father every Friday. Very nice of him, you might say. Except his father was dead.

The father reached the hundred and the President sent him a cheque for £100. The President had the cheque hand-delivered by a member of the Army. The wife of the good son answered the door. She knew nothing of the pension fund. The son was hauled before the courts and ordered to pay back the money.

Later, we wandered round the city happy as could be. The Cork people passed the directions test with flying colours. They go to extremes to be friendly and the one-liners are always there.

This tall, bald man was smoking a cigarette with his left hand in the South Mall. He was holding a cot with a small baby in his right. Maybe the eejit thought because he was blowing smoke on the far side of the baby, the child would be fine.

This small, bald, Cork man passed by. He said to the tall, bald man, 'Hey pal, do ya mind me askin', does that baby of yours smoke many a day?' The tall, bald man was ashamed and put out the fag.

University College Cork was the end of the kill-the-time tour. I spent some of the happiest days of my life here. It was Friday and I saw a very strange sight. A student went in to the library. There's no doubt but that the exams are a lot tougher now than they were in our time but you still got the sense of place and community even though the college numbers have rocketed.

By chance we met three people of the Bahai faith in the coffee shop. They told of how they had to leave their homeland because of religious persecution. The mother, father and their son gave me their names but I was afraid to write them here even though they showed no fear.

The father was forced to leave his job and his country. Many of his co- religionists have been killed or jailed. His wife gave me a tasty homemade biscuit and we read a little prayer. It was sad to see such decent people exiled from their homeland by tyrants and extremists. But at least they found some peace and pleasure here in the safe haven of UCC, as I did all those years ago.

Some day soon, we will return to their story.

Irish Independent

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