Monday, May 26, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Found Ons

Non-Irish readers may well be unaware of Con Houlihan, the grand old man of Irish journalism – sports writers supreme, one-time scourge of the IRA in Kerry and lover of good writing, conviviality, drink, pubs and other fine things. You may also be unaware of the old Irish tradition of 'found ons', whereby people who were found on licensed premises, drinking after hours, were named and shamed in the local press.

If so, as a two for the price of one promotion, permit me to I direct you to the man himself writing recently in the Irish Independent about the 'Strange stigma of being "found on".'

There was an unwritten rule in The Kerryman: names of "found ons" cannot be kept out of the paper, except in the case of a Garda or a clergyman. Too well I know: in my days on that great paper I was pestered -- and blamed for not having done -- "small favours". Such little court cases are fodder for the circulation. People take wicked delight in their neighbours' minor misfortunes -- it is all harmless fun…

Being "found on" seemed to carry a strange stigma: nobody ever asked me to keep out his name because he had no light on his bike or no licence for his dog. I can only surmise that it reflects our attitude to drink.

It's a phenomenon redolent of a vanishing world, that of sealed rural communities, which many left and which few entered, where the twin pillars of the GAA and the Catholic Church held sway and their guiding principles of conservative, parochial puritanism had settled like the sheeting rain. And yet there was always a cat-and-mouse between respectability and rebellion being played out in the Irish soul.

The battleground has shifted now. I cannot say to what extent the shame of the 'found ons' still lingers in rural Ireland, but my own experience of being caught thus was rather disappointing.

It was a couple of years ago in a pub in Cork city. The gardaí who caught us (red-handed no less, drink was being bought as they walked in) did not take our names – this was the real disappointment, around half the night staff of the Irish Examiner were present at the time; it would have been interesting to see how the papers handled that had we been dragged up in court – and confined themselves to giving the landlord a stern talking to and asking him to be more careful in future.

Not that anyone there would have felt much shame, and the cops nowdays have better things to worry about, even in the countryside. Besides, the pious tut-tutting that was attached to that vast minority who do not appreciate being told when they may or not have a drink still persists, but it is nothing compared with the puritans' modern cause célèbre: smoking.

Ireland's smoking ban has settled a form of joyless comformity that would have brought a wintery smile to the lips of Archbishop McQuaid himself upon the land. One of its main victims is the Irish pub itself. Soon there may be so few premises on which one might be found that they will be carefully preserved as special game reserves, with tourists brought on to gawp at their inhabitants and the DNA of the genuine 'found ons' carefully preserved so that future generations may, one day, have the scientific know-how to bring them back from the dead.

According to another Irish Independent writer, Kevin Myers, 1,000 pubs in Ireland have shut their doors since the smoking ban was introduced four years ago. As he warns, in typically restrained terms: "A social calamity is befalling one of the great staples of Irish life, with worse to come."

All is not yet lost, though. The old cat-and-mouse that I mentioned continues. In some rural areas it is possible to spot shadowy knots of smokers gathered like phantoms outside pubs that, surely, had closed hours earlier. And, in certain urban areas, I do know of places where, after a certain time, the doors will be locked, the window blinds drawn down and the ashtrays are brought out from under the counter… But I'd have to keep their names secret.

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