WHAT possessed me to skive off from school on a midweek afternoon and turn up at Kathy Barry’s sheebeen with my camera, I simply don’t know.
Curiousity? Maybe. Excitement? Possibly. A rush of blood to the head? Most definitely!
The year was 1964, I was 17 years old and all I really knew about Kathy Barry was that she was an archetypical Cork character, honoured in song and in story and, unlike the Bould Thady Quill, the Wild Colonial Boy or Master McGrath, she was still alive – an important consideration if I was to take her photograph.
Chríost Rí geography teacher, John O’Shea, – of Everyman fame – whose class discussions ranged far and wide and on this particular day hit on Cork characters, had aroused my curiosity. Who was this woman that ran a sheebeen in the centre of Cork city? Across the road from the Bridewell Garda station? Serving crubeens and porter to the merchant princes of Cork city after hours? I was fascinated – and hooked.
With my camera hidden under my coat, I struck off from Capwell while the school was on lunch-break and headed down Southern Road, along Douglas Street and over Parnell Bridge to the city proper.
The excitement of ‘going on the lang’ from school was now wearing thin as I made my way across town to Cornmarket Street, — the Coal Quay. I was now most definitely out of my comfort zone. A sheebeen. I might never be heard of again.
The day’s work was over for the traders on Cornmarket Street. and they were busy bustling around their open-air stalls clearing up the rubbish of the day. I picked out the kindest looking trader, who like the rest, was complete with black shawl draped around her shoulders. Heart in mouth I inquired after Kathy Barry.
“Over there, boy, under the arch, three doors down.”
The archway threw a shadow across the entrance and, viewed from the Coal Quay, the lane looked black and forbidding.
My stomach churning, I stepped into the laneway and was surprised to find it wasn’t so dark after all. The first two doorways were roughly blocked-off with rusty galvanised sheeting, then a small window and, just beyond, a woman standing at an open door.
“Kathy Barry, I presume?” I most definitely didn’t say – but I had reached the source of my particular Nile.
Red with embarrassment and confusion I splurted out who I was and why I had come. Without saying a word she stepped back and ushered me in the door ahead of her. It was like stepping onto the set of a John B Keane play.
There was no electricity, just a few candles in empty milk-bottles throwing shadows about the place. An earthen floor with bits and pieces of furniture scattered around and an open fireplace, choked with the remnants of many fires, long forgotten, but the evidence of which was burned into the scorched wallpaper and sooty plaster above it.
Had the Bull McCabe himself emerged from the gloom I wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, when my eyes got used to the darkness, I could make out a handful of people in various nooks and crannies drinking from beer bottles and eating boiled potatoes in their skins.
It certainly wasn’t Ballymaloe, nor were the customers among the city’s merchant princes. In fact, I got the distinct impression that the clientele were very much down on their luck.
Kathy announced me as, “A young fella that wants to take a few pictures” and everybody readily perked themselves up for the camera. I found it difficult to operate in the gloom as I couldn’t focus the camera accurately, nor could I read the scale on the flashgun in the dark.
On the other hand, I had no difficulty in getting subjects to pose for photographs. I even got Kathy herself handing out her ‘dish of the day’ to eager customers.
In her youth, people say, she was a handsome woman. Madeline O’Higgins, writing in The Archive, a publication of the Northside Folklore Project, says, “I remember Kathy Barry. Oh Lord help us, and a beautiful woman she was, with a lovely black shawl on her. If there was a hurling match coming to Cork, she’d put on a load of crubeens (boiled pig’s feet) in a big pot, and the best feed they’d ever have was Kathy Barry’s crubeens.”
However, the woman before me now was well past middle-age and the years had taken their toll. While she had met me courteously and allowed me photograph inside her premises, I could sense that now she wanted to see the back of me, so I gathered up my bits and pieces and got ready to say my good-byes.
To tell you the truth, I was glad to get out of there. I had a distinctly uneasy feeling from the moment I entered. The flickering shadows thrown by the few candles, the voices from the dark corners and the hovering presence of Kathy herself, all un-nerved me and I was glad to get out into the daylight once again.
All that happened over 50 years ago and today Kathy Barry’s memory lives on only in the songs we sing on the way home from matches in Thurles and Killarney.
Every day I pass the archway to the laneway – or Dalton’s Avenue, to give it the official title – where Kathy once reigned.
Con Dennehy’s Bar stands proudly near the archway now. The open-air stalls have but a token presence on the Coal Quay and, every Saturday, the Farmers’ Market brings artisan cheeses, organic vegetables and sweet and sour spare ribs to a discerning clientele yards from Kathy’s front door.
There’s surely room for a crubeen and a plate of spuds there somewhere?