Craic and pints: My life as U.S barman in Cork city

UCC student DAN JOHNSON is an American who has been working part-time in a Cork city bar. He reveals the culture clashes he has had to learn on the job — and the importance of pouring the perfect stout!
Craic and pints: My life as U.S barman in Cork city
Dan Johnson, an American who has been working part-time in a Cork city bar.

MY name is Dan Johnson. I’m 24 years old. I’m at UCC doing a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, and, for the last few months, I might have been the one pouring your pints.

The other thing is, I’m a Yank from suburban New Jersey.

I enjoy my job, but being a ‘foreigner’ behind a bar in Cork meant there were a lot of things to learn.

At the start, I felt like I was playing on an uneven pitch. I was in a new and uncomfortable position, matched up with The Corkonian’, a creature who, many might suggest, finds their natural habitat in the buzz and banter of the pub.

The silent order with the nod of the head, the clunk of the glass or the flick of the thumb, the slag thrown down the bar at a fellow regular, the rhythm of the sup: all part of an atmosphere, a cultural code that Patrick Kavanagh called “the wink and elbow language of delight”.

Being an American behind an Irish bar counter is a lot of fun, usually. But I have it easy in a way. I don’t stick out. Pale skin, fair hair, and a ginger beard. Add a couple of “likes” or “boys” to the end of my sentences and a lot of people don’t think twice.

But every once in a while, though, someone sniffs it out. Canadian? Nope. American? Got it, New Jersey. Ehhhhh, Tony Soprano! Guilty as charged.

I often have to play the apologist for American politics, attempting to unravel Trumpism, doing my best to defend America’s better nature while condemning the current state of affairs.

I’ve learned, though, to respond with a can-you-believe-what’s-going-on-over-there roll of the eyes and an ‘I haven’t an iota, boy’. Most people are happy to leave it there and tell me their tales of their own excursions stateside.

Of course, there were missteps when I was getting started. The time a fella asked for Captain and MiWadi Orange and my American ears could only hear him asking for Captain and “My-Watty,” like a baby asking for its bottle. I thought he was taking the p***.

Or the countless times where the music and the customer’s pure Cork accent made the call for Murphy’s or Coors utterly inscrutable.

I still remember the first pint of the stout I poured. Beamish. I was nearly shaking. Glass at 45 degrees. Aim for the logo.

There’s something about pouring stout in Ireland. You can feel the full weight of the trust the customer puts in you. The patient, yet hawkish wait for the pint to settle.

Pulling a bad pint of stout in an Irish pub is like being a bad house guest. How dare you wrong me in my own gaff — that kind of thing.

Then there’s the question of how much head is too much head. Murphy’s pours high, Guinness sits somewhere in the middle, and Beamish could be all over the place.

Lads, we could be here all day...

But there’s something else I want to talk about. Like the rest of the world, Ireland is changing. We are living in a globalized society, and I’m a living, breathing example of that.

I’ve heard Corkonians tout the City as the Real Capital, perhaps a jab at Dublin’s evolution as a gentrified uber-tourist hub. Yet they’re right when they assert Cork as the paragon of Irish life, and my pub is a beautiful microcosm of just that.

It is a wonderfully cosmopolitan and egalitarian establishment. On any given day you will see Irish, Americans, Nigerians, Japanese, Koreans, Brazilians, French, Spanish, Mexicans, Australians and more on a couch, stool — or even behind the bar.

Let’s consider the nature of the Irish pub. It’s undeniable that it sits at the heart of Traditional Irish Society.

So many pubs around the country are eager to advertise themselves as “traditional”, offering traditional music or traditional food. I think, though, that what is intrinsic to this buzzword is an attitude, a feeling. It’s hospitality and craic.

There is, unfortunately, a strain of culture, not only in Ireland but in the world at large, that sees the value in tradition as being ethnically monochromatic or homogenous. I’d like to enthusiastically dismiss that line of thought.

My favourite part of my job is serving, and working with, people of all sorts, whether they’re from Ballincollig or Brazil.

As an Irish American, the part of Irish culture that I’m most proud of is the spirit of humanity. The Roger Casements, the Daniel O’Connells, these are the models of Irishness that I most value.

As newcomers are welcomed into Irish society, Irish culture becomes the richer and more vibrant for it, and the pub will always be the one of the places where that social integration is nurtured and affirmed.

What is important and valuable in the tradition of the Irish pub is hospitality, warmth and genuine craic, and I am here to assure you that it does not matter whether the person on the stool next to ou or behind the counter serving you your drink is from Coburg Street, Clonakilty or even Kerry.

It is a beautiful, joyous thing to sup pints of Beamish with someone from São Paulo, to sing karaoke with a group from Brittany. And, dare I say it: it’s daycent craic ordering a pint off some fella from Jersey.

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