Bars are examples of society, both in the sense of human co-existence and conviviality.A watering hole is, after all, also a cross-section of where it’s located.
So it stands to reason bars make excellent settings.
Glenn Patterson’s The International is named after a hotel in Belfast and takes place in 1967 on the day before the inauguration of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, just as the Troubles are about to change the city forever.
The first-person narrator, Danny Boy, is a bartender in one of the hotel’s bars, a job that, by his own account, he “fell” into after being caught kissing a classmate in high school. Amidst the resulting scandal, his parents ask a relative with a shady reputation for help:I decided not to hold my breath, even my mother appeared less than convinced, but there are things in the world far more unpleasant than two boys kissing and by the beginning of the following week Belfast had lurched a step nearer to its unpleasant future. I was sitting in the manager’s office of The International Hotel with Second Cousin Clive’s testimonial in my pocket.
"He dived in again while Ted Connolly took another swig"
Danny Boy gets the job – and an introduction to a microcosm of Belfast.
The International doesn’t have one central storyline. It doesn’t need one. Instead, Patterson relates the stories of one after another of the bar’s regulars and staff.
One of them is a famous Northern Irish international football player who’s recuperating from an injury by going on a massive Laphroaig bender. He’s utterly dismissive of the national team:This wasn’t quite the conversation Clive had fantasised telling his friends about. He dived in again while Ted Connolly took another swig of whisky. ‘Maybe if we went back to the way it used to be: All Ireland.’ Ted Connolly guffawed, Clive persevered.
‘Like the rugby. Think about it: Big Pat, Tony Dunne, Shay Brennan, Giles, Bestie, your good self…’
But Northern Ireland’s not going to back to the way it was, and it’s not going to win anything on the pitch.
Northern Ireland is going to seriously damage a bit of its culture, as Danny Boy, looking back on the late 1960s two decades later recollects:Half past eight on a Saturday evening in a busy bar. A blessed time, I used to think –before McGurk’s before McLaughlin’s, before the Four Step Inn, The Mountainview Tavern, the Crescent Bar, before Loughinisland – the time when you were most likely to feel yourself in communion with other bars in other cities and towns and villages too small to merit a mention on the map.
There, in a list between two dashes, are decades of pain.
The International Hotel in Belfast closed down in 1972. Glenn Patterson allows us to revisit it and a society that, hopefully, is finally letting the past be the past.
It’s a thought worth raising a glass to, anyway.