Whisky & Culture

Hugh Leonard: everything but the kitsch

Jefferson Chase takes a look at the Irish author and playwright's whiskey references within his acclaimed work
By Jefferson Chase
Aside from Guinness and whiskey, there’s nothing more typically Irish than childhood reminiscences – a comprehensive list of Irish memoirs would be endless. My favorite is Hugh Leonard’s Home Before Night, which covers similar ground to his award-winning 1978 play Da, later made into a film starring Martin Sheen. Born in 1926 in Dalkey, County Dublin as John Keyes Byrne, Leonard writes warm-hearted Irish humour without falling into warm-hearted Irish kitsch. It’s a danger of which Leonard is well aware.The Irish love failure: in their folklore success is inexcusable, but the fumbled ball, the lost promotion, the one drink too many are to them the stuff of romance: they turn the winner’s laurels into a salad for the loser to eat, adding clichés for seasoning.Although too young to drink for most of the book, which is narrated alternately in the third- and first-persons, young Leonard proves a sharp-eyed observer of the drunken foibles of the adults around him. For example, a cherub-faced uncle named John ‘Curser’ Bennett:John was in vintage form. In Aunt Chris’s absence he cursed the government, be-Jasused the Free State, effed the oath of allegiance, blinded the Irish language and cast serious doubts on the paternity of the Minister for Lands. His pink cheeks became infused with an angry sunset glow as he downed proffered tumblers of John Jameson, and a shout went up that he should grace the occasion with the recitation for which, in his bachelor days, he had become famous whenever gripped by strong emotion. Eager hands hoisted him to a table top, and for the last time in his life, with glass thrust high, he began to declaim the poem Fontenoy. Curser Bennett is only one among many not-quite-lovable characters, occasionally summed up in classic one-liners like ‘My grandmother made dying her life’s work’ and ‘Our dog Jack was anti-clerical.’By the end of Home Before Night, Leonard does find his way into a pub, thanks to the acid-tongued Mr Drumm, his mentor at the Land Commission, where he ends up clerking, and would-be surrogate father. He searched his brain for, and found, an excuse to go…’You said you had an appointment.’There was a kind of glass bubble attached to the upside-down Jameson bottle behind the bar. It was filled with whiskey, and Jack had twice watched the barman touch it with the rim of a glass, at which it would empty and then, as if in a conjuring trick, fill up again. Now Mr Drumm’s face emptied in the same way. ‘So I did,’ he said in a voice like a knife …
To prevent an answer he turned away quickly, back to his one true friend, golden in the glass. It was not until Jack was half-way home, the rain playing melodeon in his shoes, that a thought brought him to a standstill…the realization that Mr Drumm had no appointment this evening, except with him.Home Before Night is full of such concise, touching, unsentimental characterizations. Hugh Leonard, best-known as a playwright, is no slouch at the prose memoire either.Extracts from Home By Night, copyright Hugh Leonard.Hugh Leonard’s volumes of autobiography, Home Before Night and Out After Dark are reissued by Methuen on 9 May 2002 (paperback £7.99) with his new novel, A Wild People.