Losing the touch of the Blarney

By Paul LePetit Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-3 17:24:05

Paul Curran (left) and Allan Cowell sing for their supper. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Cassidy
Paul Curran (left) and Allan Cowell sing for their supper. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Cassidy

Eleven years of fun and frolics, of constant live music and extraordinary late evenings and early mornings are coming to an end at the Chinese New Year. The Blarney Stone in Dongping Road has been not just an Irish pub for 11 years but for many it has been an unofficial Irish community center. Sadly the Blarney Stone is about to shut its doors for the last time and the building will be revamped. 

Mine hosts Dave Kelly and Paul Curran along with a friend opened the pub on December 7, 2001 - the paint on the walls had not dried when the first customers poured into the bar.

It proved very popular among the expat community, especially the Irish. Although soon after the bar opened, one neighbor complained officially (the only complaint the pub has had in its 11 years). He complained about the noise and the lights (later he complained again when the trees in between him and the bar blocked his view). In the end he got his real wish - a larger apartment elsewhere.

Apart from that the bar has been fairly trouble free although the SARS scare hit business heavily. Kelly recalls: "There was one group who had invited friends to meet them here during the SARS outbreak. They were flying in from overseas that day and were coming straight from the airport to catch up with their friends. The friends turned up here at the pub but we never saw the visitors who had invited them. We found out later that they had been sitting next to a suspected SARS carrier on the flight in and had been put under lock and key in a hotel near the airport, as part of the preventative measures."

David Kelly pours a Guinness. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Cassidy
David Kelly pours a Guinness. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Cassidy

Imported from Ireland

The Blarney Stone has become famous over the years for its Irish food and especially its Guinness, the unique black stout. Irishmen swear by their Guinness and they know that not all Guinness is poured equal. The Guinness for the Blarney has been imported directly from Ireland, giving it an edge over many other retailers of the drink in town.

By the way the most pints of Guinness consumed by one man at the Blarney in an evening is 22 pints. And the record holder is one of the two retiring owners.

Before the boys took it over the Blarney Stone had been a stone grill and before that a German beer house.

The original Blarney Stone is found near Cork in Ireland. It's a block of bluestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle and according to legend anyone who kisses the stone will have the gift of the gab and be able to talk persuasively, flatter and coax. Or as the Irish independence leader, politician and orator John O'Connor Power put it:  "Blarney is something more than mere flattery. It is flattery sweetened by humor and flavored by wit. Those who mix with Irish folk have many examples of it in their everyday experience."

Kissing the Blarney Stone, however, involves climbing to the castle's battlements then bending backwards over a wall to kiss the stone itself while ignoring the drop beneath one. A strong assistant is needed for this task even with the safety barriers now erected around the popular tourist venue.

And Dave Kelly is one who has actually kissed the Blarney Stone. Though on a good night at the pub you could be forgiven for believing that just about every Irish man and woman there had kissed it aplenty.

Mixed clientele

In the early days the clientele was just about all expats. "Now the Chinese have started coming and these days they make up 30 percent of our customers," Kelly said.

There were in the early days more adventures to be had. In those early years the current sophisticated flood control  measures for Shanghai had not been introduced and there was a night when there was warning that Dongping Road would be under water shortly.

Kelly told the customers in the bar they could either drink up and go home or settle down on the couches that line the bar for the night. Which most did. Only to awaken early in the morning with inches of water flooding through the bar and children cheerfully playing in the inundated street outside.

On the walls of the bar is a collection of vintage posters and signs, many of them quite rare and collected by Kelly on visits back to antique shops in Ireland.

One of the key pictures on the wall of the Blarney Stone is a 1933 black-and-white photograph of the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in what was then Rue Moliere (now Xiangshan Road) with the diminutive figures of the founder of modern Chinese literature Lu Xun and Cai Yuanpei, one of the key figures in modern education in China.

And prominently behind the bar is a board with bank notes from dozens of countries and regions - the US, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, and Thailand. All pinned up there by customers who have returned with spare notes in their wallets.

"The first burglary we ever had the bloke took the bank notes and left behind all the expensive and rare whisky which was worth a lot more," Curran smiles.

St Patrick's Day has been one of the key events at the Blarney. Both Curran and Kelly were there when the first Irish St Patrick's Day Parade marched through Shanghai, making Ireland the first country allowed to parade its own way in China.

In more recent years many of the paraders ended up back at the Blarney where the pub stacked its tables away to make room for the crowds and Curran and his band played Irish music till late into the following morning. 

Bloomsday has been another popular event. Bloomsday is the day when Irish and lovers of literature get together to celebrate the life and works of the great writer James Joyce and his masterpiece Ulysses. "That's been something I have been really proud of," says Curran, who enjoys his own bouts with the English language, regularly solving the London Times' cryptic crossword puzzle before singing.

Airs and graces

One of the things that makes the Blarney Stone different, apart from its wood-panelled walls, low ceilings and flagstoned floors, is the music. Curran has been singing there just about every night (bar Tuesdays) since the pub opened. He and instrumentalist Allan Cowell present a constant round of Irish and British folk songs, as well as airs by Van Morrison, Dylan, Sting, Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt and others.

Classic rock numbers take their place next to Irish rebel songs and on Sundays it's a musician's jam session with sometimes other guitarists, mandolin players, flautists, and bass players joining in. One night two Scottish bagpipers set the stone floors and wooden walls of the pub echoing as they played. Then there was the night the Breton folk troupe arrived from France and, as the musicians played, the dancers skipped up and down the narrow aisle between the drinkers and waiters and waitresses carrying pints to the tables.

The Blarney Stone saw a number of major musical talents come to visit as well. Dervish, the award-winning Irish folk group, accompanied Bertie Ahern, the then Irish Prime Minister in 2009, on a trade mission to China. They came to play at the Blarney Stone after their official duties had ended for the night in Shanghai and they were still playing the next morning at 7 am.

The internationally-acclaimed Irish singer and songwriter Mary Black popped in one evening in 2004 and stayed the night as well.

Said Kelly: "One of the best nights ever was when the Canadian women's football team came here during the Olympics. They had just been knocked out of the competition and were looking for somewhere special to drown their sorrows. We had called last drinks but then they arrived and they stayed until dawn, dancing on the tables and letting their hair down."

Sport has been one of the other traditions of the bar. It is a rugby union pub through and through and last year's Rugby World Cup final screening saw the pub packed with scores of French supporters and a few New Zealanders who stayed after the French lost.

Sports stars who have spent time in the pub include golfers Paul McGinley, Shane Lowry and Michael Campbell, snooker champion John Higgins and the coach of the winning All Blacks team Sir Graham Henry.

A convivial mood

It has been the convivial nature of the bar that keeps people returning to it. Many of the patrons have become close friends with the staff, staying in touch long after they had left Shanghai, bringing them presents at Christmas.

Barman and waiter James Wang joined the Blarney soon after it opened and apart from taking a couple of years off has been there ever since. "It's like a home to me. I don't know what I shall do when it shuts," he said. "Irish people are wonderful."

The thought was echoed by another staffer Helen Han. Helen has been at the Blarney since 2006 and she remembers the difficult early days for her. "I was very shy and it took me a while to pick up the language. Sometimes the accents were difficult to understand."

She is now an accomplished pourer of Guinness (an art that incidentally takes a little time to master). "Now I can pour up to 200 pints a night," she smiled.

For Curran the Blarney Stone has been a special place in many ways. He especially recalls the night a few years ago when a beautiful Chinese woman came in to check out the very first Western bar she had even been in. He met her, showed her around and she now is the happily married Mrs Paul Curran.

But running a bar like this has its downside. For Curran the downside has been saying goodbye to too many people over the years. "What is sometimes sad is when I think of the number of farewells we have had here. That's not so nice. You make great friendships and hope that you can stay friends afterwards but it doesn't always work out like that."

The future is a little uncertain. Both Curran and Kelly are looking to stay in Shanghai and pursue different business interests. And exactly what the Blarney will become in the new year is not clear yet. The new owners, the group who run the successful neighboring Camel bar which offers a boisterous Australian sports bar flavour, are yet to finalize the new venture. But Blarney Stone general manager Michael Gardner said that probably the only sure thing was that the new venue would not be Irish at all.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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