The sporting weekend of M. André Tavernier began in earnest with eight straight Irish coffees taken in the bar of O'Keeffe's Hotel, Ross Carbery, County Cork. Much enthused by this traditional nightcap, invented long ago by a publicity man at Shannon Airport, M. André, gaily dressed pour le sport in reindeer-skin moccasins, breeches, a shooting vest by Esquimau of Paris and a tartan beret, made a determined move toward the kitchen. A clatter of dishes, a shrill cry from the darkened passage, and Mary broke cover like a jacksnipe, dodging through the darts players and heading north for safety. Defeated but undejected, M. André returned to his friends, M. Georges, M. Jean and M. René. "She is mignonne, that one," he pronounced—a thought that had not previously occurred to the long line of dark-complexioned West Corkmen who continued to sit silently over their pints of stout as they do on 363 evenings of the year, O'Keeffe's being closed on Good Friday and for the Feast of St. Patrick.
The Irish sporting scene has never lacked color, from salmon fishing down to donkey racing on the sands. But in the last year or two it has been further illuminated by a new phenomenon, the arrival each season of small parties of French hunters in pursuit of the duck, snipe and woodcock that winter in the west of Ireland. In Ross Carbery the stories are already passing into local history: how the first party arrived; how O'Keeffe had stocked up with shells for the fortnight, and how the lot had been fired off by lunchtime on the first day; how the skylarks and sparrows all moved northwest into County Kerry; how, before the week was out, O'Keeffe was lying stretched across the kitchen table, and Kathleen O'Keeffe herself picking the No. 6 shot out of him. M. André and his friends were heirs to what was already a great tradition.
A great cross-pollination of cultures, if you'd listen to O'Keeffe, who has now forgotten and forgiven being mistaken for a dog fox, but who remembers in great detail how the Irish fought alongside the French at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745—against the English, naturally—and how Hennessy's brandy is the direct result of an Irish earl's exile to the vineyards of France at about the same date.
But since André's attempt to put Franco-Hibernian relations on an even firmer footing had, for the moment, failed, I took the chance of asking O'Keeffe about the arrangements for the morning.
November 27, 1967
"You'll want to go up to the Clounties crossroads," he said, "and you'll find Jack Minahane there. I'll draw you a map, so." An elaborate sketch took shape on the back of a menu. "Now that," said O'Keeffe, "is the road to Skibbereen. You don't want to go there." He screwed up the menu, flipped it behind the bar and began a fresh one that incorporated stylish impressions of a creamery, a bridge and a public house. The Frenchmen crowded around. The plan was that I should lead the way in the morning and they would follow.
"If they see three cars together in Drinagh," said a Corkman, mentioning a village en route, "they'll think 'tis a funeral or an election."
"It's duck you'll be after tomorrow," said O'Keeffe. "Can-ard sau-vage and sar-celle," he added helpfully. This got through to André, Georges, Jean and René, who nodded enthusiastically. Mallard and teal, in other words, in the little reedy loughs along the green hills above the village. I took O'Keeffe to one side and put it to him that 10 in the morning was a queer time to go duck hunting. Why didn't we get out to the lake before the first light, hide in the reeds and wait for the flighting birds? He gave me a pitying look. "What," he said, "and have all our beautiful ducks destroyed on us? Sure, they'll get all the fun they want, blazing and banging away out there tomorrow, and no harm done at all."
It looked in any case as if an early start would be beyond wish or power of the cross-Channel boys, who by new had discovered that you can leave the coffee, cream and sugar out of Irish coffee without affecting the essential virtue of it. Le whiskey irlandais was making a big impression. A tasting session developed, the respective qualities of Powers, Jameson and Paddy, the local Cork brew, becoming the matter of earnest debate. A sinister suggestion by one of the stout drinkers that a drop of the real hard mountainy stuff might be available was instantly quashed by O'Keeffe. "Them days is gone," he said obscurely. The night moved peacefully toward its close with a little singing and a little dancing by one of the small silent men who suddenly got up, executed an intricate jig without music, then returned to his place. The last thing I remember is a high-pitched voice from the kitchen declaring to God that if Mrs. O'Keefle expected her to take early-morning tea up to thim Frinchmen then, begging her pardon, but it would be the bus to Cork City she'd take, not the tea at all. "Knock," said a calm voice, "and leave it outside the door."
My tea was delivered personally, though I don't know if that was a compliment. "Thank you," I said. "Comme tu es mignonne, Marie." She fled, terrified. That would teach her to underestimate the Anglo-Saxons.
It was the crack of dawn, 9 o'clock of a beautiful West Cork morning, cold, clear, a blue sky, a crackling of ice in the gutters. The hills, even in winter, were luminously green-patched with dark furze, brown bracken, white rock outcrops. André and the boys were already downstairs, laughing and joking as if they had gone to bed at 10 with glasses of hot milk; and they kept it up through duck hunters' breakfasts of bacon, sausage, eggs and thick brown bread. "O√π est ma petite? O√π est Marie?" warbled André, tubby, jolly, ready for anything. Miscellaneous weapons, cartridge belts and hats were scattered about. Georges produced black Brazilian cigars, insisted we light up, then strode out to see if the bar could be opened. Something told me that I, and O'Keeffe, too, had been underestimating these sports.
Georges did get the bar opened up before our little motorcade eased out of sleepy Ross Carbery, every man fixed up with antifreeze for the day ahead. Frost sparkled on the grass, and a skim of ice on the road added a sporting touch to the drive. We identified the creamery and pub, slalomed round a series of bends, slithered with an inch to spare past a station wagon being driven furiously by a nun, then fetched up at the Clounties crossroads where, incredibly for West Cork, Jack Minahane was waiting, dead on time, a big, red-faced man with a swagger stick, two dogs and a son, Sean, who was maybe 12 years old and clearly suffering from excruciating, paralyzing shyness. André tripped him up, pulled his hair and presented him with a huge bar of chocolate. It worked. For the rest of the day André had a slave.
Jack was not to be won over quite so easily. "Good morning," he said, then repeated, "Good morning," in the manner of an infantry sergeant temporarily and mysteriously transferred to language-teaching duties. "Good morning!" everyone chorused dutifully. It was clear that English was the language from now on. Since none of the Frenchmen knew more than a few words, this was to lead to certain difficulties, none of which Minahane considered his responsibility. Tribute in the form of the Paddy bottle was offered and accepted. At Minahane's command, I opened the trunk of my car and the dogs scrambled in readily. Minahane himself got in beside me with rather more difficulty, and a rich aroma of red setter, Paddy, very old tweed and Mick McQuade cut-plug tobacco drifted across. A long experience of sport in Ireland dictated my next move. I brought out a quarter bottle of Paddy, and asked if he had a pocket big enough to slip it in, my own being too small. With an Irish guide, always play it subtle. That way you will often get a sip of it yourself before the day is out. In response, he leaned over confidentially. "Now, I want to give you a bit of advice, me old stock. Thim Frinchies, they're not like you and me." At this flattering implication I nodded understandingly, hypocritically. "Stay close to me," he went on, "well in the rear. Mind you, I've nothing against them. But they're all bloody mad."
"What, all of them?" I said.
"All the ones I've met. And the women is the worst."
I dared not ask what dark trauma in the West Cork bogs had occasioned this evidently sincere belief.
"Pull up here now, on the left," he said, reverting to his military manner. I slipped into the gap and the other cars followed. I opened the trunk and the dogs leaped out. Steam rose from the rubber mat.
André, Georges, Jean and René lined up like recruits. André's tartan hat, so gay as we left O'Keeffe's, seemed to droop a little. "You two," roared Minahane, "get over there. Over there! You go with them, Scan. Take them up to the far end of the lake." André and Georges detached themselves and made off. "You two, follow me!" This to Jean and René, older, somewhat more staid men. Across a stone wall we went, the Frenchmen religiously breaking their guns before they crossed. Judy, the red setter, snuffed her way ahead toward the lakeshore. It was a small lake with reed beds and an island in the middle, and at one point it narrowed considerably.
"Down there, you! G'wan out of it, get down there, you bloody idiot!" Minahane whispered hoarsely. I swung round nervously, but he was addressing not me but Judy, the setter bitch. We pressed on to the boggy shore. René was sent off to an alder clump at the near end of the lake. Jean, with Minahane and myself well behind, made for the neck. The mallard were swimming in a neat flotilla at the central point of the widest part of the lake, as well they might be at that time of day. But as we slogged forward through the high, wet tussocks a couple of teal rocketed out of the reeds. "Mark!" yelled Minahane, but there was no need. Jean dropped the pair of them with a left and right straight out of the book. You could almost see Minahane chopping off the stream of abuse ready on his tongue. Instead he yelled for Judy again, "Seek dead! Seek dead!" Gallant Judy plunged into the marshy shallows in a tumult of brown bog water and crackling ice where the birds had gone down. "Two hundred pounds I turned down for her," said Minahane proudly, and you could see why when she brought in the first, then the second bird. Jean, an appreciative spectator of this, warm in the afterglow of his success, complimented Minahane on his dog in courteous French. The Irishman was melting visibly. Something like a smile crossed his face. He permitted himself a short snort of Paddy, then accepted a chocolate bar. Things might have been different after that, except that this was the precise moment André and Georges chose to initiate a heavy and prolonged bombardment of the mallard flotilla which was now riding at anchor at mid-water.
The ducks, offended, swam slowly and with dignity perhaps 50 yards up the lake, which occasioned an enthusiastic fusillade from René, down in the reeds at our end.
Minahane's reaction was unforeseen. "That's the way, boys!" he roared. "Keep it up. Bang away!" He was happy because things were now developing as he had expected. "Mark! Mark!" he yelled gaily, as the ducks, now thoroughly outraged, took off and gained height instantly like jet fighters. I lost sight of them, then picked them up, black specks against the winter sun. "Mark!" came the cry again, and a reek of gunsmoke drifted across the water as shot after shot echoed in the stillness. Judy was making little excited hops as she waited to be told to seek. She couldn't know just how far out of range those ducks were. "That's the way they like it, old stock," said Minahane to me. "Plenty of action." The safest ducks in West Cork circled the lake again at great height, then came in as everyone was reloading, plopping down into the middle of the lake again and resuming flotilla positions.
"Those ducks, they were possibly too high to be hit?" asked Georges, mildly.
"High, is it?" Minahane was indignant. "Mr. O'Keeffe would have had six brace out of that lot. Or this gentleman here." Because of gun club regulations I would have to wait until the next day for my sport. Minahane had never seen me shoot. Yes, O'Keeffe or I would have had six brace—with guided missiles, maybe. We returned to the cars in a thoughtful silence.
As soon as we got there an ill-omened snipe decided to get up from behind the hedge. Possibly stung by his earlier failure, André swung his barrel at it as it crossed the road. I am too young to have served in the last war, but I have watched a lot of movies on the subject, and I knew just what to do. I hit the concrete hard, and a heavy impact to my right as a shot roared out told me that Minahane had been to the movies as well. When it became clear that a second shot was not coming, I got up cautiously. André was beaming. "I'ave 'it 'im," he said. Minahane was slowly rising to his feet, seemingly un-wounded. So it was the snipe André meant. Judy was dispatched to seek dead. But the winged bird got up again as she approached. Seven shots and half a mi'e farther, the snipe rose no more but swung gaily at André's belt.
By that time also, Minahane had recovered his composure. He announced it was lunchtime and laid alternative plans before us. "We could," he said plaintively, "eat our bit of dinner out here on the road, for there's shelter in the lee of the cars, and we could be squatting down there. Or," his voice strengthened, "we could nip in below to Walshe's and take our ease by the fire. It's a matter of no concern to me."
"We're off to the pub," I translated for the benefit of the French.
Walshe's turned out to be a small whitewashed house on a bare crossroads with no other place in sight. Inside it was hardly swinging. Two postmen were having a crafty pint in a corner. A farmer in steel-rimmed glasses was reading the Cork Examiner. "Things is bloody terrible in China," he told us seriously as we entered. André moved into the buying position. "Le whiskey irlandais," he ordered confidently. Automatically, everyone in the room, including the postmen, got a drink. The pale girl behind the bar selected two pound notes from André's wallet in helpful fashion. Minahane allowed himself to be pressured into an immediate second one to replace the first, which he had drunk in slightly less than two seconds.
"Come over here now till I tell you," he whispered to me confidentially. "We can keep this lot safe in here for the afternoon, so long as we get the singing going." I don't know what made him pick me for an ally, or whether it could be assumed, just by looking at me, that here was a man who would prefer to sit in the pub all the fine winter's afternoon than quarter a bog for snipe. But Minahane assumed precisely that. "When we've finished the sandwiches," he muttered, "just buy another round of drinks and call for a song. Leave the rest to me."
It didn't look as if it needed any kind of plot to detain André, at least, for he, having munched his way steadily through an impressive portion of the gray mutton sandwiches put up at O'Keeffe's, was clearly in good form. The black Brazilian cigars had gone round again, and André was using his in a graphic demonstration of how he had finally laid the snipe low. "La bécassine. elle tombe!" he concluded triumphantly. Fresh drinks kept arriving as Georges, René and Jean vied to pay. It didn't seem likely that there would be any afternoon postal delivery in the district, and the farmer had stopped worrying about China.
Nevertheless, Minahane nudged me. "Go ahead now," he said. It was time I bought a drink anyway. "What about a song?" I asked dutifully. There was no hesitation. As obedient as Judy, young Sean put aside his orange soda and, in a thin treble, got to work on a long ballad concerning the misdeeds half a century ago of the British army in the town of Bantry. The French were frankly puzzled at this dirge, which corresponded but little with their idea of le jig irlandais. They were polite, but restless. If Minahane wasn't careful their thoughts were going to wander off onto canard, sarcelle, bécassine and that kind of thing.
The pale girl behind the bar saved the situation, having also a certain interest in keeping the guests happy and seated. She launched into Finnegan's Wake, not the celebrated novel of that name but a lively song about a Dublin bricklayer who attended his own funeral. The words came too fast for André and his friends, but the tune had the shooting boots beating out jig time on the wooden floor of Walshe's.
Even then, Minahane couldn't leave it alone. Flushed with Paddy, he announced a recitation, and what should he give us but Nell Flaherty's Drake, that remarkable poem which outlines in seven vindictive stanzas the curses heaped on the villain that slaughtered the harmless creature:
The dear little fella
His legs they were yella
He'd fly like a swallow or dive like a hake:
But some dirty savage
To grease his white cabbage
Has murdered Nell Flaherty's beautiful drake.
That was it. Georges knew enough English to respond instantly. "The ducks, they await us," he cried, and, though it was 10 minutes more before we got André out onto the road, we were eventually organized, the dogs in the trunk and Minahane pointing out virtuously that we had wasted enough time and that there was a fine head of birds on Corran Lake.
We crossed a field to get to the lake valley. There, peacefully feeding, were two dozen green plover. Georges' eyes gleamed. "May we shoot these?" he asked. "Shoot anything you like, me old stock," said Minahane, winking heavily at me. Georges gave them both barrels, and they took off laboriously, leaving one of their number behind. André focused long enough to take this in. "Assassin!" he carolled. "Regardez l'assassin!" Georges remained unabashed. He also now had a bird at his belt.
Once again we split into two parties to beat the lakeshore, one on either bank. We worked down through the bogland. "Stay behind me and you'll never get your feet wet," whispered Minahane to me. "Watch that fella now." That fella was Georges, in front of him an expanse of suspiciously green grass. "I told you," said Minahane complacently as Georges suddenly sank to the cartridge belt in black County Cork ooze. "I'd better get him out of it. Sean!" he bellowed. "Drag the gentleman out!" It was tough work holding the eager hunters up while we disinterred Georges, but it was done. Judy pressed on ahead, then paused meaningfully by an alder clump. "G'wan into it!" urged Minahane. Judy dived in. There was a wild rustling, and she emerged with a lively water hen in her mouth. "Spit the bloody thing out," said Minahane, disgusted, and it scuttled back into the alders.
No duck so far, but a small gray bird got up from a bush and André gunned it down. No need for the dog. André picked it up and waded across with it. "You are calling this one 'ow?" he asked.
"That," said Minahane coldly, "is known as a song thrush."
"Ah, yes, song thrush," said André, carefully committing the name to memory as he lashed it to his belt beside the snipe.
"Sure," said Minahane to me, "the boys musta been down the lake this morning before work." There was certainly no evidence of duck, but out in the middle of the water swam a small black bird, a coot by the look of it. Our cohort opened fire. The coot shifted uneasily as shot raked the water 50 yards from it. Then it started to scuttle across the surface under more sharp fire before it got up a foot or so with heavy wingbeats and went as hard as it could for the reeds, only to be met with flanking fire from René, who had dropped a little behind. Out it swung again for the center, and Judy, whose day had been a frustrating one, could contain herself no longer. Into the icy water she went, hell-for-leather toward the coot.
For swimming pace, it was about an even match, and Minahane would have been laying the odds in another minute, but the old coot had a final weapon in its armory. With a flip of the tail, it submerged. Judy, head down for maximum streamlining, missed the disappearing act, kept on for a few yards then stopped swimming in anguished surprise. The coot bobbed up behind her, then dived again. Judy began paddling in circles, infuriated. Finally, the coot surfaced near the reeds on the far side, crashed into them and was never seen again.
Minahane rallied the hunters once more into good skirmishing order. "There's one more place we'll try," he said, "and that's the Carrigillihy bog. There's a power of snipe in it."
So there were, indeed. And there were also deep bog holes under a skim of ice, and the bog moss frozen into crystal patterns. In the last light of the day, against a red, mournful sun sinking toward the Derrynasaggart Mountains, the snipe broke out at all the fast crazy angles, as they can, the hardest shot of all, and André, René, Jean and Georges brought them down with brilliant accuracy, killing eight out of 10, maybe.
"I told you, didn't I," whispered Minahane fiercely. "They're all bloody mad, the lot of them. What were they doing all the time with coot and the plovers when they can shoot like that? They're not like me and you at all." He gazed at them in baffled wonderment.
Back at O'Keeffe's, the Frenchmen had one drink, then brought their luggage down. "We are off now to the County Kerry," Georges announced.
So the sparrows and skylarks could Start moving back again.
Mary poked her nose out of the kitchen. "We are leaving now, ma petite," said André, blowing her a kiss.
She didn't say anything, but I'll swear she looked disappointed.