When you’re an Irishman abroad and someone says they’re going to take you to an Irish Bar, they usually expect your eyes to light up. You’ll love it, they say: ‘It’ll be just like being at home!’ - missing the whole point that being abroad is all about NOT Being At Home.
Now, don’t get me wrong – if I lived all year round in somewhere like Nashville, I would probably welcome the chance occasionally to visit an Irish Bar and vicariously connect with home through the craic, the Guinness, maybe news from home, the occasional visitor, etc.
But when you’re on holiday, drinking badly-poured Guinness and listening to The Corrs while glad-handing everyone with an Irish connection is not necessarily your idea of a good time. Sometimes it can feel like you’re at somebody’s wedding in Limerick, being introduced to somebody else’s uncles and cousins. On at least half a dozen occasions on this trip, people told me of their Irish roots as soon as they heard where I was from. I bet that’s something that never happens to the French when they’re overseas.
Irish bars often look like they’ve come in a ‘build-your-own-pub’ kit – scuffed floorboards, lots of metal Guinness toucan advertisements, bodhrans and whiskey crock jars gathering dust on high shelves. McNamara’s in Nashville is quite another story, however. Firstly, it’s tastefully done – no bicycles or Sligo road signs hung on the walls. There are a few framed hurling shirts and a Christy Moore poster, but it’s well-judged. In the gents, they’re playing a recording of an old Hal Roach stand-up show. Cute.
My overall impression is not that it’s an Irish ‘theme’ bar – it just looks like how a well-run bar would look at home. If that makes sense.
The bar is owned by Sean McNamara and his wife Paula – who hails originally from Newry (I can’t tell you how sweet it was to hear her talking. More than the music and the decor, it was the sound of her voice that brought me close to homesickness). A couple of nights a week, Sean takes to the stage with two other musicians and they belt out some Irish tunes for a couple of hours, including some of Sean’s own well-made songs. And they’re very, very good. Talented players who excel on a range of instruments.
They’re excited that another Irish musician is in the audience, and they ask me up for a spot – I perform ‘Peggy Gordon’ (a throwback to my childhood memory of Dubliners records), Van Morrison’s ‘Solid Ground’, ‘The Water is Wide’ and of course ‘Sailortown’.
I’m there with my friend Benita Hill (who filmed this Sailortown clip), her son Robert and their friend Mark Brashears. Afterwards, there is much hugging and handshaking. And in that respect, in the woozy, end-of-the-night promises and the plans and the sincerely-felt desire to sustain and repeat and deepen the craic and the friendship and the joy, it’s EXACTLY like an Irish bar.