The night we went to Staffy's

Nestled in the hills a couple of country miles above my home town of Ballyclare, in Northern Ireland, lies a small village called Ballyeaston – or “Bal’ Easton” as the locals pronounce it.

Very much a farming community, the village boasts a couple of churches, a village shop and a bar as its main social scene.

The bar, Staffy Carmichael’s, is named after its elderly proprietor, who, despite being in his late 70’s / early 80’s (hard to tell which) still works the bar on his own, although his wife has been known to make an appearance from time to time, usually when it’s time to give the patrons the hint that it’s time to go home.

Indeed the bar itself is more like an extension of their living room, with the rest of their home making up the bulk of the tiny building on the hill of Ballyeaston’s main street.

The thing is – despite having grown up less than 3 miles from the bar, I had never, ever set foot in the place. I had, however, heard plenty of the stories.

“Staffy’s” as the pub is known for miles around and beyond, is a pub from a bygone era. Indeed, the clientele themselves could perhaps be accused of being the same with many of them - how should I say it – of an elderly persuasion themselves.

Mostly farmers, the clientele were renowned for being, for the most part, of the “bottle of Guinness and Bushmills whiskey chaser” brigade.

I also knew that the pub did not serve any draft beer, only bottled beer and even then, that the bottled beer was served directly from shelves in the bar. No need for fancy refrigerators, with Staffy relying on the cool air in his storage room to provide the only chill that the bottles received before being deemed fit for human consumption.

And then there were the “toilet facilities”.

The toilets. Well – the toilets of Staffy’s were legend in Ballyclare folklore and if I was ever to ask anyone about them, the response – usually accompanied with a sly grin – was “ah sure ye’ll have to see them for yoursel’”

Well – a few days ago in the spring of 2005, the opportunity to do just that presented itself in the form of the night before my father’s wedding to his fiancé, Adele. Where better place for three sons to take their father – a man daft enough to kiss goodbye to his bachelor status for the second time in his life?

Staffy’s was the obvious choice.

The night before the wedding shouldn’t be a raucous affair. Long gone are the days when the stag night used to be the night before the big day. Far too often had grooms gone AWOL, turning up gagged and bound in far flung places, such as the ferry terminal in Stranraer, naked and tied to the lamppost outside Ballyclare’s Town Hall, or lying howling at the moon in a ditch.

A father and his three sons having a few quiet drinks in a small, friendly, country pub seemed like the perfect way to prepare the groom for the big day.

And so it proved to be.

But then of course, why would I feel compelled to share this story with you, Dear Reader, if it were not for the fact that there’s more to the story than this, “The Night We Went to Staffy’s”?

The plan was simple.
Friday night 20:30, and Darren my youngest brother, was due to arrive by taxi from his adopted home town of Carrickfergus – yes the one made famous by the song – at my mum’s where I was staying for the duration of my visit. The taxi would then take us the short drive up to my Dad’s where he and my younger brother Ady, would be waiting for the taxi ride up to Bal’ easton and the welcoming arms of Staffy Carmichael’s.

Darren, of course was his obligatory 20 minutes late, but we usually account for that where he’s concerned – he takes Irish time to a whole new dimension – and by the time he did arrive I was stood at the end of my mum’s driveway enjoying the nice spring evening.

As the taxi came to a halt, I jumped into the back seat. I was eager to get this show on the road. Having just returned from Belgium, this was to be the first time that I’d see my dad and because of the fact that I had missed the stag night from the previous week (it in itself a crime, considering I was the best man) this was to be my chance to join in the celebration of the big event – in moderation of course, considering the big event was to be the following day.

Darren, sporting what can only be described as a frighteningly luminous pink T-shirt; having been to Staffy’s the previous week as part of my father’s stag night – started describing the bar to the taxi driver, a “blow-in” from Scotland who’d been living in Northern Ireland for 18 years and was yet to lose the thick accent.

It seemed that I had missed a helluva night the week before, my Dad apparently running around town with fake breasts and an inflatable sheep, not to mention a “Stag” medallion.
I would have been so proud.

Up at my dad’s house we picked up the other half of the team, Ady and Dad walking down the driveway towards the taxi with a confident swagger (they had the swagger – not the taxi).

Suitably reunited, we set off to the scene of this tale, as well as its main character, Staffy Carmichael’s bar, arriving outside its unimpressive exterior a few short minutes later, a little after nine pm.

Walking into the pub, my senses went into overload. First of all – it was even smaller than I had expected – a small rectangular room about 7 metres by 5, with almost 50 percent of the space taken up by the U-shaped bar which was located to our right.
As we went through the door we nearly split up two farmers chatting at the bar. They turned to say hello (it actually came out as “’right byes” and then they returned to their conversation.
The only other people in the bar was a man stood at the far side of the bar drinking from a bottle of Guinness with a whiskey chaser sitting in front of him and an elderly man behind the bar who had to be the man himself, Staffy Carmichael, who upon recognising my father and brothers he said “Ach fellas – is the party still going strong?”

“Aye Staffy – the party’s still going strong and we’re back for some more” replied Ady walking the short distance to the bar to shake hands with the owner of the pub.

We all said our hellos and I was left to take in everything as my dad ordered the first round of the night – 4 bottles of Harp lager. Sure enough, Staffy brought them off the old wooden shelves, opened the bottles and set them on top of the worn bar. “Is it OK if ye take them in the bottle lads? I’ve ran out of glasses” Looking at the other three customers, I wondered how the hell he’d managed to do that.

“Sure Staffy – no problem.” It’s that kind of pub.

I picked mine up and tasted it, expecting the worst.

But do you know something? It wasn’t actually that bad. Granted, there were no drops of condensation forming on the bottle’s surface but at the same time - it wasn’t that warm either. I guess Ballyeaston can be a windy place when it wants to be, with God providing his own cooling system for Staffy.

Facing the bar, I looked around me, taking everything in. Behind me there were three small tables along a bench with a sparse looking collection of seats. Enough room to seat 12 – at a push.

Looking to my left, there was an old fireplace, filled with coal but not lit. Above the fireplace in the mirror there was an eclectic mix of decoration. An old black and white photograph of the now defunct Ballyeaston flute band, newspaper clippings, business cards and a book-mark proclaiming, “I love Staffies”, referring to the hairy, four-legged variety instead of the pub it was obviously bought with in mind.

And then I spied a familiar sight.

In amongst the business cards that had been jammed into the mirror’s frame, there was a black and white business card proclaiming “Black’s Magic”.
It was Ady’s “make a wish” business card. Ady, a budding magician has a business card which doubles up as a trick in his routine, a genie in the back of the card appearing out of a lamp, as if by magic.

It seemed that Ady had brought his routine out here to the “mountain men”. Lord knows what they had made of it. I grinned to myself as I pictured him doing his routine on these elderly farmers, providing them with an unexpected but I’m sure altogether welcome distraction to their usual talk of turf and sheep.

I surveyed the rest of the pub. It seemed that the eclectic theme was carried out throughout but unlike the God-awful Irish-themed “plastic Paddy” pubs that sprout up all over the world today, this was very much the real deal.

Surprisingly, I saw there was an international theme as well, as I spied a shelf high up on the wall behind the bar displaying ten or so bottles that there from “around the world.” I spied a bottle that I thought familiar with its distinctive, white and light blue label complete with pink elephants. Yep – there was no mistaking it – it was a bottle of “Delerium Tremens”, a potent 9% strength Belgian beer, which probably does exactly what it says on the label.

Excitedly, I pointed it out to my family.

“Sure that’s nothing” replied Ady, “look there’s a bottle of Duvel”. He pointed to another shelf behind me above the small collection of tables and chairs and sure enough, there was a bottle of the Belgian beer, Duvel - a tasty 8.5 percent concoction which is actually very nice served chilled in an iced glass, but I reckoned there wasn’t much chance of that happening in this particular establishment.

What a strange place this was.

“Have you ever seen a bottle of Belfast beer?” enquired Ady.

“Belfast Beer? What do you mean?”

“Staffy, can you show this man here the Belfast beer?”

With a smile on his face, Staffy grabbed a dust-covered bottle that had been sitting on the shelf behind him. Indeed it looked as if it had been sitting there behind him for a few decades.
It probably had been.

“Belfast Irish style Ale” the label pronounced.

Reading the rest of the label I took the strange characters of the text to be Czech, but I was wrong as Staffy was to inform me.
“It’s from Poland”
Lord only knows if there’s a Polish brewer out there still making this 8.5% strength stuff but after having done a “quick google” (and it wasn’t that long ago you’d have been arrested for saying such a thing) I did find a reference to a certain “Belfast Bay Lobster Ale”, an American beer from Belfast, Maine. Perhaps you can do better than me?

Next in Staffy’s list of party pieces was a dusty bottle of tequila that he handed to my father. As my dad read the label, Darren and I could see what it was that made this one special. Turning the bottle in his hands, Dad soon did as well – for blow me down, if there wasn’t a 6-inch lizard in the bottom of the liquid.

Ady, who had been distracted by one of his many local history chats with Staffy and a couple of customers – the bar was starting to fill up now with perhaps 15 of us in the place – came over to see what all the fuss was about. Dad showed him.

“Uuuuuggghhh!” squealed my brother who had suddenly turned into the 30 year old sister that I’d never had. Thankfully dad was still holding it, for Ady would surely have dropped it. The big girl’s blouse.

However, special mention with regards to the eclectic décor must go to the bloody great big glass case behind the bar inhabited by a giant, stuffed, white hare.
I kid you not.
Apparently, obviously a rarity, it had been caught in a nearby field, stuffed and kept for prosperity as decoration in the pub. Indeed in its death, the hare had become a bit of a celebrity around those parts, with the local rugby team adopting it as their mascot. Staffy even proudly showed off a 30 year old newspaper article about the bloody thing.

Very bizarre indeed.

But all of this was to pale into insignificance when compared to what happened to me next when, making my excuses, I went to the toilet.

I was directed out a door located to the left-hand side of the bar. I say “out a door” because the toilets of Staffy’s are outdoor toilets. Although this came as no surprise to me – I had heard this as part of the Staffy’s legend before – I still wasn’t prepared for the experience that was to befall me.

Walking into the property’s back yard, I was unsure where to go. There was no obvious place to ‘do the business’ and there were certainly no signs telling me where to go. To my right there was a shed with a dull light shining, so I figured that this was the place, but was still unsure. I walked into the shed, which turned out to be more of a low-ceilinged barn. There was a strong, but not overpowering smell of disinfectant.

Stacked up in the corner of the barn I noticed several crates of empty bottles but the thing that held my eye was what is locally known as a “sheough” (pronounced “shuck”).
This was basically a hole about 4 inches deep and a foot wide in the middle of the floor which ran the length of the building. I assumed – but was not entirely convinced – that this was the “toilet”.
Self-consciously opening my fly, I started about my business when a few conflicting thoughts started racing in my mind:

The relief of an emptying bladder
The worry of where I going to wash my hands?
The fear of how was I supposed to do a number 2, if the urge so caught me?
The wonder of where the ladies facilities were?
The panic that I was pissing in the wrong place and that Staffy’s wife would come out with some empty bottles and see me pissing in their store room, collapse and die with the shock of it all

I was suddenly startled from my reverie by the flapping of wings just above my head – indeed it was all I could do not to piss all over my jeans and shoes, such was my startled state. My eyes following the noise, I was sure that I was going to see a bat circling above my head but instead saw a little swallow that had just flown out of a previously unnoticed birds nest located above the single, solitary light bulb that was shining its dull glow over proceedings.

The location of the nest was no doubt to provide heat for eggs located within and this was the mother out having a look to make sure that the family wasn’t under attack. I decided to make my retreat back into the bar, not wishing to disturb her any further.

Ashen-faced, I rejoined the bar much to the amusement of my family.

“They’re some toilet facilities!!” I said somewhat incredulously.
“Aye – you should see the state of things when you have to take a shite” said Darren.
I hoped he was joking.

Anyway, the night rolled on as these nights tend to do and we had a very enjoyable time, the four of us chatting away at the bar, gentle banter, story telling and Ady grilling the old timers on local history. He can be a difficult one to shut up at times – and yes – this is coming from me.
The beer flowed – and then it was onto the “half ones” as our quiet night gently ambled into something verging on a big night out. Still it was only just after 11 pm. We’d all be tucked up in our beds at a reasonable hour.

At around this point, I noticed how the customers kept paying Staffy in bank-notes and marvelled at how he counted everything up in his head and dealt out the change out of a battered wooden drawer, without once complaining that we were taking all his change from him.

I also noticed that dad had his shoes off and was standing at the bar in his sock soles, which I thought inadvisable considering some of the muck the farmers had on their boots but no doubt made him feel more comfortable. Like I said - it’s that kind of pub.

There was no call for last orders, but it seemed that there was an in-built mechanism in the clientele that ensured that people didn’t overstay their welcome and even if a few did, Staffy’s wife appeared and made sure that people got the hint, without actually saying anything.

Ourselves included.

Wedding or no wedding.

“Any chance of a last one, Staffy?”
“Do you not think it’s late enough?” came the curt reply.
End of discussion.

We suddenly realised that we hadn’t ordered a taxi. I suppose this probably fell under the best man’s remit, but I had failed to organise one. We phoned around frantically trying to get someone to pick us up. The best any taxi company was able to offer was in half an hour.

We ordered it and hoped that we could stay, in the hope that some of the other regulars stayed to take the bad look off us. As if by magic, they all vanished, leaving us as the only people left in the pub apart from Staffy.

We (read Ady and Staffy) chatted somewhat about some of the characters from my Dad’s side of the family but we soon realised that we’d soon have to set off on foot and hope that the taxi picked us up en route. The sooner the better. But you couldn’t be too sure…

“We’re gonna have to walk to Ballyclare, Staffy – is there any chance you could set us up 8 bottles for the walk into town?”
“8 bottles? Do you want them opened?”
“Aye please”

I wondered how else Staffy thought we were going to manage to open them - in the pitch black darkness of the country road from Ballyeaston to Ballyclare. To be honest I was a wee bit worried about the walk to Ballyclare. The roads are windy and there are no street lights. I supposed we could always put Darren and his luminous pink T-shirt at the front.

Then, just as Staffy opened the last of the 8 bottles, the door of the pub opened.
“Taxi for Black?”
Our ‘black taxi’ had arrived.

“Err, Staffy – could you put he tops back on those bottles again please, we’ll have to take them in the taxi.”

Without saying a word, Staffy placed tops back on the bottles. I could just hear him thinking to himself, “bloody ‘townies’”

Still – as we left the bar, we all shook hands with this living legend and he was gracious enough to wish us a good day “the marra” and we bade him goodnight as we headed off into the darkness.

We got into the taxi.

“So that was Staffy’s then…” I said to no-one in particular.
“Aye – some place, eh?”
“It’s like the pub that time forgot”
“Aye – but isn’t it cool?”
“It’s definitely cool – although I didn’t think much of the female talent on display”

The taxi dropped us off at the town hall in the centre of Ballyclare.

The time had gone past midnight and it was now decision time. Do we finish and make sure that everyone is home at a reasonable hour and in a reasonable state or do we keep going and run the risk of an AWOL groom sleeping off his hangover in the morning?

This was obviously a decision for the best man.

“I say we go to the Ballyboe” (our local pub) “for a couple more” I suggested, providing further evidence that I was most definitely not the best man for the job.
“Do you think we’ll get in?”
Despite the fact that the pub is our local and has a late license, they are quick to close the doors of the pub after 11pm, to stop the waifs and strays coming in from other pubs that have already closed at 11.

Tonight, and not for the first time, we were those waifs and strays.

“Aye, we’ll get in no problem,” Ady assured us.
“But what the hell are we going to do with all these beers?” asked Darren, obviously the brains in the operation.
“Sure that’s no problem – I’m a magician - I’ve got pockets everywhere! Give them to me”

And so it came to pass that at just after midnight on the eve of the big day, My father and his three sons walked up to the front door of the Ballyboe to plead our case to the doormen. (Well Ady didn’t walk, so much as clink). As expected, the door was closed. We knocked and waited expectantly.
Stevie, the Doorman was his usual welcoming self.
“Ach for fuck sake lads – every fucking time it’s the same ones”

Which I thought was a bit harsh, considering it had been a couple of months since I had last been at home. Although looking back, it had been a similar scene then.

“I’m getting married in the morning!!”
“Fuckin’ hell – the excuses are getting worse every time!”
“He is!!” protested the sons.
Stevie looked disbelievingly at us but after a couple of seconds succumbed to our earnest pleading.

Sighing, he let us in. “Enjoy your last night of freedom”

Taking our usual spot at the back bar, we ordered 4 pints and proceeded to top them up with our smuggled bottles of Harp, feeling very naughty with ourselves until we realised that they didn’t sell bottles of Harp in the Ballyboe.

“Err, not sure where they came from but they’re not ours” I said unconvincingly when questioned by the barmaid about the empties sitting in front of us.

After an hour and a half, with the pub almost emptied, we were kicked out into the streets (not literally of course) and made our way home.
Saying goodbye to Darren, whose fiancé Leanne in the meantime had arranged to come pick him up, we jumped in a taxi to take us up the road, first of all to drop off dad and Ady and then me down at my mum’s.

“OK then Ady – he’s in your capable hands now. Make sure he gets to bed on time! See you tomorrow morning.” I said as we arrived at dads.

“Good night Best Man and don’t worry about the speech, just a few sheets of A4 should cover it,” my dad advised.

Ah yes, the speech. I had forgotten about that. I had started it but was getting worked up into a right old state about it. I’d better do some more work on that.

I gave the two of them a hug and got back into the taxi feeling content with myself if a little nervous about the following day would turn out.
One thing was for sure though - it had been a good night, the night we went to Staffy’s…

May 2005


WOW you sure write alot about bars and first glance (I'm blog - hoppin) I thought, man, is this guy an alcoholic???

On further glances...I think perhaps not.
I hope not.

Have a nice day...
& ummm Belgium can't be all that boring as much as you find to write about there and all!

:) GOD bless you