A Feast Fit for Lucullus
"Years ago, and years ago;
This above refrain in Allingham's "The Maids of Elphin-Mere" serves as an entrée to the
memory of one feast as yet unchronicled in the annals of our country. To those familiar
with Irish literature and mythology, "The Story of Bricriu's Feast" is well known. So, too,
is "The Vision of MacConglinne" which predates "The Land of Cockaigne" and, indeed, is
claimed to have inspired the latter.
And the tall reeds sigh as the wind doth blow."
All through the cycle of the Fianna runs the story of "the champion's portion" awarded in
feasting to the greatest hero at the end of battle, the swiftest charioteer at the end of
racing, the sweetest singer at the end of chaunting, in short, to the best, the bravest,
the greatest in whatever pursuit Finn and his comrades were engaged in on any particular
day. To the champion went the heartiest cut, the freshest slice, the choicest drink.
Determining who had won the right to the champion's portion often led to dispute, and
dispute to insult, and insult to anger, and anger to challenge, and challenge to action
and a feat of arms worthy of recitation for generations, recitation which enriches all who
enjoy it in written form to this very day.
It would be foolhardy to place Johnny McNally on the same footing as the members of Finn's
legendary band of heroes, but his epicurean epic, although separated in time by fifteen
hundred years from Bricriu's Feast, deserves its own recital.
The event took place, to use Allingham's phrase, "years ago, and years ago", in fact back
in the 1930s a few years before the outbreak of World War II. In those days, travel by
train was the most popular choice for country folk on the odd occasion when they went on
an outing, an excursion, a one-day affair that might make up an entire summer's holiday.
Cycling out to Bundoran on a summer Sunday cost nothing, and wasn't really a holiday. To
get away for a day, to really go someplace, usually meant just one destination, "the big
smoke", the big city, Dublin itself. Donegal people went "up" to Dublin. In actual fact,
they went "down" to Dublin, and a glance at a map of Ireland will confirm that fact. Dublin
is down, Donegal is up, and, for that matter, so is Down, that is, the County Down. Down is
up? Yes. This is Ireland, you see!
The big occasion in which Johnny McNally participated was a train excursion to the annual
G.A.A. (Gaelic Athletic Association) All-Ireland football final held at Croke Park in
Dublin. Normally the Great Northern Railway which ran from Dublin carried excursionists to
the seaside resort of Bundoran, but for an All-Ireland football final all excursion traffic
travelled in the opposite direction.
Having mentioned the Great Northern Railway, I should also mention that Johnny had a most
important connection with that same railway. He was a railway level-crossing keeper who
opened and shut railway gates on a country road three miles out of town, twice a day when
trains were scheduled to pass.
No matter how poorly travelled a country road might be, the railway was compelled by law to
install gates and provide gatekeepers, and each gatekeeper had a lodge or house beside each
crossing. The lodge wasn't large, and neither was the salary. That section of the railway
is long gone, and with it the salary, but many of the lodges may still be seen at
long-deserted railway crossings.
Johnny was a bachelor, getting on in years. His humble abode was a meeting place for others
of his kind where, during long winter nights, they whiled away the time playing cards,
cards in this case being "twenty-five", a game known to all and sundry in those days. It
was a simple game, and a good betting game. Stakes were small, and the crack was good.
Opposite Johnny's house on a small hill was a rath, the abode of the good people by night,
of badgers by day. It was one of the many unexplored archaeological sites lost in later
years to the waters built up by the Erne Scheme dam. But that's another story. Johnny and
his neighbours would no more stick a spade into that rath than think of flying to the moon,
or, to be more realistic, of travelling more than ten miles from their birthplace. However,
once, and only once, Johnny did do the unthinkable, travel, that is, accompanied by three
It was the Sunday morning he took the train to Dublin town to attend the All-Ireland final.
This was long before Michael O'Hehir became a broadcaster and sports commentator unrivalled
in Ireland in his time, and since his time.
In those days Dublin boasted few facilities capable of hosting 50,000 and more "cuiltes", a
derogatory term cast by Dublin jackeens at people from the provinces, and on Sunday even
fewer facilities than on a weekday. One place that did provide sustenance for the ravenous
hordes was, surprisingly, Woolworths cafeteria in Henry Street. It did a roaring trade, and
to it Johnny and his companions repaired for a pre-game repast.
It was the first time Johnny had ever been in a self-serve establishment, where diners
collected trays at one end of a long counter, selected what food they wanted from the items
displayed, paid for it at the other end, and then found a vacant table at which to sit and
eat. Simplicity itself.
The first food on offer was soup, two varieties. Johnny took both. Next came hot meals,
meat, chicken, stew, and Johnny took all three. Next came potatoes, boiled, mashed, and
chipped. John took them. Vegetables? The same thing. Bread, biscuits, prepared sandwiches,
Johnny took them too. By this time the dishes on his tray were two layers deep.
Next came desserts, jellies, custards, rice pudding, tapioca, slices of pie. Johnny loaded
up the third layer. Then came apples, oranges, and, a rarity, bananas. Johnny tucked them
into every spare space and cavity on his, by now, dangerously loaded tray.
The poor cashier took a look at the tray, another look at Johnny, then took a deep breath
and began punching in the cost of what items she could see and guessing at what she
couldn't see. It was the biggest single-diner bill she ever processed, and you can be sure
another legend was added that day to the big city perception of country cousins.
Somehow his companions found a vacant table, and somehow Johnny managed to carry his tray
full of food to it.
Then came a puzzle. With four trays on it, there was no room to set out the different
dishes. How could Johnny start with the soup on the bottom layer of his tray and work his
way up through the meat and potatoes to dessert and tea and whatever else he had managed to
cram on to it?
"Well," said Johnny, "if I can't work my way up, I'll work my way down." And he did.
Starting with four or five desserts, and fruit, not forgetting the bananas, he set to--a
trencherman whom Henry VIII, no mean man with an appetite, would have envied--and worked
his way steadily backward. The fact that his hot dishes were cold by the time he reached
them didn't faze him.
Manfully he pitched into them, and heroically vanquished them, leaving nothing but a
growing pile of empty dishes to testify to his progress.
In later years he was a bit hazy on which team won the match, but on one point he was
certain. "That", he averred, "was the best meal I ever ate in my whole entire life."
Poor Henry, Poor Nero, poor Lucullus. They never knew what delight it was to dine at
Woolworths in Henry Street, Dublin, circa 1936 A.D.
POSTSCRIPT: By happenstance, as this Number is being placed on the Internet, the 1997
All-Ireland football final is just five days old, having been played before 65,000
spectators at Croke Park on Sunday, September 28. In case anyone missed the result, due to
over-eating, or whatever, Kerry defeated Mayo 0-13 to 1-7. To the victors, the champions'
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