The Recital: January 1989 by Jason O’Rourke

Roadside Fiction


Photo by John P Brady


‘The Recital: January 1989′ by Jason O’Rourke

Snow is falling silently on the black-tiled roofs of Oxford Town. It is 2 a.m. on Sunday and the Cowley Road is quiet, except for a taxi hissing through the slush, and two young lovers rushing home, hands clasped inside a coat pocket for warmth. It is no night to be outside. In the bedrooms of their red-brick terraces decent folk snore, a baby is given the teat; librarians dream of publication, polytechnic students twitch. On the road, the orange glow of the streetlights is reflected in the curtained front windows of the Ring of Bells pub. They gaze impassively upon the street, guarding their secret well: nothing stirs within. But put your ear to the letterbox and listen – now you can hear faint lilting music, the murmur of conversation, a phlegmy cough; in the back bar winter is being banished.

The tiny snug is packed with all classes of people: an unfashionable academic, a wiry traveller, boozing labourers, a pock-faced lawyer, two gorgeous gin-and-tonic sipping teachers, a pair of Pakistani taxi drivers, a Marxist politician, numerous sotted students, a Canadian pilot who can’t get a word in, a diminutive opera singer, some still-uniformed nurses, a dozing businessman with a skewed tie. All those present imbibe the rebel, Ned Kelly, nectar of after-hours freedom. In the illegal early morning the drink is sweeter, the music wilder; the songs of Kerry, Dublin, and Derry are more poignant. On the dark-stained mahogany bar eight pints of stout are settling in advance of their demand, the velvety heads swirling up to form an impious white collar atop the clerical-black beer.

The snug’s recently-painted beige walls are already collecting a new sheen of nicotine; its yellow particles coat the sepia portraits of Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Behan, and the framed Proclamation of the Republic. On Monday, as usual, old Marie the cleaner from Connemara will curse the dirty smokers and their dirty, dirty, fag fumes as she sprays on the Windolene, buffing up this shrine to Ireland’s national treasures. On the opposite wall, the electric clock disingenuously displays 2.15, but none of this crowd care about its lies; they are old hands, wise to its trickery. It ticks away, ignored. Thick skeins of smoke hover above the heads of the red-eyed company.

On a barstool beside the counter sits the imposing figure of The Bull Connolly, native of Kilrush, County Clare: late-forties, broad-faced, neatly bearded, fierce ice-blue eyes. His left hand grips a goatskin bodhrán, and he beats out the rhythm between swigs from a magical pint glass of rosé wine that is never fully empty. Next to him are the musicians: two fiddlers, one in his thirties with curly brown hair and a moustache like a 1970s yank detective, the other an older gent in a shiny-elbowed suit jacket, a paisley handkerchief caked with brown snuff-snotters tucked discreetly into his top pocket. On the concertina there is a long-haired teenage boy with holes in his jeans, and next to him a hatched-faced wooden flutist with a bald pate. Opposite are the two girls: a tin whistle player with bobbed dark hair and a slim, mousy, guitarist with a serene voice that could make a bailiff weep. Their little round table is loaded with pints of stout and bitter, glasses of whiskey and a hot port; they are well catered for. The tune of the moment is a bouncing, cheerful jig, called ‘I Buried my Wife and Danced on Top of Her.’

At the end of the short counter stands Francis ‘Billy’ Butler. He is a slim, well-spoken, arrogant-looking Dubliner, nicknamed for his obsession with William Butler Yeats. Like his namesake, he wears round glasses. He can recite the great man’s poetry for at least an hour without a break, seamlessly running one poem into the next. The musicians play a cat-and-mouse game with him during the pauses between songs and tunes, starting a new set as soon as he clears his throat to begin. They know fine well that when he commences their fun will be over for a considerable time. The session is flying; they place little value on poetry. When boredom strikes they will resort to puerile, hilarious, behind-the-hand sniggering banter during his performance, attracting Baltic-chill disdain from the orator. He takes a large draught from his pint and awaits his chance.

Then: “Wisht! Quiet!” The skinny Belfast barman interrupts proceedings, “peelers at the door!” There is heavy knocking from the front. A well-rehearsed but poorly-executed routine is put into action; total silence is almost impossible to achieve in the pub, even when Bull Connolly himself is singing. As ever the publican himself goes to investigate, but this time, contrary to standard practice, he returns after a short while with two policemen. One is a thick-set, jowly sergeant, the other a pink-cheeked youngster with soft eyes. Their presence in the snug is a new departure: cops are always dealt with at the door, never let in. Even the most seasoned members of the after-hours club are taken aback, and wonder what is coming next. The cops adjust their eyes to the dim light and peer through the fug to take in the tableau of slightly-startled punters. The sergeant looks around him, grim-faced at this flagrant mockery of the 1964 Licensing Act. But before he has a chance to act, the landlord exclaims loudly: “It’s a private party, officer, a cultural event. We’re just having a poetry recital.” On cue, Billy takes a stance behind the bar, casts a cold eye over the company, and begins: “I will arise and go now…”

The hush is attentive, not punctuated by the usual giggles and drunken heckling. The Bull stands between the cops, facing the bar. Sensing an unfavourable turn of events the sergeant attempts to take control, but as soon as he opens his mouth he is sharply shushed by the publican. Childlike, he mutely obeys; Billy fixes him with a condescending stare. His companion takes off his hat respectfully, as though at a funeral mass. The peelers’ eyes scan their boots, the ceiling; the younger one steals a glance at one of the teachers, who winks at him, raising a blush. The sergeant surreptitiously consults his watch, catches his colleague’s eye, and raises his eyebrows questioningly. The rookie’s gentle eyes register confusion, discomfort.  

After fifteen minutes, their exchanged glances become increasingly desperate. Anticipating an escape attempt, the Bull links his arms through theirs like an old friend, as if he were taking them for a promenade at the seaside. Then he tightens up; they are locked in. All is quiet, except for the gentle, firm, voice relishing every eloquent word of the verse, like honey-sweet wine. Sibilant phrases drip from the acolyte’s thin lips into the policemen’s ears, penetrating like red-hot needles. They shift their feet uncomfortably. Billy changes poem smoothly, intoning like a priest: “… a terrible beauty is born. She is foremost of those that I would hear praised…” twenty more excruciating minutes pass, and the oppressed sergeant wriggles free, making a bid for freedom; this time it is accepted. Bull nods to the barman and releases the other cop, who, cap still in hand, passes behind him and makes for the door. The sergeant mumbles “Very good” as he exits, only to be hushed again by a bulky labourer from Cavan. The barman leads them along the echoing corridor towards freedom. As the snug door slowly closes behind them, they hear applause, raucous laughter, a fiddler starting a lively reel. At the front, the captives are released back into the night; a few muted bars of ‘The New Policeman’ follow them out into the still air, then the door slams shut, and all is quiet. They proceed with caution on the slippery pavement towards the familiar security of the squad car. Snow is still falling; it has gathered on the vehicle, lying on its roof lights and windscreen, obscuring its orange side markings. They scrape it clear and drive off carefully along the Cowley Road towards the station and a hot cup of tea.


Winner of Fiddler’s Elbow Short Story Competition


Did you like the story? Opinions? Praise? Please leave a comment below



Jason O Rourke

Jason O’Rourke is a writer and musician based in Belfast, Ireland. His short stories have been published in ‘The Blue Hour Magazine,’ and on his blog, ‘Vernacularisms.’ He is currently guest blogger for the ‘Ideas Workshop.’

As well as his creative writing, Jason has published a number of essays and articles about the history of the Medieval Book, and has made several recordings of Traditional Irish Music.

Jason’s Belfast Notes can be found on his blog at

Music is available online at the usual channels or at his MySpace page:

Twitter: @jasonoruairc



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4 Responses to The Recital: January 1989 by Jason O’Rourke

  1. I so admire this story. The gentle pacing is lyric and sure. I would love to be at this bar on this night. And any story where poetry saves drinkers and spares them arrest is fine in my book.

  2. hi Jason, just popped out of skypen to read this story, I loved it and I remember many nights like that as a student in Sandymount in Dublin. Oh God, how joyous it always is to get one over on the cops, Ha ha!

    I love your vernacularism, I dip in occasionally, but I would LOVE to read articles on the mediaeval book. how could I come across a copy of one?

    PS, I have a story called Carphone 1992 in issue 4 of this esteemed journal, i’d love you to take a look at it, think you might get a kick out of it.


  3. Clare McCarron

    Fabulous, Jason; redolent of that pub’s unique atmosphere and the characters who made it that way. This is beautifully written and,indeed,superbly crafted; one of your very best in my opinion.

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