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Not Just For Christmas....

The relentless build up to Christmas is now in full swing, and with that in mind here are a few thoughts about the festive season and a couple of recent events with a distinctively Irish theme as a bar in Enniskillen releases a Christmas advert and an iconic musician sadly passes away....

The rows of bagged and stacked Christmas trees have been in the supermarket entrances for a good few weeks now. The big retailers' festive adverts with their oodles of false sentiment and bonhomie have been on the TV screens for a while too. This has been since the early part of November which, with the adoption of the dreadful US retail concoction of Black Friday, has seemingly and seamlessly been appropriated into the festive period.

Against this background of unbridled commerciality there have been two events in the past few days which have brought the more traditional and human aspect of Christmas back into sharp focus. The first was the release of their own Christmas advert by a pub in the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen, Charlie's Bar, whilst the many tributes and news reports following the sad death of the Pogues' frontman Shane MacGowan at the age of 65 reminded us that amongst their remarkable body of work they released one of the great Christmas songs, A Fairytale of New York.

I'll come back to the Charlie's Bar advert in a minute, but first a few words about Shane, whose music I loved from the first time I heard the Pogues on the John Peel show when he played their first single Dark Streets of London one evening in 1984 or '85. It was a track to make you stop and turn the radio up, a genuine "wtf is this?" moment; it sounded Irish, with tin whistles and fiddles amidst the guitars and drums, but it was played with the thrashing, relentless energy of punk.

The Pogues, whose name was shortened from its original Pogue Mahone, an Anglicised version of the Irish Gaelic for "kiss my ass", were formed in London in the mid-1980's. Shane was the charismatic frontman with the instantly recognisable bad teeth who had been born in Kent to Irish parents in the late '50s. A bright lad, he won a scholarship to Westminster School but was expelled in his 2nd year for being in possession of drugs. He had also taken up drinking from an early age and his dependency on alcohol was to have a major influence on his life. But he was a brilliant songwriter, his songs reflecting the influences of living in London in the '80s, the Irish diaspora to which his parents belonged, Irish history, and Irish nationalism. The Pogues with Shane as frontman only lasted for a few years before he was sacked by the band on a tour of Japan due to his alcohol-infused behaviour, but over those short years they released a number of albums of which the first three - Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God - are absolute classics, capturing the band at their brilliant best, featuring a mix of their own and traditional songs such as A Pair of Brown Eyes, Streams of Whiskey, Sally MacLennane, Dirty Old Town, The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn, and The Irish Rover which the band recorded with the Dubliners. And then there was the afore-mentioned Fairytale of New York, recorded with the late Kirsty McColl, which with lines like "you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot" were hardly what you would have expected to find in a typical Christmas song back then which normally came with a  mix of nostalgia and positivity to a backing heavily-laden with sleigh bells. But the song's overall sentiments, with its mix of hope and nostalgia laced with realism and the regret of missed chances has over the years struck a chord with so many people, frequently topping polls of festive favourite songs. It would therefore be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Shane MacGowan if the song were to finally become the Christmas Number One this year, something which has eluded it thus far.

The legendary Shane MacGowan

Meanwhile, the Christmas advert put out by Charlie's Bar with its nod in the direction of John Lewis and others has likewise struck a chord with so many people. It shows an old man laying flowers on a grave and then walking into town, with passers-by seemingly oblivious to him. Lost in his thoughts, he walks into the bar where a young couple's little dog jumps up on to the seat beside him as he drinks his pint of Guinness. The couple, who are sat at the bar, realise their dog has disappeared, and when they spot where he is, they go over to collect him and end up sitting and chatting to the old man. With a soundtrack featuring Birdy's version of the Cherry Ghost classic People help the People, the advert ends with a quote from W B Yeats - "There are no strangers here, only friends you've just not met".

And what of the setting for the advert? Charlie's Bar dates from 1944 and is the oldest family-run pub in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, being established by Charlie Burns, from whom it takes its name. It began serving locals, farmers, and American servicemen stationed in the area during wartime, and gained a reputation over the years for its warm hospitality during which time Charlie passed the bar on to his son Gerry. Looking through their website and socials I can find no mention of them selling any real ale but they do claim to sell "the best Guinness in Enniskillen". They have regular live music including traditional Irish folk on a Sunday evening and other regular events, and can provide a space for birthdays and celebrations. Sports fans are catered for with the bar having several TV screens throughout showing live matches. And looking at the happy, smiling faces on their gallery it is clear that hospitality, a warm welcome, and the craic is very much at the heart of what they do, and they deserve applause for their Christmas advert which quite simply draws attention to the lonely and reminds us why we need our pubs and bars to keep being there. 

The advert, which has gone viral on social media, brilliantly captures not just the spirit of Christmas but also why pubs matter so much, not just at this time of the year but throughout. Yes, there will be many for whom the sense of loss, loneliness, or sadness will be felt more acutely around Christmas, but of course those feelings are present all year round, be it a cold afternoon in March, a sunny morning in July, or a darkening evening in October. The pub provides a space where the lonely can go for a drink and be amongst people, even if they are on their own while they are there.

Sadly the number of pubs closing in the UK continues, often leaving whole communities without a local place to meet, socialise, watch music, or engage in activities, forcing those who would go there to visit other areas, or quite possibly, just stock up on beer from the supermarket which will no doubt be a lot cheaper and drink it at home. The pub can be the glue that binds a whole community together and once it closes, the sense of social cohesion can start to wane. As Hilaire Belloc once wrote "once you have lost your inns, then drown your empty selves for you will have lost the last of England". Of course there may be other facilities within a community such as the church or a sports club, but these only offer an appeal to certain groups, whereas a pub can draw people in from across the wider community. 

One pub no longer serving the community....

And whilst the pubs and bars may be busy over the next few weeks, come the new year they will generally much quieter, and so it is important that we continue to support them throughout the year to keep them going and maintain their essential role within the community. So as you catch up with friends and family, keep an eye out for those who may be on their own and as in the Charlie's Bar advert, making that contact will probably be well received. But also, make a resolution to call in the pub a little more over the next year, the staff will appreciate it and you will be doing your bit to help the wider community whilst hopefully enjoying yourself. Remember, a pub is not just for Christmas....

And here are the Pogues and Kirsty McColl....

 Follow me on twitter/X: @realalemusic


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