Life

Jake O'Kane: Bar work was good training for comedy

Jake's career as a barman took him to Sailortown, Andersonstown and Newington
Jake O'Kane

ON ONE of our daily trips to school this week my daughter asked me, ‘what job are you doing today, daddy?’. I answered I was going to work in my shop, a small enterprise I’ve run in north Belfast for over 20 years.

The question struck me as strange at first, then I realised my children have always had a daddy who works at numerous jobs, and for them that’s normality.

Today, parents doing multiple jobs over their working life has becoming the norm, although I admit I’m somewhat unusual in that while most do those jobs sequentially, I’ve done them simultaneously.

I was somewhat lost at school and university, drifting out of the latter after a year to take up the family trade by working as a barman. My introduction to bar work had begun young when my dad dragged me into his pub to wash glasses at the age of eight.

My career as a barman saw me work in bars in Sailortown, then a hotel in Andersonstown, finishing up in a pub in Newington – all tough establishments where being a barman often involved being an unpaid bouncer as well.

I was a big child back then, still carrying a fair bit of bulk from my weightlifting days, so usually it only took a stern word from me for a drunk customer to behave. Most of my adventures during those days can’t be related here as they would definitely incriminate some characters still sucking on pints.

One of my most dramatic placements was in a small bar at the gates of Belfast docks, once a thriving community called Sailortown.

As the name suggests, the establishment was frequented by sailors from whatever ships happened to be in dock, along with a smattering of locals. Fights between the sailors over women were a common occurrence; fights between sailors and locals were much less common, but much more dangerous.

On one of my rare nights off, such a fight had broken out over a gambling debt, and a couple of African sailors had taken a beating. As their ship was in dock for a week, everyone knew scores would be settled.

The atmosphere in the bar was electric when, the following Friday night, six of the Africans walked in. They were small men, none over five-foot tall, but they bristled with strength, anger and a sense of righteous indignation. They sat at the counter looking round for their attackers, three of whom were sitting at the other end of the bar.

I checked my trusty baton was within easy reach as I leaned in to speak to the one sailor who spoke English. I explained that, while I’d serve them, I didn’t want any trouble; he answered they wanted no trouble either but, pointing to one of his comrades who was wearing a sling, said he’d had trouble already.

They ordered six whiskeys, which I set up, and then stood back. As if in a corny Western movie, they downed the drinks in unison, and I fully expected to see six shot glasses batter the heads of the guys at the end of the bar.

Every eye was focused at the counter as the sailor with the sling slowly raised his shot glass. I moved for my baton, but instead of throwing the glass, he brought it to his mouth and took a bite.

I’ll never forget that noise, nor the sound of crunching glass as he proceeded to devour the whole thing, glaring at his attackers at the end of the bar as he did so.

Everyone looked to see what I would do. Would I try and put them out? Would I call the police, and if I did, what would I say?

"I need help, Officer, a customer is eating my glasses!"?

In a rare moment of inspiration, I slowly reached under the counter but instead of pulling out the baton, I pulled out another shot glass and put it in front of the glass eater.

He looked at me bemused, then a smile as wide as the Lagan filled his face. He held up the glass to his friends who all immediately got the joke and broke into laughter.

This was without doubt one of my best moments as a barman. Wounds were healed that night and animosities forgotten.

I think that was the first time I used humour to defuse a volatile situation, I’ve been doing something similar ever since.

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