The sporting weekend of M. Andr� Tavernier began in earnest with eight straight Irish coffees taken in the bar of O'Keeffe's Hotel, Ross Carbery, County Cork. Much enthused by this traditional nightcap, invented long ago by a publicity man at Shannon Airport, M. Andr�, gaily dressed pour le sport in reindeer-skin moccasins, breeches, a shooting vest by Esquimau of Paris and a tartan beret, made a determined move toward the kitchen. A clatter of dishes, a shrill cry from the darkened passage, and Mary broke cover like a jacksnipe, dodging through the darts players and heading north for safety. Defeated but undejected, M. Andr� returned to his friends, M. Georges, M. Jean and M. Ren�. "She is mignonne, that one," he pronounced—a thought that had not previously occurred to the long line of dark-complexioned West Corkmen who continued to sit silently over their pints of stout as they do on 363 evenings of the year, O'Keeffe's being closed on Good Friday and for the Feast of St. Patrick.
The Irish sporting scene has never lacked color, from salmon fishing down to donkey racing on the sands. But in the last year or two it has been further illuminated by a new phenomenon, the arrival each season of small parties of French hunters in pursuit of the duck, snipe and woodcock that winter in the west of Ireland. In Ross Carbery the stories are already passing into local history: how the first party arrived; how O'Keeffe had stocked up with shells for the fortnight, and how the lot had been fired off by lunchtime on the first day; how the skylarks and sparrows all moved northwest into County Kerry; how, before the week was out, O'Keeffe was lying stretched across the kitchen table, and Kathleen O'Keeffe herself picking the No. 6 shot out of him. M. Andr� and his friends were heirs to what was already a great tradition.
A great cross-pollination of cultures, if you'd listen to O'Keeffe, who has now forgotten and forgiven being mistaken for a dog fox, but who remembers in great detail how the Irish fought alongside the French at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745—against the English, naturally—and how Hennessy's brandy is the direct result of an Irish earl's exile to the vineyards of France at about the same date.
But since Andr�'s attempt to put Franco-Hibernian relations on an even firmer footing had, for the moment, failed, I took the chance of asking O'Keeffe about the arrangements for the morning.
"You'll want to go up to the Clounties crossroads," he said, "and you'll find Jack Minahane there. I'll draw you a map, so." An elaborate sketch took shape on the back of a menu. "Now that," said O'Keeffe, "is the road to Skibbereen. You don't want to go there." He screwed up the menu, flipped it behind the bar and began a fresh one that incorporated stylish impressions of a creamery, a bridge and a public house. The Frenchmen crowded around. The plan was that I should lead the way in the morning and they would follow.
"If they see three cars together in Drinagh," said a Corkman, mentioning a village en route, "they'll think 'tis a funeral or an election."
"It's duck you'll be after tomorrow," said O'Keeffe. "Can-ard sau-vage and sar-celle," he added helpfully. This got through to Andr�, Georges, Jean and Ren�, who nodded enthusiastically. Mallard and teal, in other words, in the little reedy loughs along the green hills above the village. I took O'Keeffe to one side and put it to him that 10 in the morning was a queer time to go duck hunting. Why didn't we get out to the lake before the first light, hide in the reeds and wait for the flighting birds? He gave me a pitying look. "What," he said, "and have all our beautiful ducks destroyed on us? Sure, they'll get all the fun they want, blazing and banging away out there tomorrow, and no harm done at all."
It looked in any case as if an early start would be beyond wish or power of the cross-Channel boys, who by new had discovered that you can leave the coffee, cream and sugar out of Irish coffee without affecting the essential virtue of it. Le whiskey irlandais was making a big impression. A tasting session developed, the respective qualities of Powers, Jameson and Paddy, the local Cork brew, becoming the matter of earnest debate. A sinister suggestion by one of the stout drinkers that a drop of the real hard mountainy stuff might be available was instantly quashed by O'Keeffe. "Them days is gone," he said obscurely. The night moved peacefully toward its close with a little singing and a little dancing by one of the small silent men who suddenly got up, executed an intricate jig without music, then returned to his place. The last thing I remember is a high-pitched voice from the kitchen declaring to God that if Mrs. O'Keefle expected her to take early-morning tea up to thim Frinchmen then, begging her pardon, but it would be the bus to Cork City she'd take, not the tea at all. "Knock," said a calm voice, "and leave it outside the door."
My tea was delivered personally, though I don't know if that was a compliment. "Thank you," I said. "Comme tu es mignonne, Marie." She fled, terrified. That would teach her to underestimate the Anglo-Saxons.
It was the crack of dawn, 9 o'clock of a beautiful West Cork morning, cold, clear, a blue sky, a crackling of ice in the gutters. The hills, even in winter, were luminously green-patched with dark furze, brown bracken, white rock outcrops. Andr� and the boys were already downstairs, laughing and joking as if they had gone to bed at 10 with glasses of hot milk; and they kept it up through duck hunters' breakfasts of bacon, sausage, eggs and thick brown bread. "O� est ma petite? O� est Marie?" warbled Andr�, tubby, jolly, ready for anything. Miscellaneous weapons, cartridge belts and hats were scattered about. Georges produced black Brazilian cigars, insisted we light up, then strode out to see if the bar could be opened. Something told me that I, and O'Keeffe, too, had been underestimating these sports.