St. Patrick's Day - Sean McGillick’s Night Out

A dear friend and fellow chef Larry Bowen wrote a book several years ago and he was kind enough to share this chapter with me before he passed away.

Memoirs from culinary apprentices who lived and worked together at the Buck Hill Inn,
Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania—
Their legendary tales and recipes.

Chapter Seven
Sean McGillick’s Night Out,
An Everglades Bar Story

I was never one to drink much on the designated drinking holidays such as New Year’s Eve, St. Paddy’s Day or Mardi Gras. As a general rule most hard drinkers, professional drunks and lushes, of whom I was one, are prone to avoid the rabble on such occasions. St. Paddy’s Day is a prime example. Bars are overrun with people who generally don’t drink; and, because most of these people choose to drink in excess of their normal limit at these times, things have a tendency to quickly get out of hand and often become unpredictable. Drunks don’t like unpredictable. Unless, of course, it pertains to their own behavior—then they could care less. But that goes without saying. Another direct result of the sudden surge in drinking customers on such occasions is that regular patrons are no longer coddled and babied as usual but left to fend for themselves amidst the pushing and shoving of the thirsty masses. No self-respecting drunk likes to play second fiddle when it comes to being served their next drink; that is one thing you can always count on.

But even the most hardcore of drunks, because of the nature of their calling, and the power of their thirst, will, in certain cases, make an exception. In order to drink with a minimum of disturbance and a certain degree of success on such occasions, but in particular on St. Patrick’s Day, one or more of the following criteria must be met:

A. Proper positioning, or in other words, establishing strategic seating early on in the game and never giving it up...which can be a real problem where restroom breaks are concerned, hence a partner always comes in handy.

B. Tipping the bartender as though you were Donald Trump and really had no use for the excess 20-dollar bills in your wallet.

C. Being a legitimate Irish celebrity, musician, singer or dancer (e.g., Lord of the Dance). Not just thinking you are one, which most revelers do somewhere in the course of the celebration.

D. Having a damned good gimmick which would cause you to be the center of attention and have everyone in the house want to buy you a drink (as having a friend who was a leprechaun sitting on the barstool next to you).

It was my good fortune on St. Paddy’s Day many years ago to have had a damned good gimmick, and an Irish friend who could sing, which made that particular day a memorable one for me, my friend Neil Doherty, and our third companion on that day, Sean McGillick.

I met Neil Doherty at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, the season that I worked there as a part-time cook for a couple of months in the Florentine Room in the spring of ’79. My full-time job was at The Everglades Club, located on the end of Worth Avenue, as a rounds cook for the ’78-’79 season. Neil worked at The Breakers as a waiter, and he and I had become drinking buddies almost from the start. Neil was an Irishman who had lived in the States for several years and worked the seasonal jobs just as most did of us in Palm Beach at that time. He was one of the funniest and best drinking partners that I had during my tenure at the club; and we would go out on the town two or three nights a week making the rounds of bars in West Palm and surrounding communities in Palm Beach County.

Neil was in his mid-thirties, had curly brown hair, blue eyes, the face of an aging cherub, and was blessed with a tenor voice the likes I had never heard before or since. He loved to sing in the wee hours of the morning as much as I did. His repertoire of Irish folk songs was seemingly unending; and he rarely if ever sang the same song twice on one night. Neil was a two-fisted drinker and at times even I could not match his drinking bravado. He had a prodigious capacity for pleasure and recuperation, as did I at that time. Neil had a quick wit, and on the job always had the cooks, the other waiters and the busboys in stitches. As he would say oftentimes, “If bullshit was music, I’d be a brass band.” He had more stories to tell than any man I’ve ever met.

One classic Doherty line I remember came about when one of the busboys who came into the kitchen one night carrying a tray full of bussed dishes from the dining room slipped, fell and had all the china, glassware and silver come crashing to the floor with a horrendously loud sound. Everyone in the kitchen stopped for a second or two to see what had happened and Neil, taking advantage of the silence, in his loudest Irish brogue shouted out: “GET UP! I ‘AD A BET ON YA, YA BASTARD!” Then as the poor schlock picked up the broken shards of glass and china from the floor and in humiliation walked back to the dishwashing station Neil again yelled out: “WHEN IT SAYS CHINA ON YOUR PAYCHECK, YOU SLIMY BASTARD...DON’T THINK YOU’VE WON A FREE TRIP!”

Neil was the life of the party wherever we went. He was not always on stage though and was just good company and a lot of fun most of the time at the end of the usually grueling nights in L’Escalier room at The Breakers Hotel.

March was an especially busy time in the club, restaurant and hotel business in Palm Beach. Most of the waiters worked split shifts seven days a week, and cooks like me who worked two jobs usually logged in 70 hours plus a week. When we did go out to the bars most of us would, at least once or twice a week, close them down and stay until last call around 4:45 in the morning.

Neil and I had planned to take St. Paddy’s off and go down to Del Ray Beach to watch the annual parade and join in the festivities at one of the local bars. He was a perfect companion for this holiday, and it was almost guaranteed that he would, after enough Bushmills and beer, loosen up and start singing at the bar. The first time I heard Neil sing we were at a bar in West Palm, and he had the entire crowd in the bar standing around and listening to him for what I am sure must have been close to an hour. He could sing with or without musical accompaniment, it made no difference. His range and expression literally would send chills up and down my spine.

I was awakened early on St. Paddy’s Day morning by banging on my door and the sound of Neil’s voice saying, “Time to rise and shine, my bouy. The day is awastin’!” I opened the door and there stood Neil, wearing Kelly green pants, a pair of loafers that he had spray-painted gold and dusted with glitter, no socks, and one of those t-shirts that have the tuxedo print ironed on the front. I quickly showered, put on my clothes, and down the staircase and out into the beautiful spring morning we went. We decided to take my car that day (a ’66 Chevy Impala), which Neil referred to as the “sewing-machine,” because it ran so quietly compared to the beast of an automobile that he had. First we walked across the street to the club to get some breakfast and coffee and more or less go over our plan for the day.

Sing Irishmen, sing,
some song that your voices will ring,
and let the world know that it is really so,
Sing Irishmen, sing.

We were soon on our way down the coastal highway to Del Ray Beach, about half an hour’s drive from the club. Our destination was somewhere on Atlantic Avenue so that we could catch the St. Paddy’s Day parade. The morning was just picture perfect, like most days in March in that part of Florida. We had brought lawn chairs with us that I always kept on the rooftop of the building in which I lived and a cooler of beer Neil had generously provided. We were determined to pace ourselves in the beginning and relax so that we could make it through the evening and see the holiday out.

We’re on the one road, sharing the one load,
We’re on the road to God knows where
We’re on the one road, it may be the wrong road
But we’re together now who cares
Northmen, Southmen, comrades all.
Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal
We’re on the one road swinging along,
Singing a Celtic song.

The parade began sometime around 10:00 that morning and by the time it snaked its way around to the corner we had commandeered with our lawn chairs and cooler of ice-cold beer, it was probably almost noon. Neil and I both had front-row seats and were in a prime spot to catch all the parade’s splendor, color and sound. The morning couldn’t have been a more beautiful one.

The parade was a typical small town U.S.A. event with no big mechanical floats and balloons like in the big cities, but lots of green crepe paper, green cardboard shamrocks and a zillion hand-painted rainbows and pots of gold. There were the mandatory school bands and baton twirlers; middle-aged men donning fezzes and riding baby scooters; an occasional clown or two; and lots of homemade floats with drunk revelers aboard waving to the endless line of spectators along their route. For all anyone knew, after a few beers, this could have been on the parade route in Manhattan. The inebriated imagination is a wonderful thing sometimes. Excitement was in the air.

About mid-way through the parade procession we noticed what seemed like a brigade of the local Irish farmers union (although I doubt they had one of those in Palm Beach County), with a series of hayrides and green John Deere tractors pulling an assortment of redheaded girls and farm animals. One float immediately caught Neil’s and my attention—it was carpeted with fresh grass, on which were twenty or more green pigs running around inside of a white picket fence, real pigs that had been dyed green and wore miniature green Irish party hats in between their ears. Neil and I were beside ourselves. I jokingly said something to Neil about how cool it would be if we could take one of the pigs with us for the day as we went from bar to bar...that’s all it took. No sooner did I say something than Neil was off and running in his kelly green pants and gold shoes chasing the float down the street. The sight of him running down the parade route is indelibly marked in my memory to this very day.

I stayed put and watched in delight and amusement as he approached the float and began shouting to the revelers aboard. The parade eventually took a turn and both the float and Neil left my line of sight. About 20 minutes later Neil came back with a squealin’ green pig in his arms and delightedly announced, “They let me ’ave him for twenty bucks! Can ya believe it? It’s the luck of the Irish I’ll tell ya.” Neil decided that the pig needed a name. We christened him soon afterward, and quickly set out to visit our first bar with our new friend and drinking companion, Sean McGillick.

When Irish eyes are smiling
Sure ‘tis like a morn’ in spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter,
You can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
All the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they’ll steal your heart away.

Both Neil and I were by that time a little peckish and we stopped at one of the local Irish pubs (they were all Irish pubs on that day) to satisfy our appetites with Irish lamb stew and soda bread. Neil absolutely refused to eat the corned beef and cabbage and insisted that it was not a traditional Irish dish but one invented by Americans in the nineteenth century when Irish celebrations on the East Coast first became popular. Not being Irish I was not bothered in the least and ate my fill of corned beef and cabbage as well. From that point on the three of us sat at the bar and did what we did most days when we got together...drank, told stories, and when the time was right, broke out in song.

and it no, nay never, never no more
No nay never no more,
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more

Neil had, after a few hours, made up so many tall tales about how we came upon our friend Sean McGillick, who by the way, had a few beers himself by that time, that it was extremely difficult for me to remember what to tell one person to the next. Neil told most of the women who asked about Sean that Sean was really a leprechaun who had been cast under a spell and that if they wished, they could win his freedom and change him back into his green impish self by kissing Neil and dancing the jig with Sean. He would always say to the ladies, “He’s very handy with his feet now and can dance a jig around anyone.” He got many takers on this one, but this story, as I remember, only went so far as long as we stayed in the same location. The gags and the laughter went on for hours. Many rounds were bought and paid for without our ever having to dip into our pockets but to tip the bartenders.

Who threw the overalls in Mistress Murphy’s chowder?
Nobody spoke so he shouted all the louder,
It’s an Irish trick that’s true, but I can lick the Mick that threw
The overalls in Mistress Murphy’s chowder.

In time Neil, Sean and I moved on down the road, and each time we did he would shout in his loudest Irish brogue, “Get up you swine, time to hit the road!” Of course poor Sean never caught on that Neil was using him for the butt of all his jokes. We traveled from bar to bar, always getting a seat at the bar and always getting a beer when we needed one. Neil broke out in song somewhere along the way, and Sean, after a Guinness Stout or two, was more interested in napping than in any other party activity we could devise for him to participate in. The fact was, we tuckered him out way before we were ready to call it an evening. And everyone, it seemed, wanted to buy Sean a beer.

One trick that Neil pulled in each and every bar was to wait for a lull in activity in the ladies’ powder room, and when everything was more or less quiet, throw poor unsuspecting Sean in and wait for the fireworks. It always produced the same effect. Sometimes it was instantaneous; and other times it was as if Neal had lit a long, long fuse, but in the end the inevitable happened: the high-pitched scream or two from within and the ensuing laughter when either Sean was escorted out by one of the ladies or thrown out skidding into the bar on all fours. I can remember singing with Neil and dancing the jig with Sean McGillick. I remember pulling my groin muscle, which didn’t hurt until the next day. I just had an Irish limp. But dance the jig I did. I’ve always been stubborn in that way. I wish I had a Polaroid snapshot to remember that night and day. We stayed out until the last bar closed in the wee hours of the morning.

Oh, I will take you back, Kathleen,
To where your heart will feel no pain.
And when the fields are fresh and green
I’ll take you to your home again.

The next day I reported to work late in the afternoon. As I recall I was a little late for my shift and told the chef on duty, whose name was John Linn, that both the drawbridges were up for what seemed like an eternity and had prevented me from getting to work on time. Of course no one bought my story, much less John, who was savvy in the ways of wayward cooks and potwashers after the debauchery of St. Pat’s Day. In the end I told some abbreviated tale of a green pig and much libation and John Linn to this day I’m sure remembers it as either the best story he’d ever heard or one of many tales that cooks like me had concocted for the occasion. The upshot was that the chef and John took mercy on me that evening and instead of making me work the broiler station let me french green beans and tournee potatoes for the duration of the evening. A job that even severely-hung-over I could do.

Neil and I saw each other at least twice a week throughout the season after that and we always talked about our night of debauchery with Sean McGillick. Neil told me that he had sold Sean to the highest bidder sometime the next day close to where he lived. The truth is that I have never been out on St. Patrick’s Day since, and probably never will again, but to my dying day I will remember my friend Neil Doherty and our third companion, Sean McGillick.

I’ll go home to my parents, confess what I’ve done,
And I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son.
And when they’ve caressed me as oft times before
I never will play the wild rover no more.