The late Harry Blake receiving the St Eunan's GAA Club Hall of Fame Award from the Bishop of Raphoe, Dr Philip Boyce in January 1998.
The sign above Blake’s Bar reads ‘Just a Pub’. Inside, there are further signs warning customers that mobile phone conversations are forbidden.
It was, and is, the last bastion of pub civilisation, and Harry was in no small measure the catalyst for this very special sanctuary.
In its time, on any given day, we mingled with soldiers from Rockhill, nurses from St Conal’s, visitors from In Through, the Laggan, Glenswilly, and always...always, the GAA fraternity. Years ago, I met Bobby Wilkins, who ran an equally warm and welcoming hostelry in Churchhill at the counter. During the course of our chat, I curiously enquired as to why Harry’s was Bobby’s haunt when he came to Letterkenny. In his own inimitable way, Bobby replied: “You can’t beat a straight man tae rise a bit of smoke where there’s nae fire!” I knew precisely what he meant. If for example, the late and great character, Paidin Dawson, landed in with colourful dose of verbosity, Harry had a way of peering under his eyebrows while pulling a pint and managing to caution Paidin, while at the same time ensuring that the other regulars got ‘tangled’ in the ensuing brouhaha.
There was never a dull moment, and despite the decree forbidding any talk of religion and politics, Paidin could light the touchpaper by proclaiming “Thank God I’m an atheist!” or “It’s that big so-and-so from Londonderry!” Despite what transpired thereafter, Harry had a sceptical but firm hand on proceedings, and was equally chairman of the board as landlord and host.
My late father treasured his hours there, soaking up the craic when Paidin, the late Peter Ivors, Austin Cribben, Jack McDonagh, Mick Henry and ‘Curly’ Doherty, ‘Bunty’ Flanagan, ‘Bilko’, Jesse Purtill and countless others reminded us of the value of conversation without vitriol, and passion without prejudice.
Harry had a great career as a footballer and was a staunch supporter of St Eunan’s and Donegal. He had a wonderful recall of games played and scores made, and if one was foolish enough to chance their arm with dodgy statistics, the pint pulling would stop abruptly. Harry didn’t stand on ceremony, not a man to refer to a spade as a long-shafted agricultural instrument “You’re talking complete b…..x, son!” he would remind the unfortunate punter and they would stand corrected. He was waked in the pub, a quite unique experience, and many who hadn’t known him well were taken aback at the Pioneer Pin proudly emblazoned on his lapel. For all his years in ‘Just a Pub’, Harry neither drank nor smoked! I always think this gave him an enviable vantage point on the high moral ground as he watched with quizzical eye, the ‘mixum-gatherum’ on the other side of the counter. I won’t mention a real name here but the conversation went something like this: “Barney, you’re barred!” “But you barred me last week, Harry!” “For how long?” “A fortnight!” “Ok so, I’m barring you again next week!”
Raymond no longer has a hard act to follow, as he’s been firmly in charge for some time now. But he’ll be more aware than most that he now has two guardian angels hovering over one of the last Letterkenny outposts for the blatherers and the bewildered, Harry and his beloved Marie, whose passing left a huge vacuum in his life. Burns Night is happening next week, and when I toast friends with “Lang may your lum reek!” (Long may your chimney smoke!) I’ll be reminded of Bobby Wilkins’s pithy take on Blakes Bar. For Joseph , Raymond, Ita, Kevin and David, brothers Liam and Eunan, sisters Rosie and Mary, daughters-in-law Julia and Anne, grandchildren Peter, Jack, Harry and Annie, it is some consolation to know that Harry and Marie are now united in the wee snug in Paradise and that the ‘Just a Pub’ sign on 50 Upper Main Street will always remind us of another one, as yet unwritten, “Harry Blake: Just Himself”.