The meeting that inspired the creation of an icon.
August 1961, I was 16 and was working a summer job in the Marine Hotel, Kilkee, Co. Clare, Ireland, saving some money to pay for a pilgrimage to Rome being organized by my school Franciscan College, Gormanstown.
I and my good friend Gilbert Brosnan from Gormanstown were working on this most important of days. I was a barman at the hotel bar and Gilbert was a waiter in the restaurant.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday the light streaming in brightly through the big bay windows lighting up the old dark wood bar and shelves full of liquors from all over the world. The bar and hotel were of another time with a victorian style that was aged even then and had lost much of its lustre but still managed to convey a sense of class and opulence with now worn red leather couches and dark wood tables.
There were only a few after-mass regulars in the bar at that time, around midday and after looking after the customers I was busy cleaning and stacking glasses when in walked three extraordinary gentlemen.
My mouth must have hung open because I instantly recognized the man in the middle, none other than the notorious Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevara, who was rarely off the newsreels in those days. He and his two companions were all strikingly unfamiliar, nothing like the usual pale Irish locals and holidaymakers, dressed smartly in military olive green light overcoats and fatigues stuffed into military-style boots.
They took the three-seat bay window table with a red leather wrap-around couch and Che Guevara walked up to me at the bar.
My first words were said, simply out of delight and of course astonishment:
‘It’s the man himself. What brings you here?’ and that is how we got talking.
He was pleasantly surprised that I had recognized him and obviously I was dead curious as to the reason for his presence in a small remote town on the pretty desolate west coast of Ireland.
I asked Che what he was doing in Kilkee and I got the story that his plane, in transit from Moscow to Havana, was fogbound in Shannon Airport and had developed engine trouble.
He was stuck here in Ireland and decided to do a little sightseeing and have a bit of fun too, which is why his taxi driver brought him to Kilkee, drink capital of the west.
His English was slow and careful but good, he asked me to suggest a drink and of course, I suggested a Bacardi rum and blackcurrant. That met with a black look and he said that he wanted something Irish, so I suggested an Irish whiskey with a mixer, or water to dilute it. He went for water and we chatted at the bar as I poured their drinks.
Being excited and trying my best to impress this most impressive of men, I ran the list of any Irish fighters and revolutionaries involved in Latin America I could remember from my days in Gormanston college where the Franciscan friars had deep connections through their missions in Latin America and taught us about these revolutionaries.
O’Reilly of Cuba, O’Higgins of Chile, and of course Admiral Browne, founder of the Argentine navy, being Argentinian himself but I also mentioned his own hero, the Liberator, Simon Bolivar. I like to think he was impressed.
Che, for his part, mentioned the Irish War of Independence, IRA fighters like Dan Breen and Tom Barry, two formidable figures in Irish history, both ruthless and effective.
He even referenced the famous and very brutal Kilmichael Ambush by Tom Barry. I was amazed, surprised, and fascinated at his knowledge of the Irish War of Independence.
‘I’m Irish anyway’, he said, without a pause in the conversation and I was gobsmacked. He mentioned his grandmother was of Irish descent and ‘taught him everything about Ireland’.
He mentioned his distant roots in both Galway and Cork through both his father and mother and that was it. I couldn’t believe that this world-famous revolutionary was even slightly interested in my home Ireland and that he himself had Irish roots.
I finished serving the drinks and he brought them over to his two comrades and they relaxed enjoying their strong Irish whiskeys in the bright sun.
Shortly after Gilbert came into the bar from the restaurant with a drinks order and I said to him, ‘Do you see who it is?’, looking at Che. Gilbert was surprised to see this unusual group but didn’t recognize him.
‘It’s Che Guevara’, I said.
‘Che Guevara?’, Gilbert knew who Che Guevara was but wasn’t familiar with him and really wanted that drinks order done so he could get back to the restaurant before he got in trouble and left.
Still wildly excited, dying to tell someone I had met the most famous revolutionary in modern history, I went down the bar to the only real regular present, a lovely local man called Sam, quite a wit and raconteur, and told him I had met this very interesting customer.
Sam asked me who this rather strange man was who had just left the bar and I told him it was Che Guevara.
Sam looked blankly at me and just said:
‘Who?…never heard of him’.