What’s in this Irish coffee, exactly?

Irish coffee at Foynes Flying Boat museum

The Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, west Ireland, celebrates airplanes before they were airplanes – when air travel from New York to Europe cost the equivalent of £5,000 and passengers travelled on flying cruise ships, with champagne, posh food and a honeymoon suite on every vessel. The museum has a lovely history of aviation, from the first attempts at flight to Ireland’s quiet contribution to the Allied war effort and the brief era of glamour that flourished when west Ireland was the first landing point for Americans flying across the Atlantic.

But what about all the air travellers who have been killed by poisoned Irish coffee?

At least, that’s the question I’m assuming we’re supposed to be asking after watching the slightly oblique introductory video ‘hologram’ visitors view before drinking the coffee-and-whiskey cocktail, which was invented at Foynes in 1943. The video purports to show the moment of the drink’s creation, and stars what I can only assume are west Limerick’s finest out-of-work amdram actors. One has incredibly smart shoes and resembles Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary; she plays a flight attendant escorting a smarmy American, who looks like he’s named something like Clark or Burt or Charlie, to the waiting room bar after his flight has been delayed. There they meet Joe, a man inexplicably wearing a tall chef’s hat despite very clearly being a bartender, and make small talk about the weather while pointedly shaking off their clothes. (My friend Juliann, who was on the tour with me, has a photo of this moment at her own post about the Foynes Flying Boat museum.) After the awkward small talk, Smarmy Charlie gives a perfunctory once-over to Lady Mary’s bum and wanders off to fiddle with his luggage.

And here’s where the video gets more interesting: Lady Mary leans on the bar and makes meaningful eye contact with her colleague. “Give him something special, Joe,” she says. Joe nods in confederate affirmation and begins to set out a coffee tray.

While he pours two careful white airline mugs, Lady Mary distracts Smarmy Charlie by bending over the luggage tags (Charlie seems to appreciate this, but I am still perving on her shoes). When the tray looks ready, Joe gives a Peter Sellers look around, ducks under the bar, emerges with a bottle of amber-coloured liquid labelled “Powers” and glugs around 70ml into one of the mugs. He’s all set to serve them when, and I am not making this up, the portrait on the wall lights up and starts to talk to Joe in a voice that only he can hear.

Joe does not react as though this is in any way unusual, which just underlines the Bates Hotel vibe of the whole scene; in the audience we all start to laugh nervously. I literally have no idea what’s going on here or who the portrait is supposed to be, although afterwards it was suggested he was supposed to be a major figure in Irish air history. I feel like this is underplaying the fact that A PHOTO ON THE WALL HAS JUST COME TO LIFE AND STARTED TALKING TO THE BARTENDER AND NOBODY IN THE SCENE THINKS THIS IS IN ANY WAY ODD.

The portrait (or Joe’s hallucination of same) pronounces, “Eye appeal, Joe”, or perhaps “I appeal (to your sense of common humanity, do not kill this man)”, or “I appeal(ed and got off on a technicality so go for it)”. Joe nods and follows the talking picture’s instructions, tipping the adulterated mug into a glass chalice, stirring in brown sugar and pouring cream over the back of a spoon to float over the coffee. He serves it to Smarmy Charlie with a smile and Lady Mary watches closely as he takes a sip. “Mmmm!” Charlie says. “That is something special!” He looks over his shoulder at Lady Mary, who simpers, and says, a sophisticated man of the world: “Is that…Brazilian coffee?”

Joe leans back with the smug smile of a lazy thinker, tries to flip his towel casually over his shoulder but catches it on his collar, finger-points at Smarmy Charlie and says, “No – that’s Irish coffee.”

They all laugh, and the scene freezes on it, obviously about thirty seconds before Smarmy Charlie drops dead and Joe and Lady Mary go have hot homicidal sex in the cockpit of the Boeing 314 (a full-size replica of which is available for museum visitors to tour). FOYNES IRISH COFFEE appears onscreen over a map of Ireland, with red arrows shooting out to other countries, like a Steven Soderbergh film’s projection of a fatal pandemic. The video ends in silence. We file out and try to process what’s just happened.

In the Irish Coffee Experience room next door, a museum guide shows us how to make the drink properly, with the right measures and timing for adding the coffee, whiskey, brown sugar and cream. As we watch the demonstration, staff serve us drinks they had prepared beforehand, out of sight.

Whatever’s in mine, it’s lovely: the smooth sour mash whiskey rolling with the dark bitter coffee under soft, silky cream in an elegant, solid glass. Having a boozy morning drink at 11am feels very retro and even a little glamorous, especially with the vintage steel furnishings and the smart 1940s uniforms on all the museum staff. And I’m sure it must be the brown sugar that makes my drink taste – ever so faintly – of almonds.

I visited the Foynes Flying Boat Museum as part of the Limerick 2014 City of Culture tour before TBEX Dublin. The tour was arranged and sponsored by Failte Ireland; I paid for nothing except a pint of beer at a pub and some postcards. Other posts from the tour are on my Limerick 2014 tag.

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