It happened in Bewley’s Café in Ireland one summer’s day in 1979. My wife and I had stopped in to sample “the finest cup of coffee in Dublin,” as touted in our faithful Arthur Frommer tourist guide, “Ireland on $15 a Day.” (Yes, those were the days!)
Savouring our flavoursome brew and cream-filled pastries, we suddenly looked up to see two familiar faces last encountered in a favourite Ottawa watering hole – Max Keeping accompanied by Eileen McGann. And they were just as surprised to see us. We had met quite often as fellow enthusiasts of Irish music, usually at Molly McGuire’s, the boisterous Rideau Street pub famous for foot stomping celebration of celtic airs and ballads.
Elaine, whose talent agency was a prime mover in running that popular venue, had a year before opened her own pub-restaurant, aptly known as “Elaine‘s,” on Bank Street south at Sunnyside. We were there among her many invited guests at its official opening, with Max Keeping of CJOH-TV as the M.C. A Dublin group, South Country, and Fiddler’s Elbow from Londonderry, were the featured performers. A native of Low, Quebec, Elaine some years later revamped the Bank Street showplace under a new name, Erin’s Restaurant and Dining Lounge. (In later years, she moved to Vancouver, changed her name to Catholine Butler, and got involved in The Celtic Connection, a newspaper promoting Celtic arts and music.)
Chancing upon each other in that rather exotic Dublin eatery somehow stuck in Max’s memory because, almost each time he and I came across each other in subsequent years, he would always start off saying “Remember that time we met in Dublin…” Guess it was just part of his constant interest in people.
A special occasion bringing us together took place in 1983 in a venue I frequented in downtown Ottawa, the National Press Club of Canada. Max was not a member but I asked him to take part in a Newfoundland Night some NPC friends and I were organizing as a fund raiser, not for charity but for the club! He cheerfully accepted, and agreed to respond to a toast to the news media.
That was a sumptuous affair, with 150 guests, featuring prime Newfoundland fish and seafood dishes expertly served by Press Club staff and outstanding entertainment by talented musicians from the island and a celebrated roster of invited speakers. The provincial government of Newfoundland, the Newfoundland Fish Trades Association and the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department contributed valuable support. Fishery firms donated seafood supplies, wine and beer contributions came from Newfoundland sources. DFO seafood consultant Cathy O’Brien came from St. John’s to advise on preparing Newfoundland dishes. Eastern Provincial Airways through then owner Harry Steele provided passage for the musical group, Barking Kettle.
Surprisingly perhaps, seasoned broadcaster and master of ceremonies though he was, Max Keeping yielded the spotlight role to CBC’s Harry Brown, invited from Toronto to MC this event. Leading off the presentations, Harry regaled his audience with a lengthy but hilarious repertoire of jokes and stories drawn from his Newfoundland experiences. Rising when his turn came in response to MP Roger Simmons’ toast to the media, but still thinking about Harry’s performance, Max leaned over to me and whispered wryly “How do I follow an act like that?” His speech was lively as well, but he knew when to keep it short. Earlier, Senator Bill Doody, a school mate of mine, exhibited samples of his dry wit in toasting the province of Newfoundland, to which provincial cabinet minister Len Simms aptly responded.
Max and I met a few times in later years, and he generously arranged a late evening TV interview about my first book recollecting my media career. While our pathways seldom crossed, I marvelled along with all Ottawans at his prodigious contributions to community welfare. I am very glad to have known him.