"To your health!" is a simple toast that has survived the centuries, but it is by no means the last word when it comes to raising a pint.
Especially if you’re Irish.
Bill Comerford, owner of four Irish pubs in Honolulu, says that particular toast originated in a time when public drinking water systems were nonexistent and alcohol was seen as a safeguard against contamination.
That’s one version of the story. Another is that the custom dates to a more ancient time when the poisoning of enemies was a frequent hazard at social gatherings. Celebrants would utter the toast and clink their cups together so that the liquid would slosh over into each other’s drink, ensuring the wine, beer or grog was untainted.
You’ll need to do better than "To your health!" "Cheers!" or "Kampai!" to compete in Wednesday’s 11th annual Guinness Toast Finals at O’Toole’s Irish Pub, a prelude to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Honolulu. Monthly qualifying rounds were held starting in September, but Comerford has decided to open the finals to all comers. First prize is a trip for two to Las Vegas.
Just as the French cherish their cafe culture, the Irish hold "public houses" in high esteem for their role in the country’s history and traditions.
|GUINNESS TOAST FINALS
» Where: O’Toole’s Irish Pub, 902 Nuuanu Ave.
"If you went back in time, the Irish drank in rounds, and everybody was responsible for a round," said Comerford, proprietor of O’Toole’s downtown, Kelley O’Neil’s and the Irish Rose Saloon in Waikiki, and Anna O’Brien’s in the University area. "If you had five guys, then you had five drinks. If you had 10 guys, then you had 10 drinks. There was a lot of good-natured toasting to your drinking companions and to say thank you.
"It’s not about chugging; it’s about raising your glass."
Irish toasts can be funny, solemn, sentimental, bawdy, insulting or an expression of Irish pride, and longer is not necessarily better, especially when there’s a dark pint of Guinness stout waiting at the other end of it.
"There are toasts that are incredibly brief that are good, and some go on forever," Comerford said. "But the purpose is to drink, and you don’t want say a toast to the whole history of Ireland that leaves people dying of thirst. That doesn’t fly."
Guinness Toast contestants will be judged on originality, wit, content and delivery.
Chuck Wall, who has judged past events, said he looks for "something a little more novel than a standard toast; something done with a good sense of humor and good spirit and well presented."
As the Society of the Friends of St. Patrick’s Irishman of Year, Wall knows a wee something about it.
"You can tell if they’ve given it some thought or if they’re just rattling it off or reading it from a paper," said the Kailua retiree. "A lot of people think obscenities score higher, but they don’t."
Some participants have entered as a group; some wear costumes or dance. According to Comerford, winning toasts have ranged "from the sublime and cute to something outright outrageous." He said the best entries are "unique, original and clever, with a sense of rhyming."
Comerford laments that Irish toasting is a dying art — "but there’s an app for that," he quickly adds. Next year he may switch to an Irish joke contest instead.
In the meantime, if you find yourself in an Irish pub or at the downtown block party on March 17:
May the leprechauns be near you,
To spread luck along your way.
And may all the Irish angels,
Smile upon you St. Patrick’s Day.
We’ll drink to that.