Une up le Spout

Had he not missed his stop, Liam O’Cafferty might never have become a household name.

My mother’s grandfather, Liam was a salesman for the Reciprocating Inflator Company of Limerick. The incident to which I refer occurred when he was returning from a trip to New York, where he had been attending a bicycle trade fair. Unfortunately, instead of disembarking, he was sound asleep in steerage when, in the dead of night on June 23rd, 1907, RMS Adriatic slipped in and out of Queenstown harbour at Cobh, on the south coast of County Cork.

In fact, he didn’t wake up until Adriatic was about to berth in Cherbourg, her last port of call before Southampton. The French purser promptly turfed him off the vessel with a flea in his oreille. Lacking the fare to get back to Ireland, great-grandfather decided to stay put, and so presented himself to the Douane for inspection. He had nothing to declare but his suitcase full of bicycle pumps, and so was admitted to La Belle République with a friendly “Haut de la matinée, to yez.”

Unfamiliar with the Gaelic, a French immigration officer mistakenly recorded his name as L. O. Cafetière and handed him a billet-doux to that effect. Armed with his new identity, he made his way to Paris and to Le Bureau des Postes et Télégraphes, where his experience in the bicycle-pump business landed him a job at the Reseau Pneumatic.

Known affectionately as ‘Le Pneu’, the Reseau Pneumatic was a system of hissing, underground pneumatic pipes that until 1984 served telegraph offices throughout Paris. Air was abstracted at one end of the system and introduced at the other. This difference in air pressure caused small capsules to be sucked through the tubes. Each capsule was hollow and contained a batch of telegrams for one of the outlying offices. Employment by the Pneu was highly valued, and the job of Chef de Succion secured by my great grandfather was one of some prestige and responsibility. Should the succion fail the whole system was rendered ‘Pas de Pneu’ – all pssst and no wind.

Great grandfather quickly realized that his new job would enable him to dispose of his sample bicycle pumps. He put a small ad in the Vendredi Annonceur and sold the whole lot within a week. His plan was to dispatch his pumps via the very system of which he was master: encase each pump in a cardboard tube, slip the tubes into the Pneu, and trouser the postage charges. Sweet. Unfortunately, he failed to take account of the sharp bends in the system, especially around the quatorziéme arrondissement, and one of his lengthy tubes became jammed in the flue. “Une up le Spout!” came the cry down the line, and great grandfather was forced to ‘fess up, as they say in France.

But his time at the Pneu was not entirely wasted. Many years later, his son, Monsieur Paidrig Cafetière, was picking coffee grounds off his tongue whilst listening for the umptiéme time to tales of the inner workings of the Pneu and how it resembled in principle the mechanism of a bicycle pump, when he had an idea.

‘Un moment, Papa”, said Paidrig, who had picked up some of the local lingo. “What if you got a glass cylinder, closed at one end, put in a couple of spoonfuls of, say, ground coffee, added water, fitted a perforated piston and pushed it down to the bottom of the cylinder so that it captured all the coffee grounds but let the water filter through?

“Might work,” replied his father, “But we will need to wait for John Lewis’s to be invented before we can sell any. Anyway, what would you call it?”

Paidrig thought for a moment. “I think I would name it after me,” he replied, proudly.

“Yes, I like the sound of that,” said his father. “It has a certain ring to it. In years to come, the finale to every smart dinner party will be the aroma of freshly ground coffee. I can hear it now. Voices up and down the table calling ‘Pass the Paidrig!’ ”


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