Books

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy

How do you find out whether you’re Irish or not? Well, driving around Ireland and stopping in every bar with your name on it for a Guiness is McCarthy’s solution.

Pete McCarthy is a man who thinks he’s English but would kind of like to be Irish and so, in McCarthy’s Bar, he sets off to see if he might belong in Ireland. His notion of belonging goes beyond a liking for Guinnessm however; he has one Irish parent and he attended a school run by sadistic Catholic monks who instilled the traditional values of guilt and self-doubt. His first school report read:

“Peter is an unpleasant and frivolous boy who talks too much and will never make anything of himself, but he does take a punch well.”

Setting off around Ireland, McCarthy discovers that he needn’t have worried about being an outsider – practically everyone he meets who epitomise the Irish qualities he so admires turn out to be English or German. Fiddle players from Munich and New Age Travelers from Brighton feel utterly at home in Ireland and make poor old Pete McCarthy even more desperate to belong.

The greatest indicator of McCarthy’s Englishness though is in his self-deprecating humour that make him an enjoyable and modest writer and a pleasure to travel with through Ireland. He stops for the night at a B&B and after accusing him of never working a day in his life, on account of his soft palms, the landlady asks him:

“‘Would ya like me to make up the bed?’

Too bloody right I would. What did she think I was paying 18 quid for? Time to let her see who was in charge round here.

‘Oh. Yes, please. If it’s not too much trouble.’

Just for a moment, she leaned back and narrowed her eyes. Then she said it:

‘Lazy, are ya?'”

And so McCarthy continues to drive around Ireland without much idea of what he’s doing or where he’s going, just letting the road unfold under him and looking up a couple of old friends. He looks up an old Traveler friend from Brighton and finds a bunch of crusties living off the dole in renovated sheds, tents and vans, whose idea of a good time is home-mad alcohol, a few LSD tabs for ‘chasers’ and loud and nasty techno.

You don’t quite picture McCarthy fitting in, a presentable face often seen on regional TV, but he turns out to be exceptionally broadminded and sees way beyond the surface of things. He observes how this scruffy bunch dig their own wells, renovate broken down property, and have large families, struggling to live off the land whilst consuming large amounts of alcohol. How much more Irish can you get?

Maybe the problem is that the days of poverty and starving to death are values that Ireland has left behind. Prosperous for the first time in its history, McCarthy spends half the book grimacing at the way Ireland has packaged itself a culture for export, even within its own country. Irish pubs have spread around the world like a virus and visitors to Ireland want Leprachauns, bright green paint and pubs playing Van Morrisson, much like bakeries pump out the smell of fresh bread, McCarthy suggests.

Pete McCarthy does manage to find the real Ireland though, mostly when asking directions or walking into lonely bars where everyone wants to know everything about him while the Guiness settles. He learns that before asking anything directly, it’s good form to banter about the weather and the crops for a good half hour first. It’s no accident, he observes wryly, the ‘stream of consciousness’ was invented by, Joyce, an Irish writer.

McCarthy’s bar is a lot of fun and does much to unveil the clichés that surround travel in Ireland and point out a good deal of the incongruities and surreal clash of cultures that are so relevant to travel in general today. Yet amid the coach loads of American tourists who want to know if there’s a town called Guinness, McCarthy finds room to include the quintessentially Irish traits that make him want to so badly belong. Such as the report he read in the newspaper of a local man on trial; when asked by the judge if he pleads innocent or guilty, he announces:

“I don’t recognize this court.” When asked why he elaborates, “Well, you’ve had it painted since the last time I was here…” and gets two months in jail for contempt of court.

McCarthy’s Bar is Pete McCarthy’s first travel book and it’s to be hoped there will be more. He’s funny, honest to the point of a self-conscious agony and really quite understanding of the strange species that surrounds him.