McCarthy's Bar

⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 1 review.

Written by Pete McCarthy.

tl;dr: A witty and often weird snapshot of early 90's Ireland. McCarthy is an excellent observer and clever writer, creating a book filled with folklore and interesting ancedotes, even if it does occasionally take a wander off its own path.


Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Never pass a bar that has your name on it.

I may not be a fan of his rule on refusing to eat at places with laminated menus (clearly not well-travelled in Asia) but I think I'll adopt the idea of having to go into every bar you see with your name on. Though I may be a little safer than Patrick McCarthy!

Luckily, however, that sentiment and those words are nothing more than a fun through-line within this novel, which is much more about personal identity and the cultural quirks we collectively refer to as Irishness. The core conceit to McCarthy's Bar is one that resonates directly with me: the feeling of belonging to a land which you have no real stake to (beyond genetics and perhaps some all-but-forgotten childhood memories) and in which you don't actually reside. For Pete McCarthy, that land is his ancestral Ireland; for me, it's South Africa. Still, the overarching themes are similar and it was a fun ride to share those thoughts through Pete's words.

I also clearly have similar views to McCarthy, or at least the McCarthy wrote this book. Within the first few chapters I found myself championing his thoughts on idiots that idolise flags over actual, physical land; his bemusement at twin towns; and his double-think around being simultaneously Northern and definitely not from the north, but instead a foreign land. Plus, he's a man that enjoys folk music, stout, and the EU, so there's definitely plenty for us to talk about; as, indeed, do the Irish, making it possibly the best-suited country for me on Earth.

Personal connections aside, McCarthy's Bar is a fun ride with plenty of wit and charm, held up by the insights that come from having an excellent eye for people watching and more than the occasional excerpt from other, more archaic attempts at diarising Ireland. There are scattered moments that remind you the book is now a little long in the tooth – mentions of politicians utterly forgotten, pop culture that no longer deserves the "pop" moniker, and the even rarer instances of 90s progressivism that now cause toe-curling and a sharp inhalation across closed teeth. Despite that, McCarthy's insights into early '90s Ireland are, mostly, fairly timeless and always feel empathetic. Apart from when discussing English stag/hen parties, but that's perfectly understandable.

The book is his travel log around (mainly) western Ireland, from his parent's home in Cork, along a winding route – are there any other kinds in Ireland? – through Celtic history, and through to a pilgrimage at St Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg. There's a little more beyond that, but his time fasting on the island feels like the spiritual ending to the novel. Honestly, the tale could do without it. I've been reading McCarthy's Bar for quite a while, on and off, and had totally forgotten that this was his end goal until it suddenly happened. Then, once it was over, the story returned to normal for a few more brief chapters to round his actual spiritual journey about his Irishness out. Then again, I'm certainly never going to take part in the pilgrimage at Lough Derg myself, so reading about it second hand was fascinating.

Vague plotlines aside, though, what the book does best is paint a picture of Ireland in modern times (albeit ones which now are probably hopelessly lost to the past). Within its pages are hundreds of reasons for wanting to partake in a similar journey and just get lost in the Emerald Isle for a season or two, and I'll admit that on several occasions whilst reading I broke away to research flights and rental prices (not wanting to purchase a Tank of my own – I've done that bit in New Zealand and once was enough!). It's certainly left me with a significant desire to visit or revisit many areas of Ireland and for that reason alone I'd recommend it as a read. The fact that it made me laugh quite a few times along the way, and the manner in which McCarthy always finds the ridiculousness in the world, are just the cherries on top. It's no tourist pamphlet or Lonely Planet, and that does it much credit indeed.

Indeed, the book left me with four strong yearnings: to visit Ireland; to read books more (particularly instead of watching TV or browsing a phone); to write; and – most bizarrely of all – to talk to people I don't know. Some of those things are more surprising – and more likely – than others.

My notes can be found here.

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