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Around the Irish world with Pete McCarthy

Given Ireland’s leading role, over the past 150 years, as a chief exporter of future Americans, it makes perfect sense that so many Americans of Irish descent today would harbor romantic notions about their spiritual connection to the Auld Sod. However, coming as it so often does from thoroughly deracinated Americans now four or five generations removed from the coffin ships that dumped their ancestors half-starved and destitute at Ellis Island, I’ve always entertained, I think, an equally healthy skepticism about the concept of ancestral memory—especially when it serves chiefly to justify certain ill-informed attitudes and loutish behaviors. If I didn’t think I’d get my ass kicked, I’d love to approach one of these dolts yelling “Up the Ra!” and wiping green beer from the corner of his mouth at a St. Patrick’s Day sports-bar party and ask him what he actually knows about the Irish Republican Army. My guess would be not much. If you know anything about Ireland, you know it doesn’t—or at least shouldn’t—give itself easily to simplistic attitudes and black and white answers.

Mind you, I’d like to believe in ancestral memory, and I haven’t entirely ruled out the possibility that I’m just afflicted with some kind of ethnic envy stemming from the fact that the influx of Czechs, Dutch and Danish in the United States has historically had a rather less cinematic sweep than that of the Irish—who, after all, have had about a million movies made about them. I draw an ancestral blank when I ponder my own heritage, in spite of the fact that I’ve visited all three countries on multiple occasions.

A friend of mine passed his copy of the author’s 2003 McCarthy’s Bar on to me, and frankly I didn’t think I’d get much enjoyment out of a book written by a half-Irish, half-English guy who drives around Ireland in search of his Irishness, usually by aiming for bars bearing his family name. I’m just not Irish enough, I thought, to need to read more sentimental hokum with an affected brogue.

Was I ever wrong! Pete McCarthy’s books are wonderful and addictive to the extreme. The guy is a cut-up, for starters—there’s at least a snort of pleasure or recognition to be had in nearly every droll paragraph, if not a belly laugh—and a whacking good travel writer to boot. He’s reminiscent of P.J. O’Rourke, only without the pervasive vibe of patrician slumming, or a Dave Barry who isn’t simply chasing his tail every Sunday, finding new things or people every week to compare to Nebraska or a Buick.

What really endeared me to McCarthy’s Bar, though, is McCarthy’s niggling suspicion that there is such a thing as ancestral memory—that thing that keeps drawing him back to the Emerald Isle—tempered by a healthy skepticism. It’s not just that McCarthy can be self-deprecating when he wants to—he spends a fair portion of the book analyzing the embarrassment he feels about his business in Ireland. Back home in England, as in the United States, there’s a certain cachet to having Irish roots. In places like Killarney, however, crammed with descendents of the Irish diaspora visiting on vaguely similar business, he’s just another bumbling tourist.

The thing about Ireland, McCarthy insists, is that for as many emigrants the island has sent packing abroad over the past century and a half, the place is remarkably absorbent in the way it makes everybody feel instantly at home. Everyone—Anglo-Irish, Irish-American, Italian or Japanese—is made to feel welcome, he explains, which makes him feel a little less special. It also causes him to reflect on who is more entitled to Ireland—himself, raised near Liverpool but Irish on his mother’s side and a frequent childhood visitor of the farm where she grew up, or, say, a German hippie with no ancestral ties whatsoever, but thoroughly assimilated by the small village where he’s been living for five years. Actually, the preponderance of German tourists in western Ireland provides plenty of grist for McCarthy’s humor-mill. For one thing, he explains, their insistence on punctuality is definitely at odds with the local conception of time. They also sit in front of the stage with tape recorders at traditional music sessions and petulantly shush the locals still talking and laughing in the back of the room.

McCarthy’s Bar is a great place to start cultivating a McCarthy addiction, and the newer The Road to McCarthy is essentially more of the same, but on a bigger playing field. Instead of tooling around Ireland, McCarthy puts on his roll-up crusher and sets out to find Irishness in the wider world—starting in Morocco, where the deposed chief of his ancestral clan has been living in exile. His quest also takes him to New York for a St. Patrick’s Day reading in a raucous Irish pub, where he has every reason to believe that his half-English pedigree will put him athwart of a rowdy contingent of drinkers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Unrepentant Fenian Bastard.”

McCarthy’s ultimate destination is the town of McCarthy (population: 17), at the end of a road famous—“at least among people who’ve heard of McCarthy and tried to get there”—as being the worst in Alaska. By the time he gets there, he’s already fallen off barstools in Tasmania, the West Indies, Glasgow and, yes, Butte, Montana, where he dines at the now-defunct M&M, “as I believe I would every morning of my life if I lived here.” Butte and its Irish get the royal treatment here. McCarthy must have passed through Missoula afterwards; you’ll find yourself wishing he’d stayed longer.

Contact the critic: smetanka@missoulanews.com

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