Authors: Pete McCarthy
AROUND THE WORLD
The Road To McCarthy
IN SEARCH OF IRELAND
TO THE WEST CORK McCARTHYS,
wherever they may be
The author sets out on his journey
I grew up
not far from Liverpool in the north of England, the son of an Irish mother and an English father. Though English by birth and accent, I was in the sway of the Irish culture that had crossed the sea to our part of England in wave after wave of emigration. Religion was part of the identity. The priests and nuns who populated my childhood all spoke with the same Irish accent as my uncles and aunts. I was aware on an intellectual level that the Catholic Church was meant to be Roman, and therefore in some way inherently Italian, but as far as I could make out in practice it had been comprehensively hijacked by the Irish.
Every summer we visited the small West Cork farm where my mother grew up. For a boy from an industrial town, it was an unimaginable thrill to make hay with a pitchfork and ride to market by horse and cart. I experienced an Ireland that has all but disappeared, and came to love it. It’s a feeling that has never left me.
Though I still live in England, where family and circumstance and work have kept me, the ties pulling me back across the Irish Sea have never loosened.
Those childhood visits have meant that today, when I visit, I feel in many ways more at ease, more
, than I do in the country of my birth. In recent years I found myself wondering whether there was such a thing as genetic memory. Was it possible truly to belong in a country where I had never lived but my ancestors had? Or am I just a nostalgic fool, wallowing in the sentimentality of childhood memory, seduced by the romance of Irish music, literature and history, and wanting my own part in it?
I decided to make a journey around Ireland to put these feelings to the test. An account of the trip was published under the title
. (Motto: Never pass a bar that has your name on it.) And that was to be the end of it. It was not my intention to write further on Celtic themes. I planned instead to turn my attentions to Arizona, where I once managed a junk shop, and where my career as a salesman peaked the day I sold a bow and arrows to a Navajo family. But as I traveled in the wake
of McCarthy’s Bar
giving readings in the U.S.A., Canada, Ireland and Australia, stories of the Irish diaspora brought themselves to my attention. I began to consider the possibilities of a global journey in pursuit of Irish themes, some of them connected with my own clan, others drawn from the wider historical experience. My mind was made up over brunch one Sunday morning in Toronto.
I was speaking to a banqueting hall of well-fed book fans about my childhood, and in particular about the two packages that arrived from Ireland every year without fail. The first was a small box containing the St. Patrick’s Day shamrock. The second, arriving a few days before Christmas, was turkey in a hessian sack. No plastic wrap, no wrapping paper, no card, no note—just a sack, covered with stamps and an address, with a naked, dead turkey inside. I don’t think it happens anymore. It’s probably illegal now to send nude poultry in the mail (though I believe there is a shop in Amsterdam that will send you photographs). I remember thinking at the time how strange it seemed to be living in affluent England and receiving food parcels from relatives who had no running water in the home.
As I was telling the story, there was a noise in the audience. A man got to his feet, pushed his way through the crowd, and took the microphone from me whether I liked it or not. Luckily I did. He was about eighty years
old, Canadian by birth, and said he had just been reminded of a long-forgotten incident from his childhood that he wanted to share with us. “We had the turkey in sack, too! I remember the first time it arrived.”
He had grown up, he said, in the mid-west, the son of Irish immigrants. It was a poor household, so the first time a turkey arrived from the old country, there was no prospect of such a luxury being saved for Christmas Day. In any case, there was no way of knowing how long it had been traveling. The giant bird went straight from sack to oven in double-quick time.
An hour and a half later there was a tremendous explosion, and the door blew off the oven. His mother had failed to spot the bottle of poteen with which the turkey had been stuffed.
The realization that the two of us had grown up on separate continents, of different generations, yet had such specific life experiences in common, was the spur I needed to set me on the road to McCarthy. The journey unfolded over a period of a little over a year. Though my take on life has always been a humorous one, I was engaged in a search for identity that had a serious purpose at its core.
There’s no denying the huge and burgeoning modern need to know where we come from. In recent decades, cheap air travel and mass college education have made us more socially and geographically mobile than ever before. As small, closely-knit communities have broken up, and a global network of communications has replaced the local, oral traditions of previous generations, so the need to belong to some known collective past has rocketed. Not an invented need, a plastic heritage, as some cynics have suggested, but a genuine yearning, that’s always been there, but now is no longer satisfied. And for many people, God’s gone missing too. He may be back one day, but until then people will seek the reassurance of a wider human context, a bigger picture in which their own walk-on role gives life meaning and significance. Everybody wants to be in a good story. It’s a natural impulse to shape the random events we live through into coherent narrative; otherwise our lives would feel like experimental theater or abstract painting, which would be a complete nightmare. We need a good plot, and if God isn’t available to provide it, then an epic human story stretching back in time fits the bill nicely. And so history and archaeology are all over our
televisions, and genealogical websites implode under the volume of hits. Americans come to European archives, and Europeans go to Australian prison records, and people tramp round the west of Ireland going into every pub that bears their name and wondering at their place in it all. In a world that lives increasingly in the moment, it’s important to remember where we’ve come from, or we may wake up one morning unable to remember who we are.
And so I set out on a journey, beginning and ending in Ireland, that would take me to Australia and the Americas. First, though, I had to try and find my own clan chief, who had gone to ground and was holed up in that well-known Celtic hot-spot.
IRELAND AND MOROCCO
It had seemed
a romantic idea to arrive in the port of Tangier, and the continent of Africa, by sea; but the painfully early hour of my flight to Gibraltar, where I will catch the ferry to Morocco, has already turned romance sour. An alarm clock ringing at four in the morning in the middle of an English winter is a cruel and unnatural thing. The fear of getting up so early pollutes my sleep, filling it with nervous, guilty, premature awakenings, as well as nightmares of having overslept and missed the taxi, the flight and the rest of my life.
It’s frosty and still dark as we board the plane at a shopping mall with an overcrowded airport attached somewhere in Sussex. The young man in the seat next to me is Estonian, like his friend across the aisle. When breakfast is served he orders two quarter-bottles of red wine from a surprised stewardess and knocks them back at high speed with his sausage, bacon, mushrooms and powdered egg. Then he eats the muesli and yogurt. It’s so early my brain isn’t working properly, and I’m struggling to decipher the meaning of such extreme behavior.
The Estonians are accompanied by a hearty English business type in a Winnie-the-Pooh-on-a-balloon tie who is keen to show that he’s in charge. He keeps telling the Estonians very boring things in a loud, slow voice with all definite and indefinite articles removed, like a whisky trader talking to injuns about heap powerful thundersticks. When the stewardess comes to collect the breakfast debris my Estonian orders a gin and tonic to wash the wine down, while his friend opts for another cup of tea and some port. I have been to Estonia twice, and can report that it is an enigmatic country, with a glorious tradition of choral singing.