Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The country side

One of my favorite books of all times is McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy. I assume that most of you have heard of it, and if you haven’t, then shame on you- go get a copy now.

The story of McCarthy’s Bar is an interesting one. Pete McCarthy is an English-Irish writer and tv maker, whose mother is Irish while his father is English. In the book, Pete McCarthy sets off on a journey through the Irish countryside in search of his roots and of pubs that carry his name. Given that McCarthy is a very common name in the South and West of Ireland, he has a great time cruising around Ireland, meeting interesting characters and visiting brilliant pubs.

When I moved to Ireland in January 2007, I imagined myself undertaking similar journeys and visiting great pubs in the Irish country side every now and then. What I did not take into consideration, however, was the extent of the Irish public transport system. Or rather, the absence of it. Because Ireland has such a low population density, the only public transport goes between ‘major’ towns and cities and countryside villages often don’t have bus connections to the outside world. So it was with some interest that I took up an invitation from my friend Lynda to come to the country side with her, to visit her native county of Offaly. She told me that we would visit the village of Mount Bolus to join in a pub quiz that was being held in the honour of the local gun club, an institution her father is apparently the president of, or something like that. We left Dublin by car and set off in the direction of Tullamore. Doing my research before setting off on the weekend, I had found that Tullamore is the county capital and, for country side standards, a major town with a population of 10.000. I found the combination of the term ‘capital’ and a population of 10.000 very amusing.

The only other capital that I ever heard of with such a small population is Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, which has a population of 15.000. It turned out that this was one of many peculiarities I was to come across in the next day and a half. Another interesting one had to do with the fact that the village where the pub quiz was going to be held, was called Mount Bolus. I typed it in in Google and could find exactly 1 website that mentioned it. A website, you will be pleased to know, that dealt with the local church community rather than the town itself. Even Google pictures could find only 7 pictures on the subject of Mount Bolus, and I was informed later that one of those pictures was not really of Mount Bolus. The Google picture search revealed 2 pictures of a road (The road, one would presume) one of the local hurling team, one each of the church and the churchyard and one of a pub. So it was with some interest that I set off to this remote settlement in the Irish Midlands. We left Dublin and were able to make it out of the Dublin metropolitan area in what I was informed was a record time for a Friday night. Having left Dublin, or The Big Smoke as country folk like to call it, behind us, I was taken on a start-stop tour of the country side that lies between Dublin and Tullamore. We had had a discussion about the Irish public transport system and, driving through one particularly small town, I pointed out a bus stop. I was again made to laugh when Lynda told me that there was a bus there on Wednesday morning at 11 and that that was pretty much it for the week.

After a 1 ½ hour drive, stopping off at a friends house elsewhere in the countryside, we arrived in Tullamore, picked up some other people and then set out for Mount Bolus.

Unknown town in the country side

Nothing could have prepared me for this. After driving through back roads for about 20 minutes, we arrived what should be the village of Mount Bolus. It turned out that the 6 pictures on Google were actually an accurate and complete depiction of the place. It really was 1 road with about 30 houses dotted around it, and a church on one site and a pub on the other.

The pub was called

460. The Mountainview Tavern

And I must say that the name was quite accurate because it did actually have a view of a mountain. Someone told me the name of the mountain it has a view of, but I forgot to write that down. Outside was a small parking lot with assorted country side stuff lying around and in the field next to it were a couple of rocks that sort of resembled tombstones. There was also some cart and, surprisingly, a canon. Inside, it was a typical country side pub, as I had expected it to be. A small bar room, with 4 beers on draught (Guinness, Smithwick’s, Carlsberg and Budweiser) a bunch of assorted wooden tables and stools, a pooltable and a small group of assorted locals. A woman at the bar started talking to me and I found out 5 minutes later that I had been talking to my friend Lynda’s mother the whole time. In fact, the 3 locals at the bar turned out to be her mother, her father and her sister, so I must say that I sort of felt special for being part of this family reunion. Another interesting thing was that I had ordered 3 pints at the bar and, to my surprise, I got change from a tenner. Excellent pricing then, here in the country. It was by now quarter to 9 and the pub quiz was supposed to be going underway at 9. The problem was though that, apart from our team, there was nobody else there. The whole idea of a pub quiz is based on the fact that there are several teams competing for first price and if there’s only 1 team that sort of defies the whole idea of a team quiz. It was at this point that I was made aware of another point of interest in the country side. In tiny settlements like this, they just wait until everybody they expect to show up is actually there. Around 9.30, the first people started to pour in and at around 10 the pub was fairly packed and the pub quiz went underway. The questions were read out by a John Cleese look alike, who may have been the owner of the pub or some other local dignitary. He didn’t use a microphone or anything, he just told everybody to be quiet and belted out the questions at the top of his voice. The questions were on various subjects and I could make out an answer to most of the questions. I was very pleased to find that, unlike other pub quizes I have been in recently, there were no questions about reality tv or celebrities I have never heard of. The questions were mainly on colors of flags, towns where historic events took place and other assorted trivia that I am usually quite good at. We reached the end of the quiz and the organising committee went about the task of adding up the points for all the contestants. I noted that by now the pub was really packed and I joked to someone at the next table that the whole village must have been there. I must admit that I was unable to hide my amusement when the lady confirmed a minute later that I was right and that the whole village literally was there.

I guess that’s what happens on big nights in a town with a population of 164.

While we were waiting for the results of the quiz, the drinks kept coming in (who could blame us, at 3 euros for a pint) and we were offered free sandwiches by the pub staff. I thought this was another really nice touch to the whole evening and I was really enjoying myself.

The Mountain view.

After the results of the quiz were announced (a local team and a team from a couple of towns on finished in a dead heat and had to play a play off round to decide the winner) it was around midnight and another round was ordered. It was then that I realised that another advantage of living in the country side is that there is no one to monitor if you are actually sticking to the licensing laws and opening hours. Pubs in Ireland are officially supposed to shut the shop for the night at 11.30. In the country, this law applies too, but as there is no one to check if the landlord actually does this, pubs often stay open until early in the morning, or close the door and keep on serving anyway to whoever is inside (a so called lock-in). It was around 1.30 when we left the pub to go back to Tullamore, or so I would guess because the cheap pints were really doing their work. Back at the house of one of Lynda’s friends, we had another couple of drinks and we called it a night at around 4 am, a time, I must admit, that I am not awake at very often these days.

Emma, Lynda and Fiona

Locals getting ready for the pub quiz

Cheap beer too!

Me and Lynda in the pub

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s because my pub visiting hours have shifted through the years from evening until early morning to noon until around midnight, but for some reason I find it nearly impossible to sleep late these days. And so it was that I woke up in Tullamore at 9 in the morning and all the other people in the house were still asleep. Normally I would have gone for a walk, but as I had no clue where I was and there was no one awake to ask directions to the town centre, I decided to read for a bit, had a sandwich, took some pictures outside and read some more.

Early morning in Tullamore

Somewhere around 11.30, the rest of the house started to wake up and we got ready to go for breakfast. We drove into town and stopped at a small restaurant that reputably did an excellent breakfast. I must say that I was suitably impressed. I had a small breakfast and it was really nice. I don’t remember the name of the place, and it doesn’t really matter because they did not sell alcoholic drinks, so I could not count it anyway.

Graffiti wall in Tullamore

Breakfast over, we dropped 2 people off at their destinations for the afternoon and set out to visit a friend of Lynda’s, who lived ‘just out of town’. Now over the past years I have learned that Irish people are quite liberal when it comes to indicating times and distances, so it was not really a surprise that we were driving through deserted country lanes for about 15 minutes before we reached a big house in the middle of nowhere. We had tea and cookies and chatted for a while with the people living there, and then set off for town again.

Welcome to Middle of Nowhere, Offaly.

We were supposed to pick up the friend whose house we had stayed at the night before and then make it back to the house. While we were waiting for her friend, who had to go to the bank to arrange something for her holiday, I decided that I had to go to the toilet and walked into a pub

461. Bob Smyth’s Bar

And used their toilet. When I came out of the toilet, I thought it would be impolite to leave the establishment without ordering a drink, so I walked to the bar and ordered a Jack Daniels. I would normally order a pint, but as I had limited time, I decided on a shot of whiskey. Not much to say about this pub really. I was only in there for about 10 minutes, but just another pub in just another town.

We made a detour to stop at the offlicense where I got myself 7 cans of Foster’s and it turned out that the guy working in the off license was from Australia. We exchanged pleasantries and I got some tips for my trip to Australia next month and we then set off for home. I had a couple of beers and me and Lynda had an interesting conversation about the house where her friend lived, out in the middle of nowhere. She told me that she would ideally like to live in such a place, with a detached house in the middle of a field, with some animals around it and a vegetable garden, in the fresh air and under the clear blue sky of the country side. I then described what would be my ideal living situation, which would be an apartment on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, New York, with a subway station at the end of the street, a 24 hour supermarket next door and 50 bars and 35 restaurants to choose from within 5 minutes walking distance. She told me that I had just described her idea of hell and when I informed her that what she had just described was my idea of hell, we both laughed at the fact that we were such polar opposites on this subject. I finished my beer and then it was time for me to go back to the city. I put my 3 remaining cans of Foster’s in my back pack and set off for the train station.

Fozzy is my friend.

I had a pleasant trip back to the city and even though I had been in the country side for only about a day or so, and I had had a great time, I found that I could barely hide my excitement at getting back to the big city. When I got off the train at Heuston station,and walked back into the neverending white noise that is always present in big cities, I knew that I would never want to live in the country side. I enjoy going there every now and then, but I’m a city slicker at heart. I love the noise, the chaos and the hustle and bustle of the city. I love the fact that shops are open 24 hours a day and that there’s so much choice in everything. I love the fact that it is full of strange characters and unexpected random weird stuff.

In short; I love being in the city.

That’s were I live and that’s where I want to be.

And there is nothing that anybody can do about that.

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