Pub culture goes literary

25th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

John O’Dowd, a well-travelled Irishman who has brought together words and Guinness in a new novel entitled The Men Who Ran Away, talks to Marius Benson about his first-hand research in Europe’s Irish pubs. Marius Benson: The Irish are historically a literary nation, but traditionally they're meant to spend their talent on talk in the pub — you have actually written a novel.


A novel where our characters spend a considerable amount of time in pubs, and yes, a lot of talking. For many new folk in town, like our characters, Bart and O’Hanagan, the pub is the first port of call for finding work, accommodation, just to get to know which is the bad side and which is the good side of town.

It’s sad, but every city has a bad side, and you don’t read about it in guides, but by experiencing it, or the easy way, asking. By going into a pub and starting a conversation, say, asking for a late night shop, you learn a lot.

*quote1*What was the hard bit — was it getting out of the pub?

People shouldn’t assume that a writer who has to spend hours in pubs for his research has problems getting out, but yes, I did. Had a terrible time.

Murphy's in Rotterdam was a particular difficult assignment because the front door moved to a new location after midnight. I was coming to terms with the fact that I had a drink problem when I learned that the staff really were using another door when the crowd was in, for safety reasons.

We'll come back to the book, but let's talk about pubs. Pubs in Ireland are a real and genuine part of local culture. But what about when they go off around the world — Irish pubs in Sydney, Hong Kong, Kampala and all over the US and Europe. Are they real or phoney?

Some folk walk into a pub and scoff at a washboard hanging from the ceiling or an imitation turf fire, so for them the cosmetics is phoney.

But for those seeking a meeting point, information centre, employment exchange, currency exchange, cheque cashing facilities, alibis, a post office, then the Irish pub can provide all of these services, and they do if there’s a demand and a few other conditions.

For example, during the building boom in Berlin, early 1990s before folk had email, the lads in the construction business were moving from site to site, often out of town or abroad for a while. They didn’t know when they might be back or where they would be staying. But if they returned, they wanted a place where they could pick up their mail, maybe tax forms, have a drink and find out who’s still in town.

 The publican would of course be happy to hang onto someone’s mail if he thought a potential customer was coming to get it. For the same reason, publicans were happy to cash cheques and exchange currency, knowing where a substantial amount of money would be spent. Of course, new banking codes and the euro are changing things, as did the Internet cafe, but still, the Irish pub is the best bet for the wandering contracting community.

Are you naturally attracted to Irish pubs outside Ireland, or are you suspicious of them?

Certainly music. Music more than anything lures me through a door. I love riotous fiddles and a bodhran going mad all night. Suspicious? No, not at all, I know it’s a business like anything else, there to take my money but if they give nothing back I can go somewhere else.

Or would you mean the suspicious characters I might meet there? They’d be no better or no worse than if I met them in the street or at work, it’s just that I might be sucked into a conversation in a pub, or dragged up to dance, or God forbid, forced to sing a song.

But I don’t wake up the next morning and feel as if I’ve been violated. I go through my pockets instead, looking for bits of beer mat to find phone numbers and email addresses.

Now, there’s a sad suspicious situation: the Internet. Some people have nothing but an electronic social life, emailing strangers. I’ve met a few of these cardboard cut-outs and I feel that they need to get to their nearest rowdy pub to sample life, and they’ll know if it’s real or not.

For those not familiar with Irish pubs in Europe, who and what can they expect to find there?

More conversation than dirty dancing.

There’s less isolation, like in many continental cafes where you find yourself stranded at a table. Pubs with a nice size crowd are great for mingling. It’s an art, like conversation, but you need to negotiate your way around bellies and tables while you talk.

Use short snappy sentences as you mingle your way to the bar or the washroom, remember whatever response you received so that you can pick up on the conversation as you wander back to your seat. If you have one.

Anyone entering a pub with live entertainment should be ready for standing or better, being squashed up against a wall — my favourite position.

Music too, that sets the Irish pub apart from other bars. There’s varying degrees: at the top you have establishments that cater to musicians, poets, stand-up comedians and other artists, and lower down you have the sports bar with television, and at the bottom you have the beer hall that just sells stout.

Most strangers peep through the door before venturing in, but really, that’s judging a book by the cover. You really need to be in there, and put aside fears of being bitten. The worse thing that might happen is that no one asks you, “How’s it going?”

Oh, and something else that a stranger might find there, a cross section of ages. A good pub has the young and old together. This is something that could be said for the traditional British pub, too — people from different walks of life and of varying ages all under one roof.

For most places around the world, it only happens at funerals or weddings, and it‘s getting worse. Continental cafes, American theme bars or night clubs, whatever, they aim for a market or cater for a particular group, like crazy students or old boozers or bored business men. Any place that brings young and old together in one place is a health tonic for society. It keeps the old young and the young get wise.

Do you have a favourite Irish pub outside Ireland?

Kate Whelan's on Nationaal Straat in Antwerp. I haven’t been there for a few years, but it used to be hopping from midnight to morning. Buskers would ramble in after tourists had gone to bed, and start playing for themselves and anyone listening.

These days I go to the Shillelaigh in The Hague, the oldest Irish pub in Holland. It’s a place to walk in and find a head to talk to. Unfortunately, music only happens once a week, on Friday, but it’s live and foot stamping.

Other nights I head up to Amsterdam, to the Mulligan's on the Amstel, a small cosy place with music every night. I’ve spent hours squashed against a wall with my pint of stout and only my ears able to move to music. Love it.

How did you start writing about pubs?

While writing my novel, I was rambling about Holland and Belgium, using pubs to find work and then to find employees for my business.

There was a network that formed a triangle that stretched from Berlin to Brussels to Amsterdam. I only travelled along a portion of that, say between Antwerp and Rotterdam, although my contracts took me as far away as Yugoslavia and Canada.

My plan was to finish the first draft, and then fill in details later. I was sure someone would tell me that I failed to capture the sense of place. But no one said it’s not real. When the book was finished I wandered over the border, to a pub I had written about. If you ask me for the name of the place, I wouldn’t know if it was real or fictitious, but certainly not phoney.

Now about this book, Irish characters and that it?

Not at all. Portuguese feature in the novel, as do plenty of Brits. The story depicts a broad itinerant community that lives in Europe, and it also catches a glimpse of where we were in the early 1990s. When I started writing, a character could search for a phone booth, but after a few years people were asking why doesn’t he have a mobile. Or why not use a hotmail account? So I had to set the novel in stone, call the first chapter Nineteen-Ninety-Something, to stop it hopping about like the characters.

As the title says, these two men, Bart and O’Hanagan, ran away, fugitives using pubs in the same manner as illegal immigrants might, or tax dodgers. Rather than a Who Done It, this is a Who’s Chasing Me?

After escaping Ireland, Bart gets rid of his accomplice, his simpleton cousin, and is settling into his fugitive life when, one night in a pub, a stranger asks a question. He knows that, to ask the question, the stranger must know about the crime back home, so he runs again, to another pub, another town, country but all to no avail.

The book asks who’s coming? Is it the law or revenge or blackmail or what about his simpleton cousin? Or is it the taxman, a situation that many readers could relate to.

The truth is, it started as non-fiction, but I didn’t want to be yet another travel writer. And the characters, they needed writing about as much as the places, and there’s no better place than a good pub for seeing the brilliance of the most boring of farts explode into life.

The Men Who Ran Away. Where can we get this book?

Unfortunately, no news yet of which shops on the continent will stock the paperback, so it’s up to the good old, or should I say, young Internet.

The Men Who Ran Away can be ordered or downloaded, but everyone can have a free peep at the opening chapters. Last week I actually stayed away from the pub to read the ebook version.

Anyone who’s never read an ebook should try it in Adobe; much better than I expected. It brings a traditional image to your screen: words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Proper pages with numbers.

I found myself staring into my computer, like strangers peeping into a pub and asking, is it real or phoney? We only live once, so we should try everything at least once. I even tried that cybersex eventually, but that’s for another interview.

Subject: Book reviews

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