This may be McCarthy’s first book, but his ample writing experience is clear in this extremely well written, funny, and touching account of his travels in his mother’s native western Ireland. Oh yes, and of his quest to drink Guinness in bars called McCarthy – a laudable aim of any trip.
Studiously avoiding any of the new laddishness of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge, McCarthy the Englishman makes an excellent travelling companion. He regularly gets lost, condemns or praises each new-found drinking partner in a sentence or two, and all the while stops short of falling into the Bryson trap of reveling in heritage while lambasting modernity.
One of the best features of the book is his snippets of Irish radio phone-in shows. Behind the hilarity, it is these that offer some of the clearest insights into modern rural Irish life with no need for further commentary.
In constant search of affirmation that he somehow belongs in Ireland, yet ever aware of the similar claims of every American tourist he meets, McCarthy ends up pondering some big questions about identity – and ends up with some suitably complex answers.
But this is not a deep metaphysical book – we are also witness to McCarthy running away from bulls, gatecrashing parties and regularly comparing the price of Singapore noodles. However the killer section – and it is a denouement that creeps up on you – is his time spent in purgatory. I will say no more.
If you need dispelling of the notion that Ireland is all shamrocks and leprechauns, then many books will suffice. But if you want to try and understand a country through the eyes of someone desperate to come to terms with all that it stands for, I doubt you will find a more entertaining way of doing so.
Overall verdict: Excellent read.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2001