||Perceptive Pub Crawl
by Howard Engel
Neighbours of mine disappear every year for a few weeks to go dancing in Ireland. With the dancing go large quantities of folk music and Guinness. Once they showed me pictures of their hostels in County Clare and mentioned the liveliest pubs in Galway. I'd been there myself not long ago, so I recognized the place names and the tunes. The tempos of the tapping feet, the fiddles, tin whistles, and the Gaelic harp began vibrating in my mind along with images of Galway Bay, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Burren.
David Wilson, a work-a-day academic at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, saw and heard all of this and more. And he saw it on a bicycle. It was a trip of a lifetime, floated on song and a sea of stout. In a way it was an enormous pub crawl, but it wound its way, sometimes bleary-eyed and none too steady over the handlebars, around the coast of the divided island, crossing from the North into the Republic and back again with a purpose. As a journey, it reminds me of Dr. Johnson and Boswell in Scotland because so much more is happening on every page than simply a recording of miles covered and meals consumed. Just as Charles Foran in The Last House of Ulster: A Family in Belfast recorded the history and mood swings of "Norn Iron" (Northern Ireland) over a fifteen-year period, concentrating on one family, Wilson does a similar job by going from pub to pub around the circumference of the Emerald Isle from Presbyterian Islandmagee to Gaelic Cape Clear and back again. For all the fun and games, the rollicking crack, and the music, Wilson is taking the pulse of the partitioned island as well as Foran, or Roddy Doyle for that matter. Pointing out, he is, that at both ends of the island they take their religion, nationality, and allegiance seriously; that if your neighbours are exactly like you, there's not much hope for the kids to be any different. Let me pick a random quotation to show what I mean:
".the overlay of Protestant culture on Gaelic foundations has produced some ironic consequences. A friend of mine told me about a staunch Loyalist who was infuriated by the law that enabled Catholics to rename their streets in the Gaelic language. `Let them try that around where I live,' he said, `and just see what bloody well happens.' `Why, where do you live?' asked my friend. `Ballyhackamore,' came the indignant reply."
These glimpses into hopes and fears, aspirations and prejudices, were worth recording, and the sermon never drowns out the song. He talks politics and passes on his observations at no extra charge; so integrated are they in the subject that clearly enthralls him, the music of Ireland-about which he knows a lot and picked up more from musicians and balladeers along the road-that before he gets back to Islandmagee again you hope the book will go around again and again like a reel that keeps on giving pleasure until the last note.
A word should be said about Justin Palmer's black and white illustrations, which ramble through the pages most agreeably. he has a way with bicycles that suggest a familiarity with Flann O'Brien. His pub sketches, the faces of Wilson's fellow wayfarers, fit well into the text as a pint into an open hand. The publisher might have provided a short biographical note about him somewhere. But that's a critic's quibble and not worth a tinker's damn. The bald truth of the matter is that this slim book is almost as good as being there.