Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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The Irish Pub, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2008)

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Dick Macks

Dingle, Co. Kerry

A lot of people think I was named for Oliver Reed but it was actually for the Blessed Oliver Plunkett’, explains dapper Kerry publican, Oliver Joseph Mary MacDonnell. Oliver was the elder of twin boys born to Dick and Angela McDonnell in 1951. His twin runs a farm the far side of Kerry’s Conor Pass. When Dick died in 1992, Oliver took on the family pub. Not because he was the eldest but ‘because I worked the hardest at it’, he suggests with a wry smile.

The MacDonnells have been in Dingle at least since the 1700s. Oliver’s grandfather, Tom MacDonnell, was born at the height of the Great Famine in 1848. When the Tralee and Dingle Light Railway and Tramway opened in 1891, Tom was appointed Station Master. His role was to choreograph the passage of all goods, cattle and passengers on this, the most westerly railway line in Europe. In 1899, Tom Mack branched out, opening a grocery and general store on Dingle’s Green Street. The tea, flour and sugar bins he installed are still there today, stamped with the MacDonnell crest and their adopted motto, ‘As You Like It’.

When Dick succeeded to the pub in 1938, he promptly established himself as the town’s foremost boot merchant. Down the line came the first consignments of Wellingtons from the Hunter factory in Scotland, closely followed by shoes from the Mullan shoe factory in County Monaghan. Today, the dominant feature in Dick Macks pub are the timber shelves rising from floor to ceiling on two of the three principal walls. Each shelf is stacked to the brim with tobacco stained shoeboxes, rubber boots, leather shoes, floppy runners, boxes of buckles and trimmings of tawny old leather. At its peak, Dick and two apprentices operated a shoe-repair business; the leather-making tools they used are still on site. He also specialised in belts, which, says Oliver, tugging at his own, was a particularly thrifty business. Nail boots was another success. ‘They were hard-wearing, and the nails made them perfect for climbing the mountains’.

The railway was always an enigma. It brought many strangers to Dingle. But it took a lot of people away, many of whom never came back. Dingle’s émigrés tended to settle in Boston. Three of Oliver’s aunts left for London and rarely returned home thereafter. When the railway closed in 1953, the mood was sombre. Oliver’s godfather JJ O’Connor was one of the biggest cattle dealers in Ireland at the time and frequently dispatched his herds by train to Dublin. That said, his godson raised no objections. ‘My mother told me I cried all the way down from Dublin because I couldn’t stand the noise of it’.

When arthritis got the better of Dick in the 1970s, he left young Oliver to look after the pints and bottle the beer. Dick retired behind the counter to repair shoes, cut lengths for belts and fit some of the new buckles that had come in from Walsall near Birmingham. By the 1980s, cheaper imports from Asia and rising labour costs prompted Dick to call it a day on the shoe front. But, where others might have disposed of all remaining footwear to a bin, Dick simply left them exactly where they were and carried on with the pub. Likewise, to the eternal gratitude of innumerable newcomers to Dingle over the past twenty years, Dick’s son has kept it all precisely as it was. But Oliver was by no means an idle publican. He was one of the first to start selling wine in the town and, before long, was offering 32 different varieties of French wine, acquired from Lee White & Company in Cork.

Tourism has been a mainstay of Dingle’s economy ever since ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was filmed on the peninsula in 1968. Oliver recalls serving Robert Mitchum the occasional brandy between the actor’s marijuana-fuelled guest-house romps. Capitalizing on Dingle’s newfound lover affair with Hollywood, Dick duly started his own Walk of Fame on the street outside the pub’s red front door. The first pair to be immortalised in stars were two Kerrymen –Antarctic explorer Tom Crean and writer Jerome O’Connor. The honour has since been bestowed upon a dozen more, including Sir John Mills, who played the village mute in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, and Dolly Parton, who celebrated by sitting on the counter. ‘A lot of people think she’s a big woman’, confides Oliver. ‘But I can assure you that, while she’s all there, she’s really very small’.

In 1984 a friendly dolphin called Fungie pirouetted into the plot and Dingle experienced another wave of publicity. With annual visitors now touching on quarter of a million, locals are inevitably divided as to the benefits of tourism. The town is certainly one of the liveliest on the west coast of Ireland but some of the older generation perhaps struggle to reconcile this with the Dingle of their youth. Along the walls of Dick Macks pub are early 20th century photographs suggesting a town of muddy streets and open drains, overrun with donkeys and carts, old women in black shawls carrying baskets, rugged men in cloth caps and skinny children in bare feet. It’s hard to believe this is the same town that lights the night sky with such determination in the 21st century.

Dick Mack died in 1992 and his wife followed eight months later. ‘She said she’d never marry a fellow with a hole in his jumper but she did’, says her son. Oliver has run the show ever since, aided and abetted by his wife Josephine. By a strange coincidence, she is also a twin. He does not expect any of his three daughters to take on the premises but, as he says, who knows? He kept his father’s name above the door because Oliver is a modest man and, whilst he was born and raised in the building, he and his family now live out of town. He has converted the old family kitchen, sitting and dining areas into alternative drinking spots for his customers. He still enjoys the pub business but is equally at home tending to the few cows he keeps on a nearby farm. Although he endeavours to personally open the pub every morning, he no longer works at night. ‘I did 35 years of nights’, he says with feeling.

Dick Macks is a cracking good pub. There’s not many like it left. By night it seems as though every rattan stool, bentwood chair and scuff-resistant step is occupied by someone of a different nationality. All silhouetted by the shoe boxes rising up the wall. The lighting overhead is as stark as you get – four unsheathed bulbs, the beams rebounding off the red coal buckets and a wooden currach dangling from the ceiling. The bar is at the perfect height for the elbows that echo down its pitch pine planks, the hands that occasionally sweep up the glass for a drink. In two corners, small groups drink together in cosy tongue and groove snugs, surrounded by ceramic jars, honeysuckle wine and quirky pictures by the great Jay Killian. Everywhere the banter is in full flow. When the music starts, all ankles tap. If these people are not Irish, they sure want to be.

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CONTENTS

1. The Concept.
2. On the Road.
3. The Chosen Pubs.
4. Conclusions.
5. Personal Qualifications.

6. A History of the Irish Pub
.
7. Acknowledgments.

8. Media Coverage.

9. Bibliography.
10. Places to Stay.

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