Monday, June 6, 2011

Being an Irish Tourist & meeting Turtle Bunbury

The Irish Pub.Thames and Hudson, London. 1908
A couple of years ago, when I was visiting Ireland, I bought a copy of The Irish Pub by Turtle Bunbury at the Hodges Figgis bookstore on Dawson Street.  This is one of my favourite Dublin bookstores. Every year, I go there and fill my Hodges Figgis bag with so many books that I fret about whether I will exceed the allowable weight restrictions for the homeward trip. Perhaps I can blame the ghosts. The book store itself dates back to 1768, and was even mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses:

She, she, she. What she? The virgin at Hodges Figgis' window on Monday looking in for one of the alphabet books you were going to write

It took only a nanosecond of browsing through The Irish Pub before my friend and I hit on a plan. Bunbury describes something like thirty eight pubs in this book, so we decided we would see how many we could manage to visit. At each pub, we would ask the bartender to sign the page as a memento of our time well spent. This way we would have the best souvenir imaginable. That, and our Irish knits for ourselves and our kids.

The pubs in this book were selected for reasons of historical interest. Each one has a story, and I have to say that learning about Irish history does go well with a cold, pulled draught. At first, I worried that James Fennell’s photos would turn out to be misleading. After all, he made each pub look so gobsmakingly gorgeous. It was true that some of the pubs were a little more down at heel than the photos indicated, but that didn’t matter. Fennell's work challenged us to look past the obvious at the architectural heritage, at the specifics of furnishings and knickknacks, and at the quality of light. Each pub was unique. We didn’t regret a single visit.
Mission Accomplished: Page 21 signed by bartender Derek
I first met Turtle Bunbury in emails that he had posted on the Carlow list hosted by Rootsweb. Time and again, he blew me away with both the breadth and depth of his knowledge as well as his absolute ease with language. I read his writing most carefully and attentively, hoping that some of the magic of it would rub off on me.

It would take more than a year before I actually met him in person. All the while, I had an image of what he might look like. For starters, I figured that in order to know as much as he did, he would have to be in his late seventies. Part of my imagined picture of him, absolutely irrational, was also based on the sound of his name: Turtle Bunbury. It made me think of the opposite of Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks, those short American names that echo male energy and cut-to-the-chase decisiveness. From a North American perspective, a name such as Turtle Bunbury conjures up a picture of a retired professorial sort, perhaps wearing a Donegal tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Because of the pub book, I also imagined him having a pub-weathered face, with mischievous eyes peering out from beneath a great rack of eyebrows.

I was visiting at Gilford Castle when Lucie, a daughter of my friend Christine, overheard me talking about him. Oh Turts, you mean. It turned out that they were great buddies, and in fact, I was old enough myself to be the mother of Turts. So much for the idea of him being in his seventies.  On my next visit, we actually met, and it turns out that he is as charming in person as he is on the page.

Since then, I have bought a number of his books, each one a treat, and all for quite different reasons. For example, Dublin Docklands: An Urban Voyage might have been boring in another writer’s hands but was riveting in his. I learned about the Crimean banquet of 1856, a banquet which was thrown not for the officers, but for 4,000 ordinary soldiers. The whole thing was funded by donations, including 8,500 quart bottles of porter and a pint of port wine for each guest. Seven thousand Irish men had died in this war, most of them on account of disease, primarily cholera. To honour the survivors, as Mayor Farrell did on this occasion, was more than appropriate, but it was not something that had ever been done before.

In a subsequent post, I will tell how a tale that Turtle described on his web site connected some experiences of one branch of my Irish family to that of the Jamaican-Canadian poet Lorna Goodison - in ways that neither of could ever have anticipated.

PS. This in response from Turtle: For the record, all my stories from 'The Irish Pub' are online at . This is great - as a tourist, you can download the stories on your phone while you are enjoying a cold one.

1 comment:

  1. Turts indeed. I had conjured up the exact same picture of Mr. Turtle Bunbury, even before I read your description that was clearly stolen from my brain :) It is the best fictional name for that exact character you described...shame, he messed it up with the reality.
    Nevertheless, what a great way to tour pubs and build the ultimate souvenir. Truly a genius idea.