girls account of late Michael Hanley
Many of our readers will remember and have known the late
Michael Hanley who was a native of Urhan. Some years back
Big Mike, as he was well known, purchased a public house
in Castletownbere and named it The Beara Bar, which was
situated at Bank Place. In time it became a favourite drinking
place, especially for fishermen.
The Bar was managed and run by Mikes daughter, Mary
until its closure two years ago. Big Mike was very well
known around the coast as a fish buyer who bought and cured
salt mackerel and herring exporting it to countries in the
Third World. He was noted as a very good employer. In his
younger years, back in the 1940s, Mike had a special boat
built for the purpose of bringing sand from Wescove on the
Kerry side of Kenmare Bay to farmers in the parish. This
sand contained a high concentration of lime and was used
to spread on land. It was subsidised by the Government.
A few years ago a young American student arrived in Beara
where she spent some weeks studying the archaeology and
history of the area. Her name was Kate Murphy and she became
very popular with the Customers of the Beara Bar where she
stayed during her visit. On returning to her University
at Boston, she wrote the following about Mike Hanley for
her school magazine. We know that the late Mike would have
got a great kick from the story. The four-hour-long
bus ride from Cork to Castletownbere passed by in a humid
blur. Southern Ireland must have been displaying its lush
green hillsides and verdant hedges in drippy splendour,
but there could have been dancing purple sheep in the fields
for all we passengers could see through the rain-splattered,
I briefly entertained the idea that our bus was, in fact,
a time travel machine, isolated from the sights and sounds
of the years and dimensions through which we were hurtling
at full speed. This pretense, however, became increasingly
difficult to sustain, as the air in the bus grew closer,
the stops and starts jerkier, and the number of nonplussed
In the countryside, bus stops seemed abstract. Our driver
chose random unmarked intersections at which to stop and
wait for passengers who, miraculously, were waiting expectantly
in their cars parked alongside various roads. While one
bus stop was in front of an establishment, like the Red
Fox Inn, another was at a bend in a road next to a phone
booth indistinguishable from any other bend in the road
or phone booth in the entire country.
After many such stops, our bus finally pulled into Castletownbere,
a small fishing village on the West Coast. Just south of
Dursey Island, the last place the sun sets in Europe, Castletownbere
is nestled between dramatic tawny hills and a cozy bay,
far away from places like commercial Blarney Castle and
overrun Killarney. The town consists of one main street,
which curves around the base of a hill. Residences and businesses
share walls and roofs, closely lining the road, in colours
like royal blue and salmon pink. Out in the bay, Bere Island
is green and smooth. Atop its peak, an old English fort
still appears ready to display a fire signal; years ago,
a fire sighted on the island would have warned people of
unfriendly fleets from Spain or France and alerted other
forts. Three such forts on hills leading inland remind natives
and foreigners alike of the chaotic days before Ireland
was allowed to become its own land.
Just a few blocks away from the Bere Island ferry landing,
I found accommodation above a pub called Beara Bar. One
day while I was enjoying a tangy-sweet Bulmers cider
at the bar, a tall man with white hair and reading glasses
entered the pub. He carried a few different newspapers under
his arm, including The Irish Times and Cork Examiner. Rum,
please, Baa-rry, he said softly without meeting Barry
the bartenders eyes. Afternoon Barry
replied quickly, all business. He set water, a small pitcher
of rum, and a glass in front of Mike. Now, there
you are. Three quid, please. Mike paid and spread
out his first newspaper. Foot and Mouth disease wreaks
havoc, U.S. president shuns environmental meeting, Arsenal
kicks to the top
Mike paused his slow, deliberate
reading aloud of the paper for a sip of rum. Do you hear
He asked no one in particular. The bartender nodded, but
Mike didnt notice. Desperate state of things, sure
it is now. He struck a match; pipe smoke curled up
towards the ceiling. Hull-0, Mike! Whats in
the paper today? Any good news? A small, spry man
hopped onto a bar-stool. He surveyed the room with large,
mischievous eyes. A pint-a Guinness, please.
Sean, Hows the fishing? greeted Mike.
Not too bad today, now, yesterday some rain fought
us. But, you would know, Mike, sure you would? Sean
True, tis true, Sean. I used to fish. Did I
tell you about when I exported fish to Jamaica? While
I wondered at the tinge of sadness in Mikes voice,
Sean, Barry, and the other few patrons in the pub settled
into their seats. Go on, now, and tell us, Mike,
said Sean, raising his pint in the air.
Mike turned from the bar to face the room. In a deep, methodical
voice, he explained that he used to run a fishing business
in town, exporting fish to Jamaica. His anglers were skilled,
competent men who knew the water well. Mike himself led
the ships down to Jamaica where he would oversee the final
business transaction. The men in the pub all affirmed these
facts with nods and grunts. And do you know what I
saw when I first walked onto the island? Do you know what
was around the first corner? he asked.
What was there, Mike? said the men. Go
on, now, and tell us, Mike.
There was a white van with green letters going all
across its side. Kellys it said. A good, old
Irish name right there in Jamaica. Kellys. And I looked
around for Kelly himself. Then a Jamaican man came from
behind the van- black as I am white. So I said, Wheres
Kelly? I want to meet my fellow countryman. Do you
know what he replied? Did he know Kelly, Mike?
Sean asked, What did he tell you? queried another
patron. He said to me, Im Kelly.
Ha-ha! Im Kelly. Mike and his audience
chuckled and smiled at each other.
Well, now, and youd think you would know a black
Irishman when you met him! Sean laughed. The
other patrons agreed. Mike smiled, and then his careful
voice became the centre of attention again.
That was the end. Im drinking this rum to remember
my days as a fisherman. It will help me remember the good
that came before the bad, before the piles of rotting, stinking
fish that never made it to Jamaica. Mike finished
his glass and turned back to his paper.
As I ordered a second cider, I realised that Mikes
story illustrated something inherent in Ireland and its
people. I had noticed it in Irish novels and plays but never
before had been able to name it: perseverance despite hardship.
After listening to Mikes account, however, the powerful
endurance of Ireland was personified. Even faced with overwhelming
sadness caused by conflict with England, poverty-stricken
communities, small amounts of resources and high unemployment,
Ireland had survived.
Over the next few days, I visited local sites like Dursey
Island and went biking or sea kayaking before visiting the
pub every afternoon at the same time. Mike was always there,
drinking rum, smoking a pipe, reading the world news, and
telling his stories to anyone who happened to be in the
Beara Bar. He told me that Sean went out fishing before
the sun was up and then came for a drink before going home
for his tea. Mike himself came to get out of the house for
a while and visit his daughter and grandson, Barry the bartender.
Mikes easygoing manner and calm acceptance of the
world both its surprises and problems radiated
into whatever space he occupied. Probably all 900 inhabitants
of Castletownbere recognised him, and many knew his stories
by heart when Barrys small cousins ran through the
pub, Mike called them dear children and, more
often than not, treated one to a lemonade, which in Ireland
is like a 7UP. Even small town America never seemed quite
One night, after Mike had gone home to his farm several
miles out of town, Barry continued Mikes tale from
where it usually ended. As a visiting Yank,
I was not only a safe audience, but also the only person
in town who could listen to the rest of the story while
still feeling genuine suspense.
You see, Grandad was one of the richest fishermen
in town. And one day he and his men were planning a huge
shipment to Jamaica when all of a sudden it had to be cancelled.
Seeing my raised eyebrows he said, No, it wasnt
because Jamaicans realised that they, too, lived on
an island and could catch their own fish, and no, I dont
know why he exported fish to Jamaica in the first place.
Barry wiped down the bar and handed a pint of Murphys
to a regular before continuing. I think there was
a storm, and one of the boats had a problem. Anyway, the
fish were on the docks, rotting in the open air. The whole
town was full of the smell of Big Mikes ruin.
People called him Big Mike because at 6 feet
3 inches tall, with shoulders to match, he easily towers
above most men.
Now, he could have taken what money there was and
kept it, see. Sure he could have. It was his company
others would have and have done the same. But, being an
honest, loyal man, he paid all his men and all his debts
before figuring out his final profit, then he went back
to the family farm and worked there. Do you have any idea
how maddening it is to be heir to a martyr? You could be
pouring your own cider now Barry began washing a few
Barrys question stayed with me, and I did think about
being heir to a martyr. Would Barry be a discontent bartender
if his Grandad had kept all the fishing money for himself?
Barrys family supports typical Irish stereotypes
they are pub owners, fishermen, devout Catholics and diehard
soccer fans. But they also prove a universal truth, one
not often associated with the land of rainbows, that the
real world must be faced. Big Mike had made a living for
his loved ones any way he could. His familys past
had become a source not only for stories, but also for lessons
of strength and determination.
The next morning I had to leave Castletownbere and the legendary
Big Mike. I could have taken the time to rent a bike and
pedal out to Mikes farm, where he and his wife, Nora,
live with their oldest sons family, but I didnt.
According to Barry, Nora and Mike grew up as neighbours;
their parents farmyards shared the same fence and
driveway. On their last wedding anniversary, Mike went to
bed around midnight while Nora drank and danced until four
in the morning.
On the bus back to Cork, an older gentleman, who smelled
much like I imagined Mikes farm to smell, sat next
to me. I decided to ask him if he had ever heard of Big
Mike. Big Mike Hanley? my seatmate grinned.
Big Mike never could do anything without a story following
along behind him. I saw him in the Beara Bar the last time
I came down here. He was telling a story about Frosty Downey
have you heard of him? Living legends both of them!
Now you see, Big Mike had known Frosty for years
Courtesy of the Southern Star