American girl’s 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 Mike’s 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, fogged-up windows.

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 passengers larger.

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 Bulmer’s 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 ‘bartender’s 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 these headlines?”

He asked no one in particular. The bartender nodded, but Mike didn’t notice. Desperate state of things, sure it is now.’ He struck a match; pipe smoke curled up towards the ceiling. “Hull-0, Mike! What’s 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, How’s the fishing?” greeted Mike. “Not too bad today, now, yesterday some rain fought us. But, you would know, Mike, sure you would?” Sean said.

“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 Mike’s 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. ‘Kelly’s it said. A good, old Irish name right there in Jamaica. Kelly’s. And I looked around for Kelly himself. Then a Jamaican man came from behind the van- black as I am white. So I said, ‘Where’s 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, ‘I’m Kelly.’ Ha-ha! ‘I’m Kelly.” Mike and his audience chuckled and smiled at each other.

“Well, now, and you’d 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. I’m 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 Mike’s 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 Mike’s 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.

Mike’s 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 Barry’s 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 this intimate.

One night, after Mike had gone home to his farm several miles out of town, Barry continued Mike’s 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 wasn’t because Jamaican’s realised that they, too, lived on an island and could catch their own fish, and no, I don’t know why he exported fish to Jamaica in the first place.” Barry wiped down the bar and handed a pint of Murphy’s 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 Mike’s 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 used glasses.

Barry’s 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? Barry’s 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 family’s 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 Mike’s farm, where he and his wife, Nora, live with their oldest son’s family, but I didn’t. 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 Mike’s 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