NO institution in Irish society gives its citizens an equal measure of joy and anguish, as does the cozy surroundings of the public house.
One needs only to look at how enthusiastically Irish people have taken to the corporate codswallop of Arthur’s Day to prove this point. This fictitious national holiday, dreamed up by marketing executives at the multinational beverage company Diageo in 2009, masquerades a global marketing campaign as national pride: celebrating the ritual of drinking Guinness with religious-like fervour.
When David Blackmore, an Irish artist based in London, was in Scart, Co Clare, five years ago, he began to question for the first time the relationship the Irish seem to have with drinking.
On the wall outside the pub, Blackmore spotted a plaque, otherwise known as The James Joyce Pub Award, which read: ‘A good puzzle would be to pass Ireland without passing a pub’. Blackmore soon discovered that the words were actually a misquote from Joyce’s Ulysses. Nevertheless, he decided to try and take up the challenge to see if it could be done.
The total distance from Ireland’s southern most point, Mizen Head, to the most northern point, Malin Head, covers 457 miles. Blackmore completed the task in 25 days. He says his trek across the entire country without passing a single pub, was a journey he decided to undertake to attempt to understand what it means to be Irish.
“I wanted to explore the notion of national identity, which for me has always been a weird thing, because my father is English, and my mother is Irish,” says Blackmore. “I wonder how much, as a nation, we play up to that stereotypical notion of the quintessential Irish person?”
“I’m sure we all do it, but I wonder does that make it any less real, simply because we are only playing up to a stereotype? And does that fuel the same stereotype for future generations? Well the walk was part of discovering that,” he adds.
Blackmore’s spent a careful few weeks planning his route on Google maps beforehand, making sure he would avoid pubs at all stages of his sober sojourn. A couple of days into the adventure, he soon discovered a simple pattern: where there are no pubs, you meet very few people.
“You are avoiding civilisation when you are not coming into contact with pubs, because you are skirting around the edges of towns. I think I saw more dogs than human beings the whole time I was on the walk,” says Blackmore.
Avoiding civilisation, however, presented its own difficulties. While Blackmore had a ready supply of food, which consisted of vitamin bars, dried nuts and supplements, he began to run into problems with his health in the first few days of the journey, he tells me. “I got sick 14 times in one day at the beginning. I also had a bad dose of diarrhoea. And it became extremely hard to keep clean, because I was staying in fields, and there was cow-shit everywhere. No matter how many baby wipes I used, my hands still got dirty, so the cleanliness aspect was definitely a problem. I also had no access to a shower, sometimes for up to 10 days. When I met my friend in Tipperary he told me I smelled like a hobo.”
Blackmore became so determined to avoid pubs that on several occasions he had to backtrack 10 miles to find an alternative route. These cross-country escapades became physically challenging, he says.
“I remember at one stage in Offaly, I came out of this country lane and there was this pub at the end of the road. Then a woman appeared. When I told her what I was attempting, she said it was impossible, because on either side of the road there was a pub. I then realised there was another lane running half way between the road I was on, and the parallel road I was trying to get onto.”
“So I walked up the lane, found a farmer’s house, knocked on his door, and asked could I walk through his field, to which he agreed. The end result was that I got electrocuted twice, and had to walk into a stream to get out the other side.”
Blackmore says despite the loneliness of the journey, the landscape brought him a certain amount of comfort, particularly in West Cork, Leitrim, Tipperary and Donegal. The walk also gave him an appreciation for the simple tasks in life, bringing him back to his primitive self, he says.
“However hard the journey became, my life was very simple when I was doing that walk. I realised when I came back to London soon afterwards, that in modern living, there are so many different tangents and nuances to every situation. Out there on that walk, all I was concerned with was: getting up, eating my food, walking as far as I could, and then finding somewhere to sleep, making sure to complete my task, which was not to pass a pub.”
Blackmore uses the analogy of a cryptic puzzle to describe how his mental state deteriorated over the course of the journey.
“At times it felt like I was locked in the middle of something that resembled a mix between a crossword, and a snakes and ladders game, but I had built the maze myself and I couldn’t get out of it.
“Having said that, I’m proud that I did the walk, without passing a single pub. It was a great way of seeing Ireland. I met some really nice people along the way, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed it.”
Blackmore will be using all the material he accumulated over the three weeks, including maps, drawings, photographs and a diary, to make an artistic exhibition this December, at Siteation: a gallery and creative unit in James Joyce Street in Dublin. At this stage he believes it’s too early to answer his original question.
“The one thing I realised is that the walk isn’t the end product, that it’s just the beginning of something.”
* David’s exhibition will be at Siteation from Dec 21 until Jan 6.