Kevin Barry on Ghost Stories and Irish Pubs

This week’s story, “The Pub with No Beer,” is set in a pub, in the West of Ireland, that’s been shuttered by the pandemic. Was this a story that you started writing under lockdown?

We were coming out of a long and intense lockdown, in late spring of last year, when I began the story. The lockdown rule in Ireland was that you could go no farther than five kilometres from your house, so it was a very shrunken world that I was dealing with. When your horizon narrows like this, you might hope that your focus becomes keener, and that this will be the plague during which you write your “King Lear.” Instead, I found that I became a bit vague and floaty, and, initially, it was an effort to get to the desk. But, when I did finally get there, it was a place of great reprieve. I could turn to the work, and the story, and just worry about that—I could stop worrying about the fact that the world beyond appeared to be going to hell.

The publican visits the pub to clean it, and in the empty space he hears the voices of the regulars. How did those voices come to you? When you started the story, did you know who—albeit in disembodied form—would be occupying the stools and tables?

In a way, this story is in direct conversation with previous stories I’ve written. It is not the first time that my fiction has stepped across the threshold of an Irish pub. The chorus of voices around a bar in the West of Ireland is one that I can generally tune in to at will. In fact, because I am terrified of any sense of ease or facility coming into my writing practice, I’ve long since vowed that there will be no more pub stories. But then a lot of my practice involves giving out to myself about what I’m not going to do. I also vowed that there would be no pandemic stories, figuring that there would be enough of them doing the rounds. And I’ve long since vowed never to write a ghost story, as I’m so enamored of the genre that I figure if I start at those I might never stop. All these vows! And then here’s a ghost story set in an Irish pub during the pandemic.

The first story of yours that we ran in the magazine, “Fjord of Killary,” was set in a hotel’s lounge bar as a storm raged outside and the waters rose. That bar was a far more rollicking one than this place, where, you write, “For three generations behind this bar much the same set of eyebrows had insisted on a semblance, at least, of decorum.” Do you think that the character of a pub always reflects the character of a publican?

Of the publican, of the locality, and of the mysterious resonances that carry on the native air—a good pub is, spiritually speaking, a mirror image of its people and its place. But we could be here for the night if we got into the spiritual stratification of Irish pubs. . . .

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I think there are only two direct steals from life in this story—one is the line about there being such a thing as “a thoughtful pub.” I think it was a publican in County Galway who told me this, and at once the line had the weight of certain truth to it. The other is the bit about “no displays of romantic affection” being allowed—this was (quite rightly) the long-standing rule at the Hi-B in Cork city, one of the very finest Irish pubs.

A stranger shows up at the bar in search of a drink. Do you want the publican—or the reader—to feel a sense of foreboding?

I certainly felt a sense of deep foreboding when he showed up. That coded knock on the door was an astonishment to me when I was writing the story. I looked over my shoulder with a face on me like a frightened little cat. I didn’t know who he was or what he was up to, or whether he was even real at all or just a figment of my imagination.

The stranger tells the publican that he’s the son of a man who used to drink at the pub—and was sometimes turfed out of it. The encounter disturbs the equilibrium, both of the empty pub and its ghostly regulars, and of the publican and his place behind the bar. Do you want to make him consider the way he was gently forced into this role? Could he have escaped it?

That sense of vast quietude that opened out during the lockdown period created a space for dreaming in. We could really tune in to ourselves. When you’re taken away from your usual routines, your usual flapping about, your usual hustle, you begin to see your life in very stark relief. You consider the choices you’ve made, the paths you’ve taken. This is what’s happened with the publican. He is realizing that the role he’s taken on in life is just that—it’s playacting; many other roles were possible, but he adapted himself to the most convenient casting.

The other great sense from the pandemic period was of the past as an unstable entity. There was so little going on in the present tense of our lives; we all spent a great deal of time thinking about the past. And we realized then that the past is shifting and rearranging all the time back there. The past is just a story that we keep on telling ourselves in different ways, in different renditions.

In Ireland, most COVID-19 restrictions have now been lifted. Do you think its pubs are the same places that they were two years ago? How important are they to small rural communities?

It’s a cliché, but the pubs are fundamental to the smaller rural communities here. They’re social hubs—all of life’s great events are marked in these places, births, marriages, deaths. It’s not just about the beer. It’s about people coming together and declaring themselves to one another. I live in County Sligo, but our nearest town of any size is Boyle, in County Roscommon—it had maybe fifteen or sixteen pubs before the pandemic, and perhaps half of them have reopened. Many of these places have been lost, and they will never come back. It is a tremendous sadness, and the story was written in elegy for them.

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