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Review: Ireland Unhinged by David Monagan

Tony Hawks hitchhiked around Ireland with a mini-fridge. Comedian-cum-travel writer Pete McCarthy never passed a bar with his name on it. And now we have David Monagan packing up his family and transferring them from Connecticut to Cork, chasing a dream of the Ireland he fell for as a younger man.

Both Monagan and his wife have Irish heritage. He spent a year studying at Trinity during the Seventies and honeymooned in Ireland 10 years later. Then when life in Cornwall, Connecticut, no longer fulfilled him, Monagan packed his suitcase and permanently relocated. The move spawned Jaywalking with the Irish, A Year in Provence-style acclimatisation tale and a very entertaining account of adjusting to life in a "brooding island that inspires, baffles and wounds with equal sport".

In his latest outing, Ireland Unhinged, Monagan has reset his cast of Oirish characters in an update of how the American family experienced Ireland as it went from boom to bust. Part travelogue, part memoir, Ireland Unhinged is a rollicking ramble in which Monagan makes his inimitably wry observations as well as detailing the practicalities of his children adjusting to local schools and dealing with quirky European appliances.

He has settled into life in a cottage in Ballyduff, along the Blackwater River, but regularly ventures outside this bucolic existence to check out what's going on in the country at large. The cast contains white witches, Belfast monks and author JP Donleavy. Monagan is possible the number-one fan of Donleavy's brawling, boozing, womanising The Ginger Man and he travels to meet the reluctant recluse in his Mullingar mansion. A fascinating chapter is devoted to the encounter. Donleavy is a generous host and regales his visitor with stories of life in boho post-war Dublin and of punching Brendan Behan.

There are lots of other good yarns here too. Anecdotes from the pubsters in Cork's Hi-B bar are hilarious. Monagan seeks out a long-lost cousin whose gate bears the sign "No more vehicles up the lane -- the Gardai". The ensuing reception isn't the friendliest so Monagan heads off to the Flat Lake Festival. Cue some entertaining encounters with Patrick McCabe and Seamus Heaney. "Yet another face of Ireland -- inspirational despite all odds and changes -- had been revealed, grinning in the dawning sun," Monagan concludes.

He writes of "Barney Rubble-faced Bertie" and the leniency with which he was treated at a tribunal as the "populace mostly sighed and looked away, complacently reasoning that the amounts in question seemed small."

There are times when you feel that Monagan is scratching around for stories and looking for Ireland in all the wrong places. "What is Ireland? Has it lost its soul?" is a constant refrain as Monagan laments that so much of what endeared Ireland to him was lost in the vulgarity of the boom times, "a litany of runaway materialism, instant gratification, increasing hooliganism, and excess of every stripe".

The litany of stereotypes can begin to grate. Courtmacsherry becomes "a small drinking village with a fishing problem". All the usual cliches are here: breakfast rolls, oompa loompa fake bakes and shady property developers. Many of his characters, such as the eco-warriors, seem implausibly one-dimensional. And Monagan often departs on meandering self-indulgent tangents, particularly when describing the minutiae of his family's life.

But Monagan's conversational style is always engaging and in Ireland Unhinged he has produced a picaresque, affectionate and timely portrait that allows us a glimpse of how others see us now. Malachy McCourt calls it "one of the best books about Ireland in these last few years". It certainly comes close.

Sunday Indo Living