Flannery's bar crawl... around the world
Since quitting his high-powered job in New York eight years ago, Kenny Flannery has backpacked around the world. Now in Ireland, he has vowed to visit every pub bearing the Flannery name. Here, he shares a pint with our reporter
New York City on a Monday morning in the spring of 2007, and a 22-year-old man takes the lift to the office floor on which he pushes paper, carries out mundane administrative tasks, and stares at a computer screen for seven and-a-half-hours each day. If he's lucky, a fire drill might add some spontaneity to an otherwise scripted day.
Company policy states that a red tie must be worn on Monday, a blue on Tuesday and so on. He begrudgingly complies. He daydreams of far-off lands, the sun kissing his skin, of acres of untouched terrain, and of the land of his forefathers across the Atlantic Ocean. In June 2007, with a broad smile on his face, he walks into his boss's office with his letter of resignation - his collection of ties head straight for the bin.
Kenny Flannery arrived in Ireland three weeks ago - his plan to have a pint in every bar with the name Flannery's above the door, but also to find out more about the area in Limerick from where his grandfather hailed. But this isn't one stand-alone adventure for Kenny, his life over the last eight years has been one long, unpredictable journey of exploration.
I catch up with Kenny on a farm in the parish of Ogonnelloe near Killaloe, Co Clare. "The farmer let me crash me for a night for which I'm very grateful. Wherever I've been around the world, the kindness and generosity of people has been amazing," he explains in his relaxed, carefree tone.
"I won't keep you long," I utter, my pre-cursor to every interview I've ever done, even if my plan is to keep the unsuspecting interviewee in front of me for hours, but Kenny tells me not to worry: "I've got all the time in the world."
He starts his story on the day he quit his job. "I lasted six months and thought I'd get some money together and then leave New York. I'd got about $2,000 (€1,833) saved, hitched a ride with my mother, who was visiting Wyoming, and from there headed off, hitch-hiking my way from place to place." There was no plan. Perhaps Kenny would travel for a few months. He'd recently graduated from college in Florida where he'd studied Entertainment Business and so the break to 'find himself' and take a siesta from life appealed to the laid-back 22-year-old. But one week became one month and one month became one year. And as Kenny sat in Flannery's pub in Cork city last week, drinking to his 30th birthday, he was also celebrating eight years on the road.
"I travel with a small bag that can turn into a tent, don't have too many possessions, and stay on people's couches for free by using a website called couchsurfing.com. I take work where I can get it and once I have enough money, move on to the next place," explains Kenny.
Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, he tries not to stay longer than a month in any one place. The jobs he's picked up over the years have varied greatly. He worked on a boat off California, as a farmhand helping out with the harvest in the same state, and had a job in a brewery in Oregon for a few weeks. Undoubtedly, though, his most exciting break came in New Zealand. "I was hitch-hiking one evening, the sun was going down and I was getting a bit worried about where I'd have to stay. Then a car pulled up beside me. I explained to the driver what I was doing, and he said there's a little guesthouse at the back of where he lives and that I could stay there.
"It turns out this guy is a multi-millionaire. He asked if I thought hitch-hiking in New Zealand was easy and I told him there really should be an online map of where to go and what to do for freestyle travellers like me. He asked if I'd stay and design one for him and so I did. It was crazy. This guy brought me up in his private aeroplane, on helicopters around the place. I stayed there a while and made a little money, but knew I had to move on."
In the course of his travels, Kenny has come across all types - the kind, the caring, the cautious and the downright crazy. "I was hitch-hiking in New Mexico a few years back and in the course of our conversation, the driver turns to me and tells me that he murdered someone and had never been caught for it. He said a man had raped his sister but didn't think anyone knew he did it. So the driver tells me he took the alleged attacker out on a little row boat on a lake one day, knowing he couldn't swim, and intentionally sank the boat. That was one weird journey."
And as he travels, people tell him about all sorts - "you get a lot of people telling me about their relationships, their worries and personal stuff. I guess I'm a complete stranger so they can offload freely and also, if you're in the confines of a car, all you can do is chat."
Young, free and - since a few months back - single, Kenny explains that over the years romance has sometimes been his travelling companion. "There are one-night stands here and there, though nothing to report in Ireland yet," he says with a coy smile, adding: "I did travel with a former nurse from Indiana for a year but a few months back she returned home. And a really sweet Australian girl travelled around the US and Mexico with me for four months a while back."
He tries to get home to see his family every Christmas but that isn't always possible. Kenny describes long lazy evenings on the beaches of Thailand, in the highlands of Peru and in southern Utah where the landscape, he says, "resembles Mars".
He landed in Dublin after booking a €10 Ryanair one-way flight from Brussels and walked from Grafton Street to the start of the Wicklow Way. That's right - walked. "It was a nice day so I just started walking. It's around 40km but that wasn't a problem. I pitched up there and hitch-hiked to Kilkenny the next day. I popped into a pub there called the Brewery Corner and they really looked after me, and gave me a bed to sleep in, which was great. They suggested I contact two radio programmes with my plan about finding all the Flannery's pubs."
After Kenny featured on the Ray D'Arcy programme on RTÉ Radio 1 and the Anton Savage show on Today FM, the red carpet was rolled out for him at 12 Flannery's bars across Ireland. "It's been amazing. I've effectively been drinking for free while travelling around the most stunning parts of Ireland," Kenny says. "I've been given shirts, pint glasses and the owners of the Flannery's pub in Cork are getting me a specially engraved bottle of Jameson! I've been drinking Guinness mainly, but I like to try out local micro-beers when and where I can."
Kenny's people originally came from Limerick, though there's still confusion as to the exact whereabouts. Census records from the mid-19th century, which would have held the key to pinpointing the location of the family homestead, were destroyed during the War of Independence.
But when Kenny walked through the doors of Flannery's on Upper Denmark Street in Limerick city last week, it felt like a homecoming of sorts. "Liam Flannery, the owner there, was just so welcoming to me. I really felt like this was the meeting of long-lost cousins and, who knows, maybe it was." In many ways, of course, Kenny's journey resembles that of Pete McCarthy whose book McCarthy's Bar told of his six-month journey across Ireland in search of public houses bearing the family name. Unlike Pete McCarthy though, Kenny doesn't know exactly how long he'll be in Ireland for or, indeed, have a fixed itinerary. "It's very hard to have a plan because what invariably happens is you meet people and they want you to spend some time with them, so you can't just turn around and say no. Also, of course, I need to make money as I go so if someone needs a pair of hands on a job and I can help, then I'd have to take that opportunity too."
If you need a strong, well-travelled, Irish-American for a spot of work then you can contact Kenny via his website, hobolifestyle.com, where he writes of his travelling adventures. Once he finishes up in Clare, the freestyle traveller (apparently, this now is the correct term for the hitch-hiking, camping, couch-surfing lifestyle) will head for Galway. After that, he has his sights set on Athlone where another Flannery's pub awaits before heading back to Dublin… eventually.
I ask Kenny if he can ever picture a return to a more conventional lifestyle? He chuckles before answering: "I really don't know if I could go back to that. I've been doing this for eight years, but I feel I've only seen a little of what's out there.
"It's a great life; yes, there can be difficult, tiring days, but they are outweighed with great ones where I get to meet fascinating people, some happy, some lost, but all fascinating."
After chatting for a good hour, I explain I must dash as duty calls. As I rush off, Kenny chills out with a beer in hand. Now that's the life.
Travelling light: what’s in Kenny’s backpack?
1 long-sleeved shirt
1 lightweight sleeping bag and mat
1 alpaca hoodie sweatshirt
1 rain jacket
1 baseball cap
1 winter beanie hat
1 pair of jeans
1 pair of shorts
3 pairs of underwear
1 long-legged piece of underwear
3 pairs of socks
1 pair of Clearwater CNX sandals
1 bar of soap
1 Gillette beard trimmer
1 AA USB cell battery
1 custom multi-tool (toothbrush/spork/scissors/pen/corkscrew/tweezers/bottle opener/screwdriver)
1 pint flask bag
1 GSI Minimalist cook pot
1 can stove
2oz alcohol (fuel) bottle
1 Samsung Note 4 smartphone
1 European/Asian plug adaptor
1 plastic bag for dirty clothes