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Benjy Egel is a journalism junior studying abroad in Cork, Ireland, where he frequents local pubs in search of lively conversation and a good time. He writes a recurring column about the people he meets entitled “Guy I met in the pub last night.” This week, he met an Irishman named John O’Connor.
Sometimes a little cheating is okay. Between traveling, studying and entertaining visitors from the U.S., I was only able to hit the pubs on five or six nights over the last couple weeks. Therefore, this week’s “Guy I met in the pub last night” was actually my family’s driver and tour guide on our trip around the Dingle Peninsula, John O’Connor.
Like many older Irishmen, John spent his whole life in his hometown of Ballinaboula, about a mile outside the city of Dingle in County Kerry. Boys who grow up in Kerry are often mad about Gaelic football, but John didn’t have much time for games after leaving school at age 14 to sell sheep and cattle when his father became too ill to work.
“I was the eldest of four (children),” he said. “Me father was in bad health, so someone had to get out there and start bringing in a few pounds.”
John made a decent living dealing livestock in small doses, often buying a couple cows or sheep from peoples’ front porches at a slightly reduced price so they wouldn’t have to make the long trip to the market. After collecting enough animals, he would head into town to sell them for a profit.
This strategy worked until foot-and-mouth disease broke out in the United Kingdom in 2001, forcing farmers to kill off 3.75 million sheep and cows, per BBC News. Irish government officials implemented new rules to make sure the outbreak didn’t reach the country—rules small farmers felt were not worth the hassle. They got rid of their livestock, leaving O’Connor without an effective business plan.
After a short “nightmarish” stint in sales, he began driving a taxi to support his wife and two daughters, Emma and Laura. Many of his passengers were disappointed with the lack of organized tours in the Dingle Peninsula, so O’Connor and his wife seized the opportunity and opened up their own company driving visitors around the countryside.
Tourists have flocked to Dingle ever since the film “Ryan’s Daughter“ showcased the region in 1970. The area depends largely on out-of-towners’ thick wallets and carefree spending habits to stay afloat, one reason it wasn’t hit as hard by the 2008 economic recession as other parts of Ireland.
O’Connor lamented the loss of simple Irish life over the past 20 years, much of which came from Ireland’s partnership in the European Union, he said. Young adults now feel more compelled to travel away from home, even outside of Ireland, for university or careers.
“People lived off the land, and they had a few sheep and a cow and a few calves,” he said. “They made do with that, like they grew their own vegetables, they had their own milk. The only thing they had to buy was a bag of flour. It’s actually a burden now for a child to get a farm from his father, because they feel like they’re expected to stay and work there.”
Some places within the Dingle Peninsula still speak Gaelic as a first language, including the town where O’Connor’s children attend school. He said he was worried about his children learning all their material in a dying language, then venturing off into the predominantly English-speaking professional arena.
When people spend their entire lives in the same counties, everyone becomes so close they’re “practically inbred,” he said. He could name the people who lived in almost every hillside house, from The Cranberries’ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan, to an everyday farmer and how much the property was worth before and after the recession.
“It’s a small community. Everybody knows everybody’s business,” he said. “The fella that knows your business is okay. It’s the fella that thinks he knows your business, that’s the dangerous fella, because he’ll start spreading stories.”
That night, my parents and I ran into O’Connor outside a local watering hole. Technically, then, he’s still a “guy I met in the pub last night.”