Miles Kington Remembered: The traditional mussel fair with not a mussel in sight

When the Irish grow up, they give up step dancing, and go over to step drinking, a skilful activity which involves walking across a crowded bar holding pints of stout
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The Independent Online

(20 May 1994) The reason I was in the west of Ireland last weekend was to go to the Bantry Mussel Fair. Last year I happened to be there with three friends called Eric, Alan and Peter, and we thought we'd go back again this year, for fun.

Well, they were going for fun, but for me it was a scientific experiment. Last year I became ill after a day of eating mussels, and local opinion thought it might have been because I had had some whiskey, the same evening.

"Mussels and whiskey never mix," I was told by Finn, at the shop in Adrigole. "Every time I have whiskey after mussels, I'm ill. Every time. Never fails."

Impressed by the logical rigour, I felt I should do a back-up experiment one day. Now, at last, the time had come. The same four of us would go back again, except that Eric had to drop out at the last minute.

Now, if I ran a mussel fair, I think I would try to fit mussels into it somewhere, but in Ireland they don't always take the soft option, and the people who run the Bantry Mussel Fair had evidently decided to omit mussels from the programme.

There were bands and there was music and there was dancing and there were classical recitals in Bantry House, but no evident mussels to be had, except at the Anchor Tavern where they were giving away steaming dishes of them free with each dark pint of Murphy's stout, the patron of the fair.

"Do you know where I could get some fresh mussels to take home and cook?," I asked over the Anchor bar. "I need them for a scientific experiment. I've got the whiskey already ..."

They looked puzzled. Nobody had ever asked them for live mussels before. They suggested that I ask at the tourist information bureau, a few doors along. It seemed a good idea. The tourist people were obviously geared up to the mussel fair. Their window was full of mussel fair programmes and recipes for cooking mussels in Murphy's, and even empty mussel shells containing fake pearls.

But there was one snag. The tourist information bureau was locked and dark every day we visited the Mussel Fair. This was Ireland, after all. So, instead, we had a good time and went to JJ Crowley's Bar to hear the Dukes of Jazz, a band that may have been a jazz group once but was now playing good-time Irish blues. And on the bandstand in the square we saw a Cajun band called the Squealing Pigs, which may have been a Cajun band once but now was playing good-time Irish blues.

Also on that stand we saw a display of step dancing, an activity engaged in by tiny girls, which consists of moving everything below the knees and nothing above the waist, like folksy tap dancing. When the Irish grow up, they give up step dancing, and go over to step drinking, a skilful activity which involves walking across a crowded bar holding pints of stout, motionless from the waist up and side-stepping and shuffling dexterously from the waist down ...

"I'll get us another two pints," said Peter.

Yes, we were down to two people by now. Alan had been taken furiously ill one night and been rushed to Bantry Hospital. No, it wasn't mussels and whiskey. Yes, it was his appendix, which had gone slightly gangrenous.

"I didn't know he still had his appendix," I said to the nurse, after the operation.

"Well, he hasn't now," she said, a little pedantically, I thought. Alan himself seemed more subdued than usual. It may have been the after-effects of being cut open. It may have been the crucifix staring down at him from the wall. Either way, he half-rose from his bed of pain and pointed at me.

"You aren't going to write about all this, are you?"

"Certainly not," I lied.

We had to leave Alan behind in the hospital. He'll be coming home tomorrow. If you see a tall man with a beard on the ferry, wincing with every step, don't for heaven's sake offer him mussels and whiskey. He's more of a gin and tonic man, really.

Meanwhile, I hope to get back to Bantry next year. I think this year's experiments on mussels and whiskey were inconclusive. Failing all else, I'll be there in 1996. Not only is that the bicentenary of the invasion of Bantry by the French, but I couldn't help noticing that JJ Crowley's Bar was founded in 1896.