Celebrating St. Patrick's Day by Finishing an ‘Unfinishable’ Irish Pub Breakfast
We can’t all be in County Mayo for St. Patrick’s Day. Some of us have to make do with an artery-clogging breakfast in O’Neill’s, the Guinness-slopped Irish chain pub found on most British high streets.
All photos by the author
The last time I walked up Croagh Patrick (OK, the only time I walked up Croagh Patrick), I lined my stomach—if not actually girded my loins—with two slices of soda bread and a bowl of porridge cooked on a wood-burning range, all washed down with so much tea that I genuinely feared having to bob down for a wee in front of some nuns.
Irish breakfasts are a thing of thick-buttered wonder. The potato farls, the buttermilk bread, the Flahavan's Progress Oatlets, the proper milk, the yellow butter, the smoked bacon, the warm eggs tarred and feathered with chicken shit.
But we can't all be in County Mayo for St. Patrick's Day. Some of us won't even make it to Boston, where they dye the river green to mark the death of that 5th century missionary who supposedly drove all the snakes off the island. Some of us will find ourselves far indeed from the dry stone walls and rolling hills of Clew Bay, standing on the pavement opposite London's King's Cross Station watching the Irish tricolour flap above a pile of fag butts and broken bike locks.
This is where I find myself now because, in honour of St. Patrick's Day, I am attempting to eat "The Unfinishable Breakfast" at O'Neill's.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of encountering this chain of Irish pubs, O'Neill's is a Guinness-slopped staple of most British high streets. From their "My Goodness My Guinness" olde world-style tin pictures to the occasional shillelagh hanging behind the bar, O'Neill's offer, in their own words "a place where you can enjoy the craic whether you fancy a few rounds with friends, a spot of lunch with colleagues or a cosy meal for two … where the banter flows as freely as the Guinness."
Yup. Banter, craic, Guinness, a few jars—it's all there.
But here's the thing about O'Neill's. Because they show sport—often the Irish sports that are hard to catch in other pubs—and because the Guinness is reasonable, Irish people do actually go to O'Neill's. Walking into the pub, I spot several men in Irish football shirts and hear people, if not actually having the craic (It was 11 o'clock in the morning), at least giving their accents an airing.
O'Neill's also has a whole menu of what they call "The Unfinishables." At first, I assumed this was a Sylvester Stallone/The Expendables reference and all the dishes would come served either on top of a machine gun or poured into a black beret. What it actually means is that O'Neill's has an entire range of dishes specifically designed to be too big. For you to abandon your food. For at least a percentage of your meal to get thrown in the bin. Which is so wasteful as to make me actually prickle with anger.
And yet. And yet. Reading across the description of the Unfinishable Breakfast, a terrible beauty was born: "Served on a giant base of potato and onion hash, we've piled four juicy British pork sausages, four rashers of crispy grilled back bacon, three fried free range eggs, grilled tomatoes, flat mushrooms & Heinz® baked beans." As my eyes slid across the menu like a snake shaking straight out of Galway, a thought landed across my heart: I could eat that. I mean, I could literally eat that.
According to the O'Neills website: "May your heart always be full and your glass never empty … We've plenty of drinks you'll recognise, like the best pint of Guinness this side of the water, plus Magners and favourite beers from around the world." They've also got Cidona, by the way, which I've only ever found in Ireland. No Barry's tea, alas, but Bewley's, which will do.
So I do what any right-thinking woman in my position would do. As the strains of "She Will be Loved" by Maroon 5 pour out of the stereo above the bar, as I gaze at an A2 print of an old Eire stamp, as the Irish flag wafts in the breeze above the stairwell, I march up to the counter and order an Unfinishable Breakfast and a pint of Guinness.
As I sit back down at my table, I notice that a grey-haired woman at the table behind me, wearing gold earrings and a soft black cardigan, is drinking a half pint of Guinness. She looks like her own drink and is having the time of her life. At a table below a typographical map of Ireland, three men in high-vis t-shirts are eating sausages and drinking cups of coffee. At another, a group of lads in Watford FC football tops munch toast and drink pints between nods of the head or polite meaningless words. This isn't quite Yeats' "bee-loud glade" and we're a long way from the lake isle of Innisfree, but peace is dropping slow from the veils of the morning nonetheless.
The breakfast is brought to me by a red-haired Irish waitress. My mind, for a second, darts to memories of studying Maud Gonne in a sticky English classroom. The suffragette, activist, muse, rebel. What would she make of this scene, I wonder? Of a plate wilfully over-piled with potatoes, bread, meat too great to ever finish? Tread softly, I think, because you tread on my dreams.
The hash turns out, in fact, to be lots of small fried potatoes interspersed with the kind of onions you find on fairground hot dogs. There are four sausages, just as they said there would be. There are also four halves of tomato, four mushrooms, four pieces of bacon, eight slices of brown toast, and four entire fried eggs, for fuck's sake. This is obscene. I don't often eat meat and had run 16 kilometres earlier that day to try and drum up a suitable appetite, but even I wonder if this is a good idea.
Luckily my boyfriend, a man whose reddish black hair attests to a strong Irish heritage, is on hand to tackle some of the saltier items. And I'm lubricating the whole thing furiously not only with Guinness but also Ballymaloe original relish, which is so delicious I wonder why we ever bothered with ketchup.
But even between two of us, this is an undertaking. A man next to me, with long blonde hair and a flannel jacket has already given up on his Unfinishable Breakfast, leaving two eggs and enough toast to easily feed a grown woman. All that will go in the bin, I think. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. And too much food can make thoughtless gluttons of us all.
So I keep eating. Egg after egg, as the rest of Maroon 5's album slides out across the still munching air. Bean after bean after mushroom after mushroom. It takes me an hour to get through the whole thing. Once my plate is clear and my glass empty, I felt not quite sick, but uneasy.
This isn't Ireland, I think. The meat may be salty and the Guinness might be cheap, but it isn't Mayo. And this isn't the way to mark the passing of that island's patron saint.
I will arise and go now, I think, and think of Ireland as it really is. I'll go home and bake my own soda bread and remember that view of Clew Bay from the top of Croagh Patrick and all those times I swam in the Bunowen. For always night and day, as Yeats said, I hear water lapping with low sounds by the shore; while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart's core.
If, that is, I can make it down the stairs.