The Irish pub, Budapest: ‘They thought we were an IRA pub. That worked for us’
Patrons of Becketts debate Irishness, homesickness and (well, it is a pub) Brexit
Declan O’Callaghan: ‘In this pub I’ve watched people grow up, get married, have babies and get divorced’
When the Iron Curtain fell 30 years ago and capitalism took hold across the old communist bloc, western investors rediscovered a host of great European cities that were once again open for business – often wildly so.
Where multinationals raced in to sate the region’s hunger for everything from burgers to merchant banking, another brand quickly followed to slake the thirst of expat staff and locals from the Baltic states to the Balkans: the Irish pub.
In Moscow, Prague, Warsaw and other eastern European capitals, the Irish pub was where foreigners gathered to enjoy soothingly familiar food and drink and swap stories in the glow of a TV showing sport from back home.
In Budapest that place was Becketts, which for a quarter of a century now has been a magnet for non-Hungarians working, studying and holidaying in the city, and a labour of love – and occasional torment – for the Irishman who runs it.
“I arrived here on New Year’s Day 1995, and it was freezing, with piles of snow all around,” recalls Declan O’Callaghan. “But people said, ‘Hang on until summer, it’s amazing here in summer,’ and so I did. And my three-month trial period became six months, and six months led to three years and now it’s been nearly 25 years.”
O’Callaghan grew up in Shankill, south Dublin, and worked in bars and hotels in Killiney and Mounttown before his employers in Dalkey offered the then 23-year-old a job in the recently opened Becketts, which they co-owned.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and I was shocked when I got to Budapest. At school we had very little idea of what was behind the Iron Curtain, and we thought there was no food in the shops or buses on the streets,” he says.
“And when I got here it was ‘oh my god!’ I saw they had one of the best public transport systems in the world, and the architecture was just mindblowing. Within five years of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, they had almost everything . . . Capitalism came in like a sledgehammer.”
The city really wanted to put itself back on the map as the ‘Paris of the east’, and we felt part of that
There were hard moments – living abroad for the first time and missing his parents and 11 siblings – but the atmosphere and opportunity in Budapest soon seduced him.
“The city really wanted to put itself back on the map as the ‘Paris of the east’, and we felt part of that,” he says. “We were in a unique position because everyone drank in Becketts. Every multinational had its crew of international staff and they were on silly money by Hungarian standards – and we were their home in Budapest.
“They were five or six deep at the bar every night and they were straight in after work every night because it was so cheap here . . . They were throwing their money over the counter and living like kings,” recalls O’Callaghan, who took over the running of Becketts in 1997.
“Through the pub we watched people grow up, lose everything, get married, have babies and get divorced. They were fantastic days and fantastic characters.”
The 1990s are also notorious across the region for the flourishing of corruption and organised crime, but O’Callaghan insists that Becketts was never shaken down and never paid protection money.
“Something they believed in this part of the world was that if you were an Irish pub you must be an IRA pub. That worked for us, so we let them believe it.”
When major trouble struck it came in the shape of bailiffs and lawyers, as the local government won a legal scrap in 2014 to oust Becketts from its original premises near the Hungarian parliament and Budapest’s small banking district.
O’Callaghan feared the pub game might be up, and to support his Hungarian wife and their two sons he considered a host of other jobs and even acquired an international licence to drive long-distance trucks.
“But I felt I owed everybody to get Becketts going again, and walking around Budapest people would ask me where and when we would reopen. That kept me going,” he recalls.
In February 2015, after a nerve-wracking year out of work, O’Callaghan and a Hungarian co-owner opened the new Becketts on Liszt Ferenc Square, a leafy park surrounded by bars and restaurants in the very heart of the city.
“That year was hard but I never seriously thought about going back to Ireland. I have my family here and Budapest gets a hold of you and doesn’t let you go. It’s not an expensive city and you can have a beautiful life here.
“I fell in love with this city not just because of the vibrant party atmosphere and all the changes that were taking place, but for things like going to the theatre and opera because I could afford it; it’s so cheap. I always felt I could do a lot more here than back home, and found it a much easier lifestyle and slower pace of life.”
O’Callaghan has just returned with his boys Dennis (15) and Dylan (8) from a holiday in Ireland, which he finds to be a “much more liberal country” than the one he left in 1995.
Mark Downey, who moved to Budapest from Dublin in 2000, also keeps a close and occasionally concerned eye on his changing homeland.
“With multiculturalism you do run the risk of diluting your heritage if you’re not careful, and it can lead to social tensions,” says the business development manager for a software firm, who has two sons with his Hungarian partner.
“However, I still feel the Irish have a great ability to stay logical, practical and to do the right thing. Combating the power of the Catholic Church and bringing in things like abortion and divorce show the practical mindset of the Irish nation.”
Right to vote
Both O’Callaghan and Downey still feel unequivocally Irish, but they see possible problems in the prospect of extending the right to vote in presidential elections to the diaspora.
“If you’ve only been abroad for a year or two that’s one thing, but I’ve been away for 19 years,” says Downey (44), who helps organise the St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest.
“I do feel connected and I want to stay close to Ireland, but I don’t feel entitled. If you want to influence politics back home then you should have to earn your stripes and prove that you are still involved from a distance.”
He has no reservations about the Government’s handling of Brexit, however.
“I think they’ve done a stellar job in defending Ireland’s interests. They have stuck to a narrative that makes sense and reflects the core of what Europe subscribes to.”
Though O’Callaghan is “no fan of Fine Gael” he also has praise for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. “I like the way he has stood up for Ireland, particularly when he told [US president] Donald Trump that we don’t want a border wall” when they met in June.
Orbán has done things that I don’t fully agree with and things that I completely agree with
A notable admirer of Trump is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who built fences on Hungary’s southern borders to block refugees and migrants in 2015 and has clashed with the EU over his drive to create an “illiberal democracy” here.
“Orbán plays the populist and tells Hungarians what they want to hear – that he’ll make utility bills cheaper, keep the country safe, keep migrants out – and he’s done it,” says O’Callaghan. “He’s not just liked but idolised by his followers.”
“Orbán has done things that I don’t fully agree with and things that I completely agree with,” says Downey, who backs “family friendly” benefits and incentives that the government has introduced to boost the birth rate in Hungary.
Yet for Csaba Kovacs (41), who pulled pints at the old Becketts and drinks at the new one, Ireland’s values feel stronger than those of his native Hungary.
“What I love about Ireland is that it is much more family-oriented and traditional than Hungary is becoming,” says Kovacs, who worked in a Dublin restaurant for nine months in 2001.
“I know the 2008 crisis in Ireland was very tough for many people but I also think it brought many Irish people back to their senses. In Hungary now life and wages are getting better, and there is a generation of ignorant people here who have no work ethic and expect a lot without wanting to give anything in return.
“But the reason I enjoyed Ireland so much was that I thought there was lots in common between Irish people and Hungarians. Perhaps because of the misery of their history, the Irish have a bit of sarcasm which I always found very amusing.”
Mónika Csányi has been a mainstay of the Becketts staff for 17 years, since moving to Budapest from her home town of Nagykanizsa near the Croatian border.
“I went to Ireland for the first time last year, and I loved it, but I felt like I already knew a lot about Ireland from working here in the pub,” she says.
“For me, Becketts is a place where people can come and feel at home. It’s like a piece of Ireland in Budapest, and also piece of land for all nationalities.”
While O’Callaghan is happily resigned to what he calls a “life sentence” in Budapest, his mind does occasionally wander to another plot of earth on the other side of Europe.
“It’s a funny thing, but I do think about where I want to be buried when I pass on,” he says. “How Irish do I still feel? Ultimately, I want to be in the ground back in Ireland.”