This is the nicest time of year in Ardmore. The last of the summer crowds have vanished, taking their children back to school in the city and leaving us to the peace and solitude of autumn. My friend John King says we are going to have an Indian summer. Unlike me, he will be here to enjoy it, looking out across the bay to Mine Head from his high windows near the pier, watching the small boats handlining for mackerel late into September and reminding himself how lucky he is to live in this quiet corner of Ireland.
The mackerel shoals arrive in late August. They turn around the Head and chase into the bay, thrashing along the surface and driving thousands of sprat before them. The smaller fish somersault out of the water, hurling themselves away from the striped predators in the water below. The chase goes all the way to the shallows on Ardmore Beach. The sprat beach themselves and children wade into the water, jumping and swimming in pursuit of the mackerel. I normally watch this from the Storm Wall (so called because the waves crash over in the winter gales) along with a dozen or more older fishermen. As a child, I would haul scores of mackerel up the wall. It wasn't really fishing, more like a massacre. Afterwards, my friends and I would take our catch to the caravan park and sell them. A penny a fish until the caravanners tired of mackerel and closed their doors on us. We would move on and try the farmhouses of the district. They were a much tougher prospect. The farmers' wives argued and bargained us down to a halfpenny a fish.
I came here a few days after being in Omagh. It was hard to imagine that the two places existed on the same island. The people here were naturally touched by the bombing. Never before have people in the South been so visibly shaken by an atrocity carried out in the name of Irish unity. The bells of the local Catholic church near the Storm Wall rang at 10 minutes past three, and the population stopped what they were doing and observed a minute's silence. But Ulster and the Troubles were a world away and when the last solemn bell had rung, Ardmore returned to its easy everyday rhythm.
To look at the village now, it is hard to imagine that it too had a traumatic past, an earlier chapter of the same history. Back in the 1600s, when Cromwell's armies were rampaging through Ireland, the village castle was put under siege. When the inhabitants surrendered, Cromwell's men hanged very male over the age of 13. Several hundred were executed in this way. There is a round tower and an ancient cathedral overlooking the town, site of the earliest Christian settlement in Ireland. Monks built the tower to escape the ravages of local chieftains and the Vikings who tormented these coasts for generations.
I have stood near the tower on misty mornings and tried to imagine what it was like to see those longboats looming in from the sea rather like the "doom burdened caravels" Masefield wrote of when describing the arrival of Columbus's ships in the Americas. The lands to the west of Ardmore, around the mouth of the river Blackwater, formed part of the Elizabethan plantation carried out by Sir Walter Raleigh. To this day, the fields have a more settled, more typically pastoral and English look than the wilder territories in the west of Ireland. There are great houses along the Blackwater, some fallen to ruin, others still owned by the remnants of the Anglo Irish ascendancy, those whom we call the "up the rivers".
Molly Keane immortalised this world in her novels, the poet Edmund Spenser lived nearby but is not fondly remembered in local folklore. My great grandfather was based in Ardmore as a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, a servant of the British crown. His son, my grandfather, was born in the RIC barracks on the main street but grew up to be a committed Irish nationalist. He joined up with Michael Collins and took part in the war against the British, a war in which the RIC were primary targets of the IRA. My great grandfather had retired by the time the war came and I don't know if father and son ever spoke about politics. What they continued to have in common, however, was a love of Ardmore.
My grandfather built a cottage on the cliffs outside the village and brought his family, my mother and her siblings, to holiday there every summer. That was in the postwar years when Ireland began its fight to emerge from the economic and cultural protectionism of the De Valera years. It would be a long battle, the final stages of which we are only now entering.
And yet to me, Ardmore always seemed to exist at one remove from the narrower and darker aspects of the country in which I grew up. Perhaps this was because it was a place of summer and thus experienced in a mellower light. But I also think it had a lot to do with the wayward streak in local nature, a rebelliousness which doesn't take kindly to the rigid strictures of outsiders, be they English landlord or Catholic priest. In evidence, let me briefly describe what happened when, in the early 1840s, when the legendary "apostle of temperance", Father Matthew Murphy, arrived in Ardmore.
The good priest had already had remarkable success in luring the peasantry out of the drunkenness which went hand in hand with their wretched, poverty- stricken existance. It looked as if Father Matthew was about to have a similar success in Ardmore. Alas, on the night of his visit, after a well- attended lecture, a large group of locals took part in a drunken riot. The police were called to quell the disturbance. It was suggested that local publicans handed out free drink to counter the civilising mission of Fr Matthew.
I am happy to report that Ardmore has not been a town of drunkards for many a long year. People enjoy their drink, but a man who is troublesome with drink wouldn't last too long in the company of sturdy fishermen and strong farmers. I enjoyed my first drink here (pint bottles of stout known locally and unfathomably as "Dannos") and courted my first girls here. We lurched around the St Declans Hall to the sound of country and western bands, above our heads a large sign proclaiming that the dances were for "Happy Homes For Ireland and For God". We didn't have Ireland or God on our minds and I can remember once a local priest moving in to separate couples whose embrace became too passionate.
Glory days. I sometimes pass those girls of summer on the street. They are walking their children, I am walking mine. We smile and pass by.
Now that summer is ending and I am heading back to England, I have trawled through the images of the past few weeks for that special moment to carry with me, something to savour on grey winter days. It was a week ago, on Tony Gallagher's boat. We edged into a cave near Ardmore Head, the water shimmering and blue beneath us. Something splashed behind us and we turned. There, with his head bobbing above the water, was a curious seal pup. He watched us for a second and then dived under the boat, vanishing out of the cave towards the open sea. Ardmore, Ardmore. No place on earth like it.Reuse content