Paradise by way of County Wexford

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Between the ages of five and 12, I travelled much more extensively in Ireland than I ever did in the UK. A day's drive across England, through the little Welsh towns of Pembrokeshire en route to the ferry at Fishguard, and then the churning swell of the crossing: three hours sitting with a packet of crisps in a Guinness-soaked lounge full of bellowing returning exiles, standing four-square in groups like cattle, their broken-veined faces contorted with laughter, their eyes creased with cigarette fumes.

Between the ages of five and 12, I travelled much more extensively in Ireland than I ever did in the UK. A day's drive across England, through the little Welsh towns of Pembrokeshire en route to the ferry at Fishguard, and then the churning swell of the crossing: three hours sitting with a packet of crisps in a Guinness-soaked lounge full of bellowing returning exiles, standing four-square in groups like cattle, their broken-veined faces contorted with laughter, their eyes creased with cigarette fumes.

The ferry would dock in Rosslare, County Wexford, my father would ease the Renault Dauphine past the clanking, rusted chains of the ferry doors and we'd move off into the rainy countryside. My father drove with a cheerful heart, commenting approvingly on the number of sheep in the meadows, the modest sweep of the Galty mountains, the lack of traffic and the "fine weather" - a term he'd apply with equal enthusiasm to a blinding shaft of sunlight or a refreshing mist of rain. Occasionally we'd ask some picturesque ancient the way, and would behave like the worst kind of patronising English tourists, my mother laughing at the quaintness of her ex-countrymen.

"Did you hear that?" she'd ask, convulsed with mirth. "He said: 'The road to Clonmel, ye want. 'Tis dead straight. I'll show ye here on me schtickeen.' And sure wasn't his stick as crooked as a corkscrew?"

Madelyn and I in the back of the car would laugh along with her. Dear oh dear, the stupidity of these wild indigenous Celts. But Mother was co-opting her children in a private conspiracy. She'd left Ireland to make herself different. She was a changed girl, not exactly an Englishwoman, but a new-wave Anglicised Irish socialite.

My father, by contrast, loved being home. You could hear him inhale and exhale over the steering-wheel, with the exaggerated relish of a convalescent at an open window. And there was a freshness in the air that lifted the spirits, especially once you'd established that, beyond the ferry port, the whole country was like one gigantic field, in which a few roads had evolved down the years into little villages.

We'd stop in a pub for lunch and, through the gloom and the bars of motey sunlight, eat mushroom soup and ham sandwiches, which fought a doomed sensory skirmish with the smells of Bass and Jeyes' Fluid from the public bar. There was always a hurling or football game on TV in the background, with Michael O'Hehir's commentary of high cries. There was precisely nothing to attract a kid about any of it.

What I did find, however, as we traversed the west - always in transit like a royal progress, staying one night in hotels with names such as the Sacré Coeur, moving on the next morning - was a combination of violence, savagery, eccentricity and charm. In Drogheda, County Louth, I gazed in amazement at the head of The Blessed Oliver Plunkett, encased in a glass-fronted little box on the altar steps of a church. His face was as still as if carved in margarine, his eyes were closed, and the whole exhibit was redolent of an unguessable, 300-year-old horror. Plunkett was the Catholic bishop of Armagh in the 1670s, was shipped to London and tried as the mastermind of the Popish Plot; he was hanged, drawn and quartered and his body was thrown to scavenging dogs. It was a profoundly unsettling shudder of Irish history.

In a town called Feakle (was there a local newspaper called The Feakle Matter?) I was left stranded in a youth club one Sunday afternoon as a row broke out. Some local boys, denied access to the bar-billiards table by a slim youth from out of town, decided to gang up on him.

"Where're ye from?" they demanded.

"Mayo," he said.

"Where in Mayo?"

"Ballyhaunis."

The locals looked to their leader to deliver a killer blow. "Hah!" he said, a thick-set gobshite in a V-necked sweater and greasy hair, " That place. You know where he means, lads?" They shook their heads. "Ballyhaunis is only known for one thing. And that's fer bein' the arsehole of the worruld."

His cronies shook with laughter. But the out-of-towner was unfazed.

"Nobody who's been round Ireland could ever think that," he said with deadly certainty, "Not if they'd spent 10 minutes in this kip..."

The local hero's eyes boiled. Rhetoric deserted him. "Why, you..." he said, like John Wayne in a saloon bar. A small, unconvincing fight ensued, with a lot of pushing but not much else. The inhabitants of small-town Ireland in the Sixties knew instinctively that they were in this together.

We'd visit my father's relations in Galway. At the family HQ, Ballybacka, my Uncle Walter, a large and powerful man with the face of a noble Amerindian chief, would emerge from an outhouse in the muddy backyard and bear down on my mother as she extended her 30-denier-stockinged English legs from the passenger seat, looking for a clean place to land them. Walter, fresh from the milking, was dressed in a string vest and dilapidated old trousers, but wasn't going to be cowed by his posh sister-in-law.

"Hello Anne," he growled, offering her his reeking hand. "I'm afraid you've caught us a little déshabillés..." Dayz-a-bee-yay. It was the most stylish thing that I'd ever heard a grown-up say.

My aunt Peggy ran a pub in Monivea, a friendly little boozer where everyone drank in the public bar and Peggy sold freshly caught herrings on the counter. They lay in a fishy pile on a single dinner plate, their dead eyes shining like those of people who can't get to sleep but are loth to relinquish their recumbent posture. The uppermost one was gaffed by a sign saying: "2/6 EACH". One day, aged about 11, I was leaning on the bar watching the television, when a man came in. He ordered a pint and said: "...and I'll take a couple of the herrin's, missus."

"Help yourself," said Aunt Peggy, busy with the till.

My attention wandered back to the TV, until I felt a clammy sensation on the back of my hand. A predatory, though dead, fish was apparently trying to nibble my fingers. "Arrgh!" I cried, and jumped back in alarm. The man whose fiddly endeavours had sent the thing slithering down the bar raised a finger. "Sorry there," he said shortly.

When not being attacked by local sea life, I tried to fit in with the local youth. We holidayed in west Cork when I was 12, in a fishing village called Schull, an amazingly pretty place despite its funereal name. I hung out with a boy of my age called Taig, kicking tin cans and talking about spies on television. I explained about the utter brilliance of The Man from Uncle. Oh sure, he said, it's OK for eejit 10-year-olds, but the only good spy drama on the box was I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.

I'd never heard of it. It was on Irish TV, but hadn't yet made it to the BBC.

Oh yeah, said Taig, it's set all over the world, like Japan and Hong Kong, and the dialogue is the thing, the cross-talk between the two leads. I'm surprised, now, that a fella from London like you hasn't heard of it...

I grated my teeth with fury. I couldn't think of a single amusing thing Napoleon Solo had ever said to Ilya Kuryakin.

But I liked Taig. For some reason I wanted his approval. He was considerably tougher than I, and good-looking, with urchin freckles and a cowlick of hair over one eye. We met up with local girls, two sisters called Brid and Celia. A photograph from that summer shows the four of us sitting on a bed. Taig is sitting beside Celia, looking as cool and sussed as Bryan Ferry. I have Brid's arm around my neck and am mugging for the camera in a get-me-outa-here pose, as though in some Carry On movie.

How could I compete? I couldn't start watching I Spy. I was hopeless with girls. I could hardly brag about the wonders of the South Circular Road to a boy who lived in a fishing-village paradise in the roar of the Atlantic. I could bring up The Beatles and the Stones as my birthright, but he knew more about their lives than I did ("that Brian Jones, he takes drugs. And he was married an' left his wife and kid. And he's only any good on the harmonica anyway...").

So instead, disastrously, I began to talk like him. I started to say "eejit" and "fecker" and "Is that right?" Climbing on the rocks, taking a boat with Taig around the headland, I tried to sound like an Irish boy. Taig made no comment, but I detected a chill in the air.

The holiday came to an end. As my parents were packing, I went to Taig's house to say goodbye. Half-way, he appeared with half a dozen local buddies.

"Howya," I said, "D'ja think there'd be any dacent fishin' to be had off the pier?"

There was a silence. One of the teenagers sniggered.

"Me Dad is after -" I faltered, "is after packin' up the car." Disastrously, my new accent failed me at the last moment. I'd said "caahr", to rhyme with "tsar". The sniggering boy burst out laughing. Clearly, Taig had told them about the English boy who was trying to talk like a Mick.

I felt like crying. Taig simply turned on his heel and walked off. The others went with him, leaving me desolate. Then one of them turned, picked up a small stone and flung it past my head. "Go on home," he shouted, "y'English bastard." A shower of pebbles suddenly bounced off my chest.

I ran like hell, all the way to the hotel. My father smiled.

"Where have you been, John?" he said. "Saying goodbye to the lads? I bet you won't forget this trip in a hurry."

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