I am filled with longing to be back in my home town

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Once I was glad to be gone; I thought Cork was parochial and suffocating. But now this longing!'

Once I was glad to be gone; I thought Cork was parochial and suffocating. But now this longing!'

In his story "The Ugly Duckling" Frank O'Connor writes movingly of the relationship between a man and his home town. The story is ostensibly about a love affair between a man and woman who grew up together in Cork; but lately I am more inclined to read it as a long love poem to the city itself, and to O'Connor's vanished childhood there. Read the following lines describing his return to the city from exile in Dublin (for a Corkman, Dublin is always a place of exile).

Then, long after, he found himself alone in Cork, tidying up things after the death of his father, his last relative there, and was suddenly plunged back into the world of his childhood and youth, wandering like a ghost from street to street, from pub to pub, from old friend to old friend, resurrecting other ghosts in a mood that was half anguish, half delight. He walked out to Blackpool and up Goulding's Glen only to find that the big mill pond had all dried up, and sat on the pond remembering winter days when he was a child and the pond was full of skaters, and summer nights when it was full of stars. His absorption in the familiar made him peculiarly susceptible to the poetry of change.

"The poetry of change." I have just come back from Cork and have never felt more susceptible to that melancholy lyric. I thought that I'd long ago shaken off the dust of my hometown, it was a place that could no longer exercise any hold over me. Foolish me. Cork ambushed me and I am feeling lovelorn, ambushed by what André Malraux called "the lightening speed of the past", and quick to identify with O'Connor's words, written late in his life and long after he'd left the city: "I never quite felt that I had left Cork or that Cork had left me."

It has definitely not left me. I went back to deliver a lecture at my old school and to open the new library dedicated to O'Connor's great contemporary, Sean O'Faolain. O'Faolain was a past-pupil of "Pres" College but, like O'Connor, he spent most of his writing in Dublin. Cork was too small for them, too enclosed and too parochial, and yet the stories they set in the city were written, to my mind at least, with a strong sense of longing. The city was a great deal more than a physical setting. One of O'Faolain's most powerful stories is set in a house on the Mardyke, just along the street from the school. In "The Talking Trees", the writer describes how a group of boys bribe a "fast" girl to take her clothes off; the moment of one boy's sexual awakening is beautifully described.

He would be happy forever if only he could walk every night of his life up the dark Mardyke, hearing nothing but a girl's laugh from behind a tree, a branch squeaking and the far-off rattle of a lost tram; walk on and on, deeper into the darkness until he could see nothing but one tall house whose fanlight she would never put out again ... she would be gone. He had known it ever since he heard her laughing softly by his side as they ran away together, for ever and ever, between those talking trees.

The school is still the civilised and pioneering place it was in my time, even more so; and the boys who sat to listen to my traveller's tales were interested, aware of a wider world, and challenging in their questions. Was I like that? I doubt it. I remember feeling a terrible awkwardness when I was that age.(Of course, it may well be that I bored them senseless and they were too polite to show it.) That night, after delivering another lecture, I wandered along the hallways looking at photographs from bygone days. There were uncles and cousins of mine on the walls, and lots of boys I'd been to school with and long ago lost touch with.

I was staying with an old school friend. He had stayed behind in Cork and absorbed the change gradually. The new buildings and the economic regeneration that surprised me were all boringly familiar to him; he had married in Cork and was raising his children there, and so the city existed firmly in his present tense. I didn't tell him about my melancholy stirrings because I doubt he'd have understood; it was stuff from years and years back.

If I took you on a tour of my city, that Cork of my past, it would begin on the Mardyke where James Joyce so memorably described hearing the "thok of the cricket ball" in Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. I would take you along the length of the Mardyke (its talking trees have alas succumbed to the dreaded Dutch Elm disease), past the Cork Cricket Club and out the Western Road, pausing to admire the River Lee and looking up at St Anne's Mental Hospital where my grand-aunt Katy spent the last sad years of her life. We brought her black grapes and Lucozade on Sundays and my grandmother would insist that we kissed her when we said goodbye.

"But she has whiskers," I said.

"Hush and give her a kiss," came the reply.

Turning west from the Lee Fields, we could walk to Wilton Fields and the sweetest memories. That was '76 and the summer of the big drought, McEnroe and Connors and the summer I first read The Great Gatsby and met a girl full of Fitzgerald's "romantic readiness". I think I walked more in that summer than any time before or since. I would walk my girl home and then head home to my grandmother's house about two miles away. I walked on air. It is said that 15-year-olds are incapable of love. "Too immature by half." "It is infatuation not love." But it is adults who say that, and I am not there yet. Whatever it was I experienced in that sweltering city, I was lost to it.

Halfway between the two houses there was a man-made lake called - with remarkable economy of imagination - "the Lough". It is a nesting spot for innumerable species of bird. In winter, the Lough has been known to freeze over. The local paper had photographs of people skating across it. On the clearest and stillest winter nights you could stand on my grandmother's road and hear the sound of birds carried across from streets away. Her house was on one of the city's southern hills. It is part of the beauty of Cork that it is surrounded by a series of hills overlooking the Lee Valley. From the end of my grandmother's road you could look across the valley at the houses on the north side; to the west, the vast corporation estates of Gurranabraher and Knocknaheeny and then, closer to the river, the houses of the city's merchant princes, set in neighbourhoods with wonderous names such as "Sundays Well" and "Montenotte".

I am surprised at how easily the intimate geography of my hometown comes back, all the streets and lanes and the river that is the heart and soul of the place. And though London is my home, I am this morning full of longing to be back in that other city. For quite a while I was glad to be gone from there; I thought it parochial and suffocating. But now this longing! It was the journey to the school which stirred up the wealth of warmer memories. It is entirely foolish, of course. I would be a duck out of water if I went back. We have all of us changed; the city, my friends, myself. Far better to love the place from afar as Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain did. For, as O'Connor wrote in "The Ugly Duckling": "However the city might change, that old love-affair went on unbroken in a world where disgust or despair would never touch it." And if you cannot go there, at least read the books.

 

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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