(Written on 5th June, heading home, but posted on 18th June).
It's one of the privileges of being alive at this time and born into the ineffably fortunate culture which is modern Britain, that I am able to wander about, more or less at will, and go on these holidays or travels. We meet with smiles, efficient arrangements, amusements, picturesque scenes and just about every kind of freedom we might desire (and we are carefully persuaded not to seek other freedoms or feel their lack).
So at the turning-home part of a journey, it's easy to feel satisfied, regretful that we cannot stay longer, already planning a return trip. Just now, waiting to board the Swift ferry back to Holyhead, we met a young American woman from Utah who had flown in for a short holiday mostly driving round England. Somewhere between the US, Canada and Ireland, all the luggage for her party has been lost. So for a short while we commiserate and contemplate what it would be like to have no suitcase, no clean underwear or sweater, or raincoat…. She did not know she might be able to buy replacements and claim on her insurance. Andrew and I remind ourselves that we should always be 'safe' and have a mini-travel set of stuff with us, in the hand-luggage, for just such an emergency - but, really, this is all about 'stuff', and not about the realities of life. We have not even had our passports checked getting on this boat.
In an hour or two we'll be back in the land of the Welsh Celts. For now, the boat is filled with a chirpy mass of mainly Irish families, a big (English?) guy tattooed and with a very small boy both eating a large breakfast, a party on some kind of car-race with the men dressed in ridiculous suits (patterned with bright flowers, vivid orange, brickwork, stripes, etc) and the girls kitted out as belly-dancers or sunbathers, lots of bare midriffs. There's a lot of Irish being spoken. Quite a few with black teeth. The café staff are all Polish. Children are falling over in the slight swell. The rain is greying out the windows and the light outside is soft and dull.
We're exhausted, really, with just looking at things… the landscapes we've been through are just magnificent and yet barely known in England. When David and Jo were married in Dundrum 2 summers ago, so many of their guests said they had never been to Ireland, and had no idea how lovely it was. The landscape tells the story - the antiquity, the settlements, the dispossession, the poverty, the recent reinvestment from the EU (roads in particular, and hospitals, and schools…). I need to learn more about the geology and the legends… All over Europe, in my lifetime, I feel the ancient stories are disappearing and being ground down and lost, as the motorways and modern conveniences of travel disconnect us from the land itself. Anything like a path, or a cave, or a ford, or even a wood, a place where magic might have happened, or a people have sheltered, or fought a battle, or a king may have died or been buried… all these places now look rather non-descript. We live in an age of interpretation boards and I have very mixed feelings about them. Of course I am grateful to learn something, some scrap of history about a place. But, the boards fade or get vandalized, and they can only ever summarise. In any case, they have explained some sort consensual version, and that will probably represent the winner's point of view, and certainly the men's story rather than the women's or the children's. Having these boards up means that people just don't know anything except what the board told them.. they may have a human guide there, but probably not. So the richness and the setting all vanish.
I am regretting now that I did not do my younger reading in a more disciplined way - where, for example, is the thing I found written by Oscar Wilde's mother, explaining the story of the field of corn, the queen, and the horses which came to trample the crops each night, and how the hero tried and failed to stop them?
One of the great things about Ireland is the stories - they flow out, people are full of them. When I was here 40-odd years ago, it was the music which grabbed my attention - someone standing at a bus-stop would pull out a penny whistle to pass the time and play tunes till the bus arrived and that happened quite a lot. I haven't been in bus queues this time, but I have not seen any penny whistles perched in the top pockets.
But, the stories! My son the gard… Val O'Donoghue is the photographer who took that famous photo of the queen with the fish… the man in that house was the one who started Click-and-Go, the plot of land cost him a million, but he lost it all… that man there will tell you now… the American security men are not nice at all, but the English ones, very polite, they'd untape the door for you if you left your purse inside… it was her son's ex-girlfriend who decided she needed some dogs so she got them from the owner and brought them to her and she was right, she did need them… that family were hoping the government would take the house on but they haven't had any luck with it so far…. this floor's no good, it always needs cleaning… they're a great little dancing group, been in the national competitions and won it, just local boys and girls….
Our hostess in the b& in Kenmare talked non-stop for nearly 15 minutes at breakfast with a Niagara-like flow of information. It would have made fine theatrical piece.
Next to us on the ferry is a group of men with rural accents, I am sorry I do not know where from, and they are talking merrily together but I can hardly understand them at all, and this is 'English'. It's fast and guttural and the odd word jumps out but the rest is just a noise… 'We were down in Ballycastle…' 'and Tom said..' 'know what I mean..' 'a load of money', 'she's a hard girl now', 'you know Miney?' 'a heavy fellow?' 'down in the strawberry fair', 'last couple of months', 'a hundred fellows last year,' 'three men'…. I cannot imagine a group of English blokes like this, the huddle, the neat beards and mullets, the baby coughing in the buggy beside them.