Thursday, 18 June 2015

Ferry home

(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.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Dursey Island

Dursey Island

The Beara Peninsula (pronounced 'Barra') is a massive prod of rock heading out into the Atlantic from the SW of Ireland, and bounded like its brethren on either side by deep drowned river-valleys or rheas. To get around the edge of this visually astonishing landmass you have to drive an almost infinite number of zigzags along the coast.  This doubles the miles which any sensible crow would fly, but it does make for a grand day out.
We toured round some shops in Bantry first thing, then went to Bantry House to see how the other half lived, and then headed out to the far end of Beara because there, luring Andrew like a beacon, is the Dursey Island Cable Car. Dursey Island is one of many scattered around the coast, right out at the very tip and with a small amount of habitation, old monastic ruins, excellent bird-watching, etc. In 2006 it had a population of 6. It is separated from the mainland by a churning anxious race of tidal water, which attacks itself and battles against the wind in all directions. It looks to be less than quarter of a mile across, but I wouldn't want to swim in it, or even try to row a boat across. It churns. It boils…. Not because of rocks and breakers but just because the waters are fighting against each other and unable to establish any kind of supremacy in one direction or the other.
Back in the 60s, someone (English?) decided to sling a cable-car across and built a pair of flimsy-looking towers, with about 6 or 7 steel wires between them, and a stop-house at each end, and a small cabin about the size of a sofa which trundles between them. We do know the cabin has been replaced at least once because we saw an old one being used as a chicken house. The new one doesn't really look much more substantial to be honest.
Andrew fixed on this contraption as a destination and drove with a warm enthusiasm all the way there - fifty or sixty winding miles - with a subtle smile on his face. Boys' toys.   It took all the afternoon to get there… and when we did, I can tell you the extreme difference in our reactions was funny. He was profoundly disappointed to see the cable car was closed for maintenance… and I was heartily, joyously, pusillanimously relieved not to have to be persuaded to go in it.
The only compensation for him was to meet and talk to the three fine engineers doing the actual maintenance. They were all Cork men, from the county council. They spoke softly in that lovely accent, which reputedly comes from the French influence, and has so much courtesy and listening in it. They had to clean up the bearings and so on, using little scrapers to clean off the old oil and muck, and replace the nylon wheels which (I could easily see) had dented down after a year's use. They laughingly assured me the whole thing might look rusty but 'sure, that's only superficial, it's as safe as…..' and that 'the cables are fine - they are an inch thick'.  They let me take their photograph, we had a laugh, and then two of the three of them set off on the lid of the damned cable car, to test it.  We were watching from the car park, and saw them standing about on its top as it slowly trundled out across that dark and dangerous water. They had a little railing to save them if a gust of wind knocked them over, and maybe a little bit of string tied to their waists, but they were like little lads on a spree, as it shook and shivered its way through the flimsy rusty steel tower and out across into the far sunlight.

How to be, where you are

It's like being sent back a few decades to come to rural Ireland. The roads are almost empty. The children in the playgrounds have sensible haircuts - short back and sides for the boys and pigtails for the girls. The little towns, when they are able to prosper in this blighting economic recession, do so through dozens and dozens of small family businesses - Ena's Cleaners, Christeen's Hair Parlour, Pat Murphy Accountant, Nimble Shoes, O'Flanagan's Bar, Doyle's Family Butcher. 

Appearances can be deceptive of course. Some establishments take on more than one trade to keep going, ie. a Lounge Bar and Undertaker at Galbally.

The land is a strange mixture of cultural signage - an almost-English historic landscape of small farms, hedges and ditches, mixed lines of oaks and ash and endless miles of winding lanes - but the gateways are all well set back from the road with curving walls inviting you in, the roadwork signs are strikingly dramatic with silhouettes of very 1960s-looking cars engaged in weird situations with, for instance, blasts of stones coming from the wheels, or the whole vehicle flying over a man's head. Road distances are measured in kilometres, and the traffic lights miss out the amber when changing from red to green.  The layout of the farmsteads themselves is rather Napoleonic - terribly reminiscent of French farms built as tiny courtyards with house, barn and sheds forming three sides, presenting the little protected area to the road. One or two of the towns and villages have large open squares, once cattle markets. Nearly all have eye-catching holy statues of the Virgin or Christ on the Cross set into theatrical copses of dark cypress trees, which throw the white-painted sculpture into relief.  The occasional grand estate is bounded by what they call 'famine walls', not so different from the walls around some English country estates, where the grandees used the appalling circumstances of widespread starvation among the peasants to reinforce their ownership of the land by forcing them to build high walls around the deerparks - keep out. Die if you must.

The placenames are fascinating - all are written up in English and Irish script. Sometimes you can see how the old Gaelic has been mangled into English, or an English descriptor has been transcribed into the older language, but really the favourite placename of the whole trip so far has to be Bweeng, which apparently means Bulrush, or Watery Surface… perhaps indicating stepping stones through a marsh.

We are driving (with Caroline) from Thurles into the west country for a couple of days r& r. We had chosen Bantry as being a a first night, booked a place to stay, and set off through the Glen of Aherloe, with the Gailty Mountains to our south making a spectacular set of rounded peaks like some huge godly sofa a few miles away. I could easily move to live in the Glen, for its beguiling charm - the river, the line of old farms and some newer houses soaking up the view, and the never-to-be-known mysteries of Marion Parslow, Potter, whose enterprise is in what looks like an old lodge gate cottage - but we, seeking coffee and a loo did not venture into her shop and drove on.  A whole hotel which lured us with signery turned out to be closed (and for sale).  A small abbey at the end of the glen had been ransacked so many times in its doleful history that it had given up, and stood like a broken toy at a crossroads, roof and windows gone, thin central tower pointing accusingly at heaven. There is one lovely carving of a saint ('of unknown date'), very rough and obscure, up near where the altar would have been, and some sort of sedilia with pretty carved columns, but otherwise, Moor Abbey is just a theatrical set, waiting for someone to come and do a son-et-lumière there.

We stopped at Galbally because - after so many empty miles - Mulvey's positively blazed an invitation to come in. Painted on the window it said Coffee Shop Breakfast Served. The little café was spot clean and furnished with plain tables and chairs and a few pictures on the wall.  The loo had a fantastically dark-coloured throne, no mere avocado, but perhaps avocado-skin. The proprietress, a beautiful woman with a very fancy bright blue hairnet, provided us with perfect Italian coffee which she brought out from the back kitchen - presumably she has a Gaggia in there, but she's not going to show it off.   She gave us a bit of background. It's very quiet. Some days, no-one comes in. All the businesses are still going, but some don't open till the evening. It used to have a cattle-market.  We loved it. From a map, we saw they have a Literary Trail in those parts, including Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor.  There are three villages in Ireland called Galbally, one in Wexford (just a crossroads), one in Tyrone and this one. The Tyrone Galbally has a Youth Club which in the 1970s came on an exchange holiday and marking the occasion, sent a painting of their community to this one, and that was on the wall. It shows a couple at a cottage, with two children, a goat, a cow, a dog, a garden, a row of potatoes, a rose at the door, and some hills. Idyllic. The daughter of the café said 'There's a fellah who comes in here now and again, and he's been there'.  She had made and was eating a snack of fried chipolata sausages on a piece of toast.

Caroline pointed out a town shown on the map, called Hospital. A family she knew lived there and found it impossible to get life assurance, because each time they filled out a form, the insurance company would refuse to cover anyone who actually lived in Hospital.

As in England, you do get that same thing in Ireland where the landscape changes almost in a blink from one exact kind to another - in just a few metres rise in altitude, or a few twists of the road, you move from broad to enclosed, or wet to dry….  And so we crossed the moors, went through plantations, kept company with rivers, danced along the zigzag low-roads, always with the green and white verges filled with cow parsley, and sometimes with fat rolling collars of gorse covered in gold. There are not many people walking about. Not many people at all, in fact.

We stopped at the ancient town of Mallow for lunch - this is a centre for that literary exercise shown on Mrs Mulvey's map, for Spenser, Trollope, Thackeray, Dervla Murphy, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor and more can all be pinned down onto the land around here.  At some point, someone decided Mallow ought to be looked after, maybe based on the railway being here, maybe on the fine 19th century houses lining the high street, maybe on the Spa which was developed a couple of hundred years ago - emulating Bath, with a thriving colony of rakes, and finally succumbing to boredom, inertia. It's housed in a fierce mock-Tudor villa which is now mostly offices. Maybe the healing waters are still there underneath, bubbling away at 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Anyway, Mallow is a very cheerful place, full of those little shops and lots of bustle, and an excellent tourist office, and some statues. Here is where 'The Nation' newspaper was founded, and also where someone went and blew up part of the old 10-arch bridge at some point.  I spotted a charming and neglected little house with partial shop-front, and went into the estate agent's shop to find out what it might be to buy.  His office smelled unmistakably of farts. 'Fifty to sixty,' he said. 'Thousand'. I fantasized getting it and doing it up as a holiday cottage and I think if you offered twenty they'd bite your hand off.  You'd have to spend eighty or more on it.

More roads, more rivers and bridges. Herds of cattle of mixed breed. And then the unmistakable light in the sky which comes from the sea beyond the horizon, and great clumps of rock started to poke through the grass in the gardens and fields. We were winding down towards Bantry Bay.  It's too early in the year for the fuchsia hedges to be flowering, but there are lots of other colours, including occasional clumps of London Pride (my favourite garden plant when I was a little child). Are these native and wild or brought over and naturalised? Dunno.

Bantry with its huge deep rhea of a bay snuggles into the back of it, with a statue of Wolf Tone contemplating the water. Our hotel was - well - spinked up, but dreary in a way, with long corridors and no wifi in the rooms. We had tea in the reception lounge and plotted our evening. Then we headed back to the town - to walk through rain showers, admire the window displays and the creaky old watermill by the library.  This was a flour mill (18thC and employing hundreds of workers), and then a wool-factory mill (19/20th century employing 40 workers), but the owner at that time suddenly closed it down and dismantled everything 'to the anger of the people'.  Now it's a forlorn iron sculpture with intermittent movement, and nice waterfall to one side of it.

The dozens of small shops are doing ok, though perhaps under some strain. Small supermarkets (and large ones) are creeping in. Beware!  Ma Murphy's bar has a long history of diversification. It's a long thin shop, which once had a forge at the back, accessed from a lane. Then (working towards the street end of the business) a bar, a general shop and a tiny snug. (If you know the wonderful Bear Inn in Faversham you will get the general layout, but Ma Murphy's does not have a separate corridor for access). There's no longer a trade in shoeing horses of course, so now it's all about the alcohol. The snug at the front is a bit of a store-room for stuff, the bar and music room and garden are all in use…. But we found the old shop is a showcase for Ireland's Oldest Domestic Appliance - a fridge which recently celebrated its 75th birthday and is still going strong. It may once have been white, but is now tobacco brown. Inside, the ice-box door is broken but there is still a great clump of ice up in that corner.  It starred on national radio on its birthday and appeared in celebrity magazines etc.  The dark bar in the next room is crammed with stuff, and a few Irishmen. The rest of the company are English but picturesque.

Supper was in the incomparable O'Connors - costing less than €140 for the three of us, superb cooking, wonderful sauvignon, serious and friendly atmosphere, with 11 people (who had taken up the tempting early-bird offer) finishing their meals while we ate and a further 10 arriving before we left. The staff are all female including the chef.  We had calamari, focaccia, scallops, lamb, monkfish and slow-roast pork between us.  In your face, Oxfordshire swank-pub. This was cheaper, better, smoother, friendlier, and utterly more professional.  I think this is one of the best restaurants I have been to in my life.

So - today we will explore the great Beara peninsular, maybe get across to Dursey Island in the precarious cable-car (or maybe not). We'll be in Kenmare tonight, and head back to Thurles tomorrow.