Wednesday, 3 June 2015

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.

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