The De Barra pub, Clonakilty, Co Cork
THE PINE LODGE HOTEL, CROSSHAVEN – PART ONE
The first lift came from a German couple who spoke no English. There was an attempt at conversation in sign language and diabolical pidgin French. Over a twenty minute period we managed to communicate the mind-blowing information that ‘the hills are tall’. Passed through the town of Clonakilty and its famous pub, the De Barra. This was also famous as being the base of an ex-member of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Ill-advisedly I tried to explain this to the Germans. They misunderstood me and thought that I was trying to tell them that Jimi Hendrix ran the pub.
“Mais il est morte?” the driver said cautiously.
Attempts to clarify came to nothing and an air of suspicion hung over the rest of the journey.
They dropped me at Bandon, a pleasant town with a wide river bridge. Waited for forty minutes on the outskirts, then a car pulled up. Its Irish driver leaned out.
“I’m going to Cork.”
I tried in insert Bosie on to the back seat. It was a small car and it soon became obvious that there was no way that I could squeeze the bloody thing in. The driver shrugged his shoulders.
“Sorry about that. You’ll have to wait for a van or something.”
He drove off and I gave the shopping basket a venomous glare. Bosie was turning out to be almost as big a nuisance as its original namesake.
Another twenty minutes passed as I sat on a wall and idly thumbed. Then a very old but very large saloon car stopped. The driver was a mature student of marine biology who lived in Cork. As we drove along the bank of the River Bandon, the car radio was playing. The disc jockey suddenly used the expression ‘Feck off’.
To a British ear, this sounded really extraordinary. Despite the relaxation of standards, one couldn’t really imagine BBC radio announcers telling their listeners to ‘feck off’. Considering that it is probably the most widely used adjective in the English language – in fact, in most of the American film industry it is the only adjective used – ‘fucking’ has always been a problem in broadcasting and print. In his novel ‘Borstal Boy’, Brendan Behan comically solved it by gaelicising it into ‘fugh’. But that was back in the Fifties. In Ireland today, possibly due to the influence of the ‘Father Ted’ TV show, ‘fuck’ had become euphemised into ‘feck’ and was in quite common usage. To some extent, it was no longer regarded as an explosive swearword. I mentioned to the driver that it still sounded odd on the radio if you weren’t used to it.
“Yeah, it’s funny how words can mean different things in different places. I used to live in Birmingham in England. Now, if you called someone a whore in Birmingham, you’d probably get your teeth kicked in. But in Ireland to call someone a whore is almost affectionate. ‘Ah, you auld whoor’, that won’t upset anybody. In fact, if you call someone a ‘cute whoor’, it’s almost a compliment. It just means that you’re clever.”
He lit a cigarette and went on:
“But ‘fuck’ itself is still looked on as a cuss word. My father always said that he wanted to have the words ‘Fuck the Begrudgers’ carved as his epitaph. The priest said that he’d be arrested for being in possession of an obscene tombstone.”
We drove through the sprawling modern suburbs of Cork, then on into the centre. The student dropped me off and left with a wave. I looked around. Cork was a real city and the change of attitude was immediately apparent. There were no ‘good mornings’ or smiles here – everyone stalked past with metropolitan hauteur. It was a bit of a culture shock after the last three weeks.
On the other hand, I liked Cork immediately. Maybe not as much as Galway and it certainly wasn’t beautiful, but it had a breezy liveliness about it. The centre consisted of a large arrow-head shaped island in the middle of the River Lee. This was the original settlement and still had the clustering small streets of a country town. The hilly north bank had been built more formally and looked like the posh end, while the south bank seemed a more diffuse area of warehouses and faded fan-lit Georgian terraces.
Dropped Bosie off into the bus station left-luggage department and debated the next move. The one clear objective was to make contact with Jenny. The only information I had was that she was staying in a caravan somewhere near Cork City and that she had arranged a venue for tomorrow night in a pub somewhere between Kinsale and the Co Waterford border. The only phone number I possessed that might provide more specific directions was one for her parents who lived in Co Cork …. somewhere?
I found a public phone box and thumped the machine till it co-operated. There was no reply.
Although the rain had stopped, it was a cloudy and still slightly chilly day. Leaned on the river parapet by Merchants Quay under a statue of a grim-looking gent called Father Matthew and breathed the salty tang of the river. There was really no option other than to find a base camp for tonight, and then to spend a quiet and sober evening before the predictable shenanigans of tomorrow.
I would either find Jenny and proceed as planned or I wouldn’t find her, in which case I could try to wangle my way into a Cork venue. Also, the residual hangover from last night’s session at the Sean Og was starting to make itself felt. The sensible course was to lie low and rest up.
Checked out the Tourist Office on the Grand Parade. The closest hostel seemed to be one called Kellys on the south bank. I shouldered the rucksack and set out to find it. It took forty minutes but Kellys turned out to be a gem. Both of the previous hostels in Castlebar and Listowel had had an oppressively antiseptic atmosphere. But from the first sight of the giant cartoon figures painted on the wall of the small, end-of-terrace house, I knew Kellys would be different. The common room was dusty and bedraggled, the kitchen was greasy and strewn with dirty crockery. I felt at home immediately.
Upstairs, there was a choice of three small dormitories named after Irish bards: the W.B. Yeats room, the Thomas Kinsella room, etc. Once inside, you realised why. The walls were completely covered with hand-painted verses representing the work of each respective poet. I chose the Yeats room and dropped the rucksack on a bunk under a stanza lamenting the aftermath of Yeats’ unrequited passion for Maud Gonne.
‘I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
Not the cheeriest of sentiments, I grant, but it was a literary luxury after the usual blank concrete and No Smoking signs. I warmed to the superb quirkiness of the place.
To top it all, there was Andrea. She was the warden and was an attractive twenty-year-old whose first act was to pour me a cup of tea and ask if I wanted breakfast. She was Czech and had arrived a few weeks previously as a tourist. After a couple of night’s residence at Kellys, she had graduated to working there and now, in the temporary absence of the owner, she was in charge. We carried the tea out into the small backyard, lit cigarettes and chatted like old comrades.
At 1pm, I walked back into the centre of Cork and found a phone box on Father Matthew Quay. Tried to ring Jenny’s parents – the machine swallowed the coins but gave no other response. Then I noticed a phone shop nearby. At last there might be someone who was capable of re-activating the mobile. The shop assistant really did try. She spent over forty minutes contacting Irish Digital and Eircell and following their instructions with a furrowed brow. The phone remained silent. Finally she handed it back.
“I’m sorry. It’s got to be something wrong with UKCELL. You’ll have to contact them about it.”
Easier said than done. Felt a spurt of indignation at the injustice of Fate. This never happened to Tony Hawks, by God. There he was, day after day, effortlessly chatting away to the Gerry Ryan Show. Whereas I couldn’t even find a bleeding carrier pigeon that worked! For a few irate moments the mobile was in mortal danger of ending up at the bottom of Cork Harbour. Instead it was demoted from the A-list of valuables secreted about my person and slung into the furthest recesses of the rucksack. No doubt it would wreak revenge in time-honoured fashion by mysteriously connecting itself to the Indonesian speaking clock for the next three weeks.
Returned to Kellys and the Yeats room with a selection of food. Picnicked on the bunk, then slept for a couple of hours before being re-awoken by some departing French cyclists. Went out to the backyard to talk to Andrea. She had been joined by a friend called Anastasia, a tall willowy Russian. Anastasia had accompanied her parents from Russia to the USA and had then decamped to Ireland under her own steam. She had all the fervour of a new convert.
“I am in love with Ireland. I never want to go back to America or Russia. The Irish people are the only ones who know how to live.”
Andrea asked where I was performing next.
“I don’t really know.” I replied. “All I know is that it’s somewhere in eastern County Cork. It’s a bit of a problem.”
Anastasia pulled out a bottle of vodka and offered me a glass. At that moment, there was probably nothing in the world I would have preferred more than to spend the evening drinking vodka with two beautiful girls. However, I knew in my battered guts that, if I succumbed, the chances of performing anything anywhere tomorrow night would recede into oblivion. With a teeth-grinding groan of abstinence, I declined the offer and set off back into the city.
It was early evening as I crossed over the Patrick Street Bridge and into McCurtain Street. This was the classy side of town – the Isaacs Hotel, the Metropole and, what I was looking for, the Everyman Palace Theatre. There was a revival of a play by Hugh Leonard called ‘Da’ being performed by the Corinthians, a local company. Only eight quid for a front stalls seat – not bad. Settled down to await the eight pm start. And wonderfully, gloriously, magnificently, the show was fifteen minutes late. So it wasn’t just me. They all started late in Ireland!
‘Da’ turned out to be a good play with some great one-liners. It took time to adjust to the accents – there were no concessions to the foreign ear here – and the play itself followed an old fashioned formula. It was a tribute to a lovable, if feckless, father. This has been a staple of Irish literature from Joyce to O’Connor, from O’Casey to O’Faolin. It was either Mother Courage or Drunken Dad. However, out of the stereotypes, Hugh Leonard pulled off a genuinely comic and moving story.
One of the scenes that stood out concerned the meeting of the young hero with a mysterious siren of a woman. All his adolescent curiosity and imagination is captured by her erotic enchantment. Even more, she represents the tempting danger of the unknown. Just as he is about to approach her, the Da comes by and greets them both. He talks to the woman and reveals not only her name and address, but the fact that she works at the local butchers. The dangerous allure is punctured by banality. A valuable, if rather annoying, lesson.
Went out at the interval for a cigarette. Although casual clothes were in evidence, the majority of the audience were smartly dressed. Having received a few pained glances, I caught sight of my reflection in a corridor mirror. I looked as if I’d just emerged from the Bad Trip tent after a particularly muddy night at Glastonbury Festival. Returned to the auditorium and read the programme.
There was a short article by Hugh Leonard about the show which had a touching postscript. The play was autobiographical, he having been adopted, and had been written partly as a way of repaying the debt he owed his own ‘Da’. Ironically, because of the huge international success of the work, the debt he owed his father ‘was now greater than ever’. You just can’t win.
Left the theatre at ten thirty and walked back over the Parnell Place Bridge. The moon shone down through the fleeting clouds over the City Hall and reflected on the dark rippling waters of the River Lee. Watched it and gnawed a kebab. The simple pleasures of the poor.
I’d discovered from a tourist brochure earlier that the poet Edmund Spenser had been High Sheriff of Cork in the 1590’s and had written about this very spot in his extremely lengthy epic ‘The Fairie Queene’.
‘The spreading Lee, that like an island fayre, Encloseth Cork with his divided flood.’
‘The Fairie Queene’ was not only extremely long but, by general consent, extremely dull. It turned out that other large chunks of the manuscript had been lost when his castle in Co Cork had been burnt down by rebels. There has been many an Eng Litt student who has raised a grateful glass in memory of the arsonists.
Back at Kellys, the common room and kitchen were empty. It was not until I went into the backyard that I found the rest of the clientele. They were all outside smoking with Andrea. It was a strange anomaly about hostel life. Despite the fact that the vast majority of hostels banned smoking, apparently about ninety per cent of wardens and hostellers smoked. The result was that, while the hostels themselves stayed deserted, the porches, patios and, in this case, backyards were crammed solid with puffing residents.
Andrea introduced me to the shadowy figures while the conversation drifted around the topic of ‘hostels we have known’. One of the guests was a Dutchman, presently working in Cork, but who previously had been the sub-warden of a hostel near Galway. He described how he had lost the job.
“One night, a drunken guest came back to his room and burnt some rubbish on a fire. It set off all the alarm bells. One woman was so frightened that she ran out into the night and never returned. The problem was that I had lost the key which turned off the alarm. I had to run round all the rooms and smash each alarm individually with a broom. The authorities were not happy.”
About one thirty, I excused myself from the company and went upstairs to the Yeats room. As I settled under the blankets, the door opened and a stunningly lovely girl walked in. It hadn’t crossed my mind that Kellys had unisex dormitories. She gave me a wide smile, then calmly stripped off and climbed into the bunk above mine. Then the other occupants arrived and the lights were dowsed.
Fell asleep wondering whether she worked in the local butchers?
Next week on Tuesday May 7 – The second post from Crosshaven – ‘Tea and Sympathy’.