Cobh memorial to emigration, Cork
THE PINE LODGE HOTEL, CROSSHAVEN – PART TWO
DAY TWENTY: THURSDAY
Woken at seven am by the sound of the Dutchman departing for work. Leaving the others still sleeping, I went down to the backyard for a cup of tea. The sunlight streamed down from a cloudless sky – it looked like a real sea-change after the days of incessant rain. Sat back and luxuriated in the unaccustomed warmth of the morning and the clear head of an alcoholically blameless night. The only blemish was the thought that I was performing a show in fourteen hours’ time and did not know even in which town I was meant to be.
Returned to the dormitory and found that my rucksack had been dumped outside the door. What the hell had happened? Felt gripped by social paranoia. Had I committed some unspeakable act during the night? Something so awful that even my rucksack had been rejected by all right-thinking hostellers? Then it dawned that the alarm clock had gone off and, rather than delve inside, someone had removed the bag to shut out the noise. Well, that was a relief. All the same, I definitely hadn’t set the clock.
This was another example of the inexplicable things that happened in the bottom of rucksacks. First it was the ghostly resurrection of ‘Dancing Queen’ back in Galway. And now this? There seemed to be a sub world, maybe an entire alternative universe developing in there?
Musing on the infinite, I walked into Cork to retrieve Bosie from the bus station. Relieved to find that the tent had refrained from erecting itself in my absence. Trundled the basket back along Father Matthew Street, then stopped to phone the contact number again. At last, someone was there – and, even better, it was Jenny.
“God, you’re lucky. I just dropped in to see my parents. I’ve been wondering where the hell you were. Anyway, it’s good news. I’ve found a venue and the landlord said that he’ll put you up for the night as well. It’s near Crosshaven.”
“It’s OK. Give me your address and I’ll collect you.”
Relief flooded through – the roller-coaster was ascending once more. Back at Kellys, Andrea wandered into the backyard looking bleary-eyed; the vodka tasting session having been more successful than she’d intended. A few other denizens emerged and another relaxed morning unfolded. Tea, toast, cigarettes, light conversation: everyone was broke but the scene could not have been more pleasant at a palace garden party.
At eleven thirty, Jenny arrived and we set off south from the city. Jenny was an old friend who, although normally resident in London, had been born and raised in Co Cork and, with her husband Brendan, still kept a caravan down on the coast. Brendan had returned to England but Jenny had stayed on with their two small sons, Lorcan and Euan, to give the children an extra few weeks holiday.
We drove along the estuary of the Lee as Jenny proudly pointed out the sights. And it was certainly idyllic. It did not have the ruggedness of the west, but it did have the more sheltered beauty that reminded me of the southern coast of Cornwall. Tall trees clustered along the shore; yacht masts swayed gently above the limpid waters; it was easy to see why Cork was one of the great natural harbours of Europe.
Suddenly, Jenny pulled over to the side of the road to where a man stood piling fishing nets into his car. It turned out that it was her brother. We talked and he promised to come to the show tonight. As we drove off again, Jenny recounted the ‘Ring of Shteel’ story.
Back in the Seventies, her brother had been a customs and excise man and, one night, he and his team had driven out to Bantry Bay to check a newly arrived boat. A local resident had spotted them and, as it was at the height of the gun-running period, had assumed that they were illegal arms smugglers. The resident informed the police authorities of what was happening and the local superintendent decided to mount a major entrapment operation. He mobilised large sections of the Cork police force and proceeded to place what he described as a ‘Ring of Shteel’ around Bantry Bay. Meanwhile, Jenny’s brother and his men, completely unaware of this, finished their business, packed up and drove home.
Two days later, he caught wind of the still ongoing police operation and rang up the superintendent to explain. There was a pregnant silence at the other end of the line, then came a wail of:
“But what about me Ring of Shteel!?”
The brother was forced to reply that he and his excise men had driven straight through the Ring of Shteel without anybody noticing.
After a short stop for a drink in the village of Crosshaven, we drove around the hills attaching show posters to various telegraph poles, post boxes and prominent trees. I mentioned that the countryside looked very prosperous.
“There’s a lot of new industries setting up all over the place. We’re doing very well out of the Tiger economy.”
“Yes, I suppose there must be a lot of tourist and craft industry around? Knitting? Carvings?”
Jenny laughed and pointed ahead.
“Not exactly. See that one over there? That’s the new Viagra factory.”
We drove along the cliff road down to Minane Bridge.
“There’s another thing we have here” continued Jenny. “It only happens in County Cork and, I think, somewhere in Ulster. It’s called road bowling. On Sundays there’s a competition to see how many throws it takes to chuck an iron ball along the road from one village to the next. It can be damn dangerous if you’re out driving. You’re just cruising along minding your own business and the next thing you know you’ve got a small cannonball through the windscreen.”
Ten minutes later we arrived at Roberts Cove, a hamlet consisting of three houses, a pub and a caravan encampment set on a hill overlooking an inlet. Fifty feet below us, the waves idly licked and lapped at the rocks, while beyond the headland the sunlight and sea mingled in the afternoon haze. It was sublime.
Jenny unlocked her caravan. “Would you like to get your clothes cleaned? My friend, Tracy, has got a washing machine.”
“God, yes!” I replied. “I’d really appreciate it. In fact, I think most of Ireland would appreciate it.”
Sorted out the clothes. Amidst the pile of stinking apparel, somehow there was one clean sock. Six and a half pairs of dirty ones and one clean one? Eh? The mathematics of this was beyond me. Jenny and the boys left to deliver the washing and then to swim in the cove. I settled into a deckchair, relaxed in the utter peacefulness and promptly went to sleep. About five o’clock, they returned and Jenny sat down beside me to share the view.
“I grew up around here” she confided. “It was a lovely childhood. All boats and horses and swimming. One day I was sitting down there in the cove and I saw three heads bobbing together in the sea. It was really strange. Then, as they got closer, you could make out that they were a man and his two dogs. It was like the three-headed Cerberus. They’d actually swum right round the Head from Cork which was pretty incredible in itself. The man climbed out of the sea, took out his clothes from a water-tight bag, got dressed and walked over to the pub with his dogs. I thought I’d dreamt it but it really did happen.”
We collected the clean clothes from Tracy, an ex-Londoner who lived in a farmhouse over the hill. I shook hands with her and said hello. She handed over a pile of my underwear and grinned.
“I feel as if I know you already.”
We drove on to another cliff-top house for a meal with some more friends of Jenny. They were Mikey and Carmel, plus their daughter Dawn. It was pleasant to be in the welcoming family atmosphere of their home. The main room was splendid with a long window giving a panoramic sea view and with the other walls completely covered with ornaments and bric-a-brac – for me, ideal decoration. To hell with minimalism; I like interesting clutter. Mikey was a strong, capable looking fisherman who was also a jazz musician. As Jenny said later:
“I don’t understand how he can produce such delicate music from those huge hands.”
Carmel was a tall, lithe brunette with a mischievously expressive face.
As she laid out the meal, she said: “I’m surprised you got to Cork alive” and explained that there was a large colony of ‘Crusties’ living on a mountain outside Dunmanway not many miles distant.
“They’ve been there for a year. And tolerance in County Cork is running very low. I reckoned that if the locals spotted you hitch-hiking they’d think you were one of the Crusties and run you over.”
Jenny replied “Yes, that’s possible. But then, how many Crusties travel in evening dress?”
Leaving Dawn to baby-sit the boys, we set off once more, this time for the venue. The Pine Lodge Hotel turned out to be a superb Victorian mansion overlooking Crosshaven harbour. The proprietor was Michael, a large, smiling, very chunky man. To meet Michael was a bit like meeting the entire front row of a rugby scrum. He showed me around the prospective stage area.
In many ways it was the best acting space that I’d come across so far. The room was large enough and tall enough to take a fair sized audience while still maintaining good acoustics. The bar counter was far enough away to lessen distraction and there was even a small raised stage. I arranged the props, did the make-up and settled back to await the nine pm audience. Jenny and the others moved to a side bar to ‘allow the actor to concentrate’.
Nine o’clock, naturally, came and went with no sign of anybody at all. Then nine fifteen, nine thirty and nine forty five. By now, I was feeling slightly fed up with ‘concentrating’. Jenny popped her head in to tell me “don’t worry, the audience is on its way”. Ten o’clock, ten fifteen, ten thirty. By quarter to eleven, I felt that, even by Irish standards, a show that started two hours late was pushing it. I mean, in England, this was closing time!
Finally decided to make a move and announced as loudly as possible that I was starting the show in three minutes whether anyone was watching it or not. Miraculously the room started to fill up. It seemed that they had been waiting for me and, out of politeness and in deference to ‘concentration’, hadn’t mentioned the fact. Began the show.
“The English really do not think. Maybe they are correct, who knows. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world and people die of it, just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, thought is not catching but I am afraid we are beginning to be over-educated. Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching. It may well be that education is an admirable thing but I do think it is as well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”
The performance was off key tonight. It was too fast and too tired at the same time. It often happened that a good show, like Skibbereen, was followed by a poor one and vice versa. There seemed to be an immutable balance in operation. However, the audience was terrific, lots of laughter and applause. This may have had something to do with the fact that they’d perforce had two hours of drinking prior to the show. As Dame May Whitty once observed, it always helps if the audience is legless.
Finished at ten to midnight and, having circulated the hat and cleaned off the make-up. I assumed that this would be the end of the evening. No chance. This was the signal for the party to begin. Almost thirty people remained: Jenny’s numerous friends and relations, a crowd of younger people from Crosshaven, and the hotel staff. As ‘The Greatest Hits of Phil Collins’ burst out from Michael’s CD player, dancing broke out on all fronts.
In the not altogether fictitious role of drained thespian, I relaxed back and talked to a young American woman called Alicia. She was the lead singer in a Minneapolis band called ‘Tea and Sympathy’ and came to Cork once a year to recharge the batteries after a season of performances and the attentions of the Press.
She asked “Do you get a lot of hassle from the Press?”
“In most towns, it’s the paparazzi who have to beat me off.”
The pints poured on. I was way behind the rest of them in alcoholic intake but did the best to catch up. Jenny introduced me to her old school friend, Johnny Cush, and the anecdotes of adolescence started to flow. Jenny was having a night off from the responsibilities of parenthood and she was making the most of it. The music pounded on. Michael danced as if he was about to take on the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road and the next two hours disappeared into a Guinness-tinted mist. At three am, I stumbled up to one of the hotel bedrooms and crashed out.
DAY TWENTY-ONE: FRIDAY
Woke at eight thirty and looked out of the window down the hill to the glorious sunshine and blue flecked waters of Cork Harbour. Despite the grogginess of head and stomach, it was a wonderful way to start the morning. Repacked Bosie and carried it downstairs. The ground floor was deserted. I vaguely conjectured as to what had happened to the hotel staff. About ten o’clock, the youngest of the barmaids appeared.
“Oh, sorry about you having to wait. Everybody’s got a hangover.”
She disappeared to make breakfast. At some very unguarded moment last night, Michael had offered to drive me into Cork City. Realised that it could be safely assumed that the offer was off. Then, as I lingered over a third cup of tea, a car stopped outside on the driveway. Jenny came in looking rather chastened.
“For the love of Jesus, I need tea.”
I pushed over the pot, she drank deeply then said:
“Somehow I didn’t think that Michael would make it this morning, so I thought I’d better come and check. At least I can get you into Cork.”
Oh Jenny, you utter darling, I thought, as the vision of having to drag Bosie along on a fourteen-mile walk receded. She drank another cup of tea and shuddered at the sight of proffered toast.
We left the silent hotel after leaving a note of thanks and sympathy for Michael, then drove along the country lanes. Suddenly Jenny pointed at an approaching car.
“It’s Carmel. And she’s going into the city centre”.
She honked the horn and both vehicles halted. Bosie and I switched from one car to the other.
“This feels a bit like the Pony Express.”
I hugged Jenny goodbye, then we were off again towards Cork. As we came into the centre, Carmel pointed out some of the main sights.
She also told me the history of Guinness, or at least a version of it that would leave any patriotic Dubliner foaming. It appeared that the drink was first brewed in London for the porters of Billingsgate, hence the original name of ‘porter’. It had then been imported into Ireland by the Cork brewers, Beamish and Crawford, and renamed ‘stout’. It was only later that it shifted north to Dublin where the Guinness’s increased the alcohol level and sold it as ‘extra stout porter’.
As we pulled up by the bus station, I asked:
“One thing that I’m interested to know, Carmel, is that wherever you go here you keep seeing something about Father Matthew. Father Matthew Street, Father Matthew Quay, Father Matthew’s statue. Who was Father Matthew?”
“I haven’t a fecking clue.”
The Crosshaven signature