102nd Post: 19th IRELAND. 1st Dungarvan – Miss Haversham and Smike



“The eleven forty bus to Wexford will be leaving from number seven platform in three minutes. It will be stopping at Youghal, Dungarvan and Waterford.”

The stroll into Cork bus station turned into a gallop as the tannoy announcement echoed through the building. Found the bus with thirty seconds to spare and squeezed into the front seat behind the driver; it was the only place left spare on the crowded vehicle. Drove out of the city, past the island of Cobh and then due east. Uneasily recalled that Cobh had been the departure point of the Titanic.

The driver tuned the overhead radio to the local station and lit a cigarette. The smoke wreathed up around the ‘No Smoking’ sign above his head. This was one of the things I loved about Ireland – the nonchalant bonfire of the regulations. After the usual leaden deference to the dictats of modern life, it was an intoxicating boost to the spirit.

A phone-in chat show was playing on the radio and the topic of conversation was ‘road bowling’, the very sport that Jenny had mentioned. One caller had described the participants as ‘riff raff’ and added:

“When I go driving, I want to drive, not hang around waiting for those scruffs”.

This, not surprisingly, had provoked a storm of protest and a wonderfully articulate and vituperative row had broken out between ‘the Driver’ and a representative of the ‘Riff raff’. The insults hurtled across the airwaves with immense speed and inventiveness. It was a brilliant performance on both sides and a world away from the dreary meanderings of ‘Reg from Catford’ that I knew so well from London radio. The deejay hosting the show had a cozily bland voice but he was no fool and, knowing that this was a diamond, allowed the row to flood onwards. The bus passengers, including myself, were glued to it. Eventually the deejay brought the topic to a close, saying with a ‘no-hard-feelings-lads-fair-play-to-both-sides-now’ sort of finality:

“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. I suppose, in the end, that it all comes down to whether you’re a gin and tonic man or whether you’re a pint of stout man. Well, I’m a man of the people, so I suppose I’ll have to come down on the side of the pint of stout crowd.”

Without skipping a beat, the ‘Driver’ snapped back:

“That’s because you’re too feckin’ mean to buy a gin and tonic.”

The whole busload cracked up with laughter and the bus itself veered across the road as the driver wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. The deejay’s reply, if he had one, was lost in the hilarity. He was perhaps lucky that the next hastily played record was ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’.


 We drove on to the town of Youghal where I alighted to continue hitching. Youghal was a pretty little seaside town. Sir Walter Raleigh had been the mayor in the Armada year of 1588. Smoked a cigarette in his memory, then walked out to the Dungarvan road and the Cork/Waterford county border.

It’s no reflection on Youghal at all but I felt an irrational and slightly depressing psychological shift at this point. On my map of Ireland, although there were several folds running east to west, there was only one running north to south – and it happened to run through Youghal. It seemed like a watershed; from now on, I was in the East. I was leaving behind the wild country and the gentle manners; the tranquil anarchy of the West. Maybe it was because there were no more friendly contacts ahead until the end of the tour, maybe it was because I was tired both mentally and physically, maybe it was just regret at leaving the West behind, but a mild despondency crept in. Maybe I had forgotten that the craic could happen anywhere.

After an hour of hitching, a van stopped up the road and a young man stepped out and beckoned. When I reached him, he said:

“I’ve got no room in the front but you can go in the back with Sparky if you like.”

I thanked him and clambered into the rear section. A goat regarded me gravely.

“Don’t worry about Sparky, he’s easy with strangers.”

With that, the man shut us in together and returned to the driving seat. Sat uncomfortably on top of Bosie and watched the view through the muddy back window. Sparky, after an exploratory nuzzle of my evening dress, lay down and continued to stare at me like a Presbyterian clergyman in a lap-dancing club.

Although I could no longer see or hear the driver, his radio was more than audible. It was playing a record of Luciano Pavarotti singing ‘My Way’. I’d never really enjoyed opera stars singing pop songs. It overloaded the system too much; rather like putting a Rolls Royce engine into a 2 CV car. Disbelief reached its climax when the glorious but enormous Pavarotti got to the line ‘I bit off more than I could chew’.

Turned to Sparky and muttered: “I doubt it, mate.”

Half an hour later, the driver halted outside Dungarvan and dropped me off at the edge of town. At first sight it was not inspiring: an ugly bypass through a trading estate. After the grandeurs of Cork Harbour, it didn’t look like much. Walked into town, sat on the quayside wall and considered the strategy. Secure the base, survey the terrain, then attack the target. The weather was holding and I needed to conserve cash. After four nights under cover, I reckoned I could risk camping again.

Found a Tourist Office at Grattan Square in the centre of Dungarvan which directed me to a hostel campsite half a mile away. Dragged Bosie up the street in the direction indicated. Reached a large church at the top of the town and rested on a bench outside its railings. An old tramp passed by and nodded:

“Good afternoon”.

He made no attempt to hustle me at all. If anything, his attitude was comradely. It was so different to the pestering I’d received at the start of the trip back in Letterkenny. Then, I’d been fresh-faced and easy meat. Now, it appeared that I’d been accepted into the society of the road. Three weeks had turned me from bourgeois to beggar. I wondered what subtleties had prompted the change in his response? What were the signs? Was it the look? Or the walk?  Or was it the mud?


 The Dungarvan Holiday Hostel was a small, clean-cut, bungalow complex surrounded by a high brick wall and bordered by the Garda Station on one side and a Christian Brothers Training College on the other. Surmised that it was not exactly the prime choice for a rave up, but it had a small lawn for tents, was ten minutes’ walk from town, and cost only three pounds fifty per night. I paid up. Returned to a café near Grattan Square and ordered a meal.

“A chicken curry with rice, please.”

The waitress licked her pencil. “You’ll be needing the chips with that then.”

“Er…. No, thanks.”

She looked surprised and left. As I ate the meal, I saw her point. The food was so horrible that chips could have only improved it.

Although there were no real contacts in the county, I still had the list of administrators that John had given me in Ballina. The name of the Co Waterford Arts Administrator was a Mr Verso. Tried to ring him for advice but the public phone just emitted a series of beeps before disconnecting. Foiled again; decided to try later.

Walked down to the quayside and noticed two possible pub venues, the Anchor and the Moorings. The Anchor had a poster advertising tomorrow night’s performance by a band called ‘The Usual Gobshites’. However, as the Gobshites didn’t begin till nine pm, there might be time to squeeze the show in beforehand. ‘Oscar Wilde and the Usual Gobshites’ had a certain ring about it.

Continued strolling down to the main harbour of Dungarvan Bay and found that it was a much more attractive place than I’d expected. There were gently rising hills to the west and north, a medieval church standing guard over the harbour entrance, while blue-green waves circled the sandbars of the estuary.

Settled down on the slipway and slumped against the seawall to watch the view. Toddlers played with seaweed, children threw stones at the water, seagulls dive-bombed a water-logged shoe in the hope that it was food, and old men smoked pipes and breathed the smoke up to the sky. An old dog walked up to me and dropped half of a plastic lemonade bottle. I threw it down to the waves. He lumbered away, swam out and returned it to my feet. We fell into a game of throw and retrieve for fifteen minutes. Old dogs playing old tricks.

Dungarvan had a strange connection to the Wilde story. It was the resort where Oscar came as a child on family holidays. It was also where Edward Carson came on his childhood holidays and where it was known that, being the same age, they had played together. Thirty years later, in the first of Wilde’s trials, it was to be Sir Edward Carson, as opposing barrister, who would deliver the ferocious cross-examination that would destroy Wilde’s case and eventually land him in prison.

The actor Michael MacLiammoir once commented “Ah, that explains it. Oscar must have kicked over Edward’s sandcastle.”

In front of me, a group of children were playing in the sand. Wondered what lifelong enmities were being incubated down there?

Slowly my eyelids drooped, my head rested on the rucksack and I snoozed off. By Dungarvan Quayside I Sat Down and Slept.

Woken by a child’s voice:

“Mam, what’ll happen to that poor tinker man when the water comes up over him, mam?”

What indeed, I thought dreamily. Then suddenly realised the child was talking about me!  Looked up and saw that the tide was almost lapping my feet. Hastily retreated up the slipway.

The slipway, Dungarvan

Walked back into town, passing King Johns Castle on the way. It was roughly fourteenth century and probably anywhere else in Europe would have been a cherished tourist heritage attraction. Here, its aspects had been obscured by new holiday flats, while some corrugated iron garages had been attached to its ancient, but football graffiti scrawled, walls. There was no ruin quite so derelict as an Irish ruin.

Tried to contact Waterford Arts Council again and this time managed to make contact with a recorded message.

“This office is open between 9am and 5pm.”

It was now 5.15pm. Softly cursing the invention of the telephone, returned for a siesta in the tent. The siesta turned out to be longer than expected and I did not wake till 7.30pm. Still felt tired and decided to spend a quiet night.

Sat in the porch writing letters and smoking cigarettes as the light faded. And, for the first time, came across real hostel life. The Castlerea and Listowel hostels had been virtually empty and Kellys in Cork had been far too enjoyably eccentric to allow judgement. But the Dungarvan Hostel was fairly full and probably closer to the norm.

The most prominent grouping consisted of twelve young men with Belfast accents. They were a fishing party who kept pretty much to themselves. They also looked like a tough crowd; one of them resembled a nightmare, huge and brutal-faced, his shaved head revealing a network of scars. There was something intimidating about the whole group but this particular character one would not have wished to meet in a Buddhist ashram, let alone a dark alley. They left early for a pub-crawl round the town.

Five minutes after they had gone, an old lady came outside for a cigarette. In spite of her ragged cardigan and old dressing gown, she possessed a brittle elegance. I couldn’t quite place her accent. She said that she was originally from Co Waterford but had lived ‘overseas’ most of her life. Usually, the only people who talked about overseas in that way were South Africans.

And so it turned out; the accent was a mixture of South African, English and Irish. She had been living at the hostel for four months “until I find somewhere more suitable”. I guessed that she probably had come from the old Protestant Ascendency. Despite the obvious trappings of poverty, she still had an air of natural autocracy and prim disgust at her present circumstances. A chain-smoking hostel Miss Haversham. Gutsy, though.

Dungarvan Hostel porch

 She went indoors and her place was taken by a strange youth of about nineteen who turned out to be another long term resident. He was thin to the point of caricature and spoke in slowly formed sentences which quickly flaked off into irrelevance. Still filled with Dickensian images, I could not help thinking of Smike in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. The same whipped dog mentality – “The bosses don’t want me” – even the habitual shiver as the night air became chiller. I began to feel as if I’d fallen through a time warp into an 1850’s workhouse.

I’d always imagined that these hostels were filled exclusively by hearty cyclists breezily bonking each other’s brains out as a diversion from strenuous discussions about Ecology. Now, it seemed, there was an entirely different sub-culture in semi-permanent residence. The hostel was their home and they had colonised it as a last rickety defence. This was the world of the real poor searching for homes and work, the true underbelly, the world that was not meant to exist anymore.

Back in Cork, Carmel had mentioned something about this. During one of the Rose of Tralee heats, one Rose had mentioned that she was unemployed. There had been an embarrassed silence, hastily smoothed over by the organisers. The sequence had been cut by the TV station. ‘There is no unemployment in Ireland’.

At ten thirty, I went inside to watch the TV, one of the perks of camping at this hostel. Miss Haversham and Smike were there already. She told me that there was something wrong with the aerial which meant that there was only one watchable station. This switched over roughly every time the wind direction changed, so that it was impossible to foretell whether you would be watching an evening of ‘Coronation Street’ or an evening of ‘Business News’ in Gaelic. Smike appeared to have lost the capacity to care: it seemed that he watched either with equal incomprehension. An hour later, Miss Haversham left, leaving strict instructions about turning off the lights and TV. A grande dame to the last.

The night was colder by the time I retired to the tent. Strapped on the lumberjack cap, brewed up a Lemsip and listened to the radio. It was a discussion about the role of the Pope in modern marriage.

Next Tuesday, May 21st – the second part of Dungarvan and another battle.


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