The Croppy Boy
THE THOMAS MOORE TAVERN, WEXFORD – PART ONE
The morning sunlight played on the River Suir as I walked over Waterford bridge. It was too pleasant a day to justify the abandonment of hitch-hiking, so I set off up the road to New Ross. Had a trivial but irritating incident when the evening dress caught in some brambles and one tail suffered a five-inch rip. Jaysus, poor old Oscar was getting tattier by the day. His final years in Paris were certainly downtrodden but I don’t think that he could have ended up looking like Worzel Gummidge.
Forty minutes later, got a lift off a Russian tourist in a smart car. A laid-back man but almost boyishly keen about Ireland.
“The Irish and the Russians are soul brothers.”
He mentioned that he had been a corporal in the Russian Army at one time.
“I left many years ago. But every two years they send me a letter of promotion. No money, of course, but I think I’m now a senior colonel.”
He dropped me off in the small riverside town of New Ross.
Spent a few minutes on the bridge figuring out which road led to Wexford. Then a bus marked ‘Wexford’ passed me and drew to a halt outside the Mariners Inn on the far quayside. Took one look at Bosie then broke into a lumbering trot. The bus was still stationary as I reached it and the driver drawled:
“There’s no hurry. We don’t leave for twenty minutes.”
Relaxed, bought a ticket and loaded Bosie into the luggage compartment. Above the entrance of the bus there was a sign:
‘No Smoking. For the Comfort and Convenience of Passengers.’
Watched as the entire busload, including the driver, dismounted and stood around smoking in uncomfortable and inconvenienced groups. Joined them.
We left New Ross at noon. On the map, the road to Wexford was a straightforward journey of about twenty miles. However, the route we followed seemed determined to visit every village within the county. We were stopping literally at individual doors. In one utterly obscure hamlet, a little old lady was waiting. As she was about to board, she exclaimed:
“Oh, dear. I’ve forgotten to feed the cat!”
“No problem,” replied the driver.
She wandered back into her cottage, then re-emerged ten minutes later. The driver waited patiently throughout.
It took two hours to travel nineteen miles. Finally we reached the broad swathe of the River Slaney, passed between two jutting cliffs crowned by neo-Gothic follies, and drove into Wexford town.
I don’t know if it was simply in reaction to my negativity about Waterford but I liked the place immediately. It had a frisky open feel that rekindled the spirit. The next good news came at the Tourist Office. There was a large camping site ‘within easy walking distance’. For once, the information was correct; the site lay on a hill on the far side of Wexford Bridge – a splendid spot. Set up the tent under some windbreak trees on a small cliff overlooking the sea. Lay back on the grass: hot sun, windless air, the peaceful breathing of the waves below. Not bad.
Returned to town at 3.30pm. The bridge was the longest that I’d come across so far; exactly five hundred paces from bank to bank. Walked up a small street to the centre of the town – the Bull Ring. This was a small marketplace dominated by a statue of an eighteenth century pike-man. Known as the Croppy Boy, this was dedicated to the rebels who had fought in the 1798 Rising; much of the bloodiest action had taken place in Co Wexford and, indeed, in the town itself.
Wexford’s only Wildean connection that I was aware of on arrival concerned a reference by G.B. Shaw. When the First World War began, Shaw had been one of the few people to protest against it. As a result, he said, he was excommunicated from every association to which he had ever belonged, including: ‘the County Wexford Bee-keepers Club, an organisation to which I had not the remotest memory of ever being aware of, let alone belonging’.
Wilde had met Shaw in the 1880’s in London when Oscar had developed a chaste crush on Shaw’s elder sister. Although the two men were never friends, Shaw characteristically defended Wilde during his disgrace and imprisonment.
Continued up the hill to the Arts Centre and met a well-disposed admin man who listened to my story. He was a glorious contrast to the recent dealings with admin.
“You shouldn’t have difficulty in finding a venue. There are ninety-three pubs in the town. Try the Centenary Stores or the Thomas Moore first”.
He added that I should go to the local South-East Radio station.
“Ask to speak to Margaret, she’s the researcher. But you’d better get a move on. She leaves in ten minutes.”
Rushed back down the hill to the riverside. Spotted the radio station logo looking incongruously garish on the front of what resembled a 1930’s bank. My quarry, Margaret, was still in the building. She was a likeable woman of about thirty-five, who listened carefully as I tumbled out my request for a free advert.
“Yes, it sounds interesting but I’ll have to check. Pop back in at 9.30 tomorrow morning. Tell me, where is it that you are performing?”
“Hmm. Actually, I don’t know yet.”
She gave me a quizzical look but did not withdraw her invitation.
Back out on the quayside I chose a bench as the latest office HQ. There was a statue above it dedicated to Commodore Barry, a Wexford man who had been the creator of the United States Navy. A plaque recorded that both Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy had laid wreaths on this spot. Fair enough, if it was good enough for Ike and JFK, it was good enough for me. Had a fish and chip meal, then returned to camp for a siesta.
Started to check out the possible venues in the evening. The Centenary Stores had a crowded front bar and a large back bar with a gallery. On the face of it, a good venue but I could see that the potential for distraction was large – there would be far too much movement between the various areas. Still, I’d be sure of getting an audience.
Moved on up the hill and found the Thomas Moore Tavern. It was a delightful pub; old beams and real elegance, curios and paintings hanging on the walls, and a back room which, though small, would be adequate for the show. The only problem was that the place was deserted. Bought a pint and sat with the barman watching his tiny TV on the counter. A middle-aged lady came in with a small dog, then disappeared upstairs.
Considered the choices. The Thomas Moore was the pleasanter pub but the Centenary Stores could provide an audience and therefore money. Whereas, at the Thomas Moore, I’d be lucky to get the dog as audience. It was approaching 9pm; I really had to make a decision tonight. If I was going to get a radio advert tomorrow morning, there had to be somewhere to advertise. Explained the situation to Fred, the barman, who summoned the landlady. Her name was Cora. She was most welcoming and agreed immediately that I could perform the show but that she doubted whether I would get an audience. Half agreeing with her already, I was almost at the point of turning the offer down when she added:
“You’re the second person who’s been here recently because of Oscar Wilde. There was a biographer who came to visit old Mrs Elgee who lived round the corner. Mrs Elgee was a relative of Wilde but she would never speak to anyone about him.”
A tingle ran up my spine. One of Oscar’s relations had lived around the corner! That settled it. Audience or no audience, the show had to be played here. Made the agreement with Cora and promised to return the next day with posters, etc.
It turned out that Wilde’s great-grandfather had been the Archdeacon of St Iberius, the main church, and that his mother, the famed ‘Speranza’, had been born near the Bull Ring in 1821. And all this was within two hundred yards of the Thomas Moore! What an incredible coincidence?
Strode jubilantly back to the Centenary Stores – I fancied some music tonight. Passed a dinner-jacketed bouncer on the door as I went inside. This was a bit odd as the Stores seemed to be a very peaceful, rather yuppie-ish bar. Settled with another pint just as the band started playing. Instead of traditional music, this was a blues evening with four guitarists and a harmonica player, later joined by a bodhran player. The bodhran did not sound too great, it was not really a blues instrument. To be honest, I found the blues rather dull after Irish music. The latter was so much more flexible; the melodic ballads followed by the manic reels. The blues just went on – and on.
Or at least they did until the arrival of the Wexford Looney. He was quite different to the Killorglin Looney. This one was an old hippie, bald on top but with grey locks flowing down to his waist and dressed only in a pair of ragged shorts and Doc Martin boots. He started dancing to the music until, on one of his wilder spins, he collided heavily with the bass guitarist and was removed.
The Stores became more and more crowded – it was obviously one of the main nightspots in town. Despite that, I felt I’d made the correct decision over the venue. The Thomas Moore was the right place and I’d also taken a liking to it and to Cora and Fred. Tomorrow I would try a real publicity drive dressed as Wilde and distribute leaflets through the town. It was an old stratagem that had worked before and there was no reason why it shouldn’t work again. The more I thought about it the more I was determined that it was going to be a good show.
Deliberated about the next batch of gigs. It was only now I realised that my planning was in deep trouble. According to the tour as worked out back in London, I was due to perform in Wicklow town one night, Hollywood the next, and Moyvally the night afterwards, even though transport across country in Co Wicklow was notoriously bad and only in Moyvally could I expect any aid. It would be a fiendishly rushed operation, if indeed it were possible at all? Decided to re-schedule the route. Instead of spending the planned two days in the next town, Enniscorthy, I’d only stay one night. The resulting spare day could be used to disentangle the logjam in Co Wicklow. Sorted!
Listened to the music. They were playing an old Band song – ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. It sounded very good but the time was past eleven and I wanted to be relatively fresh for tomorrow. Feeling self-consciously virtuous, stood up and left. Outside, the number of bouncers had risen to four. It seemed a bit excessive, considering what seemed to be a cheery and reasonable crowd inside. It was like using a machine-gun to guard a whist drive.
Strolled back over the bridge to camp. As I was about to open the tent flap, I glanced out across the bay. And saw what was probably the greatest spectacle of the entire tour. It was what Spalding Gray in his brilliant show ‘Swimming to Cambodia’ had described as ‘a Perfect Moment’.
There was no wind at all, just the clear night sky above with the dozens of stars gleaming in the unpolluted Atlantic air.
To the left, the moon shone directly down on the indistinct shoreline of the mudflats and then sent a long shimmering beam across the wrinkled surface of the sea.
To the right, there were the serried lights from the houses and inns of Wexford. They stretched for over a mile along the riverfront, highlighted by two illuminated church spires.
Ahead in the far distance, there was the steady blink of the Rosslare harbour lighthouse.
About a mile out to sea, the lamps of a small fishing boat edged through the blackness.
The rest was silence. It was a mesmerising panorama.
I sat down on the grass and drank in the sheer magnificence of the night. It was the mingling of spirit and place. Elation mixed with tranquillity – wow! For over an hour I found it impossible to break the spell. In some indefinable way, it felt as if the whole trip had been building towards this climax. That, in spite of my total ignorance of it, the reason for the tour had been simply to experience this moment. This utterly accidental moment that I’d almost ignored. Like searching for copper and stumbling on to gold.
Finally and with reluctance, I returned to the tent where I was swiftly brought back down to earth by the failure of the main torch. The only way I could see anything at all was by balancing a tiny pencil torch on an orange. It gave a surreal touch to the interior of the tent. Lay back in the sleeping bag at ease and happy with just about everything. Slept at 1.30am.
View of Wexford Bay from tent