The Croppy Boy, Wexford
THE THOMAS MOORE TAVERN, WEXFORD – PART TWO
DAY TWENTY-SIX: WEDNESDAY
As I opened the tent flap and crawled outside, the morning was as clear and sunlit as the night had been clear and moonlit. The sleep had not dissipated the almost mystical high of last night – I felt great. Walked into town and along the quayside till I came to another monument, this time outside the bus station. It was dedicated to the Redmond family; John Redmond had been an important Irish politician prior to the First World War. On one side there was a carved inscription.
‘My heart is with the town of Wexford. Nothing can extinguish that love but the cold sod of the grave and when that day comes I hope you will pay me the compliment I deserve of saying that I always loved you.’
I’d seen a lot of declamatory rhetoric across the monuments of Ireland but there was something in that blunt simplicity which hit home. Whoever wrote it knew what he was talking about and, after last night, I think I’d caught a glimpse as well.
The time was approaching 9.30am and the appointment with South-East Radio. Stepped out more briskly to try and shake off the dreamy euphoria. Arrived at the studio. Margaret told me that not only would they publicise the show but were offering an interview with their phone-in host, Alan Maguire, at 11.30 tomorrow morning. Thanked her profusely, then halted in some confusion.
“The problem is that I’m doing a show in Enniscorthy tomorrow night. There’s nothing arranged yet. If I do an interview at 11.30 in Wexford, then there’s no chance of arriving there till 1pm at the earliest. It doesn’t leave much time to get a venue together.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll make an appeal to the landlords of Enniscorthy to put your play on. We might even get you a lift. Don’t forget the power of radio!”
She seemed so confident that I couldn’t resist and we arranged to meet in the morning.
On consideration, this was one hell of a lucky break. Up till now, because of the mobile phone debacle, I had been making a virtue of necessity. I had almost convinced myself that it was better not to have the assistance of the ‘Gerry Ryan Radio Effect’ that Tony Hawks had received because, although it made the tour much more difficult, the very difficulties made the journey more interesting. Each town had to be won (or lost) individually – there was no path-clearing momentum at work. This was not to detract anything at all from Tony Hawks – after all, I wasn’t dragging a fridge around with me – but anonymity did allow more leeway.
However, as I sheltered under the welcome patronage of South-East Radio, I realised that the consolations of austerity were a load of bollocks. Damn it, it was a wonderful feeling to have a radio station on side.
Sat down by Commodore Barry and used the black marker pen to write in the show details on the publicity leaflets. Printed a large pile of copies at a photocopying shop. Then walked up to the Arts Centre and handed over a poster to the box office girl.
She studied it and said:
“You’ve spelt Thomas Moore with one O, not two.”
I was puzzled:
“But that’s right, isn’t it? I’m sure they spelt it that way in ‘A Man for All Seasons’.”
She gave me a pained look.
“You’ve got the wrong Moore. This is Thomas Moore the poet. Not the Paul Schofield fellow. Thomas Moore wrote ‘The Minstrel Boy’. ‘The Meeting of the Waters’. He was about three hundred years after the other one.”
Shit! And I’d printed over two hundred copies of the leaflet. Oh well, there was no alternative but to brazen it out. Went down to St Iberias Church on Main Street and waited while the warden explained the history of the building to some American tourists.
There was a framed newspaper article on the wall about Oscar Wilde’s great-grandfather, the Archdeacon. Wilde did seem to have some strong ecclesiastical connections in his family. His father’s two brothers were both Church of Ireland priests. On the downside, Wilde fell spectacularly foul of ecclesiastical disfavour. In the days after his conviction, he was denounced in over nine hundred different sermons in the USA alone.
I asked if it would be possible to put up an advert. The warden glanced at it, chuckled and replied in a strong English midland accent.
“I don’t know whether we should be advertising a show called Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes in a church? Still, I suppose it is in memory of Oscar.”
He looked more closely at the advert.
“Did you know that you’ve spelt Moore with one O instead of two?”
Continued to sellotape posters around town – the Information Office failed to spot the More/Moore gaffe, or at least was too polite to mention it. Also checked the Enniscorthy bus timetable in case the power of radio came unstuck.
At noon, slipped into an alleyway, changed into evening dress, applied the mascara, and walked up to the Bull Ring. For a minute, I stood irresolute under a pub sign reading ‘Bar and Undertaker’. In this very square, the Vikings had slaughtered the Celts, the Protestants had slaughtered the Catholics, the Catholics had slaughtered the Protestants, and Oliver Cromwell had slaughtered everybody. I felt the hand of history bearing down.
With a deep breath, took up position under the Croppy Boy statue, unfurled the umbrella with the Tippexed ‘Oscar Wilde Tour of Ireland’ logo and began to distribute fliers.
Amidst the stares and occasional ribaldry, some interest seemed to be generated. A group of young drama students debated whether to attend. A tall youth approached me.
“I heard about the show on the radio this morning. Can I take your photograph, please?”
This was the first harbinger of radio fame. Up until now, I had come under the label of ‘weirdo’, now I fell into the ‘celeb’ category – well, at least enough for strangers to want photos. Cora from the pub approached and smiled.
“Now, that’s not a bad idea at all, doing it in costume. Give me some of the leaflets and I’ll put them under the windscreen wipers in the car park.”
She was followed by a tall, distinguished looking gentleman. He introduced himself as Liam and promised to come to the show; he added that he’d seen the original Michael MacLiammoir show back in the Sixties. Aside from the odd catcall, it was actually quite a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. By 2pm, I’d run out of leaflets and retreated down to the Commodore Barry bench.
A man in a threadbare suit and collarless shirt sipped from a half empty whisky bottle and regarded me benignly as I stuffed the costume back in the rucksack and wiped off the lipstick. The situation seemed to call for an explanation so I gave it. He asked me for some cigarettes and gave a gap-toothed grin.
“I tell you what” he said in a kindly tone “I’ll give you a hand. I’ll tell all my friends to come and see you.”
Visions of another Killorglin swam before my eyes.
Spent the next hour finishing off the poster sticking, then walked off to the bridge. Had a recurrence of the ‘lookalikes’ as Victoria Wood and Michael Portillo sauntered past. Back to the tent for two hours sleep, then returned about 8pm. The setting sun was shining directly across the Slaney and on to the ripples around the moored fishing boats. Whatever else, this place could certainly throw up some spectacular natural effects.
Stopped for a meal at a small restaurant called ‘Michaels’. After three and a half weeks of tent picnics and fast food takeaways, almost anything would have tasted good, but I had to admit that the omelette here was the best I’d eaten in decades. Said as much to the waitress and, when the bill arrived, discovered that the chef had scribbled ‘Thanks’ on the back. Drank a coffee and felt an anticipatory glow about tonight. What with the posters, leaflets and radio, the publicity was by far the best there had been; the venue was good; I felt rested and fed. The conditions were all set fair – it had to go well.
Walked through the narrow, lamp-lit streets up to the Thomas Moore. Fred the barman and three young men were sitting watching a football match on TV. Fred poured a free pint.
“Did you know you’d spelt Thomas Moore with a …….”
Behind me, a cheer went up; Ireland had won 2-1.
Retired to the back room and re-arranged the furniture. By 10pm, I was ready for action – no audience though. Then two English couples arrived, followed by Liam, the man who I’d met earlier in the Bull Ring. He handed me a plastic bag. Inside were two vinyl LPs. It was the complete recording of Michael MacLiammoir’s ‘The Importance of Being Oscar’. As far as I knew, this was quite unobtainable commercially; in fact, they were valuable simply as collector’s pieces. I was staggered by the generosity of the gift.
Although Liam didn’t realise it, I had an entirely personal angle on these records. While still at school, I had owned the first half of the set; it was one of the reasons that I first became interested in Wilde and the one-man show. Later, in the Seventies, I had been staying with a friend in Dublin and, when I returned to England, I left the record with him. Two days later, the house had burned down killing everyone inside including my friend. Naturally, the record had been destroyed as well and I had not seen another copy of it since. Now, in Wexford, completely out of the blue, here it was in its entirety.
I could not find the words to thank Liam; I could only shake his hand. Then the bar began to fill up and by half past ten there was standing room only. The show started.
“The Americans are going around Paris with depressing industry, looking at everything and seeing nothing. Ah, America! I was there once for a lecture tour. Lecturing, in fact, on aesthetics. In America. However, despite foreboding, my tour of the eastern seaboard was wildly successful. In spite of my great disappointment with the Atlantic Ocean, New York soon restored my spirits. When I landed I had two secretaries, one for autographs, the other for locks of hair. Within six weeks, the first had died of writer’s cramp, while the second was completely bald. I was asked by one of an endless line of reporters for details of my private life. I was forced to reply that I really wished that I had one.”
There are some times in life when things just cannot go wrong. It was one of those magic nights of immediate empathy. Sometimes dealing with an audience felt like being an inadequate supply teacher trying to cope with a remedial lynch mob. Sometimes it felt like reading an accounts ledger to the Easter Island statues. Very, very occasionally it felt like Jacqueline Du Pre playing a cello. This was one of those occasions.
In the tumult of applause, collected sixty-three pounds in the hat – more than anywhere else. Started to clear up the stage, feeling as if I’d just surfed the ultimate roller.
Joined Cora and Fred down at the front bar. They were sitting with a young East German girl student and an American ex-pat who had been resident in Wexford for five years. Then another Wexford man called John came up; his wife followed a few minutes later. The drinks started to pile in and the session was on. Fred gave me some tips for the next stage of the tour.
“There’s a bar in Gorey called Joe Browns. Tell them I sent you.”
The conversation circled around theatrical events and eventually on to ‘Riverdance’. John’s wife enthused about it.
“That first night they performed it at the Eurovision Song Contest, that was amazing. It was during the interval between the singing and the scoring. Usually they’d put on any old rubbish as a filler. It was when you went to make the tea. But not that night. We were in a bar where some traditional musicians were playing and ignoring the Contest as usual. But during Riverdance, they slowly stopped playing and crowded round the TV. It was a revelation. I’ve never heard such a cheer go up as when it ended. The rest of the Contest was forgotten. I think that night changed the way that the world looked at Ireland. It was like the start of the good times.”
John was a cheery, ruddy-faced man of middle age. Hearing that I’d just come from Co Waterford, he told me a story about a bar he knew in the county.
“The landlord was in his late seventies and ran the place exactly as he wanted it – which was roughly what it would have been fifty years ago. Nothing had been changed at all. Thomas Moore himself could have walked in there and felt at home. The old fellow was the autocrat of the pub. You’d find businessmen coming in at six o’clock of an evening to have a couple of pints. If they asked for a third pint, he’d shake his head:
‘No, away with ye, away home to your wives. They’ve got the dinner all prepared for ye.’
“The clientele was made up of his sympathisers. All old men in the shiny black suits and the flat caps. It was De Valera’s Ireland in a time capsule. But, of course, the main thing about the pub was that he still refused to serve women.
‘They should not be flaunting themselves in a dacent public house’.
“He was rigid firm about it. The only woman allowed in was his wife so that she could do the washing up. I know it was against the law but then they never took much notice of the law out there.
“Anyway, one evening the door opened and two American girl back-packers walked up to the bar.
‘Can we have two pints of Guinness, please?’
“The landlord folded his arms and said – quite sternly, he wasn’t friendly about it at all:
‘No woman is allowed in this tavern.’
“And all the regulars in their caps and overcoats nodded away.
‘Ah, yer man’s right, sure enough.’
“I think they were enjoying the set-down of the women. And, sure, the girls were very embarrassed. One of them reddened up and looked around at the ring of censorious eyes and said:
‘Oh, God, I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t know you had gay bars in Ireland.’
“I tell you, the look on the landlord’s face was worth bottling.”
The talk shifted round to the various famous Wexford travellers and, in particular, the connections with America. It turned out that Commodore Barry was not the only link. Oscar Wilde’s uncle had become a judge in Louisiana.
“Buffalo Bill’s father, William Cody, was born in Kelly’s Bar in South Main Street here.”
I replied: “I noticed that Daniel Boone’s family came from Derry.”
“Yes, so did Davy Crockett’s”
“It strikes me” I said “that most of the characters of the American frontier were originally Irish. It wouldn’t surprise me if Geronimo didn’t turn out to have come from Killarney.”
“Well, of course he did. Have you never heard of the O’Paches?”
Time passed. About 1 30am, John sang ‘The Minstrel Boy’; he had a good light tenor voice. The company hushed in the darkened bar, candlelight flickered on the pint mugs, Thomas Moore’s portrait presided on the wall. It seemed as if Moore himself was listening to his own tune. Lounged back and wondered if it was possible for life to get any better.
Cora looked at me thoughtfully:
“I think that you are one of those eccentric English adventurers.”
Preened in the implied romanticism – but had to come clean.
“No. It’s just for the craic.”
The party broke up about 2am – gave a heartfelt thanks to them all and wandered back through the warm, misty night. Felt fantastic. Reached the tent and looked out over the sea again – no moon this time but it was still lovely. Slept at 3am.
DAY TWENTY-SEVEN: THURSDAY
Woke at 7.30am. This time I had problems – less than five hours sleep and the hangover was thumping. Opened the tent flap and looked out into a thick sea mist, then hastily brewed up some tea to get the blood flowing again. Lay back, re-assembled my brain and remembered that I had a radio interview this morning. Dismantled the tent and repacked Bosie. As I hauled it across the bridge, the sun broke out of the mist. Sank down on the bench by Commodore Barry, feeling and probably looking dead rough.
Two hours later, Margaret ushered me into the South-East Radio studio and introduced the broadcaster, Alan Maguire. He was a tall, robust man with a keen eye and a firm handshake. Sat and waited while they made contrapuntal announcements of ‘Bargain Corner Adverts’. Then I was signalled to the microphone.
Alan turned out to be a good relaxing interviewer. Having once attempted it myself with ignominious results, I knew that interviewing is a much more difficult job than is generally thought. You have to continually think ahead, both technically and conversationally, while appearing to be just reacting naturally. Quite tricky – but Alan knew what he was doing.
Which was more than I did. My brain was working at half cock due to the inroads of the previous night. Managed to trot out the usual spiel about the tour, etc., as well as at least three plugs for Cora and the Thomas Moore. Alan interposed with the vital requests for any venues in Enniscorthy to come forward, plus an appeal to anybody who felt like giving me a lift there. I rounded off the interview with an Oscar quote:
“To regain my youth, there is nothing that I would not do. Absolutely nothing. Except get up early, take exercise or be a useful member of society.”
Within two minutes, Margaret walked up smiling. A famous hurling champion called Larry O’Gorman had phoned in to offer a lift.
“Larry once scored a goal from his own line. And that’s almost an impossibility. It’s still a famous feat in the county,” she said. “He was in the Wexford All Ireland Champions side as well.”
Even more extraordinary, two pubs had rung up to offer a stage tonight.
“This is the first time I’ve been in the position of being able to pick and choose a venue” I said.
Margaret grinned “That’s the power of radio.”
Strolled down to Commodore Barry to await the lift – I had about an hour to spare. The hangover had mostly disappeared and I just felt happy. Wexford had been such a wonderful town in so many ways: Cora and the pub crowd, the radio people, Liam and his MacLiammoir records, the Wilde family connections, the ‘perfect moment’ under that incredible night sky, even the omelette – more than ever, I wished I stay could a while longer.
“Can you help me?”
The reverie was broken by the voice of a short, fat, brown-skinned man with a baby dangling from his back. He looked at me beseechingly.
“I am from Kosovo.”
Handed over a couple of pounds. He looked troubled.
“I need six pounds. It is to pay for a hostel.”
Well, I didn’t mind helping out but six pounds was a bit steep. Shook my head and he walked on. Then, reality hit me with all the resonance of a wet fish. Wexford had been so bloody decent to me and had given so much, that to react as I had done was the height of churlishness. I sprang up and ran after the Kosovan. He turned with scared eyes and put up his arm as if to ward off a blow. I gave him the extra four pounds for the hostel.
Just hoped that he didn’t choose the one in Waterford.
Back at the bench, I waited by Bosie. Two schoolgirls sat down beside me. One of them looked across and said:
“Aren’t you the man who was dressed up in that costume yesterday? In the Bull Ring?”
Smiled back. “Yes, I was.”
“Why did you do it?”
Explained about the show and handed her a leaflet. She examined it and replied:
“I don’t know who this Oscar Wilde is, at all. But did you know you’ve spelt Thomas Moore with one O?”