THE OLD COURT INN, WICKLOW
Towards 10am the station gradually came to life and I bought a ticket. The train’s official departure time was 10.04; in reality, 10.18. We chugged along the coast up to Arklow, then the route turned sharply inland into the Vale of Avoca. Since leaving West Cork the scenery had been pleasant but unspectacular. In Avoca, this changed completely; it was as beautiful as anywhere in Ireland. It had been the setting both for the TV programme, ‘Ballykissangel’, and for the poem by my old Wexford pal, Thomas Moore, called ‘The Meeting of the Waters’. This referred to the confluence of two rivers, the Avonbeg and the Avonmore: ‘Life must depart, ‘Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart’. The ‘bloom’ was slightly blighted by a cluster of copper mining quarries along one of the thickly wooded hillsides but, apart from that, I appreciated the general drift.
Passing the tiny station of Rathdrum, we arrived at Wicklow town at 11am. It was a lengthy walk from the station into the centre during which Bosie developed an alarming wheel wobble. I liked the look of Wicklow, an attractive town built on a hillside overlooking a fishing harbour with views of the Wicklow hills to the north. On enquiry, found that, although no camping was allowed, there was a hostel out on the seashore.
With some reluctance, I made my way to it. It was, thank God, light years away from the horrors of Waterford. The owners were friendly and it was cheap. Dumped Bosie in the ten-bunk dormitory, walked back into town and then followed a signpost out to a rugged headland called Black Castle.
Lay in the sun on the springy grass of the cliff-top and gazed down to the harbour below and the white sails of yachts bobbing across the bay. Closer to hand, the cliff was decorated by a couple of old cannon and a large perpendicular anchor dedicated to the Wicklow sailors lost at sea. Black Castle itself was situated right on the edge of the cliff and consisted of a few scattered boulders and two terminally ruined towers that looked like the last remaining teeth of an outstandingly unsuccessful boxer. According to a tourist information booklet, the castle had been built by the Fitzgeralds and then knocked down by the O’Tooles. Construction and destruction were accorded equal respect.
The booklet also described how a respectable son of Wicklow had come to social grief. He had been made a judge in the Supreme Court during the 1920’s. This had coincided with the period after independence when the Irish government insisted that all public officials must speak Gaelic. As very few of them had been raised as native speakers, there was a rush to learn the language, sometimes with odd results. The Wicklow judge issued an invitation in Gaelic to the county gentry to attend a celebration at his home. But instead of the invitation reading as he intended:
‘I warmly wish the pleasure of your company at my garden party’,
it had read:
‘I warmly wish the pleasure of your body in my potato patch’.
Spent two hours idly soaking up the sun, then walked down to the harbour and into town.
Decided that I needed to buy some health foods – fruit and veg – in what was probably a vain effort to offset the damage inflicted by at least thirty Full Irish Breakfasts. The supermarket was as antiseptically impersonal as any in Leeds or Reading. Depressingly so. But then, as I waited at the checkout counter, I heard two men discussing the previous day’s horse racing. One of them rasped bitterly:
“That feckin’ horse would have won the feckin’ race if he’d stuck his tongue out”.
It cracked the atmosphere of solemn consumerism like a fart at a funeral.
Returned to the hotel to eat and sleep. Woke at 8pm and, after the proprietor had given me the names of some possible pub venues, walked back through the dusk into Wicklow. His first suggestion had been the Old Court Inn. This was a good-looking pub in the main market square behind yet another memorial to the 1798 Rising. The barman said that the landlord would not return before tomorrow and advised a return visit. Moved on to the second suggestion, the Bridge Inn. This was a large, recently converted establishment which looked as if it was firmly aimed at the young tourist trade. It was certainly a possibility as a performance spot but it might be a struggle. Sat up by the musicians’ stage area to check out the noise levels.
The tannoy was playing an album by the Furies. They were a good Irish traditional band and I’d always enjoyed their great versions of ‘The Green Fields of France’ and ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’. But listening to an entire album, I wondered how they got away with a few of their less familiar tracks. Some of the songs were of almost stomach-turning sentimentality. If Chris De Burgh had been doing the singing, most people would be frisbeeing the CDs out of the window. It dawned on me how the Furies did it. The trick was to perform the songs with voices that could sandblast granite. The very harshness of the delivery rescued them from the sickliness of the lyrics.
Any further deductions were interrupted by the arrival of the live band. It was called ‘The World and His Wife’ and consisted of two young singer/guitarists accompanied by a roadie and an array of equipment. They began with a couple of thumping T. Rex numbers which were rapturously received by two middle-aged couples sitting at the next table. It was a hot, close night and sweat poured off the lead singer. One of the middle-aged women threw a bundle of Kleenex tissues on to the stage and the singer gratefully wiped his face. It later turned out that the couples were the parents of the band. There is an irrepressible domesticity about Ireland that utterly demolishes glamour. The heart of mystique lies in being indefinable – and it’s impossible to be indefinable when your mum is throwing Kleenex at you.
Nevertheless, ‘The World and His Wife’ were actually quite good, their repertoire being mostly cover renditions of 1970’s rock. As the second man was finishing off Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ on solo guitar, the lead singer was handed a note from the crowd. He read it and spoke into the microphone.
“There’s an engagement been announced here tonight. Shivaun and Dermot are going to get married. And they’d like us to play a song for them.”
The band launched into a blazing version of ‘Freight Train Blues’. The lead singer could also play a mean harmonica and they really swung it. However, I was left wondering whether ‘Freight Train Blues’ was really a suitable serenade with which to begin married life?
Left after six pints. Back at the hostel lobby, a youth was sprawled across a sofa snoring drunkenly. The hostel proprietress walked by and I asked if she needed a hand to move him. She shook her head.
“Oh, no, that’s all right. I know him well.”
Jesus, I thought, this was so much more welcoming than that Waterford penitentiary.
Sat outside in the garden at 11.45pm. The night was still hot and the sky stuffed with stars again – it was almost tempting to sleep out on the beach. The lights of Wicklow flickered in the darkness. The distant noise of a car was smothered by the night breeze. Glanced at my watch – it was dead on midnight. My birthday!
Then I remembered that my watch had been gaining ten minutes a day for the last week. Like virtually every other timepiece in Ireland, it was wrong. By 12.30pm, decided that, by now, it must be my birthday. In any case, why should time be our master? Revelled in the moment – here I was, deep into middle age, yet I felt like a young leopard, tanned, fit and eager. It had been one hell of a transformation since the arrival in Belfast. A balmy night, a glow of content and a new year started. Felt good.
Went up to the dormitory and silently glided through the darkness to my bunk. At least, I think I did. After six pints, the words ‘silently’ and ‘glided’ are relative.
DAY THIRTY-ONE: MONDAY
Woke at 7.30am. The rest of the dormitory slept on as I went downstairs to the kitchen carrying a breakfast teabag. Liberated some milk and sugar from the communal fridge, then stretched out in a chair to think out the next moves. Gradually, a few more denizens emerged. Three German girls began to cook a large fried breakfast. An Irish boy offered them some black pudding. One of the girls felt the tube curiously and asked:
“What is it made of?”
The youth replied: “It’s made out of pig’s blood.”
The girl shuddered and passed it back. “Oh, that’s horrible! You do not spare anything from the pig, do you? The bacon, the pork, even the feet, the trotters, you call them, ja? And now, even the blood.”
The youth nodded: “Yep, that’s about right. The only thing that’s wasted is the grunt.”
Went into town at 10am and found the County Arts Administration offices. Half expecting a similar rebuff to that experienced in Waterford, I was met instead by a delightful woman called Leah who lavished me with encouragement and, even more importantly, lists of venues. It was a warm bath of co-operation and all my reservations about Admin dissolved. In fact, I left the building slightly in love.
This feeling of beatitude was increased considerably when I reached the Old Court Inn. The landlord, Pat, was a big, stern looking man who looked at the Wilde publicity with initial disfavour, then, to my surprise, nodded:
“Sure, you can play it here.”
Another result! It was also a good place to play – a long bar on two levels and comfortably elegant in the horse-brassy, Olde English style.
Photo-copied some more leaflets and posters with the new venue name, changed into costume, and went on a publicity tour through Wicklow. After postering all the obvious spots like the Information Office, the Grand Hotel, the supermarket and the 1798 statue, I found a newly opened tourist attraction. It was the Wicklow County Jail Experience, a former prison that had been restored to commemorate the horrors of nineteenth century incarceration. As I chatted to the souvenir shop assistant, a man dressed as an 1880’s prison warder walked inside, presumably to take a break from escorting tourists round the cells. We looked at each other’s costumes. It was an extraordinary moment. The notorious jailbird Wilde face to face with a Victorian turnkey.
Returned to the hostel in mid-afternoon, had a meal and slept. Woke at 6pm. The weather had changed completely; it was now pouring with rain. Stood in the front porch watching the raindrops bouncing off the forecourt.
One of the other occupants of the dormitory came up. He was a young English cyclist who had checked in earlier with two student companions. They had an aura of efficiency and buoyant superiority that was faintly irritating. Despite being a compatriot, I felt like a Bulgarian gypsy who’d wandered by mistake into ‘Chariots of Fire’. He looked at the show poster and agreed to come.
By 8pm, realising that the rain was not going to stop, unfolded the umbrella and splashed into town. One shoe had a leak and by the time I reached the Old Court Inn, I was soaked up to the lower shin. Oscar was going to look even more bedraggled than usual tonight. Dumped the gear inside and stood in the market square to distribute leaflets. A totally useless idea as not only did I get wetter but naturally no potential punters were out in this weather. Back in the warmth of the bar, I set out the stage props. For once there was a reasonably large crowd already there, so I was able to start only twenty minutes late.
“I used to visit friends in the English countryside. I found that anyone could be moral in the country. There are no temptations there. People get up so early because they have so much to do, and go to bed so early because there is so little to talk about. There has not been a scandal in the neighbourhood since the time of Queen Elizabeth and consequently they all fall asleep after dinner. They compensate for this mental collapse by being desperately healthy. Frightful word, health. One knows so well the popular idea of it. The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. The poor English, the only magical property they retain is the miraculous power to turn wine into water.”
Apart from the increasing hoarseness of my voice, this was an easy bar to play and the audience seemed interested, with the exception of one man at the far end who appeared to be having a conversation with the ceiling. It was distracting and, at one point, to my horror I realised that I was repeating a section of lines that I’d already spoken. Ad-libbed back to the correct place but it shook me. Christ, it was not only the voice that was buggered, it was the brain as well. Still, it finished on good form and to reasonable applause. Set off to circulate the bar with the hat – noticed some highly agreeable fivers going in.
Then I reached two of the English cyclists from the hostel. One of them threw in a coin but the other gave a small supercilious shake of his head and turned away. I could hardly believe it! All over Ireland and with what must have been a combined audience nearing one thousand, even in the most unpromising of places, everybody had put something in the hat. Fair enough, it might have been a French franc and a used bus ticket but at least they’d made the gesture. Here, there was one of my own countrymen, with whom I was sharing a dormitory, turning his nose up like an ayatollah refusing a brandy. Resisted the temptation to clout the tight-fisted little bastard with a stage prop. On the plus side, though, there was forty five quid in the kitty.
While I was clearing the stage, an Irish girl came up and asked:
“Is there a reason that you are travelling around like this?”
“It’s for a bet.”
She laughed, “Oh, I thought you were going to say that it was a grand poetic gesture or something.”
“No, it’s just a bet. For one hundred pounds.”
She looked more thoughtful and replied, “Hmm. For one hundred? Maybe it is a grand poetic gesture after all.”
Two Dubliners crossed over and brought me a fresh pint. We talked and the conversation drifted round to politics and in particular to a recent conference that had taken place in Killarney.
“It was a really big deal scene,” said one. “The American envoy was there, and the Brits, and some of the Protestant leaders. And the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahearne, of course. Well, Bertie turned up to the conference with his two bodyguards but the hotel where he was staying was very expensive. A real five-star place. So they decided that, to save money, they’d put Bertie’s bodyguards in a bed and breakfast about two miles away down in the town, while Bertie himself stayed in the five-star. With nothing else to do, the bodyguards went on a real bender – a two bottles of whiskey a-piece job. They got stocious. Somebody managed to get them back to the lodgings and left them to sleep it off.”
“The next day I was driving through Killarney and I saw the Taoiseach’s car coming. In the back seat were the bodyguards with their heads in their hands. They were dead meat. You know, those hog-whimpering hangovers where you swear off wine gums for life. And guess who was driving the car himself? Bertie Ahearne.”
The other man nodded solemnly. “Yes, I like Bertie. He’s a man of the people.”
It was another night of free pints. Pat the landlord signed a leaflet as proof of performance and gave me a firm handshake. A good man.
Then the pub curtains were closed and a few knots of drinkers stayed on for a subdued late session. Sat and drank – another birthday over and I’d hardly noticed it. Not that it really mattered – the real birthday had happened last night watching the sky. At one am, finished off the pint, said goodnight and walked back through the rain to the hostel.
Half an hour later, I was in the lounge drying out the costume on a radiator when another resident walked in. He was a South African called Michael who commiserated over the weather. It turned out that when he had arrived in Ireland, some four years previously, it had been during a freak heat-wave summer and his impression had been that all the talk about the Irish bad climate was pure exaggeration. After he’d settled in the country, the weather changed and revealed its true character. He was a knowledgeable man of about forty who was a roof tiler by trade and had worked in the USA. Despite the rain, though, he was now committed to Ireland.
“It’s changed my life. I’d been used to South Africa, then the States. And when I arrived here I couldn’t believe the Irish attitude to work. They were so disorganised – it really got on my nerves. In the building trade, they could get things done three times faster if they just planned it properly. Then, after a bit, I wondered, was it worth it? You can force market efficiency on the country but you’d probably end up destroying something that was worth keeping. It’s an attitude to life really. How you live today is more important than what’s in the bank at the end of the month. I reckon they live life a lot more fully than the stressed-out countries. I’d hate to see it end up like England – just another third rate version of America.”
We talked on till 2.30am, then I retired to the dormitory. Made sure to deliberately knock Bosie over in hopes of disturbing the cycling skinflint.
DAY THIRTY-TWO: TUESDAY
Woke at 7am. The night sleeps were getting shorter and the afternoon ones longer. Brewed up tea in the kitchen. There was a tourist advert for the Powerscourt Demesne on the wall.
Powerscourt itself had a tenuous connection with Wilde. Dr Robert Tyrrell had been Oscar’s Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Dublin, back in the 1870’s and also had had turn of phrase that may have rubbed off on his pupil. Tyrrell was a lover of good liquor. Oliver Gogarty once reported going for a motorcar drive with him in the Wicklow Hills. Tyrrell, dying for a drink, spotted a sign that read ‘Powerscourt Temperance Hotel’. Red with indignation, Tyrrell had roared out:
“Temperance Hotel? TEMPERANCE Hotel!! You might as well talk of a celibate brothel!”
Dr Tyrrell proved to be one of the good guys. In 1896, he was one of the few people to sign a petition asking for Wilde’s early release from prison – but he also had a lacerating tongue. One day he was in a pub in the middle of a sparkling discourse with his students. A man came up and interrupted him by asking the whereabouts of the lavatory. Tyrrell halted his conversation and pointed:
“You go down that corridor and it’s the first door on the right. The door is marked ‘Gentlemen’. But don’t let that deter you.”
Went outside – the clouds were moving north, the sun had broken through and it was going to be another beautiful day. Reviewed the situation. I’d discovered last night that Hollywood, the proposed next venue town, was too small to be able to offer an audience at all – and, frankly, I needed the money. Glendalough, being a famed tourist magnet, seemed a much better bet.
However, it turned out that there was no public transport going there from Wicklow and hitching across country would be damned difficult. Glendalough’s sole hostelry was an expensive hotel; it must have been the one village in Ireland with only one pub. If they refused the show, I would be well and truly scuppered.
After a breakfast of nuts and raisins, approached the proprietress for guidance. She thought for a moment, then said:
“If you can’t get into the hotel at Glendalough, you could try the pub in Laragh. It’s only a mile away. So you would have a fall back venue. But transport’s another matter altogether. The only thing to do is get a train back to Rathdrum and then chance your arm.”
Thanked her and then set off to the station. The train was due at 9.54am.
At 10.05, I looked up enquiringly to a man eating sandwiches in the signal box.
He called down:
“It’ll be here by ten thirty. Don’t worry. It’s not late today.”