Rainbow in the Wicklow Hills
McGOVERN’S BAR, MOYVALLY
Sat outside the hostel with Bosie packed and ready. There had been a huge switch in the weather overnight. Yesterday’s torrential rain had washed the landscape, and the Glendalough valley glistened in the early morning sunlight. The wind had ceased entirely. The peat smoke rose from the cottage chimneys in pencil-thin straight lines. A small dog trotted up and settled next to Bosie. The only blot on this Arcadian scene was that, by 8.30am, there was no sign of Donal.
Then, as the time neared nine, an elderly 2 CV car ambled round the corner and Donal waved a greeting through the windscreen. Equal measures of relief and gratitude flooded through me. So he hadn’t forgotten after all. He leaned over and called “Hop in.” This proved to be something of a snag. It had been difficult enough squeezing Bosie into a Ford Cortina; getting it into a 2 CV required a feat of geometric engineering. Bosie, after all, was at least twice the length of Tony Hawks’ fridge and he’d had enough problems. Eventually, with the wheels sticking defiantly out of the window, we drove off towards Co Kildare.
The road over the Wicklow Gap was one of the glories of the Irish countryside. Almost empty of other traffic, it soared up from the wooded valley into the bare highlands above. As we reached the summit, we looked down hundreds of feet into deserted glens where small streams snaked through the glades. The outcrops of rock shimmered against the hazy backcloth of sky.. There was a real sense of that exulting solitude that, I think, can only be felt on the tops of hills and mountains. And all this within about twelve miles of the Dublin outskirts. The words of an old song came to mind: ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’. This must surely have been that road?
Mentioned it to Donal. He agreed, then laughed.
“I’m surprised that you’ve heard of that song. Then again, I’m surprised just how widespread Irish music has become now. It seems to have got in everywhere. I had a phone call from a friend of mine who’s been travelling out in the East. He’d been to an Irish theme pub in Java where the entire staff, including the musicians, were Asian. He said that you haven’t lived until you’ve heard ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ sung in Chinese.”
Donal seemed to be a genuinely gentle man who’d also fallen under the spell of the Wicklow Hills.
“I’ve got a Master’s Degree in Accountancy. And now I’m cleaning toilets in a hostel. And I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love Glendalough.”
We passed a road turning that Donal said led to a local beauty spot called ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.
“Our poet Thomas Moore wrote a famous poem about it. Have you ever heard of Thomas Moore?”
Descended the western slopes of the hills and circled the Poulaphouca reservoir. This was a broad lake that had been created by damming the River Liffey. Crossed over the Co Kildare border and drove north for Naas. Donal indicated a signpost that read ‘Kildare and the Curragh’. The Curragh was the home of Irish horse racing.
“We’re great ones for the races” said Donal. “There are fifty thousand nags in this country and fifteen thousand of them are racehorses.”
Kildare town had been the location for one of the oddest excuses in history. Back in the sixteenth century, a warrior prince named Gerald had burnt down Kildare Cathedral. He had been roundly castigated for this act of desecration and, filled with remorse, he’d blurted out:
“Honest to God, I wouldn’t have done it. I really wouldn’t. But I thought the Archbishop was inside it.”
On another historical note, Donal explained the derivation of the expression ‘to be plastered’. It turned out to have originated over two hundred years ago. At some highly alcoholic dinner in an Ulster town, one guest became so drunk that he fell off his chair and rolled against a freshly decorated wall. When he woke up he found that he was embedded in it. Hence, ‘plastered’.
Donal also cleared up the mystery of ‘Father Matthew’, the character whose identity I’d been puzzling over since Cork. He had been the nineteenth century apostle of temperance who had journeyed around Ireland denouncing alcohol. Presumably the plethora of statues and street names were in tribute to his bravery rather than to his success.
We continued on through the flat plain of Kildare, through the town of Prosperous that, according to Donal, contained a pub called Dowlings that was the largest in Ireland, then along a country lane where he stopped in front of some farm buildings. It turned out that the farm was owned by his family. There was nobody there so we hung around in the straw-strewn yard. Donal spoke with a rather wistful resignation:
“We’ve owned this farm for years. But I’m not interested in farming. It’ll all probably be sold off soon.”
Drove on north past the town of Kilcock, then west along the side of the Royal Canal. By 11am, we drew into Innfield. Turned to Donal and thanked him warmly – it had been a magnificent lift across country which it would have been impossible to cross by public transport. However, it meant that it was also impossible for Donal to get back to work on time. He went off to a phone box to explain to the hostel that he might be a little late for work today. Like two and a half hours late. After we shared a pot of tea outside a café, he rose to his feet for the return journey. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of spirit that could make a man drive a five hour round trip out of his way and make himself massively late for work for no other reason than the craic. As he drove off, he grinned and waved: “God bless.” One hell of a good heart, Donal.
Looked around. Innfield, also known as Enfield, was a small town on the extremely busy road between Dublin and the West. If Gorey had had a traffic problem, this was twice as bad; there was a non-stop stream of vehicles through the long central street. My destination was four miles to the west and, after polishing off another Full Irish Breakfast, I hitched a ride which deposited me on a grass verge in what the driver assured me was Moyvally.
As far as I could see, Moyvally did not exist. There were only a few pine trees and the thunder of the main road. Then I noticed a side lane – walked down it and found a pub called McGoverns and a café beside a large lorry park. This had to be tonight’s venue. Went into the café where an Algerian chef told me that I’d come to the right place, that the owner, Mary, knew that I was coming, and that she’d left a message that I should wait for her. Emerged and walked on down the lane till I came to a small bridge over the Royal Canal. Leaned on the parapet and lit a cigarette.
It was there, with the sun above and the cool green water below and Bosie at rest in a patch of dusty nettles, that the realisation sank in that I’d finally broken the back of the tour. From now on, whatever else happened, I would have back up. Both here and in Dublin, friends were at hand and the solo flight was over. Hummed a verse of ‘Carrickfergus’ in celebration.
The reverie was broken by a shout from up the lane and Mary walked towards me with a beam of welcome. It was the first time I had seen her since her farewell night as landlady of the Magdala eighteen months previously. It had been a night that few would forget, even if, thank God, few could remember the exact details. In her early forties, Mary’s outstanding quality was an irrepressible sense of fun. There can’t be many London landladies whose cure for the times when the pub was subdued was to circulate the bar with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, dispensing compulsory free drinks to the customers. For ten years her pub had been one of the best permanent parties in London. When she left to return to her native Co Meath, I’d assumed that she had decided to opt for a quiet life and run a little Olde Worlde tea shop in the country. Not quite.
As we walked back towards the café, she explained it was actually a one hundred and forty seat restaurant with a staff of thirty.
“We’re open from 7am till 8pm which means I’m working a fifteen hour day. It’s incredibly busy. On the day of the Co Mayo match we had to turn away eighteen coaches because there was no room for them. And the paperwork’s driving me crazy. Still, the food’s good.”
To prove it, the Algerian chef arrived carrying a large steak meal. An hour later, with my back teeth loosened by the eating, Mary dropped me off at her house back in Innfield to prepare for the evening show. As she left, she mentioned that she’d left a plate of sandwiches “in case you get hungry.”
Relaxed back in the bath and studied my map. Moyvally was just within the Co Meath border, a stretch of the country that I did not know well. Noticed that to the west beyond Mullingar was the village of Edgeworthstown. This had a connection to Wilde, though a sadder one than usual.
It was the burial place of his sister, Isola, who had died when she was only ten. As her elder by just two years, the event, I believe, gave Wilde a streak of melancholic fatalism that was obscured by his natural joie de vivre. Over fifteen years later, he wrote a poem in her memory called ‘Requiescat’.
‘Tread lightly, she is near, Under the snow, Speak gently, she can hear, The daisies grow’, etc.
It was very simple, in contrast to his usually florid style. In his poetry, as notably in ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, Wilde only wrote simply when he really meant it.
I then noticed with a jerk of recognition that only six miles away was the hamlet of Dunsany. The memory of an offbeat literary escapade flooded back. It had been instigated by Oliver St John Gogarty. Gogarty, although tolerably famous in Ireland, is not particularly well known internationally. Which I’ve always felt was surprising because he was one of the most extraordinary men of the twentieth century. Even a random flick through his CV is impressive.
Among other activities, he had been the original of the character ‘Buck Mulligan’ in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; an accomplished poet; the All Ireland Champion at cycling; a dramatist whose play about the Dublin slums, ‘Blight’, had anticipated Sean O’Casey’s work by several years; an enthusiastic archer; a classical Greek scholar; a successful hotelier; the saviour of three men from drowning (for which he received the Royal Humane Society’s gold medal); a novelist; a Senator in the Irish Parliament; a Civil War gunman (albeit passively and reluctantly); an attempted Hollywood script writer; a renowned socialite; a Mountjoy Prison jailbreak abettor; a bobsleigh finalist on the Cresta Run; an outstanding raconteur whose books of memoirs are still in print; a pioneer aviator who founded the Irish Aero Club (later to become Aer Lingus); an eminent surgeon in Dublin, London and New York; and a reserve centre forward for Preston North End soccer club.
He also possessed a wicked sense of humour and a love of practical jokes – which was where Dunsany came in. Gogarty was a friend of both Lord Dunsany, who owned the nearby castle, and of the artist Augustus John. These two men were only slightly acquainted but Dunsany invited Augustus John to stay for a week at the castle. They were both very fond of liquor. Realising the situation, Gogarty told Augustus John that Lord Dunsany was bitterly opposed to alcohol in any form and that Augustus should on no account ask his host to supply any. He then phoned Dunsany and told him that Augustus John was a fanatical teetotaller who would be mortally offended if offered any drink. He sat back to await the result. The two thwarted imbibers spent three days utterly sober in each other’s company. On the fourth night however, Augustus cracked, having been driven nearly insane by his host’s attempts to teach him how to play the Great Irish Harp. At midnight, he clambered over the castle wall and walked the twenty miles back to Dublin.
Woke at 6.30pm to the sound of voices outside and clambered out of the now freezing bath water. The siesta had struck me unawares. Mary called through the door:
“I’ve got Lyndon with me. I found him walking on the road.”
Lyndon! The very man who started this whole enterprise, who’d loaned me the Tony Hawks book, and who’d taken up the hundred pound bet. He’d flown from London to be ready for the meet on the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin. Fantastic to see him. The clans were gathering.
Drove off to the restaurant at 8.30, where Mary produced another huge steak meal. Having already consumed a second pile of sandwiches one hour earlier – “to see you through till supper” – I was beginning to wilt at the sight of food. Struggled through it, then we moved next door to McGoverns Bar. It was a functional pub with minimal decor and seemed to be aimed at the passing trade. However, this evening the trade appeared to have passed right on by. The only occupants were the landlady and an old gentleman behind the counter and five men sitting in a row in front of it. They were all watching TV. To make things more difficult, they were shielded from the stage area by a wooden partition.
The only real audience were Lyndon who, having been the official lights and sound man for a decade, had seen the show more times than he could have ever wished, Mary, who had seen it at least a dozen times, and the hastily recruited trio of her sister Marcella, Tricia the restaurant waitress and Shivaun, Tricia’s fifteen year old daughter. Other than that, the place was empty and destined to remain so. It was only the thought that this was the nineteenth show and had to be done that prevented me suggesting that we jack it in and get drunk instead. Began the show at 10pm.
“My brother died recently. It reminded me of my childhood. Both my father and brother shared the name of William Wilde. This, in combination with their delight in promiscuity, often led to misunderstandings. One morning, my father opened a letter intended for my brother in which a girl accused him of being responsible for her pregnancy and when my brother came down to breakfast, my father handed him the letter with the words ‘Here is the most disgraceful missive’. Having read it, William looked up to his father and said gravely, ‘Well, sir, what on earth are you going to do about her?”
As I coasted along through the script, oddly enough there were a few laughs coming from behind the wooden partition. I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me, which appeared to be the way they preferred it. The show ended (or rather ground to a halt) at 10.50. Didn’t have the heart to take the hat round it would not have been fair on the loyal five and I could hardly ask what had been an invisible audience for money. Went to the bar to get a pint; a man turned and said:
“Fair play to you”.
It was the gentlest of Irish compliments and it warmed the evening.
All the same, I couldn’t avoid the fact that it had been something of a non-show even if, technically, it counted. Settled down to drink it off my mind. By midnight, there were only Mary, Lyndon and myself left. Said goodnight to the old man counting change behind the counter and went outside to inspect the night sky. Mary exclaimed:
“Come on, lads, let’s get back to Innfield. There’s a whole lot to drink and I’ll bet you’re starving by now.”
Half an hour later, we were sitting at Mary’s kitchen table surrounded by dismembered chickens, a pile of roast jacket potatoes and two bottles of Jamieson whiskey. The reminiscences flooded out as they can only flood between three people who have spent ten years drinking in the same pub.
“Do you remember that wedding reception when …”
“Do you remember that funeral wake when…”
“And that time you fell in the fireplace…”
“And the soda siphon fight…”
“And the Aussie barmaid doing that striptease on the table top…”
“And that poker game when the CID man lost nine hundred quid…”
“And the fight when the barman hid in the cellar…”
“And the orgy in the Ladies…”
“And when the police raided the lock-in three times in one night…”
“And when that bloke had a revolver in the Gents…”
“And he was cleaning it and it went off accidentally…”
“And the bullet went through the lavatory cistern…”
“Ah, happy days.”
And so it went on until the tiredness finally hit home. We packed in about 3am and crashed out.
DAY THIRTY- FIVE: FRIDAY
Woke at 7am. Sat in the kitchen and tried to penetrate the fog of whiskey with cups of tea. Two hours later, Mary wandered in looking remarkably healthy. Groaned in envy. I’d always admired her uncanny resilience to hangovers.
She said briskly:
“Look at you! You’re sitting there with no food. You’ll be skin and bone in no time.”
She started to make breakfast. Three plates arrived, one with a five inch high stack of black pudding, one with a similar pile of white pudding and another with an entire loaf of toast. Lyndon came in, took one look at the food array and whitened. Slowly we began work on it.
Decided to do a bit of forward planning and rang Bob and Una, my friends in Dublin. Bob replied:
“It’s a good job you rang. There’s a journalist on a Dublin paper who’s interested in the story and he needs a photograph today.”
Promised to contact him on arrival in the city and reported back to Mary and Lyndon. Had an idea.
“Why don’t we have the photograph taken on the Ha’penny Bridge? In costume. And with the hundred quid?”
Mary said: “I’m sure it’s called the Farthing Bridge.”
Shook my head: “No, it’s definitely called the Ha’penny Bridge.”
Through a mouthful of black pudding, Lyndon asked innocently:
At 10.30am, amidst much embracing, we said farewell to Mary and walked up to the main road. Passed the Enfield Printers, the Innfield Chinese restaurant, the Enfield Post Office, and the Innfield Dry Cleaners. Consulted the bus timetable which read ‘Enfield’. Lyndon remarked:
“This town seems to have one hell of an identity crisis.”
As we waited for the bus, I asked Lyndon to keep an eye on Bosie while I bought a paper. He agreed then added:
“I must say that physically this tour seems to have done you the world of good. But it’s a bit worrying to find that you’ve got a pet name for a shopping basket.”