In 1999, under the influence of a large amount of alcohol, I had accepted a bet in my local London pub to hitch-hike around Ireland whilst performing an Oscar Wilde one-man show in twenty towns along the way.
THE MAGDALA BAR, LONDON – PART TWO
However, the terms of the wager would have to be renegotiated. As I returned to the Magdala for a Sunday lunchtime livener, Lyndon smiled and waved me over.
“Do you remember last night at all? You actually said that…”
“Yes, I do. And the bet stands. I’m going to do it.”
He shook his head. “Ah, so you still haven’t sobered up then.”
I took out a map of Ireland and spread it on the table.
“Right, let’s work out the travel plan.”
Lyndon stared at it. “Are you going to follow the Fridge route?”
I nodded “As far as I can.”
Tony Hawks had skipped Northern Ireland on the basis that it was not worth risking assassination simply to win one hundred pounds. He had a point.
With the one advantage, albeit hazy, of having travelled in Ireland before, we set about the plan. The most northerly town available, outside Northern Ireland, appeared to be Letterkenny. Lyndon placed a salted peanut on the map to mark the first venue. Donegal was the nearest town going south – number two. Westport and Clifden came third and fourth on the strength of Red saying they were ‘very pretty’. Galway was fifth, because I had a friend living there called Brendan. Gort was sixth because W. B. Yeats had lived five miles away, so presumably there must be some affinity with the Arts. Tralee because of the song, Dingle because another friend, Michaela, lived there, and Killarney because of the Lakes.
We pondered over Limerick. Red, a Limerick girl herself, shook her head.
“It’s a tough town. I don’t think they’d be too struck on Oscar Wilde”.
She pulled out a newspaper from her bag and handed it across. It was ‘The Kerryman’: a short article was ringed in red.
‘There is a story circulating the county concerning a young Kosova Albanian who joined up with the Limerick United soccer team and on his first outing scored a hat trick. Flushed with the victory of his achievement he dashed off to the nearest telephone to inform his aged mother about his debut and his moment of triumph. He found his mother in a less than receptive mood. ‘The house is in flames around me’ she said. ‘Your father’s body is lying out in the middle of the street while your granddad and granny are breathing their last in the backyard. There’s even worse’ she continued ‘Your sister has been attacked and defiled and I can see all the neighbours running past the windows carrying all our worldly possessions. We are totally destroyed’ wailed the distraught mother. ‘We are totally destroyed and it’s all your fault. Your fault and yours alone.’ ‘How do you mean it’s all my fault?’ asked the horrified young footballer. ‘Well,’ replied the mother ‘you were the one who brought us to Limerick, weren’t you?’
Lyndon thoughtfully removed the Limerick peanut.
Skibbereen came tenth because of being the most south-westerly town in Ireland, Kinsale because another friend, Jenny, had a caravan nearby. Dungarvan was twelfth because Mark’s uncle had once been on a yachting holiday there. Waterford because it was the next big town. Wexford, at fourteenth, was the most south-easterly spot; Enniscorthy because I’d once attended a Fleadh Cheoil (music festival) there and had been totally pissed for three days. It would be interesting to see what it really looked like. Arklow and Wicklow came sixteenth and seventeenth because we were running out of coast towns. Hollywood in the Wicklow Hills was eighteenth because…..well, I’d always fancied playing Hollywood. Moyvally in Co Kildare because Mary, the ex-landlady of the Magdala itself until a year ago, was now resident there. And Dublin was twentieth because two more friends, Bob and Una, lived there and it was where the Fridge had ended up.
The next move was to backtrack on some of the wager conditions. Obviously, hitchhiking would remain the main form of transport but I would be travelling with an inescapable handicap. Tony Hawks had had a month to circle Ireland but, within that month, he was free of fixed dates. Because of the necessity of reaching venues, I was not. If I got stuck on some mountain road and there was meant to be a performance within two hours in a town miles away, I would be kaput. Therefore the use of public transport, if there were any, was not ruled out in an emergency. Also, because of the lack of commercial traffic, weekends are famously bad hitching days, so public transport was again acceptable. Finally, we agreed to add what was to turn out to be a life-saving rider: no hitching with a hangover. With the compassion of a fellow drinker, Lyndon nodded indulgently.
We decided that costume would not be compulsory all the time. The need to relax into civilian dress now and again would be important to the nervous system. Even Tony Hawks had abandoned the fridge on occasion. Also there was doubt as to how long nineteenth century white tie and tails could stand up to life on the road.
Finally we reached agreement that only twenty nights need be spent under canvas. The rest could be spent in bed and breakfasts, hostels or hospitality. However, on a budget of twelve pounds per day, this looked to be less of a concession than it might appear. B&Bs cost in the region of twenty pounds.
“The one crucial thing” mused Lyndon “is that you do the twenty shows in twenty towns in the time limit. And I’d like the signatures of the pub landlords and photos of the pubs as proof.”
With the re-arranged conditions, we made a more formal handshake. Pub opinion ranged from ‘a masterstroke’ to ‘very silly’. Brian from Yorkshire gave a more lugubrious judgement:
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first send on a tour of Irish bars….”
The next couple of months were spent in mostly vain attempts at organisation. The more venues that could be warned before arrival, the easier the job would be in transit. But trying to coordinate a theatre tour from at least five hundred miles away and from a different country was not the easiest of tasks. Contacting the five old friends was one thing but dealing with their suggested venues was quite another. For example, Brendan in Galway provided me with the names and phone numbers of suitable pubs in Galway, Clifden, Westport and Gort. But nailing down anything definite with their proprietors was a nightmare. For one thing they were never there except at about eleven thirty at night. The conversation would then follow the lines of:
“Hallo, I’m a friend of Brendan and I’m trying to find a venue where I can perform Oscar Wilde as part of a tour of Ireland for a bet. Would you be interested?”
Sound of thunderous fiddle and banjo band rising over inebriated hubbub.
“Is that you, Liam? Are you taking the piss or what?”
“No, I’m speaking from London. My name is Neil.”
“You’re a friend of Brendan, are you? Well, Brendan’s not here.”
“I know he isn’t. But would you like a free show about Oscar Wilde in the pub. All I do is take a hat round afterwards.”
“Can you speak up a bit? Oscar Wilde’s Hat? Is that a band or something?”
“No, no, it’s a one man show. Theatre.”
“No, this isn’t a theatre. It’s a bar.”
“Yes, I know that. But would you like some theatre in the bar? It’s free.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Free, you say? Well, how much would you want?”
“No, honestly, it’s free. Gratis. For nothing. I just offer the hat around afterwards. The show is called ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes’.”
“Are you sure you’re not Liam?”
The only venue that gave a definite yes was a bar in Westport called Matt Molloys. Still, I reasoned, when I actually arrived in Ireland things should be much smoother. After all, there were eleven thousand pubs in the country.
Drawing on from Tony Hawks’ experience, there seemed to be one piece of equipment that was vital. The secret of his success, as he acknowledged, was due to the daily communication that he had with the main morning radio programme ‘The Gerry Ryan Show’. Each day he would phone in to report on his adventures and all over Ireland listeners became interested in his progress. Drivers would pick him up simply so that they could meet the ‘Fridge Man’, police cars would stop to enquire if he needed assistance, landlords would phone in to offer accommodation. It had been a brilliant idea and based on the pure power of publicity.
Therefore, if the Oscar tour were to have anything like the same effect, a mobile phone was crucial. Public phones were not an option. It would be impossible to guarantee access to one at specific times of broadcasting and in any case they were too unreliable.
On hearing of the plan, my brother came to the rescue and tentatively offered me one of his mobiles. He commented “Putting you in charge of modern technology is like putting Lucretia Borgia in charge of the catering, but you’ll get the hang of it after a bit.” True enough, after about five weeks, I had got the hang of it – sort of. It was wonderful but had one minor drawback. I had chosen ‘What Shall We Do with The Drunken Sailor’ as the reception call signal. After two weeks I began to wish I hadn’t.
Further practicalities arose. The tour would start in Letterkenny and end in Dublin, but there was the problem of arriving in the former and of leaving the latter. After manoeuvring through the maze of different train companies left by the ruin of British Rail (this being 1999), I found out that there was indeed a boat train to Northern Ireland but it offered the less than enticing prospect of arriving at Belfast Docks at two o’clock in the morning. The airfare seemed slightly cheaper and, aided by a family whip-round for free air miles, turned out to be a lot cheaper. I could get to Belfast and return to Gatwick.
Clothing was the next consideration especially bearing in mind the insanity of the Irish weather. I settled for a light jacket, a heavy mackintosh, a fur-lined lumberjack cap and a balaclava helmet. On second thoughts I abandoned the last item. Was it really a good idea to travel through Ulster wearing a balaclava helmet?
The final problem concerned luggage. In order to hitchhike, it was important that the accompanying bags remained portable and provided the least deterrent to potential lifts. On the other hand, it was necessary to take a tent, a lilo, a sleeping bag, tent pegs, a hammer, a primus stove, a saucepan, a tin mug, a plate, a knife and spoon, candles, toilet paper, a sweater, a towel, three denim shirts, four sets of underwear, a sun hat, an 1890’s evening suit with waistcoat and high-collared shirt, a theatrical make up bag, various stage props and a desk lamp doubling up as theatre lighting. Plus the afore-mentioned jacket, heavy mackintosh and cap. Together with a camera and extra film, spare batteries, an alarm clock, a large torch, a radio, sunglasses, sun cream, books, two clipboards, the mobile phone and battery recharger, a marker pen, a small torch, teabags, dried milk, sweeteners, emergency rations (bags of nuts and raisins), a blow-up pillow, a plastic sandwich box, a Swiss Army knife and a water bottle. And an umbrella.
I looked with dismay at the heaped mound of chattels. Then came the brainwave: a shopping basket on wheels. With an extra bag strapped securely to the front and with an additional medium sized rucksack I was just capable of carrying the load. The shopping basket stood at waist height and with the extra bag belted to the front resembled an extremely stout dwarf – Bilbo Baggins crossed with Falstaff. Despite these literary resemblances the equipage could only have one nickname though, that of Wilde’s boyfriend – ‘Bosie’. The more fragile objects, camera, alarm clock, radio, etc, were stored in the rucksack.
Half of Bosie
As an afterthought I decided to make a gesture in the direction of health and bought a selection of aspirin, Lemsip powders and an alphabet soup of vitamin tablets, which I poured indiscriminately into a sponge bag. It looked like Exhibit A in a drugs bust.
At last, with vitamins, mobile phone, air tickets, map, Bosie, and one confirmed booking, I stood ready for the challenge.
However, before the departure, there was one thing left to do. It had been exactly twenty years since I gave the first performance of the Wilde show. It had not been an auspicious occasion, having been performed in a threadbare bedsit to three friends with the furniture stacked against the wall to provide some space, with many embarrassed lapses and ‘No, don’t tell me, it’s on the tip of my tongue’ memory halts, some desperate ad-libbing and an unplanned interval when the landlord arrived unsuccessfully demanding rent.
The following years had seen the show at three Edinburgh Festivals, a dozen London fringe theatres, over eighty towns through Britain, ten foreign countries and a one week run in Dublin. It had been the subject of critical adulation and laceration; it had been played in famous theatres and in rural cowsheds; it had been wildly applauded and noisily yawned through from Boston to Hong Kong and from Reykjavik to Bulawayo. It had matured, although it had to be admitted that desperate ad-libbing was still an occasional feature. But the play had survived and it deserved some sort of anniversary.
Michael MacLiammoir (second from right)
‘Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes’ was, and is, a fifty-minute monologue based on the life and writings of Wilde. It had been inspired by listening to recordings of the famous play ‘The Importance of Being Oscar’ by the great Irish actor Michael MacLiammoir who had given 1,384 performances over his lifetime. I was nowhere near that tally but, in defence, I was still going. So three nights before the leaving of London and with an invited crowd of friends and relations, I gave the ‘Twentieth Anniversary Show’ at the Magdala upstairs restaurant. Many of the audience had acted as stage crew during the years and knew the lines as well as I did – in one or two cases probably better. So it was more of a ceremony than a piece of theatre. Not that it mattered; this was not for the kudos, this was for the ‘craic’.
A brief resume. As usual, the stage was bare except for a table and two chairs. On the table were the basic props: a wine bottle, two glasses, a burning candle set in a saucer, a photograph, a lighter and five cigarettes. The play started in darkness with the Intermezzo from ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ playing in the background. ‘Wilde’ walked on in full white tie evening dress and picked up the photo:
“One should not play Narcissus to a photograph. Even water is treacherous. The eyes of those who love you are the only mirror.
August in Paris. Gives one such a feeling of desolation, don’t you think? All my friends are in Trouville and most of my enemies are in Deauville. Paris is utterly empty. Even the criminal classes have gone to the seaside and the gendarmes yawn and regret their enforced idleness. Giving wrong directions to the English tourists is the only thing that consoles them.”
The next twenty-five minutes were taken up with a verbal attack on a variety of targets including Switzerland, biographers, English novels, critics, journalism, British artists, teachers, actors, America, German composers and hard work.
This was followed by a sharp downturn in the atmosphere as ‘Wilde’ described his experiences in jail – the hunger, humiliation and inhumanity – reaching a tragic climax when he was legally banned from seeing his children again. Later, the mood lightened as he commented on life in self-imposed exile:
“Ernest Dowson told me that I should develop a more wholesome taste in the sexual line and advised me to visit the Dieppe brothel. It was the first time in ten years and it will be the last. However, I’ve asked Ernest to spread the story all over England. It should entirely restore my character.”
The lights dimmed again and the music of the Intermezzo returned. After speaking the last lines, ‘Wilde’ blew out the candle and walked off stage.
Well, that was how the show was meant to happen and, on its anniversary, bar a stumble here and a fluff there, that was near enough what did happen. Downstairs in the bar, I raised a glass in silent tribute to Oscar and MacLiammoir.
The Magdala Tavern, Hampstead, London
Later in the evening I was talking to Mark and Red again.
“When do you leave?” asked Red.
“On Saturday. Back to the land of priests and pints!”
Red gave me a quizzical glance. “You’ve been away too long. That was the old Ireland.”
I supposed she might be right. When I had been there first the country was barely in the modern era. Emigration was still rife – the population of four million was half what it had been in 1845 and the political and social grip of the Catholic Church was extraordinary. Each Act passed by the Dail (the Parliament) had then to be offered to the Archbishop of Dublin to allow him to exercise his veto. There was effectively no TV beyond Athlone. In the west, the pony and trap was not just a tourist gimmick but an everyday vehicle.
But from what I’d read in the newspapers there had been real changes. The population had risen to five million, half of which were under the age of twenty-five; there was a superb education system; and average earnings were set to surpass the UK level for the first time in history.
“It’s not the quaint old place any more” Red continued. “That’s all changed. It’s become dead sophisticated. It’s the hip Celtic Tiger now.”
That got me thinking. Yes, I suppose they must be fed up with the old stereotype by now. If you are a slick young professional plane-hopping round the European Union fiddling with your website and listening to the Corrs and Sinead O’Connor on your headphones, you might get rather irritated at being regarded as a drink-addled, shillelagh-clutching hedge philosopher nursing an unnatural passion for leprechauns. In the same way that the English might get weary of being depicted as bowler-hatted Beefeaters with Dick Van Dyke accents and no sex life.
I still hadn’t forgotten Red’s words next morning. It was slightly worrying. Would the New Ireland have any sympathy at all with a venture as patently ridiculous and as useless as the Oscar trip? Would this new world of puritan, business-besotted corporate ‘time is money, greed is good’ apparatchiks give me the time of day?
So it was with foreboding that I phoned a contact number at a pub in Letterkenny – hopefully to fix the first gig and to explain the situation. The elderly man at the other end said:
“I suppose it might be alright. You’d have to speak to my son when you get here. He’s away playing golf now.”
“That’s fine. Can you give me the name and address of the pub, please?”
“Well, the name has been changed recently, you see. To attract new customers.”
“I see. Can you tell me what the new name is, then?”
There was a puzzled pause then the man replied: “Hang on a minute. I’ll just go and find my spectacles.”
Maybe Ireland hadn’t changed that much.