86th Post: 3rd IRELAND. 1st Letterkenny – Taking the Derry Air

McGINLEY’S   BAR, LETTERKENNY – PART ONE.

On the Saturday morning, I flew from Heathrow to Aldergrove Airport just outside Belfast and arrived at 11.45am.

The Irish journal commenced:

 DAY ONE. SATURDAY

Breezy grey lunchtime. Dragged Bosie out of the terminal building and cautiously surveyed the car park for snipers. Thirty years of horror headlines from Ulster couldn’t be erased that easily. Felt satisfied that, for the moment at least, I was not going to be cut down in a hail of bullets, and hired a taxi to go to Antrim town. As we drove along the main road, the Red Hand of Ulster flags flapped from the lampposts – maybe my paranoia was not entirely irrational. The taxi driver was a quietly spoken man:

“You want the station, do you?  So where are you going?”

An immediate dilemma. Saying ‘Londonderry’ would proclaim me as a Protestant Unionist; saying ‘Derry’ meant I was a Catholic Republican.  To be honest, my own religious beliefs could best be described as ‘Lapsed Buddhist’. Tried to think of a prudent answer.

“Coleraine”.

Arrived at Antrim railway station. It seemed fixed in a 1940’s time warp; the shades of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson hovered round the faded brickwork and deserted waiting room. The only sign of modernity was a performance chart in which we, ‘the customers’ (how did we morph from being ‘passengers’?) were informed of the success rates of various railway-related activities. The only ‘100%’ concerned the elimination of ‘ticket queuing’. Looking around the totally empty platforms, this was not exactly a surprise. The other criteria ranged from train punctuality (45%) up to elimination of smoking (81%).  Lit a cigarette and mentally reduced the figure to 80%.

Antrim Rail Station

Caught the train and travelled north passing through the town of Ballymena. Ballymena is famous as the home base of the Rev. Ian Paisley. Back in the Seventies, it was also famous because the town council banned the teaching of Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ from the schools. Certain Dublin commentators at the time uncharitably suggested that this was fair enough because the very existence of the Paisleyites was proof positive that evolution had not taken place. Decided not to share this observation with the fellow passengers – sorry, customers. Continued through the soft countryside of Co Antrim, changed trains at Coleraine, then headed west towards Derry City. On the right were the shores of Lough Foyle, on the left, the distant Sperrin Mountains.

It was at this point that I decided that, as much as possible, I would avoid jotting notes about the beauty of the scenery. The problem was that Ireland is SO beautiful that it would be easier to write about what was NOT beautiful – a sort of anti-guidebook, a celebration of the godawful.

In any case, my knowledge of nature was zilch; there were vastly more capable florists and fauna-ists around than I could ever be. Simply for the record then, the east of Ireland is very nice; the west is stunning; and Co Wicklow is the backyard patio of Heaven.

Walls of Derry City

Arrived at Derry station at 4pm. (Had decided to call it Derry not out of political bias but out of brevity). Took another taxi across the double-decker bridge over the Foyle and into the old city under the cathedral spire. The driver circled up round the city walls, then through a grid of terraced streets and dropped me outside a bed and breakfast establishment. Even if I might end the tour sleeping in a ditch, I didn’t intend to start it in one.

The proprietor, called Michael, was a tall, friendly man with a wall-eye, who ushered me into the bedroom with some pointed questions as to the purpose of the visit. Not sure whether this was out of natural inquisitiveness or whether discovering the intentions of strangers is an everyday survival technique in Ulster. On hearing that the purpose was theatrical he became quite animated and said that the house was a regular haunt of touring companies:

“We had Agatha Christie here last week!”

Derry City gate

Having dumped Bosie in the B&B, walked down the hill to the centre. Derry was too small to be called a real city; it was about the size of a large English country town. The atmosphere seemed familiar as well, the same high street shops, supermarkets, etc., until I noticed the group of dark-blue uniformed police with sub-machine guns scrutinising the shoppers trooping into WH Smiths. No, it wasn’t the same after all.

Bought a few items – food, a Calor gas canister for the primus stove and a copy of the ‘Donegal Democrat’ for local info. Returned up the hill and passed a youth with a slogan on his T-shirt: ‘Look Fear in the Face’.  Not a bad motto for the tour.

Derry City street

Back to the bedroom and checked the cash situation. What with the accommodation, the train fare, two taxis and the shopping, £54 had already gone from the allotted five hundred.  Jesus!  Or rather, Jaysus! Decided that a spartan night with the television was advisable. The only TV channel free from interference was showing one of those American chat shows – Ricki or Oprah or someone. The format was the same as usual: obese multi-millionairesses haranguing inadequate halfwits about their reluctance to ‘gitta jarb’ – presumably flipping burgers for three dollars an hour.

For light relief, rang London on the mobile; it worked perfectly. Then tried the number of the proposed venue in Letterkenny twenty miles away. Nothing at all apart from some electronic whistles. Slightly worrying as I really needed those phone connections.

Spent an hour reading the Donegal Democrat. Checking out local newspapers is a good way of acclimatising to a new area; you can get a sense of regional pace and perspectives. Given the circumstances of the Oscar tour, they could also provide information about any festivities that might have a bearing on the shows. Read the Events list for the Clonmany Festival.  Among the more familiar Barbecues, Five A Side Soccer and Raft Races were two extra activities:

‘5pm. Wheel Changing, sponsored by McLaughlins Motor Factors’, followed by

‘6pm. Crisp Eating in the Main Square’.  ?

Clonmany Festival

Spent the rest of the evening watching an ‘Inspector Morse’ repeat through an Icelandic blizzard of static.

 DAY TWO. SUNDAY

The breakfast room was mostly filled with French tourists. Michael led me to an unoccupied table, then returned holding a large tray of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, etc., and gripping an old theatre programme between his teeth.  Placing down the breakfast, he removed the programme and pointed to the cast signatures scrawled over it.

“That’s Ruth Madoc’s name there. From Hi De Hi. And that’s Sarah Lawrence from Eastenders.”  He breathed hard and one of his eyes stared reverently at the chair beside me. “That’s where Sarah Lawrence sat.”

I gave the chair a small nod of respect as Michael picked up the teapot and started to pour into my cup.

“Have you met Ruth Madoc?” he continued, another eye fixing on me hopefully.

“No, I’m afraid I haven’t.”

“A lovely lady” he murmured distantly as the tea bulged over the side of the cup and saucer and flooded out across the table. I gave a warning cough and he realised what he was doing. Between us we mopped up the worst of it and Michael, gushing apologies, hastily removed the programme to safety. I ate some damp toast.

Manhandled Bosie down the stairs and Michael re-emerged. Signed an Oscar tour leaflet for his collection then he escorted me to the gate.

“So your holiday starts now, does it?”

“Well, in truth, I think that last night was the holiday. It’s the work that starts now.”  He waved me off down the hill.

Peace Statue Derry City

Hitching was out today – the challenge didn’t begin till Letterkenny.  I wandered along in the placid sunny morning trying to find the bus station. The streets that stretched back from the Foyle each ended with a view of the town wall. Ornamental cannon stood polished and pointing across the river. It resembled a historical theme park until the jolting thought occurred that this was not history but a symbol of present day reality.

There was a postcard stand outside a newsagents. One card showed a statue of two men reaching out to shake hands: ‘Hands Across the Divide’. Next to it was another card showing a cannon. By chance display, the cannon pointed directly at the statue. This was taking black humour to the limit. Caught the bus at noon.

Cannon in Derry City

Crossed into the Republic without any sign of the border whatsoever and arrived at Letterkenny bus station. The town was situated beside the River Swilly and was dominated by another church spire. Spires seemed to be the main feature of Irish towns; a change from the stately tower blocks of England. It was also a hill town with what the guidebook claimed to be the longest main street in Ireland – a fact I came to appreciate as I lugged Bosie up it.

Letterkenny Co Donegal

The first job was to locate the venue. According to the old man to whom I had spoken on the phone, the name and address of the pub, when he finally remembered it, was the Riverside Inn, Doochary, Letterkenny. Whether Doochary was a street or a suburb, I had no idea. As I walked up Port Street, a group of labourers were sitting around a building site eating sandwiches under a large sign reading ‘The New Letterkenny Theatre – Opening in Six Months’.  Approached them with a bright smile of enquiry:

“Good afternoon. Can you tell me where Doochary is?”

One large man stopped eating and pointed up the hill.

“It’s that way.”

“Is it far?”

“It’s out of town.”

“Oh. Is it far out of town?”

He considered for a moment then nodded.

I tried again.

“How far? A mile? Is it in walking distance?”

He took another bite of sandwich, chewed it, then spoke:

“No, not really.  Let’s see.  It’s about thirty miles away.”

Letterkenny New Theatre

I walked on, then stopped and leaned against Bosie. What the hell did I do now? The Riverside Inn, the very first venue, was kaput.  The tour seemed to be turning into a disaster before it had even begun.  There was a sign across the road: ‘St Oliver Plunkett St’.

I half remembered Plunkett. Wasn’t he the saint of lost causes or something?  Admittedly not as forlorn or as desperate as St Jude, I think Oliver was more the saint of right cock-ups. Anyway, he’d do for a quick prayer.  There was nothing for it but to make camp and try to acquire another venue.

Found a campsite quite easily – there was an advert in a shop window about two feet from where I was standing. The site was on a lawn in front of a hostel a few minutes from the town centre. Erected the tent – a small blue bubble under a tall pine tree. The spirits had risen slightly. When once you have a base you can start to think.

 

The Camp Site Letterkenny

Decided to ring Charlie in London for advice – he was an old friend who knew Co Donegal well.  Checked out the mobile and amazingly the display code had changed from ‘UKCELL’ to ‘EIRCELL’. How on earth had it known that we had crossed the border?  Nobody else on the bus had.  Still, it seemed that I could make calls within the Republic at last. The downside of this technological miracle was that now I couldn’t contact Charlie – or, for that matter, the United Kingdom.

Set off to investigate Letterkenny. Being Sunday most of it was closed but there were a heart-warmingly large number of pubs lining the main street. A multi-levelled market place led up to the main church on top of the hill.  Below it at street level were four bronze statues of children commemorating the nineteenth century hireling fairs. This had been the place where the country children were brought to be indentured to farmers. From the expression on the bronzes, it had not been a popular practice amongst the youth of Donegal.  Had a meal at a fish and chip café, then sat in the marketplace and contemplated one of the more lachrymose statues.

“Would you have any spare change on you, sir?”

Looked up to see a man with lank hair and a red weather-engrained face dressed in an old black suit which glinted greasily in the sunlight.  Handed over sixty pence and two cigarettes; he grunted and moved away.  I must have looked like an easy mark – the new rucksack was a dead giveaway, plus the fresh-faced rubbernecking of the sights. But there was something else too. He was a real man of the road.  I felt a distinct phoney in comparison.

Back to the tent for a siesta. I was feeling knackered from the unaccustomed travel. On previous trips I’d noticed that an afternoon nap is a very good idea. It splits the day into two, allowing the first half for organisation, shifting accommodation and miscellaneous hassles while leaving the second half for performance and general socialising. It doubles the amount of time when you can work at full tilt.

Woke by 7pm.  Had a chat with the hostel proprietress about a possible venue. She said that she’d never heard of any pub in the town having live theatre before.

“Most of them just play music.  But you could try the Brewery Tavern.  I think they had karaoke once.”

On first appearances, she seemed to be on the right track. The Brewery was on the market square, had some suitably sized bars, a youngish well-dressed-and-heeled crowd. It looked a fair bet.  Even the Australian barman seemed amenable.

“Sounds interesting. But you’d have to speak to the manageress. She’s in Galway till tomorrow.” 

Satisfied that at least I’d made a start, I sat down by the window to drink the first pint in Ireland for twenty years. A long satisfying swig, the mood of which was broken as I raised my eyes to the window and met those of the tramp from this afternoon. They gleamed with comradeship and the prospect of a free drink and their owner made a beeline for the bar door.  Oh, bugger.  As he entered, there was a groan of recognition from the other patrons and the barman swung into action to lead my would-be companion out again.

The Hireling Fair Children statue

Continued with the second pint and watched a group of children walking home and wheeling some large inner tube tyres with them. It reminded me of a story that I’d heard about Donegal during the Second World War.

One village was divided equally by the border, one half in the Republic and one half in the Six Counties. The local children lacked any organised games or pitches on which to play but then, as presumably now, used old bicycle tyres as bowling hoops. The local Ulster police felt sorry for them and arranged some hoop bowling races, starting on the Republic side of the bridge with the winning post in Ulster. The prize was sixpence. The races proved hugely popular.

It all came to an abrupt halt when the police discovered that the Republic children were bowling brand new tyres over into Ulster where, due to war rationing, they were very scarce and therefore expensive. They were returning with ancient tyres provided by the Ulster children, plus a fair cut of profits from the black-marketeers. Normal border relations were resumed.

Checked out McClaffertys Bar on Main St as a second string possibility for tomorrow night. Not really a good spot though; most of the seats were in small semi-circular snugs. It would be like performing to a row of horseboxes.  Still, if the worst came to the worst?

Talked to a middle-aged German couple who had arrived this morning at Knock International Airport. They spoke very little English and I spoke even less German. With the aid of a dictionary, they questioned me on the whereabouts of ‘the City of Knock’ which they had been looking for most of the day.  As far as I knew, it consisted of a church and a couple of tin shacks somewhere in Co Mayo.  Its ‘international airport’ status was roughly on a par with that of Port Stanley in the Falklands. The only reason for its existence had been because of the vision of a remarkable priest, Mgr. James Horan, who had out-manoeuvred, horse-traded and blackmailed a range of official bodies into creating the airport.   Don’t think that the couple believed me.

Moved up the street to Gallagher’s Hotel.  It was a padded leather and burnished brass establishment and hummed with respectable wealth – an ideal venue. However, the manager shook his head politely but firmly.

“I’m sorry but we’ve got a function on tomorrow.”

‘Function’ is a sacred word in catering circles.  From the maitre d’ of the Savoy to the disco bouncer, ‘Sorry, mate, it’s a function’ acts as the death knell of any argument. It seemed I was going to have to rely on the Brewery tomorrow. Had the fourth pint of the evening and eavesdropped on the surrounding conversation. It was nearly all about the Euro and Europe. It felt odd being in a country so emphatically supportive of the Union after all the begrudgery of the English press. Left after draining the glass; I’d got to be really careful about liquor. Things were tricky enough without having a hangover tomorrow.

Strolled back to the campsite after buying an ‘egg fried rice with noodles’ from a terminally bored girl in a Chinese takeaway.  The hostel grounds were dark and rather eerie. Only the creak of pine trees and the sound of noodle-slurping broke the silence. Sneaked into the hostel TV room – usually verboten to campers (three pounds a night) and reserved for the legitimate hostel sleepers (eight pounds a night), none of them whom were in evidence. Watched ten minutes of an Irish (RTE) television news discussion about ‘the terrifying rise of armed robbery in Ireland’.  Just what you want to hear as a nightcap before sleeping rough for the first time in nine years.

The clatter of crockery from the kitchen alerted me to the arrival of genuine hostellers. Back outside to the tent, finished the fried rice while squatting on the grass, then crawled inside to the sleeping bag and lilo. Contemplated the situation.

On one hand, I’d managed to evolve the idea from being an idle pub boast to actually being under canvas in the first town on the twenty town itinerary.  On the other hand, I had no venue and no back up. And somehow I had to do a show tomorrow night. Glancing at the watch, noticed it was 12.15am. In fact, I had to do a show tonight!  In approximately twenty hours’ time to be precise.  It’s tough enough gaining a foothold in a strange town on your own but this job also involved having to inflict the dubious delights of my personality on the place to such a degree that people would voluntarily put money in the hat.

Also, what would it actually be like doing theatre in an Irish pub? The nature of theatre is that you work in a controlled environment. In this situation the script was controlled but the environment wasn’t. A recipe for problems. What about heckling, for God’s sake?  For a stand-up comedian, heckling is a nuisance but at least they are used to it, the atmosphere is informal, and they can always come out with a witty retort like ‘sod off’.

But when you are in character, with a set script that at times is pure tragedy, you are entirely vulnerable to interruption.  I really don’t think Oscar Wilde could get away with ‘sod off’, much as he might have liked to.  If things went wrong, this could turn into a Monty Python sketch.  Began to realise that this tour combined the maximum of difficulty with the maximum of temptation – the desire to say to hell with it and plunge into the booze and music instead. Drifted off to sleep.

Next Tuesday January 29 – The first show in Ireland 

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