87th Post: 4th IRELAND. 2nd Letterkenny – Mascara in Ulster

Errigal Mountain, Co Donegal



A fresh sunny day.  Walked up to the hostel kitchen and brewed a cup of tea amidst six hulking silent German motor cyclists. Then made a pile of ham rolls for the day’s food supply. The doubts of last night had subsided slightly but this still looked like being one hell of a sticky day. Firstly, fix the venue, then advertise it, then do a line run-through, then set up the show, then do a performance.

Sat out on the lawn, sipped the tea and brooded on strategy. Some more tents had mushroomed around the hostel overnight – the German bikers, a French couple, two Dublin girls. A few nods and ‘good mornings’.  Although camping is a very polite world, there’s not a lot of communication. Each group has its own literal patch of turf and stays with it – all rather suburban really.

Dropped into the Brewery Tavern and asked for the manageress. The barmaid apologised and said that the boss was going to stay in Galway till tomorrow.  A small twinge of worry crept in. Tried to persuade an under-manager to accept the show.

“Sorry but I couldn’t take the responsibility.”

Continued to McClaffertys Bar.  An archipelago of mute Monday morning drinkers sat in the gloom of the disinfectant-drenched bar.  Distracted a reluctant barman from washing glasses.

“No, the owner’s not here. Your man’s off playing golf.”

Continued to the Cottage Bar.  At last I found a landlord, a young sharp-looking man. He listened sympathetically but turned the offer down.

“You could play it here on a Tuesday or a Thursday, that’s when we get the continental crowd in for the music.  But I don’t think my regulars would like it. Not on a Monday.”

Sat in the marketplace. That seemed to be the end of the affair; there wasn’t enough time to stay around for the ‘continental crowd’. All the obvious places had turned it down. What on earth had possessed me to think that this would be easy? Back in the Magdala, the thought had never crossed my mind that the pubs simply would not be interested.  And here I was, stuck on the uttermost fringe of Europe, with not a single performance under my belt, and with a vat-load of egg flying rapidly towards my face. Something had to be done.

Letterkenny General views

Stood up and wandered along Main St till I came to the corner of St Oliver Plunkett Street. There was a public library across the road with a notice attached reading ‘Arts Centre’. A small flame of hope rekindled. Found the Arts Centre office in a large basement underneath the main building where a young bearded man sat blinking at a computer screen. I coughed:

“Sorry to bother you. This might sound a little odd but I need a theatre space to do a show in eight hours’ time.”

I laid the tour conditions sheet in front of him. He read it and looked up with a half-smile.

“It strikes me you’re really doing this for the craic, aren’t you?”

I smiled back. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

He scratched his beard and said: “Why not. I reckon we can fix you up somehow.”

The small flame of hope leapt into a blaze.  The man’s name, let the god of fortune take careful note, was Sean Hannigan.

He led me out of the library, round a couple of back streets and knocked on the door of a private house. A tall man with a ponytail answered.   Sean introduced him as Traioch, who just happened to be an arts administrator for Co Donegal. Sean explained the situation and Traioch raised an eyebrow.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been asked to put on a theatre production with eight hours’ notice. I’ll tell you what. McGinleys Bar might do it. I’ll ask Hugh. Meet me there at half past four.”

I thanked them fervently and left bubbling with relief. At last I’d got allies and the show was on. Raised up my eyes and saw the street sign. ‘St Oliver Plunkett’ had really come up with the goods.

Went to McGinleys Bar, having spent the previous couple of hours pacing round the campsite reciting lines. The memory seemed alright but a couple of dodgy glitches. Received a few odd stares from the German bikers – walking round in circles muttering to oneself did not seem to constitute acceptable campsite behaviour.

McGinley’s. The bar door opened and Sean and Traioch walked in. The latter introduced me to Hugh the landlord who agreed that I could use the back bar, while Sean handed me some printed adverts that he had run up on his computer. With just three hours to go, the venue was fixed and the publicity ready.

McGinley’s Bar Letterkenny

As I burbled out gratitude to my benefactors, the tinny sound of ‘What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor’ burst out of my breast pocket.  The mobile had sprung to life.  It was Brendan from Galway.

 “Look, Neil, there’s a guy on one of the Galway newspapers who’s interested in the story. He’s going to phone you in ten minutes.”

Went outside and sat on one of the market place benches to improve the reception. The tramp spotted me and hurried across.  This time, I decided, he’d got no chance; I simply couldn’t keep on handing out cash.

“Sorry, I can’t help you today. I haven’t got any spare money, I’m living fairly rough myself.”

In the middle of this plea of poverty, the mobile went off. Extracted it rather shame-facedly and pressed the On switch. The tramp sat down and listened as I answered the newspaper interview.  As I put the mobile away, he sighed ruefully.

“I never get the newspapers ringing me up.”

There was nothing for it. Handed him two quid.

 Woke from a forty minute siesta at the tent and considered another problem. McGinleys would not have a dressing room; most likely the only place to change and make up would be in the Gents. Maybe they had improved since the Seventies but, in those days, the lavatories in rural Irish pubs had been so primitive that they had given rise to the line ‘the land of saints and squalors’.

Also, I could not really leave the stage area unattended. God knows what would happen to the props and lights if they were left on their own for half an hour in a crowded bar. The only way round the problem would be to change and make up on the stage itself in full view of the audience. How bloody embarrassing – another basic rule of theatrical illusion abandoned.

Changed into evening dress, stuffed the props, make up and lamp into the rucksack and walked up Main St. An odd combination, white tie, tails and rucksack and I reckon the early evening strollers of Letterkenny agreed. Arrived at McGinleys with no more than the occasional comment, however.

Not only had the dressing room been abandoned but the background music and the lighting system had gone as well, there being no one to work it. This was really barebones theatre; it would be difficult to find anything more basic. Laid out the props on a bar table, arranged two chairs so that they would be within the circle of lamp light (just), then sat down for the trickiest moment of all. Took a glance around the bar at the groups of brawny Ulstermen drinking and discussing cattle prices, breathed another supplication to O. Plunkett, then raised the mascara brush to my eyelashes.

The conversation level dropped a few notches, then resumed more heatedly. I continued as unconcernedly as possible, as if a man applying mascara, lipstick and powder to his face was the most normal of sights in an Ulster hostelry.

There was a passably sized audience grouped out front: two elderly English couples, twelve regulars and about eight of Traioch and Sean’s people. As there was no music intro, I substituted an announcement.   “Ladies and Gentlemen.  The time is 1898. The place is Paris.” And set off into the monologue.

“I saw the Duchess of Swindon on the Rue Rivoli a week ago. She did not see me. I would not have liked to have embarrassed her; she is a very dear lady. I knew her well in England before my trouble. She told me once that she had been married for an eternity. I believe that it is in fact ten years, but then ten years married to the Duke must seem like eternity – with time thrown in. But she was delightful. In stark contrast to her mother, the Dowager Duchess. The Dowager’s capacity for family affection was simply extraordinary. When her third husband died her hair turned quite gold with grief. Indeed, she was a peacock in everything. Except perhaps beauty.”

Kept on going till the end, blew out the candle, and bowed. A really good round of applause, plus one yell of ‘Go for it, Oscar’, and the first show of the Irish tour was over. It had gone far better than I’d thought possible. There had been a fair amount of racket seeping through from the front bar but this audience had been terrific, laughing at the jokes but still responding to the sentiment.

As I sat down again and started wiping off the make-up, Traioch came up grinning and flourishing a black top hat.  He’d been round collecting donations; there was about thirty pounds rattling around inside it. A feeling of elation welled up.

A slightly built Austrian youth appeared at my elbow and shook my hand.

“You are James Joyce very good.”

Eh?  Thanked him and considered the fact that he’d sat through fifty minutes of Oscar Wilde under the impression it was James Joyce.

Letterkenny drinks with Sean, Traioch and Harriet

Drank with Sean, Traioch and their wives. Traioch pointed out that my watchstrap was broken.

 “Oh, well,” I replied, “That’s the first casualty of the tour.”

Sean’s wife, Harriet, looked at me with some concern.

“Let’s hope that it’s the last one as well. You’re really going to do this another nineteen times?  Where’s next?”

“Donegal town, if I can find a venue”

Traioch waved over an old man who introduced himself as Malachi. He peered at me.

“You should go to the Schooner Inn in Donegal. Ask for Eddie. They’ll put the show on for you.”  Things seemed to be getting better and better.

When Sean and Traioch rose to leave, I felt a real surge of appreciation towards them. Without their aid, I’d have been stumped before I’d started. We shook hands and I promised to keep in touch with news of the tour. Relaxed back almost dazedly trying to take it all in.  In the background, I could hear an old Kinks number: ‘Waterloo Sunset’.    Heaven.   It seemed that even the Letterkenny taste in muzac matched my own.

Walked back through the streets. Still a lot of people around – at 1.30 on a Tuesday morning? There was something almost of the Mediterranean lifestyle about Letterkenny. Reached the tent, tumbled inside, lay back on the lilo and felt fantastic.

I’d completed the first show, found out that the idea could work, earned thirty quid, got the name of a place in Donegal town, met some damn good people, and felt gloriously flushed with lager. Slept like a mellow rock.


At 10.30am, crawled out of the tent to another lovely day. Even the slight hangover couldn’t blight it that much. Walked to the kitchen where three French girls were eating breakfast; I brewed up some tea and chatted. One of them, a small blonde teenager, asked:

“You have a very strong English accent.  Do you not find that there is much antagonism to you here in Ireland?”

Thought back to the warmth of last night and smiled.

“No, not at all.”

Packed up the tent and started reconstructing Bosie. Soon it had taken on its characteristic squat troll appearance. Said farewell to the hostel proprietress and walked down the hill towards the south. Unfortunately the route took me directly past the bus station.  The empty road stretched ahead; while beside me the bus stood ready to leave, its engine chugging temptingly.  Oh well, I can resist everything except temptation.

As we drove into the village of Ballybofey twelve miles down the road, conscience struck me hard. Either I was going to stick to the plan or else forget it. There was no real excuse for not hitching. It was a weekday, there was no rush, and the hangover had dissolved. Delving deeply into the reserves of will power, climbed off the bus and walked out of the village. Stopped by a hedge, changed into evening dress, then opened up the umbrella. On the black material was the white Tippex motto:


I stuck out my thumb.    I was finally on the road.

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