Hitch-hiking on the road in Ireland
ZACH’S BAR, DONEGAL
After half an hour, the road seemed to be where I would remain. It was not that it was deserted; in fact, it was relatively busy, but over half the traffic consisted of tourists already packed to the gills with their own luggage. I looked down thoughtfully at Bosie. It did seem particularly bulky today. Tried fixing the Oscar umbrella in front of it to conceal the actual size but this had no effect on the vehicles zooming past.
Or maybe it was me? A small twinge of paranoia returned. On one hand, the costume and persona hopefully would attract the curiosity and generosity of potential lift donors. On the other hand, it also could attract the attentions of homophobic psychopaths with a lethal dislike of nineteenth century literature. Tried to arrange my expression to convey an almost imbecilic amiability with an alternative capacity to dismember anybody who tried it on. A very difficult combination – ended up looking like Harpo Marx with toothache. Neither did it bring any response from the traffic other than a couple of V-signs.
An old Bedford van wobbled sedately to a halt twenty yards ahead. Ran up to it, trying to close the umbrella with one hand while dragging Bosie with the other. Breathlessly and rather pointlessly, I gasped “Donegal?”
There was really nowhere else to go on this road. The driver gave a nod, then his front seat passenger climbed out and helped me load Bosie into the back of the van. We drove off.
They were English hippies. I’d expected some banter or at least enquiry about the costume, etc., but they treated my appearance as perfectly normal. As the passenger leaned back and handed me a smouldering joint, I realised that this might be because they were stoned. A hitch hiking Oscar Wilde was probably an everyday occurrence.
The passenger was describing his religious experiences in India in an expressionless monotone and, from the look of languid boredom on the driver’s face, had been doing so for some time.
“Then I hit the coolest scene you’d ever find. In the Himalayas. I chilled out in this amazing monastery. Near Dharamsala. It’d really blow your head off. Those monks, man, they were just too much. Yeah, it was called the Dong Lo monastery. I think it was my karma that led me there. Amazing scene.”
The driver drew on the joint then drawled:
“You went to the tourist monastery. The really cool scene is further up the mountain. The Dong Ho monastery.”
It was the neatest putdown I’d heard in years. Not even Lady Bracknell could have done it better; it was a pure descendant from her ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ line about Belgrave Square: ‘Ah, the unfashionable side’. The passenger sank into silence as we passed through a ruggedly beautiful valley that according to my map was called the Barnesmore Gap.
They dropped me just outside Donegal town and I stood by the roadside trying to clear my head of cannabis fumes.
A few yards further on there was a Tourist Board signpost which read ‘FAMINE GRAVEYARD’. Now, I’ve every sympathy with the famine victims; it was a horrendous period of Irish history – it was in effect the Irish holocaust. But to promote it as the main tourist attraction seemed a bit bizarre.
“Hey, kids, eat up your Krispies! We’re off to the Famine Graveyard today!”
Arrived in the centre of town about 1.30pm. The first two objectives were accommodation and a venue. Donegal was more of a tourist centre than Letterkenny and had an Information Centre, into which I wheeled Bosie and accidentally dislodged a stand of Claddagh rings. Bosie was just about manageable on the open road but in confined spaces it had a tendency towards unscheduled demolition. Apologised to the counter staff who were most forbearing, considering they were dealing with a man in full evening dress accompanied by an insane shopping basket. They gave me the address of a youth hostel on the Killybegs road. I made an unlikely ‘youth’ but no harm trying.
Camp site, Donegal
Walked to the Independent Hostel. Andy, the proprietor, was a hospitable pleasant man and the hostel looked quite pretty. The house itself was full but Andy gestured grandly to the lawn in front. “No problem. Camp anywhere you like.” Pitched the tent on the only level patch of land on a lawn with a gradient of about one in three. As a campsite it made a good ski slope. Had the feeling that if you turned over in your sleep, there was an outside possibility that you might end up on the main road below.
Went back through the town and reached the esplanade. It was a hot day, the sunlight twinkled on the lazy waves, the small islands of Donegal Bay floated hazily on the blue sea – who needed Greece when you’d got all this?
Wandered along to a headland dominated by a ruined Franciscan abbey – this was idyllic. A plaque described how the place had been turned into a fortress in 1601 whereupon Red Hugh O’Donnell had promptly reduced it to picturesque rubble. It seemed that Red Hugh had reduced most of seventeenth century Donegal to rubble. A particularly irritable gent.
Ruined Abbey, Donegal
Back into town and stopped at a fish and chip shop for a takeaway. Scampi and chips cost £2.70 – I ordered it from the young girl behind the counter. At which point the owner, an elderly man, came across.
“No, no, you don’t want scampi. There’s no meat on it at all. Try the cod or haddock, then you’ll get a proper meal.”
Abashed, I changed the order to cod and chips – costing £1 80. A victim of the Irish hard sell.
Arrived at the Diamond. This was the centre of Donegal – a former market place converted into a large traffic island, designed on a three leaf clover pattern and decked out with benches and low walls. Although surrounded by roads, it was large enough to be a real social area. Sat and ate the cod while a couple on the next bench smiled at me. No reason, just acknowledgement that it was good to share this spot in the sun at this moment. Nice. Nice day, nice couple, nice cod, nice traffic island.
Walked to the Schooner Inn, a decorative old pub, and asked the barmaid:
“Do you know Eddie?”
From the way she laughed, suspected she might be his wife. I continued (sounding oddly Biblical?):
“I have come from Letterkenny. Malachi sent me”.
She took the proffered tour explanatory leaflet and disappeared upstairs while I checked out the back bar; it was perfect for the show. The barmaid returned.
“I’m sorry but we do meals in the evening. We can’t really have a theatre here as well. It would get in the way of the food.”
Oh, shit! My heart sank. As had the Schooner.
Back to the Diamond – time for Plan B again. Just keep on trying the pubs till someone says yes. Went to the Castle Inn where a fat, grumpy barmaid scanned the increasingly grubby tour leaflet and sniffed:
“I doubt it. But you’d have to ask the owner. He’s off playing golf.”
A definite pattern was emerging. The owner was never, ever, around.
The mobile had run out of electricity so I went into the Abbey Hotel where a barman agreed to recharge it. Bought a pint and watched the hotel world swirl around. There was something about it that reminded me of 1970s Ireland in that the building had the capacity to be a five-star hotel but it had the atmosphere of an up-market student union. A place of great potential but let down by the lack of a ha’porth of tar – like a magnificent Persian carpet bordered by shabby linoleum.
Had another pint and reviewed the situation. I was in the same fix as in Letterkenny. For the second time in two days, there was no bloody venue. However, I didn’t have the same sense of doom that I’d felt yesterday. I’d begun to realise that I could do the show almost anywhere if necessary. Had a look outside at the Diamond. Would an open-air performance be possible? Then began to appreciate the decibel level of the passing traffic and the children screeching across the benches while discharging water pistols at each other. P’raps not?
Donegal Town Diamond
By 8pm, and three pints later, the mobile was recharged and I phoned Brendan in Galway.
“Brendan, I think you’ll be able to judge just how nuts I’m going by the fact that I’ve actually been considering performing Oscar Wilde on a traffic island.”
He sighed “I’ve got another bit of bad news. It looks like the bar in Clifden has dropped out as well. I don’t know why. Also, I can’t find anywhere in Gort that’s interested.”
Oh hell. The planned tour seemed to be falling to bits around me.
“Is Westport still OK?”
“Yeah. I spoke to Pete Molloy. They’re expecting you on Friday.”
“That’s something at least. There’s one other thing. Can you tell me if there is a ferry across the Shannon? From Clare to Kerry?”
“Sure, it’s called the Tarbert ferry. It goes very regularly…. Well, fairly regularly…. Well, I think it does? You see, the Celtic Tiger is awake but it’s got a few claws missing.”
“See you in Galway in a few days.”
Entered McGroartys Pub, approached the barman and began to explain the tour.
“Will you get your feckin’ head out of the feckin’ way” came from a large raw-boned man on my left. Realised I was standing in front of the West Ham V Bucharest Dynamo match on TV. Chastened, I started to whisper the request. A pursing of lips and slow shake of the barman’s head:
“You’ll have to ask the boss.”
“And he’s not here?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
Bought a pint as the door opened again and the middle-aged German couple who I’d first met in Letterkenny walked in. A roar of laughter and a flood of German, tempered by irascible grunts from the West Ham supporter. The dictionary was produced and we talked. The man chuckled:
“You were right. The city of Knock does not exist. Ha ha. It is a very good Irish joke.”
Zach’s Bar, Donegal Town
Entered Zachs Bar through a long corridor from Lower Main Street. It was rather like a large barn with a horseshoe shaped counter at the far end and a railed musicians’ stage on the right. About ten lone drinkers sat in the murky candlelight. It was a nightclub rather than a pub and not really the sort of place for the show at all. Still, nothing lost in asking. With clanking predictability, the barmaid replied:
“For something like that, you’d need to ask Zach.”
“Coming in later.” Made a change from golf.
“Oh. How much later?”
“I don’t know. Later.”
Another dilemma about whether to hang around here and inevitably develop a hangover or have to spend tomorrow hunting for Zach? Decided that the hangover was a better bet – a more enjoyable one too, at least in the short term.
By 12.30am, I was beginning not to care where I was or what happened. Some traditional musicians had already been playing for three hours and the club had filled to the brim; the guitars, banjos and bodhrans competing with the roar of talk. Good gas.
Interior of Zach’s Bar
An old man clutched my arm and pointed into the throng.
“That’s Zach down there.”
Zach was a short man with an alert face and a baseball cap clamped on his head. By this time I had already composed a begging letter laying out the idea so I plunged into the crowd and thrust it at him. He read the letter quickly and peered up at me from under his cap brim.
“It’s for the craic, is it?”
“Yes, all right then. Go ahead.”
Resisted the urge to embrace him – the effect of being hugged by Oscar Wilde could be misconstrued and very counter-productive. Instead I gushed out a stream of drunken gratitude. Clung to the last remnants of sobriety and resisted having a celebratory drink. Instead I lurched out of the club and back along the Killybegs road to the campsite. Fell over some guy ropes, hauled myself into the tent and dropped off to sleep immediately.
DAY FIVE. WEDNESDAY
Woke at 10am feeling delicate but still elated by the coup last night and brewed up some tea on the primus stove. The powdered milk made it taste like diluted flour but at least it was hot and wet. Unzipped the tent flap and looked out on the main road. The weather had turned to grey drizzle. There was a signpost ahead: ‘Killybegs 10’.
I recalled a story about Killybegs about a court case there brought by the harbour master. He was complaining about the number of anglers who regularly fell in the harbour after drinking in the local pubs. He had been constantly forced to dive in and rescue them. On one occasion a conger eel had pulled in three anglers at the same time. Therefore, he applied to have a reduction in the town drinking hours. The magistrates agreed with him that this was an intolerable situation and accordingly reduced the licensed times by three hours. From twenty-three hours a day down to twenty.
Turned on the radio. It was the Gerry Ryan Show, the very same deejay who had helped Tony Hawks get round Ireland with the Fridge. A caller from Kerry was explaining why Irish farmers should not be charged income tax. Instead they should be allowed to harness cow farts and the methane gas could then be used to fuel cars.
“We could solve the whole energy crisis at a stroke” he continued, then added glumly “But the urban journalists will never take me seriously.”
At 11am, climbed up the slope to the hostel to where Andy the proprietor was gazing anxiously at the clouds above.
“It’s the eclipse in ten minutes.”
We stood, tea mugs in hand, awaiting the primordial moment. On the radio Gerry Ryan was enthusing at the extraordinary sight in the cloudless skies over Dublin, while we stared blankly upwards. There was absolutely nothing to see except clouds. Just a slight drop in temperature. Andy shrugged his shoulders.
“Ah well, we’ll catch it next time.”
He helped me put up a poster for tonight’s show. An Italian girl and her Korean boyfriend read it and promised to attend.
Into Donegal and spent the next three hours trying to publicise the show. Located a photo-copying shop and then started to affix posters round the town. Returned to the Tourist Office where they accepted an advert with the uneasy grin of those trying to cope with the demented.
Then I found an outpost of North-West Radio tucked away in an alleyway and decided that it was about time I started getting the power of the airwaves behind the trip. Sharon the receptionist phoned through to the Galway headquarters and I explained the tour to their station manager. She replied brightly:
“Right enough, we’ll put it on the six o’clock news.” Was this irony or was there really nothing else happening? Probably the former.
Throughout the afternoon I had been crossing and re-crossing the Diamond. There was a gift shop with a tannoy speaker over the door that was playing ‘Danny Boy’. ‘Danny Boy’ is one of my all-time favourite tunes; if I was stranded on a desert island it would probably be one of the eight records. However, this version was played on a particularly reedy oboe – to misquote Duke Ellington, ‘an ill woodwind that nobody blows good’. It was also on a looped tape. The second it finished, it started again.
After three hours, ‘Danny Boy’ was rapidly ceasing to be one of my favourite records.
Zach’s Bar Advert Donegal
At 8pm Zachs Bar was empty, apart from a barmaid. Zach was ‘out’. I sat nursing a lager and waited for an audience. Two of last night’s musicians entered and sat down silently to sip Guinness. The leader was a muscular balding man with the remains of his hair gathered in a ponytail. Three other solitaries drifted in and hid in the recesses of the bar. They were followed by the Italian/Korean couple from the hostel who gave a sympathetic wave.
The barmaid handed me the phone; it was Zach apologising that he wouldn’t be able to come to the show but wishing good luck. Decided that, come what may, the show must go on even if the audience barely existed. Started to make up again – this time there was no Sean or Traioch to explain that “it’s all right, he’s only an actor.” There was no mistaking the bug-eyed curiosity as I brushed on the mascara.
NJT at Zach’s Bar Donegal
Half an hour later another three people had arrived. The bar was large enough and empty enough to inhibit talking. There were only the sort of hushed murmurs that you might hear in a church. This show was not going to be easy.
Finally I signalled to the barmaid that I was ready to begin. She looked puzzled, then nodded and pressed a button on a CD player. ‘Mack the Knife’ suddenly boomed out and the pre-occupied drinkers looked up with a start. I crossed to the counter.
“Can you turn it off please?”
The barmaid flushed. “Oh, sorry. I thought you wanted some music on.”
I lit the candle on stage, announced ‘ the Time, the Place’, and started the second show.
“Great Heavens, how one wishes for a little money. This last week at the Terminus Hotel – an apt name – my bill has been left every night by my bedside and a fresh copy brought up with my croissants in the morning. You can imagine the state of my nerves. The French have not yet realised that the basis of all civilisation is unlimited credit. Empires fall only when they have to pay their bills. At that moment, the barbarians arrive. Still, I suppose it is only by not paying one’s bills that one can hope to live in the memory of the commercial classes.”
The actual performance itself was not too bad but the sheer emptiness beat me. It was like shouting into the Grand Canyon. Each epigram seemed to die on the air and the lack of response was so overwhelming that, now and again, I had that spacey feeling that I was somewhere else altogether. It ended and I took a bow while a muffled spattering of applause emerged from the encircling gloom, like a tap dripping into water.
It then dawned on me that there was no one to collect the money. Knelt down, rummaged in the rucksack for the lumberjack cap, then walked out amongst the audience. A few more bodies had arrived during the show and surprisingly there was about fifteen pounds in the hat when I returned to the stage. I’d been expecting more like fifteen pence. As I scraped off the make-up, a barman came up and placed a fresh pint down on the table.
“You know something. It took some bottle to do that.
And, in the teeth of all modesty, I can honestly add that, yes, indeed, it did! It was the first time in twenty years that I’d done a show with absolutely no back up whatsoever.
The audience at Zach’s Bar, Donegal
Drank with the Italian girl and Korean boy. The girl said:
“In Italy, our actors would think it was humiliating to have to collect their money themselves from the audience. Especially in a hat. Do you not think that you lose dignity?”
“Frankly, I abandoned dignity about twelve miles south of Letterkenny.”
We were joined by one of their friends, a young Australian, and the conversation turned to national differences. Mentioned that although I was English, I was also a native Scot. It turned out that our group consisted of a Polish/Italian, a Scottish/Englishman, a Welsh/Australian and a Chinese/Korean – sitting in an Irish pub.
By half past midnight, once again the music swirled and Zach’s was crammed. Where had they all come from? And where had they been when I needed them? Never mind; I felt pretty good anyway.
A girl stood up and the room hushed to hear ‘She Moved through the Fair’; it was a beautiful performance of that tolling bell of a song and the applause exploded. Zach himself joined me and signed the tour log. He explained that he was incredibly busy – the bar had only been open for six months. Looking at the crowd, I reckoned that he’d picked a real winner.
Midnight at Zach’s Bar, Donegal
Uncaringly strode back to the tent through the rain, slid into the sleeping bag and grinned with satisfaction. Two down, eighteen to go. Slept.
DAY SIX. THURSDAY
Somehow woke up at the unearthly hour of 6.30am with not too much of a hangover. More tea brewing and radio, then took the tent down. Although the sun was shining again, the ground was wet and trying to keep the gear dry was damn difficult. Decided that in future everything must be stored in plastic shopping bags. The rules of the road grow out of experience and if that meant that my immediate world from now on must be shrouded in Tesco bags, so be it.
Washed the breakfast dishes at the hostel. Andy came up to say goodbye.
“Have a good time in Westport.” I felt quite sad to leave.
Back along the road to town with Bosie once more trundling along behind. Ahead, two burly skinheads were walking towards me and, with a touch of uneasiness, I stood aside to let them pass. Then, from behind, came a shout.
Reluctantly I turned to face them and the burlier of the two spoke:
“I heard the show was great stuff last night. Good luck to you.”
Zack’s signature Donegal