89th Post: 6th IRELAND. 1st Westport – Pooh Sticks and St Patrick

NJT reading ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ near the Lake Isle of Innisfree 2014

MATT MOLLOY’S BAR, WESTPORT – PART ONE

Stood at the bus stop and checked the time table. After looking at the map earlier, I’d worked out that the journey to Westport was about 120 miles across mostly country roads. Here was a clear and justifiable case for minor cheating. It was a devil of a long way and I was not feeling on top form. The bus itself was going to Galway and the nearest stopping place to Co Mayo was called Charlestown; from there, it would be a matter of linking up with a connection.

The timetable was a litany of grass-stalk-chewingly rural bus stops:

Collooney/Johnny Mac’s;

Creeslough/the Car Park;

Falcarragh/the Phone Box;

Kilmacrennan/the Hill Top; etc.

Sat on the wall opposite the Garda Station and had a cigarette. There were a clutch of international flags flying over the Abbey Hotel: American, French, German, Italian, Japanese, the EU, etc, but no Union Jack. In fact, throughout Ireland I never saw a single Union Jack. Considering the political situation I suppose that this was not surprising. However, one flag – probably the Spanish – was an almost exact replica of the M.C.C. colours at Lords Cricket Ground. Doubted whether this was the impression intended by the more passionate Republicans.

Caught the bus in the company of the two musicians from Zachs, who were travelling light with just a guitar and a banjo. They were pleasant enough but still utterly silent – men who let their music speak for them.  The road climbed a hill going south overlooking Donegal bay where the sun glittered on the wooded islets and tiny peninsulas below.  A few miles further on, there was a field with about a dozen very large bales of grain, each trussed in a shiny black bin-liner cover. They stretched in a regular line about six feet apart from each other. A big white-painted letter appeared on the end of each bale. Along the line, the message read:

 ‘F    U    C    K      O    F    F       C     R     O     W     S    !’

Portora Royal School

   Crossed over the estuary of the River Erne, then down a lethally steep hill into the pretty village of Ballyshannon. For the first time this trip I was in striking distance of a genuine Wildean echo. At the other end of Lower Lough Erne was Enniskillen where Oscar had attended the Portora Royal School roughly around 1870.

NJT at Portora Royal School 2014

   The only comment that I could remember him making about it was ‘I have forgotten about my schooldays. I have a vague impression that they were detestable.’  Oddly enough, the playwright Samuel Beckett was also an ex-pupil.

On through the flat dull-looking seaside resort of Bundoran, under the intimidatingly skull-like Dartry Mountains, then past Drumcliffe church yard – the burial place of W. B. Yeats.

As the journey unfolded I was finding it impossible not to think about the Irish literary heritage.  It wasn’t just Oscar, it was all the rest of them. Ireland’s influence on twentieth century writing in English was astounding. From a population consisting of less than the population of the Home Counties, it has provided – admittedly very arguably – the greatest poet of the century, W. B. Yeats; the greatest novelist, James Joyce; the greatest wit, Wilde; and the greatest polymathic playwright, Bernard Shaw. Just for flavouring, you could throw in a couple more Nobel Literature Prize Winners, Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett.  And that’s only to start with.

NJT at Yeats’ grave 2014

 So it was that I looked at Yeats’ graveyard with respect. I’d always liked the possibly apocryphal story that the writer Oliver Gogarty had told about Yeats. He said Yeats had been phoned by an old friend called Smiler.

“Senator Yeats” said Smiler “Through you and to you a great honour has been paid to our country and to yourself. I have just received a cable from Stockholm telling me that you have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a remarkable day for the Irish nation and for the Hibernian diaspora in many a far-flung land. It is as if the harp of Blind Rafferty had been restrung to herald a …..”

Yeats interrupted “For Jaysus sake, Smiler, pull yourself together.   How much?”

However, the bus driver cast a cold eye on it and we passed by.  A fifteen-minute stop in the bustling town of Sligo, then on to the south-west. The musicians climbed off at a village called Tubbercurry that sounded vaguely like an Indian restaurant.

Arrived in Charlestown at midday. It was a crossroads village notable mostly for the very wide streets and for a 10 foot high metal sculpture of three sheep standing at the centre. Enquired at a grocery as to the possibility of transport to the next objective, Castlebar.

“No, there isn’t any. Your only chance is to get a taxi.”

For thirty miles? No way. Damn. Had a meal at Mulligan’s Café and reluctantly concluded that the attempt at cheating had been foiled by the Connaught bus companies. It was back to the thumb again. Walked to the western edge of Charlestown.

After a dispiriting hour failing to attract a lift from a procession of tourist cars and a slow cortege of tractors, finally a car did stop. It was a middle-aged Dubliner and his West Indian girlfriend. I crammed into the back seat with Bosie wedged on top and one of its wheels jammed in my ear. Bosie was about twelve inches too long for the average car.

Conversation was reduced to a minimum by rattling engine noises so the woman played a country and western tape instead. ‘The Streets of Laredo’ drowned out the din as we drove further into Co Mayo. That it was Co Mayo was repeatedly emphasised by dozens of red and green flags adorned with the words ‘Up Mayo’ flying from every lamp post and tree. The explanation for this explosion of regional fervour was that Mayo had reached the semi-finals of the All Ireland Football League. They had been narrowly denied the Championship for about seven years and this time they were expected to win.

It reminded me of a story about the writer, Brendan Behan, who, although a Dublin man, liked to wear a Co Down football rosette which read ‘Up Down’.

They dropped me in the town of Castlebar; where I thanked them but turned down their kindly offer of a lift on to Westport. There was a good reason for not arriving in Westport tonight for, if I did so, inevitably there would be drinking at the pub. Four solid nights of boozing had taken their toll already and I needed a rest and an evening of quiet reflection maybe tempered by a beaker of cocoa. Also I had what seemed to be the start of a slight cold – an occasional but ominous sniffle. Camping out would have to be abandoned for a while but a B&B was out of the question. Despite the earnings from the hat, the kitty was not looking good and I had to stop the money haemorrhage. A hostel would be the best bet, cheap but dry, and also a virtually a new experience. I couldn’t remember ever having stayed inside a hostel before. Back in the hippie Sixties it was regarded as infra dig.

Looked around vaguely at the main street and a short, smartly dressed old man smiled up at me.

“Are you lost, now, son?”

“I’m looking for a Tourist Office.”

“Sure, that’s not a problem. I’ll show you.”

He led me down the street while pointing out various buildings.

“You see the Kingsbridge Inn on the next corner? That was where General Humbert stayed when the French Army invaded back in nineteen seventy eight.”

“Er….wasn’t it seventeen ninety eight?”

“Ah, yes, you’re right now. It was seventeen ninety-eight. It was the year of the Great Rising. And General Humbert’s cavalry stayed in that video shop over there.”

We halted outside the Information Office and he offered me his hand.

“And now you can say that you’ve met a Castlebar man” he ended proudly.

The motto of Castlebar was ‘The Friendly Town’ – I think they got it right.

The 1798 Memorial, Castlebar

 A girl in the office directed me round the corner to a hostel where I rang the bell and waited. Eventually a man of about fifty with thick black round spectacles unlocked the door and led me to his office.

“That’ll be fourteen pounds for a single room or eight pounds fifty for the dormitory”.

I needed sleep so it would have to be a single. With laboured ceremony, the man lifted down a ledger and instructed me to write details of birth, country, address, reasons for travel, etc., etc. Did so and handed over fourteen pounds. He scrutinised my writing, pressed a sheet of blotting paper on top and, replacing the ledger, said:

“Welcome to the hostel”.

We waited in silence.  Then, as if suddenly remembering, he added:

“Would you like to have a key to the room?”

“Well, it might come in handy.”

He stroked his chin and looked anxiously at me.

“That would be five pounds deposit.”

Followed him up the stairs to the room. It was austere to the point of bleakness, consisting of a bunk bed, a table and a chair. The only decorations on the walls were No Smoking signs. The place seemed to be a fanatically anti-nicotine establishment; with even a sign stapled on the front of the door under the room number. More signs loomed down the corridor like Orwellian mind control logos. Still, my uppermost thought was that the room was not a tent and I unbuckled Bosie and spread out the basic necessities. Having discovered that the shower water was cold, crashed out for a siesta.

 Re-awoke at 5pm, sat up and hit my head on the unaccustomed bunk bed above. Acclimatising to hostel life might take some time. Dressed and went for a walk around Castlebar.

It had a slightly unusual style for Ireland; it had been a garrison town and the Georgian buildings gave it a staid, rather English atmosphere – it could have fitted quite easily into Wiltshire. There was a small park in the centre called the Mall and according to the tourist leaflet it had been a private cricket pitch for the Lords Lucan. Obviously an unfortunate family, what with losing their cricket pitch, murdered nannies and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

In one corner of the Mall there was a memorial column to the 1798 Rising and beside it the grave of John Moore. He had been one of the leaders, had been made ‘President of Connaught’ for about three weeks, then had been captured and died in jail. A few years ago a TV drama series had been made about the affair called the ‘Year of the French’, based on the book by Thomas Pakenham. And, indeed, you couldn’t avoid the French around Castlebar. Their general, Humbert, seemed to be everywhere – the Humbert Trail, the Humbert School, the Humbert Information Technology Centre, etc.  (Vladimir Nabokov might have been pleasantly, if mistakenly, surprised by it all).

It had turned into a cloudy evening in that no-mans-land hour between six o’clock and seven. The shops and offices shut, the evening activities not yet begun and just the occasional group of faintly menacing teenagers hanging about. It was an hour of the day that I’d never liked.

Walked back along Ellison Street – the main drag – and stopped at McGoldrick’s Bar. Drank coffee and perforce watched golf on the TV.  I may be in a minority but I find golf to be the dreariest spectator sport in existence. Still, it was in keeping with the self-imposed principle of ‘No Joy’ this evening. Chained-smoked in anticipation of the hostel embargo later.

Crossed the road to the hostel and spotted the proprietor leaning in the entrance drawing deeply on a cigarette. Hmm?

He gave me some unintelligible advice on heating the shower as I retreated upstairs.

Lay back on the bunk and planned ahead.  Westport was fixed. But Clifden? That could turn into a real bugger. Slept at midnight.

  

DAY SEVEN. FRIDAY

Woke at 7am and wandered down to the kitchen to make some tea. The kitchen door was locked so I returned to the bedroom and brewed up on the Calor gas camping stove, thereby, I suspect, breaking a few hundred hostel rules. Repacked Bosie.

Down to the now opened kitchen, where the proprietor sat hunched over a newspaper. He nodded good morning.

“So you’re off then.”

“Yes, I’m travelling to Westport today.”

“Westport, eh. Be sure that you go to Matt Molloy’s.”

“Actually, I’m playing there this evening.”

“Ah.   The music, is it?”

“No, theatre.”

“Theatre, now.” he pondered for a moment. “I was sorry to hear that Eamonn McCann was dead.”

That came as a bit of a shock. I remembered Eamonn McCann. He was a Catholic politician from the Sixties and, in my opinion, a man of common sense and humanity.

“Yes, I’m sorry to hear that as well.”   We paused out of respect.

He snapped his fingers.  “No, I’m wrong.  It was Donal McCann who died.”

Sipping his tea, he continued:

“I’m in the writing game myself. Have you heard of William Dodds?”

The name did ring a bell. I racked my brains. Was he a theatre director?  A rugby player?

“He was hanged in London in 1605.”

The proprietor looked at me as if I had knotted the rope.

“He was a lovely writer. And he used all them really long words. Jaysus, it was out with the thesaurus all day with him.”

We walked to the front door and he handed back the key deposit with a quote from Jonathan Swift. I shouldered the rucksack with a quip from Bernard Shaw. Where else but in Ireland?……

Walked up Ellison Street under a solid drizzle. I’d also picked up a minor cough – could this be the start of a real cold? Whatever it was, I didn’t think hitching would cure it.  Caught the bus.

  

Arrived in Westport an hour later and immediately liked the look of the place. Passed a café with a sign outside. ‘Breakfast served 10.30am till midday’ – a refreshingly robust contempt for early rising. Another café called ‘Ring for Coffee’ was slightly more permissive and had actually opened.  Had the Full Irish Breakfast; bacon, eggs, sausage, fried bread, chips, black pudding, white pudding, mushrooms, half a loaf of bread and butter, toast, marmalade and tea. It appeared that the ‘Oscar Wilde Tour of Ireland’ was going to be fuelled by pure cholesterol.

A small river ran through the centre of Westport bordered by parapets and tree lined pavements called the Malls. Sat on a bench in South Mall and tried out the mobile phone. Somehow the signal had switched from EIRCELL to IRISH DIGIFONE and every line I tried was blocked. Absolutely no response at all. In Derry, at least I could reach London; in Donegal, at least I could reach Galway; in Mayo, I couldn’t even reach the operator.

Found a telephone box and tried a landline to EIRCELL. Their advice was that the mobile would only pick up the strongest signal; I tried their suggestion of ringing UKCELL but, being an international call, the supply of coins ran out before I’d even made a dent in the negotiations.  Damn it to hell and back again.  I sat and swore impotently at the piece of black plastic. A passing couple grinned, presumably at the sight of what must have appeared as a bedraggled vagrant cursing the world of hi- tech.

The Bridge, Westport

 Crossed over the bridge to the North Mall post office and queued for postage stamps – assuming that lo-tech communications still worked?  Glanced out of the window, then gazed in bewilderment. A single file of uniformed soldiers with cocked rifles was walking down North Mall. Just behind them was a jeep with more troops.  One of the soldiers knelt by the river parapet and scanned his gun across the tranquil stream. The others fanned out and took up firing positions. What on earth? Then I noticed a security van parked outside the bank next door. It seemed that bank robbery was really frowned on in Westport.

Had a few hours to kill before arriving at the venue and started strolling round town. Came across a small bust of Major John McBride.

McBride had been executed after the 1916 Easter Rising. He also had been the man who had married Maud Gonne, the love of WB Yeats’ life, thereby throwing Yeats into an almost lifelong depression but also, as a by-product, creating some of the greatest love poetry ever written. In the crabbed but devastating revenge of the writer, Yeats had condemned McBride for all posterity as a ‘drunken vainglorious lout’. Sobering to find that all that white-hot passion should boil down to this pigeon shit-stained bit of bronze next to a ‘No Parking’ sign.

Major John McBride, Westport

Walked further along the riverside till I reached a wooden bridge and played Pooh sticks with cigarette butts for half an hour.

Then on to the Octagon, the main square of Westport, dominated by a tall stone column topped by a figure of St Patrick. The statue presumably was in deference to the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick a few miles outside town. Rested on a bench at the foot of the column and suddenly recalled that I was doing a show tonight. Started to mutter a line run through as an aide memoire. The couple at the other end of the bench shuffled uncomfortably then moved off.

Realised that anyone watching my progress this morning might have questioned my continuing sanity: ‘first, he was swearing at a defenceless mobile, then he was playing Pooh sticks, then he sat under St Patrick and started talking to his shopping basket’.

Still, it’s an excellent way of getting a bench to oneself.

St Patrick’s statue, The Octagon, Westport

NEXT WEEK on Tuesday Feb 19 – the Co Mayo Football Flag Incident.

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