THE BAY CAFÉ, ARAN ISLANDS
The ferry was hidden in the dockside area and I lost precious minutes hauling a recalcitrant Bosie over rough gravel and rail tracks and getting lost behind some giant gasholders. Turned a corner and spotted the ship. Although a small vessel, it had three slightly top heavy-looking decks. Each was crowded with foreign tourists; an international convention of kagoules. Nobody appeared to speak English.
A couple of dockside hands untied the mooring ropes and the ship slowly backed out into Galway harbour. The morning sun glinted on the sea spray as the prow of the ship pointed out to the west. Felt an undeniable quickening of the spirits and hummed a verse of ‘Song for Ireland’, a fabulous tune made famous by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners: ‘I stood by your Atlantic shore and sang a song for Ireland’. Felt great, standing braced on the deck, with a quarter of the shows already done, the money holding out, and now taking Oscar to the last outpost of Europe. Amid the cheeriness, noticed that a side wave had just drenched Bosie and I hastily removed it inside the ship’s tiny bar.
Galway city disappeared in a haze to the stern. To the north, the Connemara coastline was fringed with a ribbon of housing, while, to the south, the bare deserted Burren hills brooded over the Co Clare shore. As we sailed on, the headwind grew stronger and the sea choppier.
The trip had taken a lot longer than expected – two and a half hours – but, by 1pm, we finally drew closer to the three low-lying mounds of the Aran Islands. First, Inisheer, the smallest and reputedly the most beautiful, then Inishmaan, lastly Inishmore, the largest island and my destination. This was the resonating heart of the whole Celtic Twilight romance of Ireland, the world of John Millington Synge, of Yeats and Lady Gregory, of native Gaelic speakers, of the tough grind of wrenching a livelihood from bare rock, the world of ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’. And bloody expensive Aran sweaters.
The main port, in fact the only port, was called Kilronan and turned out to consist of about fifteen houses set on a slope overlooking a long jetty. The main sight on disembarking was a row of motor vans, each advertising trips around the island. Their owners descended on the tourists like swans on a bread loaf, the language switching from Gaelic to English with alacrity. Ahead of me, a Taiwanese businessman was expertly cut out from the herd. He grudgingly agreed to a tour and handed over a fiver while his brawny be-whiskered guide clapped him on the back.
“And it’s right now ye are and good man yourself, to be sure.”
The Taiwanese climbed into the van, his expression resembling the worried bewilderment of a kidnap victim.
Stopped and asked a seaman about tomorrow’s ferry to Co Clare. He gestured along the quayside.
“Yes, it’s a good little boat. It’s called the Happy Hooker. Leaves about eleven o’clock in the morning and goes to a place called Doolin. Just look around and you should find it. It parks up wherever it can find a space.”
Followed a trail of genuine cow dung along the roadway to the village. The centre of Kilronan consisted of a pub called the American Bar, a large shed advertising round-the-clock showings of the 1930’s documentary ‘Man of Aran’, a ten feet high Celtic cross on a plinth, and the Bay Café. The latter was a large solid-looking building in the midst of a patio garden and fronted by a flight of steep steps. Laboriously dragged Bosie up them, entered the café, and sat down in what would hopefully be the sixth venue.
Ate some bread and soup and then asked the waitress if the owner, Michael, was around. He emerged from the kitchen in a chef’s hat, striped apron and flour-covered hands. About middle thirties, enthusiastic and energetic, Michael was an immediately likeable man. He gave a wide beam of welcome.
“Ah, and it’s grand you’ve come. Kieran said you would. Now, I’ll show you your room.”
He signalled to a young man standing in the hallway.
“Darren, would you ever help the man up the stairs with that great big basket thing.”
Darren was English with a South London accent. Between us we hauled Bosie up to the first floor where Michael flung open the door to the guest room, proudly displaying the magnificent view out across the harbour, then plunging on with the conversation.
“Now, I’ve had an Idea. You’ll love it. Instead of doing your show tonight, can you do it tomorrow morning? I’ll tell you why. Tomorrow, there will be one hundred and twenty academics from the Galway University Summer School arriving here on a chartered ferry. They’re from all over the world – America, Japan, you name it. And it would be great, when they’re walking up from the jetty, if they see you doing your Oscar Wilde outside in the garden. And they’ll all come into the Bay Café to listen. There’ll be the press, the radio, the television, the lot, they’ll all be there.”
He paced the room, his eyes alight with excitement.
“I’ve got some of my own poems, so I’ll read them to the scholars and then I’ll introduce you. They’ll love it!”
I tried to stem the tide.
“But what if it rains?”
“Easy! We’ll bring them all inside the Café. They’ll be wanting some hot food after being on the sea.”
“But, Michael, the thing is, I’ve got to, absolutely must catch the ferry to Doolin tomorrow morning. There’s a booking in Dingle on Friday and if I miss the ferry it’ll throw everything out.”
“No worries! Look, the academics get here at ten o’clock, your ferry doesn’t leave till after eleven and the show lasts fifty minutes. What’s the problem?”
“But,” I demurred, “But what if things are late? I mean, it has been known to happen in Ireland.”
“Don’t trouble your head about it. I’ll have a fast car waiting at the door to take you to the Happy Hooker.”
“Well, we don’t need to go over the top. It’s only three hundred yards away. But, Michael….but…”
He looked at me with an irresistible grin of entreaty. A surge of ‘what the hell’ spirit came over me and I said: “Yeah, let’s go for it!”
He beamed even wider, shook my hand and seized some of the publicity material.
“I’ll have the fliers done in no time. Come on, Darren.”
They hared off down the stairs.
Sat on the bed and shook my head. What on earth had I agreed to? Unless I was very lucky and it rained, this would be an open-air performance and I hate open-air performances. Something always goes wrong. If it’s not a Force Twelve hurricane, then it’s a parachute display team accidentally landing on the stage. Even on a more mundane level, there is a genuine problem about acoustics. In an enclosed area, no matter how big, the slight echo gives you some idea of the necessary level of voice projection but, in the open, it is impossible to judge the right pitch. This time, into the bargain, my voice was up the creek anyway. Hmm? This was already the oddest detour of the trip so far; now it was becoming the oddest assignment as well. Still, on a purely practical level, it meant that I could rest the throat for a night. An air of fatalism settled in.
Went shopping. Apart from postcards, plastic leprechauns, Aran sweaters and the ilk, shopping on Inishmore seemed to be restricted to a Spar supermarket. Although it was undoubtedly a genuine supermarket, the staff, thank the Lord, behaved exactly as they would in a ‘Coronation Street’ corner shop – the lengthy chats about their customers’ health, the swapping of news items about mutual relatives, the dissection of last night’s TV – while the cash tills stood idle. A refreshingly anti-corporate values system. Strolled round Kilronan in the sunshine for half an hour, then went back to the Bay Café to crash out. A pity, because it would have been good to have explored Inishmore, but I really needed the rest.
Woke at 6pm but still felt lousy; the head cold had increased and the throat was not much better. Decided to avoid booze tonight at all costs. However, Michael had earlier promised a free meal in the café. It turned out to be a sublime Moules Mariniere but the portions were so enormous that I had to abandon it halfway through. Embarrassing when it was as free and as good as that. Had a bath, then lay on the bed watching dusk descend on Kilronan harbour.
At nine pm there was a knock on the door. It was Michael suggesting ‘a quiet drink’ at the pub. Why are drinks in Ireland always ‘quiet’? Despite a huge desire simply to continue to loll in bed and watch dusks descending on harbours, it would have been impossibly discourteous to have refused the offer.
The American Bar was full but fairly subdued with a mixture of islanders and tourists. Michael ordered a pint for himself and a coffee for me. He turned out to be great company; he had worked once in a bar in Camden Town, London, and had even heard of the Magdala Tavern. He produced the advertising handbill for tomorrow morning. It looked fine except for the bit that read ‘An Unofficial Event’.
“Won’t that put them off?”
Michael disagreed: “Don’t worry yourself about it at all. They’ll love it. Look, they’ve been in that university all week long now, raking over JM Synge and all that. But tomorrow is the highlight of their trip. It’ll be a gas. Oscar Wilde on Inishmore! It’ll be the last thing that they’ll expect!”
Walked down a lane behind the Bay Café with Michael to where Darren was tending a bonfire. Michael formally delegated the stage management of the show to him.
“I’m relying on you, Darren, and I know you’ll do a grand job.”
It felt like the night before Waterloo, and Napoleon appointing Marshal Ney to lead the Imperial Guard. The bonfire flames gave it even more of a dramatic echo.
Sat out on the café patio and smoked. The harbour lights trickled along the surface of the dark water and the stars glinted above. It was certainly a beautiful place for open-air theatre – but playable? Hmm? Went to bed.
DAY TWELVE. WEDNESDAY
8am. Flung back the bedroom curtains. It was a lovely sunny morning, damn it. No excuse for switching to an indoor venue. Down below, the islanders prepared for a new day; a few figures on the harbour wall struggled with fishing nets, half a dozen pony traps parked outside, the horses chewed the café bushes; the racks of postcards were placed in position. A normal Kilronan morning.
My voice was marginally better but was still hoarse and ragged. Found some cough mixture in the rucksack and swallowed a teaspoonful. Then retched into the washbowl and re-examined the cough mixture bottle – ‘Best before 1989’.
Went out onto the patio and helped Darren move the tables and benches into a rough semi-circle around the stage area. Spoke to him about the arrangements.
“It’s going to depend on fairly exact timing, Darren. I’ll be ready at nine thirty, the audience will arrive at ten, you and Michael will leaflet them and usher them into the garden, the show will start at five past ten, finish at ten to eleven, I’ll change and pack by five to eleven, we take a quick trot to the jetty and be ready to sail on the Happy Hooker at eleven ten. It should be pretty simple really.”
He was a genial young man, originally from Brighton but seemingly committed to Kilronan.
“I love working here. And a lot of the reason for it is because of Michael. He gets all these great ideas. Most people would just think about them then forget it. But Michael goes ahead and carries them out as well.”
I positioned the stage table and two chairs. An extra problem had arisen. Although the morning was pleasant, there was a reasonably strong wind blowing. Back in Letterkenny I’d had to abandon such fripperies as lighting and music. Now, most of the props had to go the same way – no candle and no photograph.
9 20am. Returned to the garden in full costume causing a bit of a stir amongst the small group of pony trap drivers on the far side of the hedge. White tie was not the usual garb in Inishmore at ten in the morning, if indeed at any time.
A young woman approached carrying a microphone and sound equipment. Assumed that Michael had been busy with the Press and rather smugly prepared myself for an interview. However, it turned out that she was attempting to do a broadcast about JM Synge. She looked at me dubiously.
“The programme is live and it starts at ten o’clock.”
“Oh.” I replied. “So does my show.”
She gave a grimace of annoyance:
“Oh, hell, I’ll have to find somewhere else to broadcast from. I can’t have Oscar Wilde as background noise. After all, these are the Aran Islands.”
I think it was at that moment that the first doubt crossed my mind. She was right. These people were coming here from all over the world to experience Celtic peasant simplicity, the ‘toiling and the moiling’ of the Playboy of the Western World, the gnarled fisher folk and gnarled sweaters, the weather-beaten, callous-knuckled noble savages of primeval Hibernia. And the first sight they would actually get would be of an elegant dandy dispensing smart-ass drawing-room witticisms in an excruciatingly refined English accent. It struck me that something might go wrong.
9 45am. Sat alone on the patio and watched a tourist ferry arrive. Then looked more closely. Damn it to hell! It was the academics! Rushed into the Bay Café and shouted:
“They’ve arrived early, for God’s sake! They’re here. Hurry!”
Michael shot out of the kitchen and started shouting orders. Darren, four waitresses and a uniformed sous-chef appeared from various quarters, grabbed up handfuls of leaflets and chased out of the building, rapidly followed by Michael.
The crocodile of professors, lecturers and general Synge fans was approaching along the jetty as Michael ran to the head of the column thrusting out some fliers. An organiser gestured him away, clearly displeased by the attempted hijacking of his flock. I ran back to the garden and prepared to deliver the first Oscar speech. The column came on, ignoring the proffered leaflets of the waitresses. A burly American organiser brushed aside the sous-chef. We were in trouble.
I muttered to a waitress:
“God, we’re going to lose them. All one hundred and bloody twenty of them.”
This called for desperate measures. I dashed out of the garden to the road and climbed on to the plinth of the Celtic Cross. Using every fibre of theatrical voice projection, I bellowed out across the crowd below:
“Oscar Wilde at ten o’clock! Unmissable value! In fact, FREE! ”
There were some uncertain smiles and hesitation among the first few rows until they were hustled onward by a scowling organiser. The column started to press on up the lane to the Spar supermarket. Imploringly, I kept yelling:
“Oscar Wilde! A chance of a lifetime! Starting now!”
Inexorably they passed, rank on rank, up the hill. I kept going: “Wilde! Now!”, then, as the last anouraked straggler disappeared beyond the hedge:
“Get your bleedin’ Oscar Wilde here, you bastards.”
The sous-chef, hat askew, looked across and shrugged forlornly. Michael wandered up and silently shook his head.
I glanced at my watch – it was ten past ten. In a mood of grim determination, I announced:
“Right, there is no way that I’m leaving the Aran Islands without performing the show. Fuck the begrudgers and let’s get on with it.”
Michael – a man after my own heart – perked up. There was literally no time left to lose. The waitresses and the sous-chef were ordered to sit and listen.
I declaimed: “One should not play Narcissus to a photograph”, blithely ignoring the fact that, with the abandonment of the props, there was now no photograph to which Narcissus could be played. The show was on.
“I did earn quite a lot of money as a reviewer of books. Not for long, I freely confess. My first editor appeared to consider my reviews to be a little too acerbic. I remember writing about one of Charles Dickens’ books: ‘One would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell’. I remember that distinctly rubbed the nerve ends of Victorian sensibility. There are two ways of disliking poetry. One is to dislike it and the other is to read Alexander Pope. My relationship with this editor ended rather abruptly. He was a rather bad poet who wished to become Poet Laureate and kept complaining loud and vigorously that there was a conspiracy of silence against him. My advice to him was to join it.”
Thankfully, the wind was blowing from behind so that the words floated out over the garden and beyond towards the harbour. At first, the only audience were the press-ganged kitchen staff and the row of pony trap drivers silently gazing from the jetty road. Their horses, after initial curiosity, returned to munching the hedge. Then, slowly, a small group gathered by the gate. A single tourist, then a couple and so on until there were about twenty people clustered in the entrance. There were even a couple of laughs.
On the performance front, though, things were not going so well. Had to raise my voice as an ancient van crashed its gears coming round the corner eight feet behind me. There was a real strain on the throat, already ragged from shouting at the academics. Also, the lighting of the cigarettes – the one indispensable prop – was proving difficult because of the wind. The only way was to raise my jacket and hold the flame virtually in my armpit. This worked, but it displayed a social etiquette more usually observed in Newfoundland trawlermen than in nineteenth century aesthetes.
Then, just as I reached the tragic ‘Oscar in Jail’ sequence, I spotted the arrival of the Happy Hooker in the distance. Shit! I could not miss it.
Relentlessly the speed of the delivery quickened; comic and tragic timing were ditched in the headlong tumble of words. I hit the final section flat out, breathlessly gabbled out the last lines, then trotted out to the audience with the outstretched cap. Amazingly, given the circumstances and the atrocious performance, everyone put in at least some coins, even the pony trap drivers.
Then it all turned into a panicky blur as I cleared the stage, struggled out of the evening dress, re-packed, cleared the bedroom, strapped up the luggage, wished goodbye to Michael and the kitchen staff and briskly strode down the jetty road with Darren. Bosie bounced along to the unusually fast pace, then skidded through the cow dung. We arrived at the Happy Hooker.
With time to spare, of course. I had forgotten about Irish timekeeping. At the gangplank I turned to bid farewell to Darren.
“That was something else, man. You should have seen what was happening behind you. There was an old farmer there. He hadn’t got a clue what was going on – he was just gaping over the wall at Oscar Wilde. And then his cow looked over as well. You know something? I’ve lived on the Aran Islands for two years and that was the most surreal morning I’ve ever had.”
Next week on Tuesday, March 12 – Onwards to Listowel – from Clare to there.