The Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare
THE JOHN B KEANE BAR, LISTOWEL – PART ONE
Assumed wrongly that the Happy Hooker had been named after an inebriated prostitute – but ‘hooker’ turned out to be the local name for a small fishing boat. Sat in the stern next to Bosie and among over fifty other passengers jammed onto the vessel. On a rough day, this might have been a nightmare trip; there would have been no avoiding the flying vomit. Today, though, was glorious with bright sunshine and gentle waves. Inishmore fell away behind us and we sailed on towards the middle island of Inishmaan. I lifted my jacket against the wind and lit a cigarette. The woman sitting next to me stared hard then said:
“Oh, you’re Oscar, aren’t you? I didn’t realise it was you till you did that.”
There was a mutter of recognition around the group. An American with a strong resemblance to Allen Ginsberg nodded across to me:
“An interesting portrayal. I didn’t know that Wilde was an Aran Islander.”
I explained about the tour. By now, I could recite it in my sleep.
Having dropped off some passengers, we pulled out of Inishmaan and moved on to the smallest island, Inisheer. The harbour was overlooked by a small ruined fort (reputedly one of the ones that Cromwell knocked abaht a bit). Then we continued along the coast to where the wrecked hulk of a ship lay on its side on the rocks.
Suddenly it struck me where I had seen it before. It was shown on the opening credits of the TV programme ‘Father Ted’. So this was the original ‘Craggy Island’? On the easternmost tip of land, on an utterly empty stretch of rock, stood a man and his dog, both staring intently into the water and as immovable as statues. They were so still that I began to wonder if they were statues? Maybe the artistic result of the East Galway Bypass or something?
As we left the lee of the islands, the swell of the waves grew much stronger. We were catching the full unprotected force of the Atlantic, with spray bursting over the sides at regular intervals. Sea water was now to be an extra ingredient of Bosie’s already revolting interior. It wasn’t going to improve the look of the dinner jacket much either.
Ahead to the east were the Cliffs of Moher – sheer and immense and broodingly poised to crush unwary ships. They were the cruellest looking cliffs I’d ever seen.
Sailed into the port of Doolin at one o’clock. On the small map provided by the ferry company, Doolin was represented as being roughly the same size as Galway. It wasn’t. In fact, arriving by sea, it seemed to comprise of one house, two sheds and a hot dog stall. It struck me that this might not be an easy place from which to hitch.
The Happy Hooker moored up against the tiny jetty and we queued to disembark. Dragged Bosie to the narrow gangplank and tried to shove it down to dry land. It wedged fast on the non-slip ridges. A sailor approached and announced:
“There’s a right way to do this and there’s a wrong way to do this. And you’ve chosen the wrong way”.
He called to another deck hand and they shouldered Bosie ashore. A strand of seaweed dangled forlornly from its dripping wheels. One of my boots squelched uncomfortably from the half pint of Atlantic inside it.
Soggily limped off the jetty and gazed around downtown Doolin. I couldn’t even see a road out of the place. In the far distance there was the western edge of the Burren – a desolate area of moon-scaped bare rock. Even Cromwell had abandoned the Burren, complaining that, as there were no trees there, it was damned difficult to hang anybody.
Inquired at the ferry company Portakabin as to methods of transport.
“Are there any buses? Trains? Donkeys?”
The woman at the counter looked blank.
“Not from Doolin, no. You might get a bus in Lisdoonvarna. It’s about five miles away.”
It seemed that there was no choice but to walk across the Burren. Located a small lane going east and set out to haul Bosie through Co Clare. However, as usual when things look at their grimmest, help arrived. After a mile and a half, a car zipped past then slowed to a halt. A man climbed out and waved at me. It was the Allen Ginsberg American.
“Hi, Mr Wilde. Where are you going?”
“Oh, thanks. I’m meant to be going south to the Tarbert ferry. But I think that I can only get there by going to Lisdoonvarna in the north.”
“OK, we’re going through Lisdoonvarna. Get in.”
I squashed into the backseat underneath Bosie and the American introduced me to his Japanese wife in the driving seat. They were on a touring holiday and were experienced travellers.
“We’ve been to seventy three countries so far.”
It also turned out that he’d once owned a factory in the English Midlands – in Redditch, of all places.
After a mile, we got lost. One of the obstacles to travel in Ireland were the signposts. Although plentiful, they were given over almost entirely to advertising. On reaching a crossroads, we found that the signpost had eight directions on it – three hotels, two B&Bs, a Stone Age monument, a golf course, and a sign back to Doolin. We chose the lane that pointed roughly north-east towards Lisdoonvarna. Two miles further on, we drove into a farmyard. Returning to the crossroads, we decided to take the least likely route – to the south – on the assumption that Murphys Law was in operation. And, of course, it was.
Arrived in Lisdoonvarna at 3pm and waved farewell. Five minutes later, their car returned and the American reached out of the window to hand over my lumberjack cap.
“You shouldn’t leave that behind, Oscar. It’s your main source of income.”
They roared off again.
Looked around the main square of the town, then bought ham, tomatoes and bread at a grocery. Sat on a bench and started making sandwiches with the Swiss Army knife. I knew Lisdoonvarna only from Christy Moore’s song of the same name, a chirpy ballad claiming the involvement of an unlikely multitude of visitors to its famous music festival – everyone from Arab Sheiks to Shergar. However, today the town lazed back in the sleepy afternoon sun. A couple of old gentlemen ambled across to another bench and settled to watch a dog rolling on its back in the middle of the road. It was difficult to imagine anything happening here.
The promised bus pulled into the square. Boarded it and we moved off to the south again. The bus drove straight back along the road that I’d just hitched and then directly down to Doolin harbour. Bloody hell! The ferry woman had stitched me up. There had been no reason to go to Lisdoonvarna at all. Still, at least now I was aiming in the right geographical direction.
Ten miles further and we pulled into a large car park at the Cliffs of Moher Visitors Centre. The driver turned and announced that the bus was stopping for an hour’s rest. This was a real nuisance; I’d got to get across the Shannon and reach Listowel by nightfall. I couldn’t afford to hang around looking at views, no matter how picturesque they were. Retrieved Bosie from the luggage deck underneath the coach and walked back to the road. Ahead, to the south, was the lovely Liscannor Bay and the town of Lehinch.
The name of Lehinch brought back another memory of the Seventies. I’d forgotten where I’d heard the story but had been assured that it was true. Back then, an old lady had died in Boston, Massachusetts, and had left enough money in her will to fund her last wish that she be buried near her birthplace on the Aran Islands. In those days, the Arans could only be reached by rowing boat, so the undertaker in charge hired a helicopter to transit the coffin after its arrival at Shannon Airport. He had supervised the attachment of the coffin by slings to the underside of the helicopter.
However, soon after take-off, something went wrong, the slings snapped, and the coffin and corpse fell over five hundred feet into a Co Clare village. Once more, the undertaker hastened to take charge and the wreckage and body were collected. The corpse was transferred to a further coffin and brought to Lehinch. This time, there were lengthy trials before eventually the helicopter and its burden took off from the Lehinch Golf Club carpark for the new transit. The undertaker, relieved to have restored order, retired for a quiet pint.
An hour later, he received news that the coffin had again slipped its moorings and was now in the sea off the Cliffs of Moher. He contacted the Kilronan lifeboat but the crew refused to put to sea with the understandable justification that no life was in danger. Meanwhile, back in the helicopter, the navigator, attempting to pinpoint the spot for a passing Galway trawler, dropped into the sea. He could find nothing – neither could the skin divers, spotter planes, under-water TV cameras or the Galway fishing fleet who the undertaker deputed to the search. One boat did report finding her but it turned out to be a dead sheep. Ah well, sic gloria in transit.
Although it was still a sunny day, the wind up on the cliffs was piercing – God knows what it would be like in the winter. Struggled into the Oscar shirt, tie and jacket and shivered against the chill. Lit a cigarette. Strange thing about cigarettes – despite the obvious health warnings, when you are on the road, they provide a punctuation mark of relaxation on the journey; in fact, a real source of comfort and companionship.
At four pm, a van stopped and a young Irishman swung open the passenger door.
“Milltown Malbay do all right?” he asked.
“Fine.” Anywhere out of that sodding wind would be fine. We drove on beyond Lehinch. The coast road was littered with even more new housing than Connemara had been. However, I couldn’t agree entirely with Brendan and Leemy’s condemnation of it. The last time I’d been in Co Clare had been twenty five years ago when the depopulation of the West had been at its height – in some areas, there had been more abandoned cottages than inhabited ones. The result had been undoubtedly beautiful but there had been a mournful bitterness underlying it all. Now, although the ‘Ponderosa’s were destroying that beauty, they were also bringing a new liveliness to the West. The melancholy was being bleached away.
Waved off the driver and settled to hitch again. The third vehicle to pass stopped. The Wildean evening dress seemed to be working at last. The new driver was a sales rep. from Limerick who regarded my costume with amusement.
“Is it a fancy dress party you’re going to?”
I launched into the umpteenth explanation.
“Ah, so it’s a sort of fancy dress, then” he continued. “I had a friend who was famous for gate-crashing. Every weekend, he’d do it. One party he gate-crashed was a fancy dress do. But he didn’t realise it, until he was inside. The host came up and asked him what he’d come as. My friend said he’d come disguised as a guest.”
Got stuck in Kilkee, after a gloriously panoramic dawdle along the coast road villages of Quilty, Kilmurry and Doonbeg. Kilkee was also pretty but there was no time to appreciate it. It was now six o’clock. I was miles away from Listowel and still had to cross the Shannon. There was something very disheartening about being so far away from the destination this late in the day. And the hitching just wasn’t working – vehicle after vehicle passed without a flicker of interest. Decided to hedge my bets and stood by a bus stop while keeping the thumb poised for cars.
It was a bus that arrived first. As I climbed aboard, the driver smiled in recognition and I realised, with some chagrin, that it was the same bus that I had abandoned back at the Cliffs of Moher. However, with a jerk of delight, I discovered that it was going all the way to Listowel. I could relax.
We drove along the north bank of the ‘broad, majestic’ Shannon to Kilrush, a fair-sized town surrounding a hideous electricity plant, then continued down to the ferry at Killiner. The Shannon was at least half a mile wide at this spot and we watched the vessel making its slow voyage across from the far bank.
Once the bus had parked on board, I climbed off and bought a coffee at the small ferry snack bar. The bus driver joined me and we gazed out at the evening sun glittering down the river. An American car driver came up and whistled disbelievingly at the size of the bus.
“How in tarnation do you get a thing that big round these crazy Irish roads?”
“Skill and luck.” replied the bus driver.
The American laughed “I landed here just this afternoon at Shannon Airport. It’s some culture shock. Where I come from, we’ve got eight lane highways. Honest to God, we’ve got sidewalks wider than your roads.”
The bus driver sucked his pipe and said innocently:
“Oh, yes, the U.S.A. I’ve heard that it’s a big country. It’s the one that’s just north of Mexico, isn’t it?”
We landed at the tiny port of Tarbert and drove off into Co Kerry. I was the only passenger left on board.
Arrived at Listowel at 8.15pm and alighted into the large but deserted market square. Looked around for some sign of life – the door of a church opened and a group of elderly worshippers emerged. Approached them and asked if they knew of a camping site.
One man replied: “There’s nowhere here that’s suitable. But there is a hostel that’s just opened. It’s called the Lumberjack.”
Followed his directions up a street and spotted the signboard above a pub. The barmaid quickly agreed to my request for a room.
“That’ll be nine pounds for the night. You don’t mind sleeping in the Cedar Room, do you?”
I wondered whether there was any reason why I should mind, but replied that I didn’t. She led the way up the back stairs and past a row of doors marked ‘Oak Room’, ‘Elm Room’, ‘Sycamore Room’, till she opened the door of the ‘Cedar Room’. It appeared to be a small cell crammed to capacity by two bunk beds. I turned to her.
“Are you sure this isn’t the Bonsai Room?”
She remained blank faced. I was too tired to hassle about it though – and I still had to find a venue for tomorrow. Handed her the money, dumped Bosie, and returned downstairs to the bar. Over a pint, I explained the Oscar tour to a wizened toothless man hunched over the counter. He gave a hoarse cackle and said:
“You’re totally feckin’ mad.”
That seemed a bit of a nerve coming from somebody who looked like a reject from a David Lynch movie, but I persevered. He suggested that I went to ‘John B’s, the same suggestion that had come from Michaela. It seemed like a good bet.
John B Keane’s Bar had a small frontage and an A frame notice board outside in the street. It had good news and bad news. The good news was that they performed theatre in the pub; in fact a show was due to start in ten minutes. The bad news was that there was another show playing here tomorrow night at 8pm, precisely the time when I wanted to do Oscar. Still, I reasoned, they were theatre-conscious, so somebody might have a suggestion.
I went inside to the crowded bar and bought a pint. An elderly lady ushered me to the one remaining space on a bench; she muttered:
“I’m the bouncer tonight.”
The pub lights dimmed and the performer emerged. He was a young fresh-faced man with a Kerry accent and an infectious laugh and his show consisted of forty minutes of gently good-humoured chat about Kerry and its inhabitants. The audience loved it. It was difficult to understand the local references but there were some good jokes. He finished to a roar of applause.
I was surprised to find that the performer was also the barman. Choosing a moment when he was not serving orders, I tumbled out the usual Oscar spiel and the request for a performance spot. He looked troubled.
“I can’t really do it. You see, we already have a show on tomorrow night.”
With an edge of desperation, I pleaded:
“I don’t mind doing it at 6pm.”
He mused for a moment, then I think that a glimmer of compassion for a fellow performer struck him, and he said yes. Thank the Lord for that, I breathed. Six pm was a dreadful start time but I was far too fagged out to try anywhere else. The performer’s name was Billy and the ‘bouncer’ turned out to be his mother, Mary. He introduced me to an old man sitting beside the hearth. I didn’t catch his name but he had a watchful air of coiled repose and one of those grand Irish faces that would grace a Cardinal.
Retired to a corner with another pint – the last task of the day had been achieved, thank the Good Lord. The Good Lord was coming in for a fairly heavy bout of gratitude today, one way and another.