Lakes of Killarney
THE KINGDOM BAR, KILLORGLIN – PART ONE
At first, there was only intermittent drizzle flecking the bus windows as we descended from the hills of the Dingle Peninsula. Although it had ceased by the time we pulled into Tralee bus station, it seemed a menacing forerunner of what might come. The gathering clouds somehow affected my mood. The arrow of energy that had projected me from Derry to Dingle had become blunted. For one thing, I was not sure of what to do next. The only contact between here and Dublin was Jenny in Cork City. The finances, although still nose above water, could not stretch to luxury in any form whatsoever. And only eight shows had been completed.
A small puddle of pessimism formed. Still, I’d never considered that pessimism was a bad thing in itself. I knew all about the half pint full/half pint empty syndrome but, in my experience, the optimist was always running foul of unexpected disaster, while the pessimist was usually the recipient of unexpected cheer.
Sat on a kerb stone, leaned against Bosie and waited for the Killarney bus connection. The town was awash with the Rose of Tralee Festival and, presumably as part of the celebrations, an open-backed lorry suddenly swerved into the bus station. There was a full traditional Irish band on board pounding away at a reel. A youth wearing a ginger fright wig leapt to his feet and began a wild jig around the bus shelters. After some minutes, he began to wind down into a parody of weariness while the band teased him by playing faster and faster, ending with a flurry of pipes and fiddles. From all around the bus station came a wave of spontaneous applause. My spirits rose. You couldn’t stay down for long in Ireland.
At 12.30pm, the bus left on the short journey to Killarney. Debated what to do? Finally took out a coin and flipped it. Killarney, heads; Killorglin, tails. It was tails. The Diceman Cometh!
As we approached Killarney the immediate countryside was flat but the huge hilly bulk of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks loomed above the town to the south. So did the rainstorm. As I disembarked to find the Killorglin bus, the downpour descended. The waiting passengers huddled together under the inadequate shelter and grumbled in a pan-Europe babble of languages as I unceremoniously rammed Bosie in amongst them. To make matters worse, the Killorglin bus was heavily over-booked and a drenched bus official was forced to commandeer a transit van to accommodate the excess queue. The van had no capacity for luggage, so the driver had no alternative but to provide a full seat for Bosie. Sitting there, strapped into a seat belt, flanked by two Swedes in anoraks, there was something almost human about the damn thing.
After following the road beside the River Laune westwards for twelve miles, the bus turned left across a wide bridge, then up a steep main street into the hill-top centre of Killorglin. By now, I was acutely aware of which amenities were essential in a new town and, on a cursory inspection, Killorglin appeared to have them: an information office, a string of possible performance pubs, a cheap Full Irish Breakfast outlet, a public convenience and a bench to act as head office.
The rain eased slightly as I ducked into the information office to inquire about campsites. A teenage girl behind the counter spread out a map of the town and pointed.
“Yes, there’s one just outside town on the Killarney road. You walk over the bridge, then turn right and keep on walking. When you reach the Liebegs factory, you’ll know that you missed the campsite half a mile behind you.”
Looked at her face for traces of humour – there were none. Did they make it up or was there a set script for Irishisms? Waited in the information office for a break in the rain and leafed through the tourist pamphlets. Killorglin was the starting point for the famous Ring of Kerry excursions.
One of the main attractions on the Ring tour was the village of Cahirciveen, the birthplace of Daniel O’Connell, the patriot known as ‘the Liberator’. Where the nickname had come from was debatable. Most authorities said that it was from his political activities. Others claimed that it originated from his sexual appetites. There had been a local saying back in the early nineteenth century that ‘you couldn’t throw a stone in Co Kerry without hitting one of O’Connell’s bastards”. Or maybe that was just an electioneering slogan; politics were more robust in those days, as indeed were politicians, judging by Daniel O’Connell.
Followed the girl’s instructions down to the bridge, turned right, and started walking. And kept on walking. One of the cardinal rules of the road is that, when you don’t know where you are going, the distance is roughly three times further than it really is. Also, this was a risky road for pedestrians – narrow but with fast traffic and no pavement or verge. With each oncoming car, I had to squeeze into a thick hedge at the side. It would have been bad unencumbered but, with Bosie in tow, it was damn tricky; and not made any easier by the renewed drizzle. After a couple of miles, spotted a caravan park ahead and with relief dragged Bosie through the entrance.
The woman at the reception office said that, although the site was specifically for caravans, tents were allowed.
“I saw you coming along the road” she added, then stared incredulously at Bosie. “Are you walking round Ireland with that?”
Once more I explained and she looked up in amusement. “So you’re going to try and do a show in Killorglin by tomorrow night? And it’s all for a bet?”
She thought for a moment, then laughed. “You’re mad. All right, I’ll tell you what. I’ll make another bet with you. The camping charge for two nights is seven pounds. If you pull it off, I’ll refund your money.”
We shook hands on the deal. Ireland must be one of the few places in the world where you could have a bet over a camping fee.
As I started to construct the tent, a further Rule of the Road swung into action.
‘Advice to persons proposing to erect tents in Co Kerry. It will rain.’
Firstly, a warning salvo of drizzle, then from over the hills, the heavy artillery of a cloudburst. Struggled with the inner tent, then with the flysheet. However, as I’d been warned, the site had been constructed for caravans, not for tents. The ground, beneath the inch thick layer of soil, consisted of solid hard core. As I hammered away desperately, each tent peg buckled against the stones below. The rain increased. In frustration, I hauled the flysheet over the heaped possessions and huddled underneath it, gripping the edges to prevent it from being blown away.
Managed to fit the poles into position to provide a semblance of tent-hood, then collapsed back exhausted on the lilo. To the home dweller, the soaking of the equipment might not seem too much of a disaster, but the reality of the situation was ‘once wet, you stay wet’. So far I’d been lucky and avoided a real drenching but from now on, mildew would be king. Pondered on the best course of action. Decided to go to sleep.
Returned to Killorglin at 7pm. Without Bosie, the two-mile walk had been quite pleasant and the rain had dwindled to an indecisive mist. Checked out a couple of pubs for Oscar viability; they were both completely empty. The only sign of human habitation was the faint murmur of Sky TV broadcasting golf.
Moved on up the hill to a third pub called the Kingdom Bar. At least this was populated. A few farmers sat on bar stools and three young lads whispered in a corner. The landlord, a thickset man in horn-rimmed spectacles, leaned on the counter and watched the TV golf. Approached him and began the Wilde spiel. After only a few sentences, he abruptly and surprisingly said yes. It was good news but, all the same, something felt wrong. It had been too easy.
I scribbled out some show leaflets and presented them to the landlord. He pushed them over to the farmers who, to a man, extracted spectacles from their pockets and scrutinised the documents. There were some inaudible mutters, a couple of curious glances, then the leaflets were pushed aside. I knew that I should spend the evening talking to people and drumming up trade for tomorrow, but basically I was damp, tired and talked-out. The head cold and laryngitis were definitely making a comeback and I felt a strong desire for anonymity. Settled in a corner of the pub and sipped a pint.
Three old women sat at the next table. They talked with perfect Kerry accents (not surprisingly really). The main feature of the accent was the replacement of ‘s’ by ‘sh’. “I went up the shtairway on my walking shtick”. Their heads bobbed back and forth in conversation like hens ducking to pick up grain. They were the exact types who had been satirised in John B’s ‘Letters of a TD’. It was strange to meet the reality so soon after the parody.
By 10pm, the bar had filled up with customers. I was realising that this was the norm in the West – they only emerged at ten o’clock. So much for my 8pm start tomorrow?
Two men took over the musicians’ corner. They were an act called ‘The Two Mikes’. The first Mike played electric piano while the second picked up the dreaded piano accordion. As a music band, they looked as if they had seen better days (probably about 1956) and the first two songs seemed to confirm it. Then, out of that unpromising start, came a spine-chillingly beautiful rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’. Felt abashed at my earlier scepticism – you never could tell.
The Kingdom was a genuine Irish bar; there was no sign of tourists at all. As with most local bars, you could sense the brooding feuds of small town life under the surface. Somehow, I didn’t think that this would make the easiest of Oscar audiences.
Another problem crossed my mind. The TV was still playing beside The Two Mikes, albeit with the sound down. Despite the fact that I had no interest at all in the programme, I found that my eyes were drawn back irresistibly to the screen. It was hypnotic. Hoped that the landlord would turn it off during ‘Wilde’ – there was no way that anyone could compete with it.
By 11.30pm, although the pub was still in full spate, I rose to leave only to find the path blocked by a chubby ten-year-old girl wearing electronically flashing shoes who was beginning her version of ‘Riverdance’. She performed with the grim determination of an athlete in the last throes of a gruelling marathon, her heel-lights glowing redly every time they struck the floor. Aware that there was an ominous threat that she might try to force others to join her, I ducked out towards the door. She looked like a child who did not take prisoners.
Leaned against the bridge parapet and ate yet another bag of curried chips. After seven pints of lager, the drizzle didn’t seem to matter so much. Looked down at the wide, shallow river tumbling from the Lakes of Killarney out to the sea. A nocturnal duck drifted on the surface and I threw over a titbit. The duck gave an indignant squawk as the curried chip hit its head.
Try as I might, I couldn’t erase a sense of foreboding about the show tomorrow. I’d had a wonderful run of luck with the performances so far. Surely it had to end sometime?
Started back along the road home. The night was pitch black and the drizzle made things even worse. I was forced to crush into the hedge each time the dazzling headlamps of a car approached. After a van had missed me by five inches, I remembered that there was a torch in the rucksack. Took it out and waved it in front like a child with a firework sparkler. Tiny as it was, it seemed to do the trick and the cars veered off to the centre of the road. It was a dangerous two miles but I managed to reach the caravan site without being turned into road-kill.
Looked at the mobile for signs of life. The panel still read ‘IRISH DIGITAL’ – no hope. The site public phone box had a sign on the front reading ‘OUT OF ORDER’. There would be no communication possible with anybody for the time being. Returned to the tent and spent a drunken half-hour trying to hammer the tent pegs further into the ground. Succeeded with some of them but the rest started to resemble giant fish-hooks. Sod it. Climbed in the sleeping bag and slept.