Co Kerry landscape in the rain
THE SEAN OG BAR, SKIBBEREEN
Half an hour later, I stood once more in a bus shelter as the rain cascaded over Killarney town. One glance at the skies was enough to convince that this was not going to stop. I was in the throes of a crisis of conscience. Hitch-hiking in this weather was virtually impossible. It was doubtful whether any driver would have welcomed my continual sneezing and lacklustre company, let alone Bosie leaking rainwater all over the upholstery. However, the bet with Lyndon back in London had stipulated hitching at least most of the time and the tour was beginning to turn into a bus outing.
While I indecisively mulled over the problem, I learnt from a shivering Spaniard next to me that the atrocious weather was the tail-end of a Caribbean hurricane. My conscience began to clear; enduring hurricanes had never been part of the bet. This decidedly could be filed under the heading of ‘special circumstances’. Also, for a mere ten pounds, I could be in Skibbereen within three hours. As it turned out, it was an inspired decision.
The Killarney to Bantry Bay run must surely rank among the ‘Great Bus Journeys of the World’. Even in a deluge it was awesome. Killarney’s lakes and mountains are, of course, justifiably world famous but what I had not realised was that the spectacle did not end there. As the bus continued south, the beauty became even more striking. We crossed over a high mountain pass called Molls Gap and beneath lay the heart-quickening sight of the Kenmare River estuary. Through the storm, it looked as if someone had spilt silver ink over an ebony black table.
We descended to the lovely little town of Kenmare, then climbed again up the Caha Mountains road, through some rock tunnels, and then out to the yet more glorious sight of Bantry Bay stretched below. Up till now, I had resisted the temptation to rave on about the countryside but this was all too splendid to ignore. It even caused a temporary halt to the sneezing. The bus followed the shoreline of the bay from Glengariff to Bantry and then moved on through the slightly more subdued scenery of west Co Cork. We were in the ‘Rebel County’.
West Cork had been one of the battlefields of the 1920’s Civil War that, besides witnessing the assassination of Michael Collins and much else, had produced a singular monument. After a major gunfight between Republican and Free State forces, at the end of the day, only one fatality had been discovered. He was the entirely apolitical County Surveyor who had been out measuring the roads and had been killed in the crossfire. Both sides claimed him as their own and both sides erected a pillar to his memory. This resulted at one point in two Celtic crosses on either side of the road both bearing his name as martyr to the opposing causes.
Pulled into the rain-coated bustle of Skibbereen town at 1.30pm. This, in itself, should have provided a mild sense of achievement. I’d travelled the west coast of Ireland from Letterkenny in the north down to the most south-westerly point. From now on, the journey would be easterly. Felt far too rough to appreciate it though. Asked an old man about accommodation. He chewed judiciously on his pipe and replied that there was a camping site nearby.
“It’s an easy walk. It’s only about three miles down along the road.”
Not a chance. There was no way that I was going to end up in another Killorglin nightmare. The reserves of strength had hit the buffers – any more of this and I’d have to abandon the trip. Decided that a B&B was the only solution and hang the expense. This was not self-indulgence, this was desperation.
The nearest establishment was a pub called the Annalaoi where a young Frenchman led the way to an upstairs room. It looked like unalloyed rapture: a soft bed, a shower, a TV, a phone and (unlike the dreaded Cedar Room of Listowel) a window. Plus the prospect of a Full Irish tomorrow morning. And all for seventeen pounds. I sighed with anticipation. The Frenchman looked at me with concern.
“I’m sorry if it’s too small. It’s the only room left. Do you want it?”
Quickly thrust the money at him, in case this vision of Eden should melt away. Sat down on the bed to plan the next moves and woke up four hours later.
As it was now evening, the obvious course was to explore the town for suitable pub venues but a sixth sense forced a realisation that this was crunch time for the whole tour. I simply had to take time out from the headlong rush of events. I hadn’t really rested since the Castlebar hostel eleven days earlier. Tiredness had become a permanent state of mind. What I needed was a total flop-out; in other words, no booze, no fags, no shows, no conversation, no rain, no organising and no Bosie. Conversely, I needed a dry comfortable room and rest, combined with what were possibly near-lethal doses of Lemsip.
Made a short excursion outside to collect a burger and chips and a large bag of plums. Then I made use of the radiators to dry out the tent, costume and clothing. The steam rose and wreathed around the room. Slumped on the bed and watched the TV through a sauna bath mist.
It was the night of the ‘Rose of Tralee’ competition on RTE. The programme began at 8pm and lumbered on doggedly till 11.30pm. It bore some resemblance to the Miss World contest except that there was not a swimsuit in sight, only full evening dresses that would have made a Victorian hunt ball look risqué. The atmosphere was ruthlessly wholesome. Despite the fact that this was a parade of remarkably pretty girls, any sexual connotations had been totally eliminated.
The compere, a gentleman called Marty Whelan, started quite jauntily but, as the job consisted of almost three and a half hours of non-stop interviewing of Rose after Rose, he began to look increasingly sweaty. His fixed grin was betrayed by eyes that looked like they desperately needed a visit to the nearest pub.
Considering that the Rose competition had originated as a local event, the contenders had become bewilderingly international. Each girl was questioned on her antecedents, while spotlights picked out their parents and grandparents seated in the hall. This was definitely necessary as they seemed to hail from just about everywhere: ‘Melbourne’, ‘Manchester’, ‘Dubai’, ‘Washington’.…Their Irishness seemed to be on a par with Jack Charlton’s World Cup football team (“My aunt had an Irish wolfhound”, etc.) By the time Marty announced the entrance of the Rose from Tokyo, I had ceased to wonder. (Tokyo Rose? Surely not?)
Having surmounted the problem of their often unlikely links to Tralee, the interviews moved on to the ‘Hopes and Aspirations’ section. Thankfully, only one girl assured us that her aspiration was ‘to help mankind’. On the other hand, we did get the Johannesburg Rose announcing that, although she had never visited Ireland before, she had felt ‘this lyrical country’ calling to her and she had now arrived to claim her ‘fairy heritage’. Marty Whelan began to look even sweatier.
Each Rose had been allotted a male escort from Ireland. They were a sheepish group of young men in evening dress. One of them, whose main claim to fame was that he owned three thousand pigs, was paired off with a marketing manager from Yokohama.
The final section of the interviews consisted of party pieces in which the Roses were encouraged to display various talents. This was where the whole thing became truly bizarre, as an Irish lament was followed by a Whitney Houston song, in turn followed by a display of 1940’s ‘Swing Dance’, tin whistle playing and the recital of haikus.
Then one Rose, a policewoman from San Francisco, recited a John F Kennedy speech about the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War. She did it beautifully and, for a few minutes, the event became oddly moving. It had happened again, just as with ‘The Two Mikes’. Just as you are winded with disbelief, something good catches you by surprise. However, the moment was soon over and we returned to Miss Vancouver giving a display of frisbee throwing.
By eleven thirty, I had become quite interested as to who was going to win. Then came the announcement that this was only the first half, the second would continue tomorrow night. Good God, there was still three more hours of it! My heart went out to Marty.
The programme was followed by the weather forecast. It turned out that over two inches of rain had fallen on the province of Munster in the previous twenty-four hours. In fact, more rain had fallen in the last three days than in the whole of the summer. Tomorrow was forecast as grim as well. So it wasn’t just me who was whinging. As if to emphasise the point, there was a sound like a passing train outside the window. Drew back the curtain; it was the wind and the rain gearing up for another onslaught. Thanked my lucky stars that I’d called off the camping for a spell. But, in truth, I couldn’t afford the B&Bs’ for long either. Ate the last plum and downed the last Lemsip, then slept.
DAY EIGHTEEN: TUESDAY
Woke at 7am and opened the curtains again. The rain was still lashing down. Continued removing the traces of moisture from the equipment. The Oscar evening dress trousers, although now dry, had acquired a sort of corrugated look. Any lingering elegance had been eradicated.
Went downstairs for breakfast and had to climb over a large Labrador dog on the stairs who had absolutely no intention of moving for anyone. The dining room was empty except for a group of small children playing Stars Wars underneath the tables. I deputised Darth Vader to find my breakfast. “Da’s in bed” he replied reproachfully, but left on the errand.
Half an hour later, the proprietor arrived with a massive meal on a tray. There was no chance at all of finishing it off, so I offered the remains to the Labrador. He padded in and ate the proffered bacon as if this was his usual morning chore. With meals this size, it probably was.
Back in the bedroom, I waged war with the phone system again. The mobile, despite having switched from the impossible IRISH DIGITAL back to the once relatively amenable EIRCELL, was infuriatingly mute. The bedroom phone not only blocked any personal calls but gave an out-of-order signal even on directory enquiries. Finally made contact via the pub pay phone with Jo, the woman recommended by Sean O’Neill in Listowel as a possible ally. She sounded nice.
“Meet me at the West Cork Arts Centre at 2pm.”
Decided to stay another night at the Annalaoi. Despite feeling hugely restored in health, I knew that I was running on second wind – and would be for the rest of the trip. As far as cost was concerned, the alternative would have been nine pounds for a hostel, four pounds for breakfast, plus incidentals. Seventeen pounds here was not that much more expensive. Ventured out on a sodden tour of Skibbereen with an itinerary of tasks, starting with programme photocopying.
I noticed a plaque on a wall commemorating the famous story of the Skibbereen Eagle. In 1905, a small revolution had occurred in Russia (as a dry run for the big one in 1917); it had been quashed with some bloodshed by the Tsar. The Skibbereen Eagle, a local paper with a tiny circulation, had written a thunderous denunciation of the killings in its editorial column ending with the glorious challenge of ‘Let the Tsar take heed! The Skibbereen Eagle has its eyes on him’. Over the years, this had become a standard joke in journalistic circles. It was good to see that the incident was now worthy of its own wall plaque.
The newspaper, although now under the new title of the ‘Southern Star’, was still in existence. Which was more than could be said of the Tsar. However, this did bring to mind a much more recent incident when Boris Yeltsin, then the Russian President, had landed at Shannon Airport to meet the Irish Prime Minister and his cabinet. Allegedly, Boris had been too drunk to climb off the plane and the Irish welcoming committee were left to cool their heels impatiently on the tarmac. Paradoxically, this had made Boris rather popular in Ireland. Idly, I wondered what the old Skibbereen Eagle would have made of it?
Met Jo at the Arts Centre; she gave me a list of possible pubs. “I’d recommend the Sean Og.” Sure enough, the Sean Og Bar turned out to be a charming old pub with wooden beams and a laid-back welcoming atmosphere. Irene, the landlady, was as welcoming as her pub. She was a good-looking woman of about forty who actually seemed quite enthusiastic at the prospect of staging the show.
“Sure, you can do it here. The musicians don’t come on till ten o’clock. Plenty of time. It’s a pity we don’t have any time to advertise it.”
I agreed “That’s been the problem all along. The publicity has been quite good but it’s all happening after I leave. It was on North-West Radio just as I moved south to Co Clare, now it’s in the Kerry newspapers just as I arrive in Co Cork. It’s like an advertising campaign in reverse. Not so much ‘Forthcoming Events’ as ‘What You Have Missed’.”
“Still, it’s good that a Brit comes across to keep up the travelling players tradition”, said Irene. “It’s a bit embarrassing really. I get a lot of traditional Irish music here but most of the musicians are English or American. It’s a blow-in’s pub. People who’ve come from abroad to settle here. Skibbereen has been a blow-in town ever since the Sixties. The locals left and the hippies arrived. I’m from Dublin myself.”
We arranged for a 9pm start and I strolled off feeling good. I liked the look of both the Sean Og and Irene. I also liked the look of Skibbereen; there was a bounce to the town.
It also had a large number of patriotic memorials, more than usual. The Fenian leader, O’Donovan Rossa, was commemorated with a wall plaque on the side of a glass and chinaware shop. In the centre, there was a statue called the Maid of Erin; this celebrated the great patriot martyrs like Robert Emmet.
It struck me that this was one of the fundamental differences between Ireland and England. In England, kids grew up with national heroes like Wellington or Nelson or Churchill, all very establishment figures and also successful ones. Whereas in Ireland, the national heroes that the kids grew up with were Wolfe Tone or Patrick Pearse or James Connelly, rebels to a man and all spectacularly unsuccessful to the point of invariably being executed. It must have an effect on the differing national psyches? In England, only Hereward the Wake really fitted the bill and he was almost forgotten.
After an hours’ siesta at the Annalaoi, I dressed in the Oscar costume and gathered the props. Outside, the rain had moderated to a light drizzle. Arrived at the Sean Og at 8pm and my heart sank. A group of hopelessly drunken teenagers were sprawled across the stage area. I had visions of yet another looming disaster. Fortunately Irene spotted the difficulty and together we cleared them out; one youth having to be carried into the side bar feet first. The show started at nine fifteen – only fifteen minutes late, boringly punctual by recent standards.
“It seems to me that the only artistic process with which the Royal Academicians are thoroughly familiar is varnishing. Still, some of them are passable. If they have not opened the eyes of the blind, they have given great encouragement to the short-sighted. Nothing sums up the English artist better than comparison to the French. In France, every bourgeois wishes to become an artist, while in England every artist wishes to become a bourgeois.
The sizeable audience out front were both attentive and responsive and the performance was reasonably sharp. Only two problems cropped up. The first was that I had become slightly paranoid about interruptions – Cliff Richard had got to me. The result was that the delivery became far too speedy. I remember Ben Elton once saying that his motor-mouth delivery was the result of being terrified of hecklers, therefore he never allowed them a chance to butt in. Something similar was happening to me. Managed to slow it down towards the end thankfully. The second problem was that the pub Labrador strolled on stage at one point, lay down and watched the show with an indulgent air of ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’.
All the same, the applause crashed out at the end. To my great relief, it had worked. I’d really needed a good performance to restore confidence after the Killorglin debacle. The hat produced forty-seven quid, enough to cover the B&B bill and the bus fare from Killarney. Fantastic!
As the musicians tuned up their instruments in a corner, Jo from the Arts Centre came up grinning.
“Oh, I did like that. Sean said I would. I’m sorry that I didn’t invite you to stay but I didn’t know you from Adam. You might have been an axe murderer for all I knew. Next time, give me a call”.
Irene introduced me to her daughter, Laura, a pretty nineteen-year-old who was enthusiastically preparing to go to university. I asked her which one?
“I’m going to Cork. Originally I wanted to go to Galway but the problem was that it’s such a good town. Everybody has a great time there. And because of that, Galway has the lowest grades in the country. The academic record just isn’t very good. They even gave Ronald Reagan a degree.”
The evening spun on in a flurry of pints and music. This was a marvellous pub. The band included an excellent banjo player who seemed to carry the rest along with him. At one point, he played the ‘banjo-versus-guitar’ duel from the film ‘Deliverance’. It seems a point of honour that whenever a banjo player meets a guitar player they have to play ‘Deliverance’. But this was superb; it continued for over twenty minutes and, as the guitarist started to flag, the banjoist drove harder and harder until his fingers became a blur of movement. The bar was transfixed. As they ended, I let out a whoop of approval. Irene leaned across laughing.
“Now you know why you came here.”
I nodded back. “Yeah. I should never have left.”
And as the music and lager coursed through my blood, I felt that it was true. I was back where I belonged. One of life’s blow-ins.
By 2am, though, remembered that I also had to blow out again; it was back on the road tomorrow. Not for the first time, felt an itch of desire to remain. Jo leapt up:
“Ah, come on, you can’t go yet. The session’ll go on till five.”
Reluctantly shook my head. “I’ll see you again. And I’ll leave the axe behind.”
Turned to Irene. “Goodnight Irene. But I suppose you’ve heard that one before?”
“Only a few thousand times.”
Laura unlocked the rear exit and I slipped out into the alley and the night drizzle. Back at the Annalaoi, the proprietor stood in his dressing gown waiting for the dog to return. It was twenty to three in the morning. The West of Ireland lived at night.
“What time would you like your breakfast?” he asked anxiously.
“I’ve got to be off early, I’m afraid. Would eight o’clock be OK?” Felt a pang of conscience as I went to bed.
DAY NINETEEN: WEDNESDAY
Woke at 7am and repacked Bosie. The twin smells of breakfast and wet Labrador rose from downstairs. The landlord yawned good morning, set down a tray of food sufficient to satiate a diplomatic banquet, and retired back to bed. He was still in his dressing gown – I’d never actually seen him fully clothed. Tackled the meal as best I could, then left the Labrador to finish it off in peace.
Pulled Bosie out on to the quiet street. The rain had gone. It was time for the thumb again. Felt a wave of optimism; I was exactly half way through the tour. It could be done. From now on, it wouldn’t be a case of ‘only three done’ or ‘four done’, it would be ‘only nine to go’ or ‘eight to go’. The tour was over the cusp. I’d arrived in Skibbereen utterly wrecked and on the brink of surrender. I was leaving it restored to health and spirits and with an expansive feeling of affection. The last two days had saved the bacon. And my next contact, Jenny, had arranged tomorrow night’s show in advance. No hassling for days!
Walked out to the Cork road on a high. There was only one small fly in the ointment. In all the confusion, I seemed to have mislaid Jenny’s phone number.
2014 – The old Sean Og, now the Yin Yang Wholefoods
Next week on April 30th – THE HUNDREDTH ‘CIDER WITH BOSIE’ POST – ‘Crosshaven – Andrea and the Yeats Room’