As promised in my last blog, I’ve shaken off the procrastination vibes, and offer up an old story that’s been hanging around for quite a while. It begins with me, stuck in London in the 1980s during an unusually hot summer, rolling transport strikes which although warranted (this is after all, set in the time of Thatcher) sending commuters collectively round the bend. I decided the best course of action was to bugger the hell off out of the wasteland that was London, and head for greener pastures. Quite literally greener pastures, as I turned my eyes toward the Emerald Isle.
Céad Míle Fáilte and enjoy this story!
I think it was about Day 3 into my Irish travels I found myself in Arklow, a village south of Dublin in County Wicklow, sticking my thumb out at a roundabout on the road to Wexford from where I planned on heading to Waterford. Now hitch hiking is NOT a regular activity of mine, and Ireland being the only place I’d probably do something that reckless while travelling. Hang on, actually that’s not correct…I have stuck the thumb out elsewhere… but that’s another story!
Anyway, after only a few minutes an old blue Ford pickup stopped (circa 1930s by the look of it!) and offered me a ride as far as Wexford. Paddy the pig farmer had a mass of brown hair and a shaggy beard, decked out in overalls and gumboots and an accent thick enough to spread with a knife. He was however, convivial company and did me the immediate favour of suggesting I stop at Wexford, being the better town with more to offer than Waterford (besides the crystal obviously!) That settled, Paddy and I established an easy banter. About halfway into the trip Paddy looked at me shyly “I need to ask you a question”. Oh feck, my head was reeling with all the possibilities that question might entail, whilst my hand covertly hovered over the door handle in case I needed to make a quick exit.
But what do you think was the burning question young Paddy wanted to ask me? …My views on Irish politics or the state of pig farming in Australia vs Ireland? (Both topics on which I had a view I might add) Or perhaps my plans for travel through his lovely country, or my relationship status, or more nefariously…where I might want to spend the night?
No. None of these.
What Paddy coyly, desperately, passionately wanted to ask about was… ‘Neigbours’. Yes, the Australian TV show that currently had England Ireland Scotland and Wales in its thrall. Will Scott marry Charlene, is Mrs Mangle really such an old cow, etc and so on. A topic as it happens, I could not have been less qualified to talk about given I had never watched the show in Australia, my introduction to it being forced upon me by obsessed housemates in London.
It was in fact another reason for wanting a break from England – every second fecker had a question about bloody ‘Neighbours’ whenever I opened my mouth and was pegged as an Australian. I could have got free anything and everything just for answering their incessant queries. I did actually land a job at my local (Denmark Arms on High Street, East Ham) on the strength of some bullshit I fed the publican about Lassiters but you guessed it, that’s another story.
So back to Paddy. Clearly I wanted to make sure my lift to Wexford was secure and also, because he was such a sweet young thing, I invented plot twists and storylines feeding him this shite like slops to pigs. And he loved it, his most fervent wish being to travel to Australia some day and visit the set of Ramsay Street. NOT visit Uluru, or the Opera house, bask on our beautiful beaches or gaze in wonder at the rugged but stunning interior of our wide brown land, no what Paddy most longed to see was a poncy made up street in a leafy Melbourne suburb because of a second rate soap opera where most of the cast were on their way out of an acting career – up or down – but either way, out.
Paddy and I were done. My own dreams of becoming an Irish pig farmers wife were in tatters, shattered by his ignorance and lack of interest in my country and his own. Oh Paddy, how could you!
He dropped me in the centre of town, no doubt both glad to be rid of the other, and I set about finding digs for the night, in the form of the best accommodation concept ever and a godsend for backpackers everywhere – the Irish Bed and Breakfast. I climbed a small mountain to the B&B I’d arranged, greeted by a tiny old lady with a kindly face and a faint scent of mothballs and sanctimonious Catholicism.
Ladies and Gents meet Mrs O’Riley – upholder of the faith and moral compass for wayward travellers. Her house was liberally ornamented with religious paraphernalia, and lace doilies. My room had no less than a dozen doilies, on pillowcases, dressers, chairs…even in the bathroom – one was draped over the toilet roll holder. Obviously hand made by my host they were exquisite handiwork and you know, it’s good to have a hobby. The most disturbing thing about the bathroom, however, was a picture of Jesus Christ hung strategically so he had a view of the entire room. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be showering with Jesus watching over me, that seemed a little like keeping TOO much of a close eye on his flock. Jaysus!
I went downstairs and asked Mrs O’Riley where I might get a meal, but she had no suggestions, not surprising as I didn’t figure her to be much of a patron of restaurants and the like. It was at this point I made the fatal mistake of engaging mouth before brain “No worries, I’ll probably just grab a bite from the pub at the bottom of the hill”. Which I realise now were NOT the words a little old Irish Catholic lady in a house full of Jesus and the Blessed Mary ornaments, and who crossed herself at least once every 2 minutes, wants to hear.
“Oh no, no no, no, no. You can’t be going to the pub on your own, it’s a den of evil. An innocent lamb shouldn’t be near dat place. I can cook you up a plate of sausages and eggs on toast. You’d be better here with me reading from the good book. I read it aloud meself after ma tea.” (I’m trusting you to read this in an Irish accent for full effect!)
Now, there are several things here to unpack. Firstly, I’ve been called MANY things in my life…’innocent lamb’ however, is not among them. Secondly – sausages and eggs? In a fishing port with the finest, freshest seafood Ireland has to offer? Ah, no thanks. Finally, my own religious leanings being more of the pagan ritual variety (NO, not dancing naked round a fire…well, not all the time) than holy trinity, an evening of scripture reading was not high on my agenda.
I politely declined all offers, assuring my fervent hostess my virtue would remain intact, my head clear of demon drink, and my heart pure (ok that last might have been a bit much!) She was uncertain but went about the business of organising my breakfast order for the next morning (which included I might add, liberal serves of sausages and eggs).
So I tripped happily and literally down the hill to the pub…it was quite a steep hill and my laces came undone halfway. I wandered into the bar not knowing quite what to expect, and ordered a beer, finding myself almost immediately surrounded by a group of Irish lads, all offering to buy me said drink. The minute I opened my mouth…Australian sheila in the pub lads….no one asks for a beer. A Pint, an ‘alf, a lager, an ale, a Guinness, yes, but a ‘beer’? Never. So of course I allowed the handsomest lad to buy me a half of Smithwicks (What? Who said there was no self-interest here?) and resolved it would be a night of Neighbours stories, free drinks and who knows…I mean he did have eyes of the deepest blue and shoulder length black hair, and that accent…sigh.
(Segue: if this happened with the benefit of today’s tech savvy world, I’d probably have whipped out my iPhone and added to my story a photo with aforementioned lads captioned “Night out with the lads” #stillgotit #freebeer #gonnashagmeapaddy…and no, it’s not meant to read ‘snag’ – I was in my early twenties and single (sort of) after all… prime time for shagging not snagging!).
Fortunately, there was no technology so it was just me having a laff with the lads and some drinks, and more drinks, and then yet another drink, till at some point it dawned on me that these charming boys who were all so very affectionate and attentive, might just have a less than enchanting agenda, and Mrs O’Riley’s fears could actually be well founded for this not so innocent lamb. So hazily I looked around for a way out, and also something to eat – I was starving! I found both, as it turned out in the unlikely figure of a HUGE Yorkshire man sitting at the bar. He had the blackest beard and eyes I’ve ever seen and apparently, a voice to match. He was to be succinct, terrifying, and scattered the boys in short order putting them in mortal fear of losing their bollocks.
‘Mick’ he introduced himself as, a former truckie now salesman who had a daughter about my age likewise travelling the world, and while preferably not getting herself tanked and into certain trouble with the local lads, if she was – hopefully had someone like him there to rescue her. I christened him my defacto dad for the evening, and he turned out to be charming company, witty and clever – a far better option than the lads at any rate. And probably far better for my health, making me switch to lemon squash and pork scratchings (if you haven’t tried these in an English or Irish pub, you have not lived!) bringing me back to partial sobriety and filling my stomach with something slightly more substantial than Smithwicks Draught.
We talked about the history of Ireland, politics and the IRA, the poetry of Yeats, Heaney & Behan, the writings of Wilde, Joyce and Beckett. It was wonderful – way more interesting than an evening of pointless banter with some randy Irish lads hoping to get their leg over. Although, ‘romance’ (with the aforementioned black haired blue-eyed lad) might have been nice, I did confess to Mick I could probably use a break from that as well–a third reason to exit England being a much needed gap from an increasingly complicated love life, with not one but two lovely fellas one called Mick and the other, ahh…Michael. My present likewise named companion laughed uproariously at the unlikeliness of this and the seemingly ever-present and frankly unnerving presence of blokes with that particular moniker in my life, assuring me he had no intention of adding to the complication. I had no interest either, so it was a satisfactory outcome all round.
My platonic new friend Mick asked if I would like to share a meal with him, his plans for a seafood platter lending itself to sharing. I was about to say yes, when two gents standing behind me interjected, and suggesting perhaps I might like to join their party of Australians in the bistro. Rather pointedly suggested it was a better option than hanging about in a bar with a bloke that looked like he would murder little girls in his sleep, or their sleep – whatever – you get the picture. Now I completely understood their point of view, and Mick was particularly gracious, given he had just displayed similar gallantry in rescuing me from a dodgy bunch of lads, so without committing anything, I politely went with them to at least meet the rest of their party. All thirty of them. Middle aged couples on a bus tour of Ireland, it was like I had walked into a bar full of my parents and their friends. I made polite conversation for 5-10 minutes and then hightailed it back to the bar and Blackbeard. I did NOT want to spend the evening in the company of countrymen I’d travelled halfway round the world to escape, particularly in conversation that consisted mainly of listing everything that was better about Australia than “over here”.
No, the black eyed salesman was far better value in my opinion, and we quickly dived back into our interrupted conversation on Celtic mythology. This was an area I was keen on writing about, and a large part of my fascination with Ireland, made even more poetic with the green rolling hills, rugged cliffs, wild seas and haunting mists that make up the landscape and mystical backdrop for my story. And that put Mick in mind of a small village nearby, set among salt marshes that he felt was something magical I ought to experience, and over the next hour or so of dusk, the perfect time to see it. Our seafood platter would take around that long to prepare so we had time to drive there and back AND stop for a pint of the best Guinness in the land.
Now clearly there are a few things here I need to address. Obviously, if I had any of the Mrs O’Rileys about me at all, I’d have at least considered the potential danger of hopping into a car with a virtual stranger and disappearing into the salt marshes for a ‘mystical experience’, marshes in which I could disappear permanently. Did I though? Consider at all that as charming as he seemed, as fatherly, Mick the black-beard could actually be a serial rapist/murderer luring me off to a secluded destination? Did I feck.
To be fair, Mick was at pains to reassure me of his good intentions, and pure interest in providing me with a richer experience than a night in an average Irish pub surrounded by local lads with bad intentions and even worse tales, or a bunch of standard issue bus tour Oz-Strayans.
Secondly, and more importantly (come on…we all know I survived!) let’s address this comment…”a pint of the best Guinness in the land”. I’d been in this country a sum total of 3 days, and heard this over a dozen times, probably double that. Every pub I’d stepped into or been advised to visit apparently has “the best Guinness in Ireland”, even my lazy logic deciphered this boast couldn’t possibly be true for every pint of Guinness poured in Ireland.
So we took off in Mick’s car (I think it was black, seems in character!) for mystical experiences and outstanding Guinness, a relatively short drive accompanied by suitably atmospheric music from Clannad, Enya and Van Morrison.
And then suddenly, we turned a bend, and entered another world. A world of mist and shadow, pale setting sun, an even paler rising moon, of eerie marshes and early evening sounds. Mick parked up and we got out taking in this otherworldly view, and honestly – no words can adequately describe the beauty and magic of what surrounded me. Photos (even if I’d had my camera with me) would not capture the wisps of mist, the lone building in the distance seemingly floating on the marshes, the sound of the ocean in the distance. And then Van came on, in the background, singing “Into the Mystic” as the mists ever thickening, surrounded us bringing with them the dark of evening.
It was a perfect moment.
And I’ll tell you something…whenever I think of this scene or hear this song, I am back there living in that moment, completely. I was speechless, which is no mean feat for me I assure you. I don’t know, and I never thought to ask if Mick had engineered that piece of wizardry to have “Into the Mystic” play at the exact right instant, or whether it was just another piece of magic, perfecting the moment. I kind of hope he did it, would confirm my view of him as a bard, a man with the soul of a poet.
And then it was dark, pitch black and there was nothing more to see, except the marvel of Guinness in the floating pub. The locals were curiously immune to the miracle I’d seen, bored most likely by my effusive attempts to describe the wonder of it. But then again – they lived there, witnessed it time and time again, probably viewed the mists as a hazard rather than appreciating their ethereal beauty. And the Guinness you ask? Well as I predicted, it tasted pretty much the same as the ‘finest’ Guinness I’d tried everywhere else. I did however compliment the barman on his skill at pouring said beverage – for that is indeed an art.
I waxed lyrical on the journey back to Wexford, my mind filled with romantic notions of living out my days here, dedicated to writing poetry, stories and songs that celebrated this mystical corner of the earth. Mick laughed at my notions, although I do think he understood them.
And then to top it off, perfectly timed for our return, a huge platter of the most delicious seafood appeared at our table making my eyes bulge and mouth water. Downed with some more excellent Guinness (though not as finely poured!) I was in culinary heaven. A makeshift band featuring a bodhran and fiddle, played some lively Irish tunes and emotive ballads. I danced with the locals, laughed with them, and even a few of the Australian party ventured over to join in. It was a fabulous way to end a memorable evening. I staggered out the pub after drunken teary farewells to all I’d met, Mick pressing into my hand a voucher for a free night in a prestigious Cork hotel – should I ever determine which of his namesakes in England I deemed worthy of such a romantic gesture. (Yeah, that’s another story, and not one you’ll be reading here!)
I staggered up the hill to Mrs O’Riley’s, well crawled might be a more apt description, noting the light in her bedroom went off when she heard me come through the door. I slept like a babe and awoke the next morning to the sounds and smells of that most delicious of meals, the full Irish breakfast, being prepared. And it was delicious – did I mention Mrs O’Riley made the soda bread served with more sausages, bacon, eggs and tomatoes than I could possibly eat. Or thought I could…I certainly didn’t need to eat for the remainder of the day! I thanked her sincerely for her hospitality, her care (no doubt including several rosaries for my safekeeping the night before) and that soda bread…although she wouldn’t divulge the recipe!
And then I was off on my next adventure, via Waterford, which as predicted by Paddy was nowhere near as colourful as Wexford. I sat on the local bus Walkman playing, locals staring at the mad Australian laughing to herself, reliving her adventures.
So there you go. Just one tale among several of my time spent in Ireland. I travelled there many times both as a tourist and a local over the next few years, and whilst my appreciation of the country, the people and their history deepened with each visit, nothing was quite so special as the wide eyed wonder of this first trip. Do click on some of the links and discover more about the places, artists etc mentioned here (I’d forgotten what a fascinating history Arklow has!) I hope you enjoyed this yarn and interested to know if you think it resembled the diagram at the top! Mostly, I hope it gave you bit of a chuckle.
Slán go fóill (farewell for now)