A singular country, p.1
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       A Singular Country, p.1

           J. P. Donleavy
 
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A Singular Country


  Dedication

  To all those who would dare to come to this stern but irresistible land and then dare to stay.

  And to:

  Gainor Stephen Crist of Dayton Ohio

  Who one chill summer’s dawn, as he shivered in his shirt sleeves, and while somewhere lost in the midland wilds of Offaly, put his coat across my shoulders so that I might be warm as I slept on the roadside. As his impromptu invited guest I was accompanying him walking on a journey starting from 38 Trinity College and out Dublin’s Dame Street, and then via Kells, County Meath we, for nearly four days, occasionally on wheels but mostly on legs, strolled cross country all the way to Dingle Bay in the Kingdom of Kerry.

  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  I

  II

  III

  IV

  V

  VI

  VII

  VIII

  IX

  X

  XI

  XII

  XIII

  By the Same Author

  Copyright

  A

  SINGULAR COUNTRY

  THE WORLD OF IRELAND LETS HIM LIE WHERE THE RAIN FALLS BUT RARELY DOES THE DUBLIN GREEN GIVE A MAN A DRY PLACE TO SLEEP. BUT WHOMEVER HE MAY BE YOU CAN BE SURE HE RESTS IN PEACE.

  A SINGULAR COUNTRY

  I

  From Oola to Knocknabooley, and Doohama to Ballyshoneen you’d only just know by the last mentioned name that you weren’t in Asia but in the land of saints and scholars. But in the directions that most of these location signs point you might be less lost if you were halfway up some deep gulch in the foothills of Tibet. For the natives still faithfully play their little trick of sending the visiting stranger in the wrong heading. But always with the friendly intention that he would not miss the most welcome views of this countryside. So if for any reason you really need to get where you are going it is prudent to never be without your flashlight, your ordnance survey map and your compass.

  Ah but one thing you can always be sure of, the silver streams pouring their glistening waters down brown boggy mountainsides or the grass bejeweled with moisture drops under these greyest of grey skies will tell you with rainbows ablaze, that it is in Ireland you are and it is there that you are closest of all to heaven. And to a smiling benign god who sports a thick Irish brogue. For the shores of this singular country extend out beyond its surrounding seas to the distant rest of the world where these Irish have gone over the centuries and, far from their native soil, have in their new generations continued to dream of that sacred emerald realm left behind.

  There remains always a consciousness in the Irish mind that this is a land where no man is utterly friendless and where no corpse goes to its grave without mourners. And where the human condition no matter how forlorn or reprehensible can always trust to find a smile, or a kind word or helping hand. And never mind the occasional marauder with drink taken and lurching shouting down the main street of a town who might put his fist through an occasional pane of glass or try to throttle a tourist. Without a paintbrush, easel or a typewriter and paper he’s merely giving artistic expression to his being, in the only way he knows how. And in this latter endeavour he’s a perfectionist.

  But you would be grievously wrong to think Ireland is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. For such disorderly spoilers so ranting and raving and in such a condition as to be a source of danger to pedestrian and vehicular traffic, are often actually on their way to play pop with and kick in the door of the local Garda station. As this preceding place is usually situated centrally and prominently in the town you’d be wise to view the ensuing embranglement at a safe distance, preferably an unobtrusive doorway down a side street. But take comfort from the fact that Guards in Ireland are notoriously tall and strong and despite their normally kindly and gentle manners, it will not deter them in dragging the culprit off the public highway and throwing this awful belligerent eegit into a cell. But do be mindful that the customarily somnolent Irish country town is enlivened by such breaches of the peace. For your man meant no real harm other than to let citizens know, he was, like anybody else, full of human frailties and was in town having a bit of a jar and enjoying himself.

  For in truth Ireland is from one coast to another chock a block full of fine decent people, who although they are capable of putting you accidentally to death, would never countenance doing so deliberately, and never is there any doubt that permanent harm was meant. And so provided the marauder hasn’t suffered total memory loss, and if you’ve been a tourist caught in the melée, his remorse and sincerest sympathy will be expressed when he comes to see you in your hospital bed and examines the fingerprints he left on your windpipe. And if the very worst has happened you can be sure he’ll be present with other mourners at your newly purchased grave site. And believe one thing, there is hardly anywhere left in the world to give you a better funeral and that, preceded by a gleeful wake.

  Which would put

  Upon your face

  A permanent smile

  As you rest

  In peace.

  DEATH IS AN IMPORTANT SOCIAL OCCASION FOR THE LIVING AS WELL AS THE DECEASED. TRIBUTES ARE GENEROUS BUT LITTLE IS EVER NEEDED TO MARK AN IRISH GRAVE WHERE MEMORIES STAY LONG ALIVE.

  II

  And here one is upon a morning in the midlands of this country in a chipper mood on the brightest of bright breezy November days, hiding my notebook from the wind on a railroad station platform and starting to write these words while waiting for a friend to arrive on the train. Fresh clean clouds sweeping across the sky with a sweet air lightly gusting up from the south east. A clink and clang of men leisurely hammering spikes into the railroad tracks. And amid the pigeons and jackdaws criss crossing the sky, flocks of smaller birds are rendezvouing over this midlands Irish conurbation. For here in this town of Mullingar the tracks divide to go westwards, left to Galway and right to Sligo. And such a consequential junction has led to momentous things. For there is an architectural splendour to be found here, as well as an astonishing engineering feat not often to be seen outside Dublin town. Steps lead down to a commodious tunnel built under the very tracks. And above rises a Georgian bow fronted building whose graceful elevation and grey lichen spotted granite colour glowing bright in the sunshine, makes this station memorably pleasant and modestly magnificent.

  One might uncharitably say all this is what the Protestant English settlers left behind as they fled the turmoil of the political and social struggle which has existed since in the most of holy Catholic Ireland. But the Catholic religion too has brought magnificence to this town. To the north of this station, the clock at the top of a twin towered cathedral sparkles gold as its bells toll eleven and proclaims a soaring glory on the skyline. And one is reminded by the train’s whistle far out on the bog lands that there is no strife in this present silence. As now one waits for the throbbing diesel to emerge into sight around the curving track, having, as it has, crossed that great haunting heather blanketed stretch of land called the Bog of Allen. A mystically bleak sad terrain memorably mentioned in the closing words of James Joyce’s story “The Dead”.

  As the great weight of the train’s locomotive pounds into the station it makes the platform tremble. The carriages are nationalistically orange and white, their windows adorned with ‘No Smoking’ stickers. The train’s engineer has thrown a key ring out to the station master as he in turn holds another to be shoved up on the train engineer’s arm. An impeccably smooth demonstration of safety. For this exchange makes it foolproof that this present train will be the only one proceeding further on this single track to Sligo and will not be met head on by another coming the other way. Which some uncharitable
persons might think to be an expected Gaelic situation. But of course had you been a passenger on the train you’d wonder. For as you left the station in Dublin and were now a mile or two out with gravestones of Glasnevin cemetery flashing by the window and cruising comfortably at your usual twenty five knots, there comes an announcement loud and clear over the tannoy.

  “For the benefit of those travellers who are on the wrong train and who want to proceed to Belfast this is to inform them that this is the train to Sligo.”

  Ah but this is Ireland where your own damn fault always has a damn good chance of succeeding. And the point is what’s your hurry. And inconvenience be damned. Why not go a long way out of your way and take a journey to a place where you’ve never been before and had certainly never intended of ever going. And there totally cut off from your previous troubles, be stranded a few slowly passing hours in a fuming rage until finally forced to have an intoxicating drink at one of the many fine pubs they have in the town. Or indeed in the case of Mullingar, to be able to go visit the world’s most astonishing hotel decoration, the wax effigy of James Joyce himself sitting crossed legged in a pair of plimsolls reading a book inside a glass case in the sedate Greville Arms Hotel. So let me tell you, you could do much worse than ending up stuck in the various prosperous midland towns. But of course when the telephone doesn’t work, each one more fucked up than the last, after you’ve walked a mile and tried three, soon you’re leaping up and down the pavement and glowering at every passerby since it’s utterly clear to you now that you won’t be able to tell those waiting for you in Belfast that you won’t be there soon. And just there in front of you is a car parked with a sticker on its rear window which says “I love New York.”

  And it’s in that latter city with its marvellously working telephones on numerous street corners, where presently you wouldn’t mind being. But on this island where down the road means up the road and up the road means down, at least you’re quickly learning to be ready for surprises and to keep your options open. Which I was reminding myself to do moving out my front gates just outside this midland town to head south west towards the mini metropolis of Tullamore. And one did not have to travel far to come across further evidence of the typical eccentricities and glowering revenges that can possess this land. For just south west of Mullingar you arrive at one of Ireland’s more astonishing edifices, reputed to be the largest folly in the country, and still raging immovable in its silent proclamation to this day. Called the Jealous Wall, this masonry monument in the gardens of Belvedere House rises just inland from the shores of Lough Ennel. And out of the trees it looms to a magnificent height, built to blot out another and nearby country house on the landscape. And what better or more lasting purpose could any wall ever serve, giving splendid evidence of the entrenched antagonism and repugnance that can eternally glower across this shamrock green land.

  However, you’d think the major significance of this huge edifice would have now, with its protagonists, faded as their bones have into history. You’d only nearly be half right. For on today’s Irish landscape the natives practise an inverse variation of the Jealous Wall. By first ripping out the blackthorn, ash, bramble and holly from the ancient hedgerow before levelling it to the ground. And then building a residence conspicuously to be seen from the road. This in order to put their passing neighbours into a permanent state of seething and boiling envy. The glass of every window polished clean and clear so that the glint in the eye of the ceramic leprechauns perched inside on the shiny veneer of the coffee table, can’t be missed. And naturally, what else would you expect of the innocent passerby, left feeling awfully inferior having just hand milked his cow, the warm pail hanging at his side, and with the rain dripping through the thatch of his cottage and the turf smoke curling up from his cooking fire staining his encrusted lime white washed walls. Had this small farmer the money of this petrol station owner, he’d soon too build an even more conspicuous house even closer to the road and festooned it would be with the latest in architectural pretensions of your multi coloured stonework around the entrance porch. And now that there’s a computer or two in the country, you’d even be witnessing remote controlled dancing tassels on the window shades. Not to mention the plastercast life sized eagles, wings outstretched, that would knock your hat off as they sit on the verge of going airborne either side of the path up to the front door. And let me tell you further that if you press the bell which glows even in the darkest night, you may be sure that that button will be capable of bringing alive chimes in the household to the tune of ‘Ave Maria’.

  Ah but now the real culprit of all of this edifice embellishment which puts the plain neighbour to shame is your American and Australian T.V. serials showing your casual open plan suburbia with your neighbours without so much as a warning shout across the lawn, walking into the kitchen door of your house as if it were theirs and then having the crass audacity of looking to see what you’ve got in your refrigerator. And not even washing away the imprint of their lips from the carton of milk they take a drink from. Can there be any doubt that these signal examples of North American and Australian life should be banned from beaming down out of the innocent skies of Ireland.

  Yet now, is too late. These unmistakable accumulating blemishing structures decorate the outskirts of every Irish town and village from one corner end of Ireland to the other. But along with the gasps of horror at last admonishing hands have been raised. And an attempt or two made to blot out the offending abode with a hedge or cover of thatch, or a splash of a white wash. But it will be a long time before we ever get back to a good old mud wall or two. And for the sensitive eye wanting somewhere to safely look to put such show offs out of sight where they mercifully and tastefully belong, you’d be erecting a Jealous Wall twice as long as the Great Wall of China. But bejabbers, time has a way of proving one wrong. And I’m certain in the usual one hundred and twenty years it takes, such bungalows and bijou split level ranch houses, with their cathedral arched and stained glass windows plus the window shade tassels dancing, will become the rage and sought after by the architectural aficionados of the future, searching as they will be for the most authentic pebble dashed breeze block edifice for which to slap down their money and into which they will smugly ensconce themselves. And making every visiting American and Australian architectural scholar pull their forelock as they humbly approach up the garden path between the leprechaun statuary with camera and notebook in hand to ask if they may photograph the interior adornments and the elevations.

  Now you may be wondering why all this is said about Ireland. When by god, there are no end of unsightly shacks out in the rest of the world with your disgracefully execrable examples of bad taste being perpetrated and folk teaching the landscape an ugly lesson it won’t forget. And the reason is that Eire is above all an agricultural community which hitherto had wrought no disgrace upon the small face it shows upon this earth having as it has decent looking cattle, horses, sheep and pigs roaming nearly every bit of the landscape. Although it’s admitted there are a few other inhabited similar areas of the globe, surely the rural highways and byways of Ireland were before the advent of television the world’s most unspoilt. But now this country holds the world’s record for the most systematically continued ruination of some of the most beautiful scenery God, recognizing the unique devoutness of the people, put specially there. And here and now one must coin the words upon which to cast such blame. It is with the ‘bijou bungalow blight’. This architectural disease which has spread like wildfire across the length and breadth of the nation and is caught by the victim as they catch envious sight of such brand new elevation along the roadside and plan to do them one better.

  In passing, I suppose it is appropriate too to note another side of the coin. That could, were the subject of it unleashed, set matters to right. It is that the Irish are also the world’s recognized if not esteemed champions in the business of demolition. Their efficiency and speed in such being mind boggling. Take now a concert gra
nd piano, shining in its mint condition as it innocently stands there able to produce its perfectly tuned dulcet notes. And then enter your team of proven beyond doubt Irishmen. Pick axes, crowbars and sledgehammers over their shoulders at the ready. The gang of them to let fly as you stand there with your stop watch poised at zero seconds and shout “Go”. And by god it’s not that many tick tocks later that surrounding you and scattered everywhere in your smallest of smithereens is your previous piano with not a particle left that you could even remotely identify as ever having been a fraction of a musical instrument.

  Now there’s a reason if not a rhyme why all of this is so. You see, the foreigner was at the root of it. Arriving as he did, as the landlord settler. And with his fine manners and upstart pretensions plus a nice parcel of land mapped out, he built himself soaring castles and commodious mansions and populated them with the local Irish servant who was more than eager to have food, shelter and a steady pittance in return for waiting upon your arriviste aristocrat hand and foot. Ah but then, as the not always mild but usually moist gales continued to blow in from the Atlantic and the somber landscape stared back at him along with the sullen eyes of the natives who with their simple primitive ways, left goodly smears of grease on the bottom of the breakfast tray and baked potatoes black and lurked lazily having tea in the mansion’s kitchen, it was not long before your upper cruster decided to seek the calmer comforts and sophisticated serenity of where he hailed from in the first place. And so there came into being your plethora of absentee landlords. But this departure was usually felt by the natives to be good riddance to this brief interloper. And by god did they then delve into the butter, tea, bread, jam, ham and eggs not to mention penetrating deep beyond the thick oak door of the wine cellar.

 
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