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Irish Adventure

I’ve been receiving friendly rebukes for not posting anything on this new blog of mine. Mea culpa – I need help. But when I told this story to a small but select audience yesterday, I was instructed to write it up and get going at last. So here we go.
In the summer vacation of 1960 I was given a college travel grant to visit Ireland. It’s unbelievable now that £50 would carry me from Brighton via Holyhead to Dublin, from Dublin to the Aran Isles and back, staying in B&Bs, but it did. My intention was to see the great manuscripts in Trinity College Library, the golden pagan and Christian treasures in the National Museum. Then I would go west, to see whatever I could see without the benefit of wheels.
It was already exciting enough to be in Dublin. Here was Dublin Castle, notorious garrison and headquarters of British administration in 1916. I wanted to see the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, when the Irish Republic had been proclaimed at Easter, 1916. It was heady stuff for a young Welshman, seeing the functioning capital of the world’s only Celtic state. The Post Office was extraordinary. In my small world Post Offices were not at all imposing. Why had Padraig Pearse and his friends chosen such a place? As soon as I saw it, I knew why. O’Connell Street, then Nelson Street, was and is the artery of Dublin. The Nelson Pillar was still standing – not to be blown up until 1966. It was imposing in a personal kind of way, but the Post Office was and is massive, grim, dominant. This was the ideal place for Pearse’s sacrificial gesture. I was giddy on a version of modern Irish history. That history was changing during the very week I reached Dublin. Ireland was about to step onto the world’s alarming stage.
The appalling legacy of Belgium in the Congo was being lived out that year. The Belgian monarchy, having looted the country’s enormous resources as best it knew how, had abandoned the wretched Congolese to survive as best they were able. There was chaos, there was conflict between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. The United Nations had become involved – and Ireland was in the very process. As a former imperial colony with a stable governmental system, Ireland was invited to send troops to join a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The Dáil was to debate that very week, so to the Irish parliament in Leinster House I went.
I’d never been in the London House of Commons. Naturally I don’t remember the speeches. I was deeply disappointed by the lack of Irish wit and style. Seán Lemass, the Taóiseach, was grave, not to say dour, perhaps deliberately dull. This man, I knew, had been a teenager fighting the British Army in the Easter Rising. There was a heavy air of responsibility in the air. The vote was taken, the decision made.
There were disappointments even in Dublin. If I remember aright, there were no theatre productions at the Abbey or the Gate. I had seen the Dublin Gate touring when on leave from the Army in Malta. I can boast that I saw Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards on tour both in Malta and Brighton, but not in Dublin, alas. I think remember staying in a Youth Hostel, which certainly meant braving the memorably grubby and desperate backstreets. Ireland was still seriously poor.
So I took the train to Galway, coinciding with the Galway Races. I had no idea! All I had ever seen were Brighton Races and Plumpton National Hunt meetings. They had nothing at all like the magnetism of Galway. Everything pullulated, pulsated. Where could I stay? A kind woman took me in to her overcrowded little house, where I shared a room with two smelly men, but didn’t have to share a bed. As I sat downstairs in the kitchen there was sudden excitement. Doors flung themselves open. “A man has been stabbed!” The landlady crossed herself: “Jesus Mary and Joseph defend us!” she murmured.
There were no flights to the Aran Isles in those days. Instead there was the big ferry steamer, whose name I’ve forgotten. The harbour and the ship were a hubbub. Announcements were made in Irish and English, to my immense excitement. Such things didn’t happen in Wales. It was quite a voyage, and I need to describe the islands briefly. The ferry took varied routes on varying days, but by luck I had come on the best day. Inisheer is the smallest island, nearest to Galway; Inismaan the second and beyond is Inishmore, the largest.
The ship throbbed its smoky way out towards Inisheer. There was no question of a harbour or quay. The steamer slowed down and anchored. As we watched, a dozen curraghs pulled away from the island’s beach, each with a young man or two rowing with oars such as I’d never seen before – poles with flattened ends, not blades, and so well-suited for sea-rowing. The curraghs were long, slender and black – tarred canvas stretched over lathwood frames. The young men were even more memorable than their craft: they wore jackets and trousers of the thickest homespun grey tweed. On their feet were pampooties, a kind of slipper made from calfskin with the hair left on to give a better grip on the seaweeded island rocks. Figures from a heroic age, the last Men of the West. I was told years later that the tweed mill in Galway burnt down many years ago, and that pampooties have disappeared.
Some curraghs were loaded with supplies for the islanders and their post. There were homecomers too, but if one paid half-a-crown (just more than 12 pence in today’s money, but the price of a book then) one could be rowed to the island for an hour and be brought back to the ship. “No stiletto heels,” was the warning to women, since they might have pierced the canvas. After I’d landed and walked a little way (not that there are any long ways on Inisheer), I was invited into a cottage, offered a cup of tea and sat by the peat fire. Everyone spoke Irish: the last true Gaeltacht.
Back on the ferry, we steered for Inishmaan. This I knew was J.M. Synge’s island, the island of Riders to the Sea, in which he caught and translated the rich idiom of the islanders. The stop was not for visiting the island. Instead, on the beach, several men were wrestling a steer to the ground to rope it properly. Then they pushed their curragh into the water and dragged the steer in too, so that it had to swim after them. As they neared the ship, its derrick swung out and lowered a large belt to which the steer was hitched and lifted bellowing up in the air and swung back and down into the hold.
After that, landing at Inishmore was positively dull: there was a proper stone quay for landing visitors. Horses and buggies with their drivers were waiting to take visitors where they wanted to go. Mine took me out along the island’s road to a B&B, where again I was made welcome. Night life meant the pub, full of young men. One of them, dressed like a citygoer, began to sing, his voice full of longing and sorrow, though I couldn’t understand a word. After otheres had taken a turn, each in Irish, I was invited to sing. I began a Welsh song I loved, but they didn’t appreciate it, and would have preferred a song in English.
I was back in Dublin the very day that the Irish Army contingent paraded down O’Connell Street at the beginning of their voyage to the Congo, to the sound of bagpipes. The crowds were thick on the pavements and appreciative. It was an extraordinarily emotional occasion: it seemed that Ireland had taken a huge step of responsibility into the modern world. Although I still believe that this was true, nevertheless I learnedlong afterwards that there had been disaster too. Irish soldiers had not taken up arms on active service since 1923: none of the staff could have had any real appreciation of the appalling problems they would face in the Congo. In November that year nine Irish soldiers were killed in an ambush: only two escaped. The July parade was counterbalanced by the November funerals in Dublin of the first Irish soldiers to die in battle since the Civil War of 1922-23.