He tells me to meet him in the upstairs bar of the Europa Hotel in Belfast, which surprisingly turns out to still exist. I’ve seen it before, heard of it, read about it and how the IRA bomb it every now and again - jounalists stay there - but so what? I’ve heard of the Fifth Province, one of Ireland’s four.
I hate going in to hotels alone and without an excuse. Everybody in Ireland can do it, and does it, but I have a difficulty, difficuties as the Jesuits say - a difficulty is always plural when you get to know it. I assume the hotel people will notice I’m not entitled to be there. So I ask them for the upstairs bar - if I’m directed there, I must be entitled to go there, no?
I do. I find the staircase. As I start to climb, three dwarfs come down, nattering in Thespian. I ignore them. Dwarfs are sent to try me. People at ease in the Europa are not deflected by thespians, or dwarfs. A pantomime is on at the Opera House next door - dwarfs are only to be expected. I continue to climb, expecting acrobats, dancing girls and unicyclists. All I find is Sean Hughes dominating a table - more actors, the Northern Ireland film industry is getting itself born again, again.
Time passes. Malcolm is in Belfast, in the Crown Saloon, just across the road from the Europa to meet somebody. So he noses around peeping here and there and cautiously looking into the snugs. He opens the door of one and there, gravely seated round the table are seven dwarfs.
Right. Malcolm feels a joke coming on. Goes up to the barman and asks, seeing as how the seven dwarfs are here assembled, where would Snow White be?
- Sure she’s gone round the corner, so she is. She’ll be back soon.
Another year, another pantomime. The search for the eighth dwarf goes on
I head for the commercial-traveller tables, get coffee, try not to look like I’m a potential co-respondent and wait, for a while. Hammond lives here; being local, he can be late; and he is. I thought I knew what he looks like, on account of seeing him on film once, outside a cottage standing in a space he was sharing with the greatest garden leprechaun you’ve ever seen, ridiculously colourful, not too pert and with a very becoming air of Ulster scepticism about him (the leprechaun). As you wait, you doubt. I wondered if I was sitting in the most unreal hotel in the universe, recovering from encounters with a trinity of dwarfs and a London Irish comedian and, after all that, sitting there waiting for a lepreachaun collaborator.
Trouble is, David Hammond has done wonderful things - made interesting films, sung and collected great songs, and been a director of one the most important initiatives of Modern Ireland - Field Day. Seamus Heaney keeps on mentioning him. But I want to know about the lepreachaun. Does it come from the Lepreachhaun Museum in Lifford, which is always closed when I’m passing? And why is ‘Ulster’ so good at leprechauns? Are leprechauns Protestant? My friend Francis Cowan had a theory about the Garden Gnome Belt that runs across England and corresponds to the territorial reach of, I think, the Saxons, or the Angles – a border as precise as a vowel shift. Did the Angles reach ‘Ulster’?
As I wait, I would rather not be thinking these thoughts. I hate the mention of lepreachauns when other (English) people mention them. I’m unsure whether a lepreachaun-mention would be all right between Irishmen. He’s from Belfast, I’m from Dublin. Are we meeting as Irishmen? Maybe. But I live in Edinburgh and the home-Irish like to treat me as a sort of lesser Irish-American when it suits them, which it often does. But don’t worry, in hotels you eventually get sedated. When he comes I recognise at least that, whoever he is, he is looking for somebody.
He enters, up the winding stairs (‘up the airy mountain down the rushey glen, we daren’t go a hunting for fear of little men’) like the ringmaster of a circus of garden gnomes. A peaked cap has colonised his upper skull like the cap on a dolmen - its perch looks inevitable but unlikely, you wonder at the engineering that got it there, but can’t imagine it being anywhere else, ever, morning, noon or night. He wears an armoured-against-weeds waistcoat - in wellington green - a garden centre costume except that you never see people dressed credibly for gardening in garden centres, do you? And David Hammond is a very credible figure in the gardens of Ulster.
I offer him stuff; he accepts coffee - a coffee. This is a bad sign (see David Hammond, Meeting II, below), but I don’t recognise it - can’t be bothered. I have, after all, come here to speak my mind, tell all, lay my cards on the table, lay all the cards on all the tables, tell it like it is. I do. However.
No matter how many arts meetings you do, you never really learn how. One reason, I think, is that you never know what is in the mind of the person you are trying to do the meeting to. In this meeting, after I had done my best with several of my very best, top of the range, coherent paragraphs, David Hammond conversed. It emerged that he had very little clue who I was, what I did or could do, or exactly why I was there. The fact that this made two of us did not seem helpful either.
A bad meeting? Not at all. The main thing about some meetings is that they happen. Bugger content. Bugger personal likes and dislikes. The main thing about this kind of meeting is that they take place. This one took place. I remember it well.
Then nothing happened. It is the natural condition of nothing, that it often happens. The other thing about meetings is that they always seem to be a good idea. People who will refuse you everything will make an exception for a meeting, expecting nothing, dreading, maybe, most things, but unable to say no.
By the time we met Davy Hammond again a month or two later, I was running a mapping project in Crumlin, Co Antrim, a small town 15 miles or so west of Belfast and very near the airport, with a population that used to be around 1,500 and 80% Unionist-Protestant, grown to about 10,000 and now 90% Catholic-Republican. In Crumlin I had been having an interesting time. I was getting to know the Girls’ Brigade, The Historical Society, the schools, the youth club, trying to talk sense to a Catholic priest for the first time in thirty years and listening to the new, educated, prosperous Catholic sort-of-middle class. I learned so much that I was by now mistaking Catholics for Protestants and realising that Northern Irelanders do know where Dublin is, often know what it’s like and sometimes quite like it. And if they want to go on calling the Republic The Free State it’s not always that they mean anything by it.
We were in the middle of a bit of Ireland that was changing quickly and visibly and, while working on Crumlin, we stayed just outside Broughshane near Ballymena, where nothing was changing easily. It woke me up about the film. I had been operating in Scotland, which sometime imagines it believes in ‘Britain’ and where you still have to talk of Ireland more or less as Karel Capek maps it.
But Ireland can change your mind abut things if you let it. In the North, Gaelic was political and was important in a way that in could not be in the Republic. Of course The Troubles made everything important. You shouldn’t need troubles to wake you up, but sometimes you do.
By the time of the second Hammond meeting, we were thinking that it was time for Murray and I to get out of the house more often and do some active homework, the Crumlin project was rounding itself up, everybody’s maps of Crumlin were being assembled for an exhibition involving almost the whole town and there was a lot of running around and worrying to be done.
Second meetings are different. There’s usually a better, sometimes even a real, reason for them. It’s only the second one, so nobody hates anybody yet. It isn’t the first, so we all know each other a little.
David Hammond, whom we had started to call Davy with no justification whatsoever, had agreed to meet again, for some reason. There were no dwarfs, no adjacent comedians, but we were back to the Europa - plenty of commercials, thank God.
I can remember little of the first hour. I had driven us in a rush from Crumlin – the exhibition was half up, the half that was up would need to be re-hung because the Crumlin matriarchy had hung it like a rogues gallery – accidentally? – we wondered and we got ourselves late. So getting us all sat down, not on time but at least all present, felt like a good day’s work in itself and I didn’t feel responsible for this meeting. Murray and Davy could say anything they liked so long as they said something. Facts would not come into it; facts would come in much later if they came in at all.
It turned out that Hammond was off to Donegal to film something based on the beginning of Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ and featuring two plants that would be in bloom very briefly and at their best on that weekend only - Meadowsweet and Long Purple.
Hammond’s colleague arrives - a man who goes to conferences, festivals, who knows names, carries anecdotes like loose change and knows about the modern meeting. And he’s young enough to care. He gets busy filling the gaps. Guinness is ordered and would be ordered again. Things are moving on. Last time it was hotel coffee, a kind of conceptual contraceptive. Guinness makes things happen, the kind of things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but things nevertheless.
We can’t really discuss the film, except to say that there is money, we hope, for a film and that there will, we hope, be more later - for a masterpiece. The stories improve. We’re buying, Davy is taking
Davy, young and working for the BBC, is sent to Slemish - St Patrick’s goat-herding mountain, very near where we’re staying - to collect lore. An old man full of lore records some lore for Davy and directs him to the house where St Partick lived. The lore-man has done this before but. He knows that credibility depends on footnotes, on a respectable degree of scepticism being shown by one and all. So he offers a sceptical footnote.
The house, though, when you go, you must take great care now. The main house itself was, of course, there 1,500 years ago. You can see its great antiquity in every one of its mid-20th century features. However, the lean-to, well that, though of great antiquity - as is everything in the shadow of Slemish - the lean-to we must, obviously, treat with care, great care. The lean-to, we think, and the best authorities agree, was not there in the saint’s time. As any student of the Middle Ages would recognise and as every one of St Patrick’s neighbours already knows. No flies.
Davy takes all this in, records the lore, saves the laughs for later and gets down to names and adresses. The lore-man is Dan MacFethridge. ‘And how do you spell that, Dan?’ asks Davy, who is a learned and culturally sensitive man, is aware of several spellings for MacFethridge and knows that every spelling carries a deal of complicted baggage.
‘D-A-N’, says MacFethridge, shaking his head at the scandalous levels of education in the BBC nowadays. Thank God you don’t have spelling on the radio. Davy is still shaking his head; so, apparently, is Dan MacFethridge.
Stories mean we have reached a certain stage - that of people who think they will be meeting again. Other stories arrive and Davy and Murray get to work on a Book of Kells conversation - Murray has just made his Kells film. Davy has in his time tried to do some lettering, quills, quiet desperation and all. By the time this begins, we should have been leaving, by the time the Kells business begins I should have been back in Crumlin. Eventually I remember my role as the diary-holder, map-reader, punctuality-guardian and I go to rescue the car from its parking meter. David acknowleges that some of us have different drummers to deal with. I go, get the car and risk my future by pirating a place in the taxi rank outside the Europa.
We’re all pleased. It is good for meetings to have to end. It means we’re all busy, regardless of how much Guinness has entered the equation. Stories have been told, credentials displayed, money lightly touched on, IOU’s issued on the appearance of Cassandra the producer, on conversations with Cassandra and above all on arrangements being made with Cassandra. We spend the mention of Cassandra’s name like currency.
In Belfast they are insufficiently surprised by the existence of Cassandra. Of course the town is full of woman called Ruby and Iris and Scarlett and The Belle of Belfast City and they grow McGrogans under every other cabbage. But still. We’ll get them later. There’s a play by Stewart Parker called ‘Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain’. Of course it’s only a TV play so its perfection goes unremarked, but among its perfections is its names - Iris is middle class and in the traffic because she has a car, Ruby is working and in the rain on silly high heels because she doesn’t; their names immediately suggest this to Belfast people with ears, and sure don’t they all have them and take pleasure in it? Remember Ruby Murray? And they have Rita’s as well and there’s a man called Marcellus McMullan somewhere in and around Portadown.
The term ‘Ruby’ and/or ‘Ruby Murray’ are often used as ‘cockney rhyming slang’ for curry.
Off to Crumlin, then to Broughshane and up the hill to Cleggan, looking back carefully now at Slemish for signs of the MacFethridges, for inauthentic lean-to’s, and, obviously for The Saint Himself. We went off, picked up my wife Katy from the airport, launched the mapping exhibition that night, talked to aldermen, got gobsmacked when the Mayor of Antrim quoted Burns, met young men drinking lager and young women explaining the world to us and also to the young men drinking lager - nothing changes – were talked to in an exceptionally polite and very un-bobby way by an RUC man, came back to our own Antrim glen, took another look at Slemish, sent Murray off to bed in the attic and considered the next day, which was Belfast on a Saturday.
We go to meet Gearóid MacLochlainn in the Culturlann on the Falls Road. We try hard, we really do. But the M2 has been closed going out of Belfast and we arrive 40 minutes late. Gearóid doesn’t mind, he saw the traffic jam - I can’t work out how you can see North Belfast from the Falls, but information travels in The North, fast and accurate and seldom by the usual channels. We think of The Troubles of course, of terrible things happening nearby, of not knowing the town well enough to avoid trouble or even to know where or what it is.
Gearóid writes and speaks the Gaelic of West Belfast. He is not concerned with Gaelic purity or the kind of authenticity that says you have to have a Gaelic ancestor wheezing away beside the family hearth to get your Gaelic license. He sounds like Belfast, an accent that is not recognised in the Gaelic academies, knows about microphone technique, writes about Crazy Horse and the London Irish, quotes Linton Kwesi Johnson, likes macaronic poems and writes them.
He is a poet to hear as well as to read and I first heard him at a GB event in Edinburgh. He played a guitar that seemed to work reluctantly. It was a sluggish evening. We had already had an Irish culture person who grimaced culturally at us all, spoke ‘informally’ but in highly structured clauses and culturally introduced an Irish poet who told one of the oldest Kerryman jokes in the venerable repertoire of Kerryman jokes, then spoiled it all by reading one of his poems. Then Gearóid arrives, who does no cosy little stories. He has poems to read, to perform, and does them straight – direct and straight-lined towards the solar plexus of his listeners. And he has listeners, has them nailed to the wall of his perfromance and they stay there till he lets them down. He means it; and after he’s done you wonder why so few poets do really mean it.
Doing a meeting with Gearóid is difficult, because the tendency of meeting is to complicate things – to talk around them more than they need to be talked around. And it’s difficult to be circuitous with Gearóid or his poems. Try to walk around him or his poem and you’ll certainly collide with one or the other. But we’re having a meeting, so that’s what we do. We do it, he allows us. Everything is all right. He’ll be in the film. I’m not sure if he actually said this but we think he agreed. At least he didn’t say no, I think.
We leave and go off into the centre of Belfast. Things are still blocked; roads, even pavements seem blocked. We decide to admit to no qualms whatsoever in front of Murray - we might as well die laughing as any other way; and we’re here now anyway - to show him a thing or two oaround the town. He’ll have to get used to Belfast in very little time and this is not just any old town. We’ve been talking about John Hewitt, so we decide to find the new John Hewitt pub (‘no Hewitt ever married a Papist or kept a public house’ - Hewitt’s grandfather), get the wrong one - The Lenin Vodka Bar, a statue of himself outside looking like Jim Larkin after dancing lessons.
A country gentleman (tweeds, non-Belfast county formality – there is something called The Ulster Tatler) stops us and asks us why the traffic is being rerouted all over. We explain the M2 problem, hint (strongly) that nothing bad is going on and that we can all calm down.
‘Throughout the weekends of the Cathedral Quarter Festival, there will be a troupe of adults performing poetry in the streets of the city centre’. Poetry in Motion, ART.IE, May 2001
Having said as much, we resume the Hewitt pub search and have doubts. Has there been a bomb? We find the pub, which is full of flamboyanty dressed people slightly high on something. Katy asks a girl what’s going on. She sticks out her chest like an operatic tenor (‘breast expanding to the ball’, as they say in, I think, Maritana - by Vincent Wallace, from Waterford, part of the ‘Irish Ring’ cycle of penny dreadful operas).
She stands there and announces: ‘Gay Pride!’. There’s been a march. And we never got a chance to tell the country gentleman. I would like country gentlemen to know about Gay Pride as a potential producer of celebrations and friendly ructions and I’d like to be the heterosexual who tells them. But you can’t have everything. We go back to Slemish, where it’s safe, so safe they vote for Ian Paisley every time (or Doctor Paisley, as an apparently nice lady corrected us). We slept well.
Film people get up early, apparently. Murray does, so we do too. It’s cold and damp and often misty on the slopes of the hills of Antrim and no matter how early or how briskly you do it, feeling like a film maker doesn’t come easy in the morning. The turf fire is gone, the room smells and feels of ashes. The cattle outside look as miserable as we feel. We make the tea and half-burn the toast and stare at each other across the table.
This is beginning to feel real. If we’re doing things we don’t feel like doing – like getting out of bed – then this must be work. Also have given up bathing in notions of the films we are not going to make or distributing dismissive shrugs towards the films other people make. Now we have to do something, examine the things that we think will be in the film and talk to the people; and we are starting off at the heart of Ian Paisley country and we feel a bit foreign.
The people round here are among the nicest you could ever meet – reserved, courteous, helpful; and with the most terrifying politics. This sign – addressed to ‘outsiders’ was at the entrance to the estate we were staying on.
While we were there, we had bowls of wild raspberries brought to us by Stanley, the factor, visits from Mervyn the handyman and Rodney the electrician when the generator broke down, with apologetic bottles of Bushmills from the owner, Lord Rathcavan, who seems to own most of Antrim. We were offered pheasant by his lordship, with detailed advice on cooking it. There was nothing about any of them that was not utterly civilised except the politics. And, even despite the politics, they had a bewildered northern fascination with me as an example of something from the south. Being treated as a bewilderment is itself bewildering, though I think we all enjoyed the whole thing, though we said nothing and probably enjoyed also the conscious saying of nothing. A lot of grinning went on. Sometimes we all had to turn away so we could do our grinning in peace.
We never mentioned anything you could call politics, though it was interesting during the Foot and Mouth emergency, which the Republic was managing in style and the UK was making into a disaster. The ‘UK’ is, from our point of view, England and we enjoyed watching England lose its head in a completely unEnglish way. Though maybe the way England keeps on saying ‘Don’t Panic’ should have told us something. William of Orange would not have approved of the panic and it was nice to do some head shaking with his disciples, while continuing to say nothing of course.
I often find myself liking people whose politics and religion are not only different from mine, but disgustingly different. Mervyn and Stanley would turn up when the cottage’s generator needed coaxing. Mervyn wasn’t a generator-coaxer but he’d heard that somebody from Edinburgh was there and wanted to see. When the truth emerged - that I was merely a Dubliner from Edinburgh - Mervyn immediately decided that this was just as interesting - in its own way - and we settled down to making remarks about his lordship, who owned almost all of East Antrim, who sounded far too English to be anything of the sort, who had the kind of Irish name only the Planted English of Northern Ireland are willing to wear on their sleeves - in all respects the kind of person one makes remarks about in Ireland. So Mervyn and I got down to it. And the generator was, in the course of it all, mightily coaxed. It was an Irish conversation, though Mervyn would probably not choose to be called Irish if he had a choice. But our history sems to be filling up with Them and Us meeting each other and failing either to dislike or misunderstand each other. Of course, the conditions have to be right for this kind of thing to happen and they aren’t always.
At the same time the Belfast-Dublin express was whisking NI go-getters down to skim off some of the cream from the whiskers of the Celtic Tiger. Being Northern Irish was beginning to look like a lonely station. Even Scotland was beginning to disengage. So we were doing some grinning ourselves, the kind you do after you get home safely and nobody’s looking.
Northen Ireland is a snug place. Going around it you often feel more like you are nosing around somebody’s house than wandering across a landscape.
Ages ago I drove in winter from Belfast to Derry. It was snowing, but it was only Northern Irish snow. I left a meeting with Michael Barnes, director of the Belfast Festival at Queens, a man who wore a pair of very distressed slippers at work, had old armchairs in his office and bookshelves with real books which looked read. He offered me whiskey for the road. I laughed. An hour later I was trying to skate over the Glenshana Pass – serious ice, deep cold. I knew the Sperrin Mountains were there – we did them in school; but I didn’t take them seriously.
Northern Ireland, to me, was a sort of family bungalow. The wilderness is outside. That’s what Donegal is for. Northern Ireland does not go to Blackpool for its holidays, Warrenpoint looks a bit empty to me, Portstewart a bit small and far too full of Ulster Fries. Donegal is their backyard wilderness – sea sand and serious weather. And that’s where we were going, an Ulster Journey to the ultimate in republican counties. Donegal is an amputated limb of the so-called Province. It’s so conventional to go there that some of them have started getting rebellious and started going to Mayo – an even longer and more irrational journey.
There are reasons for some Irish jokes.
In an Enniskillen hotel I ask what would be the best way to get to Dundalk.
- What? From here?
It’s not easy – part of the snugness problem. You’d think you could just head west but you can’t. ‘Ulster’s’ snug little towns are well connected to each other but there seems to be no ultimate destination in mind for the old roads. The Belfast-Derry road thinks it’s going to Ballymoney and that Ballymoney woud be all there was to it. The Dublin-Derry gives up all pretense to rationality around Cavan. Reluctance comes into it. The Belfast road does not want to go to Derry and there used to be a dreadful bit of the road where the smooth, Unionist motorway suddenly collapsed into a maze of potholes, the road lights ceased and you realised that republicans lived here.
The Scots planters seem to have settled here the way they settled America – in a series of homesteads, no Roman roads until the motorways came. Not that Irish Irish roads are all that Roman either, but the ancient roads of Ireland do have very definite and useful endings, endings that amount to real destinations. The roads of the north of Ireland take places one at a time. You arrive and then you decide where to point yourself at next and the road often leaves you to it.
And so do the signposts. Greek signposts used to have a similar attitude to Yugoslavia: they know it’s there, realise it has to be dealt with. But they wish it weren’t and didn’t, so Yugoslavia came and went like Brigadoon, an optional, sporadic nightmare. Francis Cowan and I used to refer to Yorkshire as Yugoslavia an unneccesary barrier between the place you are and the places you want to go to. Living inside interesting cultures can be complicated. That’s why we like them.
The Catholic Church, usualy so precise about its enemies, used, in Ireland, invariably to refer to ‘England’ as a ‘pagan’ country. ‘England’ meaning Britain, ‘pagan’ meaning non-Catholic. This general feeling about the evil perversity of ‘England’ seems to be shared by Northern Protestants. Maybe we’re all more Irish than we are either Catholic or Protestant. And we all buy the godless English Pagan Papers just to make sure things are as pagan over there as we hope they are.
Anyway, it’s a Sunday and we’re off through Northern Irish Ulster to Donegal. Donegal insinuates itself so suggestively into Northern Ireland, you imagine you’ll get into it by pointing yourself at it and hoping. We did the carelessness and the hope right enough but Donegal isn’t that easy. We were going to Gort a Hork, in the Republic - the South - but further north than any bit of Northern Ireland is; and we found that you have to get in and out of planter settlements and compromises and roads that don’t point to where the signposts say they’re supposed to go before you get anywhere near Donegal.
It took ages and we made ourselves late but, as we went, the journey read like a film we were watching rather than a journey we were doing. We glided through the sleeker suburbs of Ballymena – and they are legion – past the Dunlop place and the tobacco factory and on to Portglenone, on past Bellaghy, where the Bawn - the fortified house built by the Plantation for the planters to take shelter in from the natives - is now a Seamus Heaney Centre - Heaney born here, descended from those the Bawn was buillt to keep out. Like himself, Bellaghy is discreet and watchful, a good town to say nothing in.
We go on by Draperstown (given to the London Guild of Drapers). I don’t claim that all this history is just waiting to be read by every passer-by. But if you know it’s there, you can’t miss it. We know some of it but not all that many details. We can see that these are serious Sunday morning places. Every little town has a congregation Sunday-suiting it up and down the main street and into the Spars and the Supervalu’s, looking guiltily for bread, milk and the pagan Sunday papers from England.
There is no obvious road for us to travel (we shouldn’t have started from where we started) so we often needed local advice about which sideways direction to take. We get eloquent and extensive directions - accurate, if you managed to pay attention to the matter and not the manner. I was very interested in the manner
I wanted to go back to all our guides and ask them who they were and who they thought we were. We were a Greek (Katy, my wife), a Scot (Murray - Highland-Inverness-Fife) and a Dubliner (me). We thought we knew who they were - Presbyterians if in suits or the better class of pullover or a four wheel drive; Catholics if in anoracks, track suits or a tractor. Anyway, they enjoyed our lack of direction, we enjoyed their courtesy and detail and we felt we were travelling through layers of people and the visible signs of their history.
Anyway there we were, getting west by going sometimes north up to Derry, which is either the capital of Donegal or the barrier to it. We go out on to the Letterkenny road with the most pointedly, agressively neglected potholes in Ireland, and into the beginnings of Donegal.
The first time I crossed that border I was going from Derry on to Inishowen, the peninsula that sticks itself up north from Derry. Brian Friel lives there and the British Ordnance Survey did some of its most important triangulatons there, which led eventually to Friel’s Translations. You reach the checkpoint very soon – it feels like a few hundred yards up the road. The checkpoint was well equipped with the usual nervous teenaged Scottish soldier, armed and carrying enough stuff to invade someplace all on his own, survive in the desert for a week and keep in touch with the entire British Empire. He has some questions to ask, none of which, I thought, would ever really help him with his enquiries. I answered and drove on a few more yards to the Republic’s checkpoint. This was womaned by a very bored young thing sitting on a wooden chair with her back to Derry, bent over a magazine held in her left hand. With her right she was waving all comers, unseen, into Donegal, a hundred thousand blind welcomes for every one of us.
I have a weakness for Donegal towns that nobody who knows me shares. I like, for example, Ballybofey, where the main street just sits there like cowboy filmset in front of almost nothing behind it. I was there one night standing in front of The Balor Hall and I thought everything had to happen in front of me - no backstreets. It didn’t of course; it happened off there someplace behind the set. People started looking at me funny – the only standing-still person in town. I went inside.
Letterkenny fits itself in and around its hills beautifully, has a new theatre and has discovered coffee. They have Highland Radio here. I was in there once and almost the entire staff were women, except for the worried man behind the microphone – worried even though RTE, the National Broadcaster, had sent their spies to find out how it was that this little outfit was knocking lumps out of Gay Byrne, the National Broadcaster’s national broadcaster.
After Letterkenny, it gets wilder. There’s the remains of the old railway, the station where Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland filmed a piece of the kind of Irish gloom that seemed to interest people in the seventies - wordless men, fragile (beautiful, of course) women and a lot of weather – called, I think The Station Master. The path of the rails is still visible, though the grass has grown and the only sign of the track is a narrow path through the hills, defined only by a slightly different colour of grass - the 41st shade of green maybe - and looking like an emerald version of a yellowbrick road.
I hate to add to the longevity of myths, but some of them aren’t myths at all. The only subjects my Christian Brothers teachers took seriously were Irish and History. It was a pity about Irish. But they knew a lot about history and sometimes assumed we knew as much as they did. One day the Brother stood up and did History - the way he always did it - no books, no blackboard; he just spoke. He inserted his hands into the wide sleeves of his soutane – right hand into left sleeve, left hand into right. We settled down – History was great; it was somebody telling stories. And off he went.
- I don’t think Isaac Butt has been given his due.
He said. This was Primary 5. We were 10 or 11 years old.
Donegal digests the marks of human activity very thoroughly – the marks of man on the landscape, as a man I know often says and tries to teach me to say. The signs are there, they always are, but less visibly specific than elsewhere. Donegal has had its planters and its landlords like the rest of us - Ballybofey has the Isaac Butt Hall in memory of the Donegal Jewish Nationalist parliamentarian of whom far too few people have knowingly heard - but the typical lineaments of Scottish or English settlement, or even of EU subsidy, mostly need more stripping away than you feel able for on the road to Gort a Hork. And we weren’t really looking properly. We were after savage prospects – scenery; and I thought I knew what Errigal looked like. There are a few mountains here that look like I imagined Errigal and I picked them all out and was wrong every time.
Then we saw Errigal and I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry. I wouldn’t have expected them to teach me that in school. Maybe that’s why the Ulsters love Donegal. By the time we saw Errigal plain we had lost touch with all the townie rectitude, the Drapers, the Salters, the Mercers. There’s no Butcherstown for some reason.