Saturday, 26 September 2015


The view from nanny's back garden in the quiet of the world.

I have been in Ireland for two weeks so please indulge the lack of posts. At any rate I thought it best to keep quiet while away, given the remarkably poor reception of my opinion of AnjezĂ« Bojaxhiu. My sojourn in Co. Donegal was intended to be a break away from the nightmare of my own home but it soon proved to be a blend of newfound pain and a feeling of homesickness, albeit not for England.

Some years ago my mother told me that I took my first steps in a Donegal town called Rathmullan, which is across the Swilly from Inishowen, Ireland's most northerly peninsula (ironically in the Republic, or South, of Ireland). This curious piece of information has always seemed significant for me, given my especial fondness for Donegal, its kindly people and beauteous countryside. You might say that it has given substance to that sentiment of belonging, often articulated in the quaint form "this is home," which, fond though I am of England, I have never quite felt here, at least not in suburban London. At the same time I can but recall and resonate with the words of Iris Murdoch, an Irishwoman as put off Irish politics and religion as I am: "I feel unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred." I thought of these words as I drove from Eglinton in the North to the Border and saw the familiar signs of sectarianism along the way; the Ulster flag in one town, and in another a defaced sign to Londonderry.

Ireland's most northerly point at Malin.

Nonetheless I forgot all that as I crossed the Border and saw for the first time in four years the rolling contours of Ulster's emerald hills and breathed in the turf after a light rainfall. I could scarcely believe that I had left behind so fair a place for four years! My heart was full of it. I had met my uncle Russell from BBC Radio Foyle at the airport and together we went to see nanny in Ballybofey. Nanny didn't feel up to going to church on Sunday (13th) so I went alone instead. I'd be surprised if there was an Orthodox church anywhere in Ulster (there might be one in Belfast) so, resigned to the wicked choice between Papist, Presbyterian or Church of Ireland, I chose the latter. I went to the early morning CW Holy Communion at Stranorlar across the River Finn, which was a said service, quite plain but dignified and strangely without the ethos of a low Mass. Then, for some levity, I decided to go to the Papist church of Mary Immaculate. My friend said afterwards that I might well have had the distinction to have been the only man in Ulster to have been to both a Papist and Protestant church on the same day! But the disparity between the dignity and simplicity of the Anglican church and the banality and philistinism of the Papist was startling. At the Anglican church they (I should say we) sang "The royal banners forward go," in honour of the Holy Cross. At the Papist church, which, unlike the Anglican church, had a choir, they sang the "Butterfly song," one stanza of which begins "if I were a wiggly worm (!)" The priest seemed to struggle with the New translation which, given the choice of hymn, seemed doubly ridiculous, and what was funnier was that the congregation, who used the old Mass books printed in 1976, responded defiantly with the Old! I shook hands with as many congregants as I could find during the "sign of peace" because, unlike traddies, I am not rude, and went away after the thirty minute travesty rejoicing in the inferiority of Rome. It was the thrill of seeing one's bitterest enemy drowning in a mire of his or her own shit.

Shit like this! I took this outside one of the many tat shops in Knock. It seems strange to me that people who claim to worship the LORD Jesus Christ are willing to slap His face on the cheapest, most tawdry junk. I almost bought a holy tea towel. Almost...

Nanny was going into University Hospital Galway on Tuesday (15th (more on that some other time)) so I went to stay with my uncle Keiron and his wife Cathy in Manorcunningham (locally called simply "Manor"). One day, apart from the family, I saw no more than three people, so rural their house is. It was bliss. Keiron and I drove down to Galway on Saturday (19th) to visit nanny in hospital. We passed through Donegal town by Ballyshannon, following the road through the hills, and drove through Mullaghmore by the coast in Sligo. Classiebawn Castle, Lord Mountbatten's old retreat, is, for me, a poignant and lonely monument to the memory of the many victims of IRA brutality. I crossed myself thrice as I watched that castle by the sea go by; for Lord Mountbatten, that he might rest in peace; for Her Majesty The Queen, and for a united Ireland. On we drove through Drumcliff, past the cemetery at St Columba's, which is Yeats' final resting place. We saw some people, tourists most likely, gathered at the cemetery, presumably around Yeats' grave, and I was reminded of Yeats' profound yearning for a simpler time in Ireland, reflected in those eternal words from The Hour-Glass:

The stream of the world has changed its course,
And with the stream my thoughts have run
Into some cloudy, thunderous spring
That is its mountain-source;
Aye, to some frenzy of the mind
For all that we have done's undone
Our speculation but as the wind.


Presently we came to Mayo, a county I had hitherto not visited. We drove past Knock. Going south you can see the spire of the basilica over the hills on the left. We didn't stop then but we did on the way back (more later). I don't recall much about the Mayo countryside of particular note. It reminded me of the flat fields around Naas and Athy in Co. Kildare. Boring. That all changed when we drove into Galway. Years ago my uncle Russell gave me an out-of-date guide to Ireland from the 1960's. We have no family in Galway, so we'd have no reason to visit it, but I was always intrigued by the farmlands of Galway, which are all separated by stone walls rather than foliage or wooden fencing. At last, after a four hour drive, we arrived in Galway city. We checked in at the hotel and went to see nanny, under the care of Professor McAnena. She was in St Finbarr's ward. I was glad she was under the patronage of an actual saint because the other ward on that floor was "St Pius." She was in good spirits. I had brought her some flowers from her garden, carefully avoiding chrysanthemums (which she dislikes, and which we all associate with sickness). I could think of little to say besides: "I'm worried about you, nanna," and some half-hearted comments about various things. When Keiron went to see the nurse about nanny's chart, I had a few moments alone with her. Nanny then spoke words of comfort and wisdom that I shall never forget. But visiting time was cruelly brief so we had to go. Keiron and I had our supper and went to a traditional pub to drink till closing time. To lift our spirits we joined in the music, some of which was familiar to me; ballads like Star of the County Down, and The town I loved so well, about nanny's own Londonderry.

Lough Swilly from just south of Rathmullan.

On Sunday (20th) we went to the hospital to take nanny to church. I had wanted to visit the 14th century church of St Nicholas but nanny wasn't aloud out of the hospital so we had to settle for a quick CW service in a modern inter-denominational chapel which begun with All things bright and beautiful. It's extraordinary how potent cheap music can be; the whole thing was reminiscent of a funeral. Because of signs up saying "winter vomiting outbreak," we had to leave after the service so I kissed nanny goodbye and left.

The hills around Dunlewy. It was raining.

I had planned on writing about my drive around Donegal and our mock pilgrimage to Knock but since my visit to Ireland was inextricably linked up with my grandmother's failing health I don't think I can continue, so perhaps another time. I will say this, though. I visited Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains less than a month after my grandfather's death. There is little in Ireland of beauty that I have not seen in my life, but the blend of sorrow, consolation and awe that I experienced in those fair hills in my youth I count as one of the chief memories of my life, touched as I was then by the fair memory of my grandfather. Keiron and I drove through Rathmullan, familiar from time past, by the Swilly road to Portsalon and thence by the loughs to Kerrykeel, Kilmacrenan, through the ragged solitudes of Glenveagh to Dunlewy and Gweedore in the Gaeltacht and then south through Ardara to Donegal town, then back to Manor via Ballybofey. I have seen those hills, towns and loughs before. I have breathed in the salty wind off the Atlantic from Donegal's lonely strands and stared into unimaginable depths from the shores there. That was then, when the joy of youth was upon me and I knew neither grief nor pain. But their beauty now was of a different kind, enriched by their connexion with my nanny, just as the hills of Glendalough smote my heart on that autumn day in 2001 when I saw them last. It rained for much of the day as Keiron and I drove through the hills and by the sea, not to be wondered at in Eire, but to my mind it was as if the county itself cried for nanny. I think what I am trying to say, in a roundabout way, is I am going to move to Donegal one day. We all know England is finished, and the same can be said for most of Ireland, but there remain for me in Ireland islands of good faith, of honesty and tradition against the flowing stream of Yeats' world. Unlike the "migrants" moving to Europe, though, I at least have a family connexion and sound reason to remove thither.

1 comment:

  1. Could a modernist Roman Catholic, loyal to the Pope, please explain to those of us less loyal what is the theological significant of the "wiggly worm"? I have heard that there is a white salamander someplace in Mormon theology, but this is the first time that I have heard of a wiggle worm.