At Synge’s Chair

It was not what I expected to find. Fields of stone. We had a day trip to one of the Aran Islands on Friday. Patricia had some work to do out there and I tagged along. It was an opportunity to see the place and I didn’t want to miss out.

I had built myself up for some level of disappointment. In my vision, the island would turn out to be a series of fields, much like any corner of the West of Ireland, except running down to the ocean on all sides. It was so much more than that. It was remarkable in very many respects. I’m glad we went.

Inishmaan is the least visited of the Aran Islands, apparently. Most of the people on the ferry stayed in their seat when we docked there. They were holding out for the bigger island. This was us, though. An aluminium gangway dropped onto the dock and off we went.

First impressions were of a sort of an other-worldly Beckettian place. This had a lot to do with the strangely-shaped concrete sea defences which bound the little harbour. Like huge Jacks (remember that game… with the ball and the ‘things’?) interlocking in seemingly random arrangements. They seemed more appropriate to Vladimir and Estragon perching on them rather that the elusive Playboy and his head-damaged Dad.

Because this little island is J M Synge country. He spent five or six summer’s there and his fine play ‘Riders to the Sea’ is soaked in island and ocean lore.

While Patricia did her work, I walked up along the coast to Synge’s Chair. It’s a rocky perch on the edge of a steep incline down to the sea. From there you can enjoy the view of the adjoining island and, beyond, the wide Atlantic Ocean. Next stop; America. I gave the only other two other visitors some space to enjoy the place by themselves and then it was all mine. I sat and enjoyed the view and ate some of a large bag of spring onion and cheddar cheese kettle crisps that I’d brought along. Then I re-read a bit of Sally Rooney’s new novel, ‘Normal People’ which I like very much. It was a sunny/cloudy day and it was lovely to watch the clouds skid across the sky and the little boats make their way from island to island on the white capped waves. The only downside was that the stones to the back of Synge’s alleged perch are rather high and I expected to be accosted at any moment by more visitors. I never was but that didn’t stop me from being hyper-aware of the possibility.

When she was finished, Patricia and I walked the island. Rain was promised but it kept away, apart from a drop or two, and the sun was a regular visitor in the sky. We spotted a little sign offering lunch and climbed the little hill it pointed to. It turned out to be the home of a very nice European couple who offered us their bench seat in the garden and plied us with vegetable soup and brown bread with raisins in. The garden overlooked the ocean and it was all quite perfect. After we’d finished I brought the bowls and glasses into the kitchen and the woman said that I was kind and that my mother would be very proud of me. An unusually intimate compliment for a simple lunch transaction but welcome and a little moving nonetheless.

The event of the day was probably the cow and the narrow walkway.

There was a fort to be seen on a hill and, when we reached the top of it, there was a farmer man there on his quad bike with his sheepdog. Patricia knew him from her previous visits to the island and we chatted a while. He asked us were we going up to the fort and we said we thought we might. “Only, I’ve put a cow into the path the eat the grass. You can go past her. She’s an old girl and she won’t pay any heed to you.” We confirmed that a visit to the fort was not a priority for us but the guy seemed conflicted that his cow was stopping us so we decided to go on up. As we walked up the tiny lane, stone walls on either side, the farmer man stayed at the end with his dog so there was no opportunity to sneak back. We had to see it through. The cow was half way up the path, standing with her rear towards us. Brown, massive, and copiously horned. I would guess that her girth took up seven-eighths of the width of the walkway I encouraged her to walk on and we tailed behind but she must have found a rich vein of grass because she stopped and would not move again. I squeezed past and Patricia squeezed after.

We found a flat rock and stopped there to have a flask of tea and admire the view over the island. It was lovely but there was always the knowledge that we had to deal with the cow again on the way back. We are simple town-folk and not overly accustomed to livestock.

On the way back down the path, the cow had barely moved and was now facing us with its horns. It seemed much more interested in us now that we were approaching face on. The farmer was long gone. It was just her and us. There was no point in hesitating, we had to get past so I lead the way. With a quiet word about how very well she was looking I stepped forward and inched along between the stone wall and the cow’s huge solid flank. There was a feeling that a nudge from her would pin me against the wall and I wasn’t sure how things would go from there. Anyway, I got through. I looked back and could see that Patricia was having some doubts and, man, I didn’t blame her. Still, there was no other way out of there, it was the cow or nothing, so I needed to move things along before the situation deteriorated further on account of being thought-about too much. I gave Daisy a gentle slap on the rump and she ambled forward towards Patricia. There suddenly didn’t seem to be enough room for them both.

“Turn sideways,” I said and Patricia did. The cow rumbled alongside her. “Now sidestep.” She did. Then we were past and the cow was just a big brown arse up the pathway. We left her to it.

We walked all the way back down to the ferry and were too early as we almost always are. That was okay though. It wasn’t raining and the sea and the breeze made acceptable company for a while.

If you do ever go to Inishmaan, make sure you view the Harry Clarke windows in the little church there. Their effect is simply stunning against the island light.

The thing with the island is the possibilities it evokes. The place itself is scenic, untamed, wild and beautiful but, ultimately, it’s just a place. It’s how it plays on your mind, that’s what will stay with you. It’s a place onto itself, a law onto itself, a microcosm of the entire world. It could become everything you love or everything you hate. A tiny universe with many possibilities.

The island is a feast for the eyes but it is also a shared dessert and an expresso for the mind.

I look forward to going back again, some fine day.

Death in a French WC
Friday was our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary, Patricia and me. I posted an old photo on Twitter and we got lots of lovely well-wishes over the social medias. It was all very nice.

In the evening, we went out for dinner to celebrate how damn lucky we were to find each other and to eat some food as well, obviously.

A local restaurant was having a French evening and we went there. If you know I live in a small town on the west coast of Ireland, you may be tempted to think that a French evening might be a bit of a joke but that was not the case. This local restaurant, Rua, (Irish for ‘red’) would take the Pepsi challenge with any restaurant I’ve ever eaten in anywhere. Not only is it good, it’s damn good. On this particular evening, it was actually très bien.

We had some moules and some canard and some crepe for dessert as well as a big old Cotes du Rhone. It was a very good meal. About half way through, a French couple came in and there was perhaps a subtle worry that they may tear the place up, declaring that this wasn’t ‘French’ at all but, no, they seemed to enjoy it too.

It all reminded me of the first time I went to France and ate in a restaurant there. I was in Grenoble for a week, working, and was brought out one evening by a work colleague. It was just the two of us and it was a small intimate kind of a place. The food was also very good, as I recall.

I remember two things in particular from that evening. The first was that I had a very-late-night espresso after my dinner and, although I’m well-accustomed to coffee, this one has me pacing the floor for half the night before I could even think about sleeping.

Or maybe it wasn’t the coffee. Maybe it was that second thing I remember from that evening.

Towards the end of dinner, after the expresso, I decided I should visit the toilets. I had identified that they were through a small door in the wall as I had seen people come and go from there throughout the evening. I excused myself from the table and made my way to that door, working my way through the tightly packed and busy tables.

Just as I got there, a woman stepped up in front of me and beat me to the door. Being the eternal old fashioned gentleman, I held the door for her, allowed her to go in, and then followed her through the door, closing it carefully after me.

I mean, how was I supposed to know? I thought, not unreasonably, that the door led to a lobby which would in turn lead to a male and female toilet. Nuh huh. I turned from the door to find the lady standing beside the sole toilet in the room, looking at me expectantly, no doubt wondering what it was, exactly, that I had in mind.

I don’t blush much. I blushed then though, I reckon. I muttered a nervous ‘désolé’, hastily threw open the door, and rushed back out into the restaurant. As I closed the door from the outside and leaned my head against it, the refined, reserved, restaurant patrons all erupted in loud cheers and applause for me. It was clear that everyone in the place knew the toilet arrangements. Everyone except me.

Last night, I saved up going to the loo until I got back home.

At least I know the rules there.

A Borrower from A Lender Be

Man, I love my Library.

Castlebar Library, County Mayo, Ireland. I love you.

But then I have been around a bit and, in fairness, I have loved all my libraries in their time. I’m like Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, singing about all the girls I’ve loved before, except I’m singing about libraries. That’s not actually the only difference but it will do for now.

Thursday was a bit of a pain this week. I’ll spare you the details. It was just a bit of a pain. Then, on Friday, I got two messages on my phone simultaneously. The first said that a book I requested online from the library was now ready for collection. The second message also said that a book I requested was now ready for collection. Just the week before, I had logged on and asked to borrow two books. The library had tracked them down in another library elsewhere in the country, had them shipped to my library and now they were sitting there waiting for me. I dropped in at lunchtime and there they were, two beautiful trade hardback versions of the books I wanted to read, my name neatly written on the labels attached to them. 

No charge.

Man, I love my library.

And it’s not just books, you know. Now that people are moving on from DVD and Blu-Ray and getting their entertainment via streaming services, the Library is replete with DVDs and box sets of all shape and sizes. Want to catch up on a recent movie or binge on a series? It’s probably in there, in your library, waiting for you. They’re great for music too. CDs and Audio Books and books online to download onto your computer, even in the middle of the night. Our Library even loans musical instruments. The first decent drum kit my son had, came on loan from the library. That way, we learned how much he loved to play before we bought the kick ass kit he has now. How brilliant was that?

Don’t get me wrong. I buy my books when I can. I enjoy doing it. I think you should buy books too. It’s tough being an author and they need our help and support, just like the libraries do. But I read quite a lot and I couldn’t afford to entirely support my excessive reading habit from book buying alone. That’s why the Library has always and forever been a lifesaver for me. More than that, it’s been a heaven. Sometimes, I can hardly get over what an amazing facility it is to have. A place that will lend you books and let you read them for free. It almost feels like it shouldn’t be allowed and I pray that it always will be and I fear that it someday won’t.

My library is what keeps me on a par with everybody else in the entire world. No matter how rich you are, no matter how powerful, I can afford to read anything and everything that you can read. Because of my library, nothing is held back from me just because I am not as wealthy as you are. All knowledge, all entertainment, is there. Access to it is my right. It is mine.

People say we should make use of our libraries as a sort of a political statement, to reinforce how important and how necessary they are. I have no quarrel with that. It’s true that we do need to defend our libraries in any way that we can and making good use of them is the most obvious and effective way to do that. I just don’t think it ever has to be a chore. Anyone who loves to read can grow to love their library. There are more books there than in practically any bookstore and they are yours to take down and look at and borrow and read.

On Friday, the high point of my day was going in to the library and getting two books I wanted to read handed to me with a smile. I read the first few pages on the walk home and didn’t walk in to a lamp post, as I sometimes do. Life was good.

A wonderful resource, the Library. Use the resource to save the resource but learn to fall in love with it too.

It’s that loving of it that will ultimately save it, I reckon.