Last Sunday, I was asked to speak as part of John Healy's very popular 'Sunday Morning Coming Down' event which traditionally closes the Wild Atlantic Words Festival. The following is the little talk I gave, just for the record. Thanks, John, for allowing me to share the stage with such esteemed company. I had a lovely time.
Good morning. I am delighted to be welcomed into such lovely company this Sunday morning. John and I thought it might be nice if I talked about some of the differences I see between my current home place, which is very much here in Castlebar, and my original home place.
Because I come from a distant and an exotic land. A place far far away where, if you ever intend to journey to it, you had better pack your ‘samages’. Yes, folks, as John said in his introduction. I come from Sligo Town.
And I’m going to undermine myself from the start. There aren’t really very many differences between the two towns. We are all proud West of Ireland, Connaught folk, hardy and true, and you’d best not mess with us, if you value your trousers.
There aren’t many differences. But there are a few.
I’ve decided to restrict myself to three differences. Two reasons. Firstly it gives me a little frame to hang my contribution on, a little form, a little template. Secondly, it gives you an idea of when, ‘In ainm Dé’ is he ever going to be finished?
I should also qualify these observations by saying that I left Sligo as a young man, and I haven’t been back much, and I came here as an older man, and I haven’t left much. So just bear that in mind.
Difference Number One, The Mall.
We have The Mall in Castlebar and we have The Mall in Sligo. The Mall in Sligo is pretty good. It’s really just a street but it has the beautiful Carly Parish, Church of Ireland Church, it has the Model Arts Centre and it has the Hospital, which is always very handy at a pinch.
The Sligo Mall is pretty good. But, lads, it cannot hold a candle to the Castlebar Mall.
Castlebar Mall played a crucial part in convincing me to come to Castlebar to live. I’ll tell you why. Back in 1996, Patricia and I decided to come back after fifteen good years in London. There were two reasons. The first was that we had our first son, John. At the time, we didn’t know he was our first son, he was just our son. But setting that aside, we decided us that it was time to come home. Trish is from Galway and I’m_ well you know where I’m from - so Castlebar seemed like a good median point, even though neither of us had ever been here. Then when Tom Carr Architects took out an advert in the British Architect’s Journal, looking for people like me. It seemed like an even better idea.
I drove to Castlebar from Sligo on one of those non-days that fall between Christmas and New Year. I parked up by the old Post Office and I walked down to Burleigh House, just at the traffic lights. You know it. You do. I met with Tom in his little office on the top floor and he was charming and kind, as he always was, and it all seemed to go pretty well.
Except for one thing.
The whole top floor, every room, was full of people. People who were, if you will pardon the expression, working their arses off.
Remember this was the time between Christmas and New Year and I had never in my life worked between Christmas and New Year. The thought of coming home to some Brave New Ireland that didn’t even allow the poor buggers a day or two off for the Christmas. Well, it struck fear in my mortal soul.
Now, as it turned out, that the was the only year that Tom and his team ever worked over the Christmas. That year was just a wild busy year. An aberration. But aberration or not, it threw me off. I came out of Burleigh House, pretty darned sure I didn’t want to give up my happy existence in England to come and live in a town that didn’t even celebrate Christmas.
My mind was made up.
And I came out of Burleigh House, and I crossed the road up at Moran’s Auctioneers and I walked round the corner and onto the Mall… and I changed my mind.
At the time, we had a little house in Twickenham, just off Twickenham Green. And I loved that village green. And I’d never seen an Irish town with its own village green and yet here it was, in all its winter glory. It was almost as if the town was telling me, ‘Come on home, Son. Anything you have in Twickenham; you can have here.’
And we came, Valentine’s Day 1997 and we didn’t know anyone. And we were welcomed, in various places, in various ways. But the Mall – the Castlebar Mall – has always remained very dear to me. I cross it four times every working day, walking from home to work and back up and down again at lunch time. On Summer’s evenings, I’ll often circle round it a few times close to midnight, maybe listening out for a fox. And every Christmas Night, while the Strictly Come Dancing special is on, you’ll find me down there, soaking up the silence and the cold.
The Castlebar Mall is my first difference between Sligo and Here... and it’s one I really love.
Difference Number Two
Honestly, I’m not looking to rub any salt in any wounds here. But there is no getting away from it. If you want to talk about differences between Sligo Town and Castlebar, then at some point, you have to talk about the GAA.
There is a long tradition of GAA football in the County of Sligo. There are wonderful clubs and wonderful players. Their fans would follow the Sligo Team to the ends of the earth, or the county border at least.
In the part of Sligo Town where I grew up. We did not know what the GAA was. Markievicz Park was just a big place up beside the Old Cemetery where a mysterious traffic jam happened once or twice every year. For us townies, or at least us Riversideys, Gaelic Football simply did not exist. How did we fill our days? You might ask. Who did we weep for?
The answer, as you probably know, was Sligo Rovers. Every second Sunday, as a boy, I would walk out to the Showgrounds with my dad and I would alternately freeze and shout at great men like Fagan and Stenson. When Dad was old and I was a bit older too, we would reconvene there on some Friday nights and they were some of the best nights. After he died, Rovers held a minute’s silence for him before the match. He was that kind of supporter.
But although, I don’t come from GAA stock, I have come to have a huge respect for it. And particularly the Castlebar variety.
Here, it is everything. And as a person who often tends to come second in things, I tend to think of it all as a huge win. And the huge win I see, as a bit of an outsider, is the joy it brings to people here. And yes, of course, there is pain as well.
In the film ‘Shadowlands’, Joy Davidman says: “The Pain now is part of the Happiness then. That's the deal.”
I was lucky enough to get an unusual view of that happiness just last year.
September 11th, 2021, I happened to be driving back from Dublin to Castlebar after an overnight stay. What I saw on that trip stays with me. I wrote about it, the day after, and I called the piece ‘Driving the Wrong Way Down the Road to the All-Ireland final’, which is fairly self-explanatory. Here’s a little bit.
“When you’re in Castlebar in the weeks before the big match, you may see little flags attached to a car. You may see a licence plate illicitly changed out for a red and green ‘Mayo4Sam’ sentiment.
But when practically every car going the other way is decked out in the Red and Green, when every car is packed with families and friends, it’s an entirely different effect. Every petrol station along the way was replete with fans and flag-ridden cars. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh they went past me. I couldn’t help but wave and occasionally toot my horn at people I really didn’t know. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and decided that the person behind me thought I was a feckin’ lunatic.
Mayo fans never give up. Never will. It is a key part of what defines them. Every year that they can, they will ride in that parade, filled with pride and hope and expectation. All the arid years that have gone before only adding further to the love and the respect that the place has for its mighty team.
Castlebar is different to Sligo when it comes to GAA and, to my mind, it is a really brilliant difference.
Difference Number Three
The third and final difference, well it hardly qualifies as a difference at all. It’s something that anyone who has ever moved from their childhood place to another place will probably know quite well.
And it is simply… the faces.
Whenever I venture back to Sligo and, sadly, that’s often for a funeral, I see faces of people I have known. If I walk around the town, the faces of the people who pass me by are imprinted on me like a tiny bird might have its mother’s face imprinted on its brain. And it goes further than that. I see teenagers and children and young men and women and I just know who their parents are from their faces, from the imprints that the faces of the people of my hometown have made on me.
And I said this was hardly a difference at all and the reason is this: It’s happening all over again.
After twenty five years of being here with you in Castlebar. I am becoming imprinted anew. I see your faces and I feel them embed themselves into my tiny brain.
I’m nearly at the end. Just one final thing.
Back near the start, I said that Trish and I came home for two reasons, but I only told you one of them. The second reason relates to a film I saw on the King’s Road in 1987. It was called Roxanne. Steve Martin played a modern day Cyrano De Bergerac character, with a big, long nose. In the film Steve Martin lived in a small town, and he knew everybody and everybody knew him. I came out of that film and I said to Trish. Someday, not now, but someday, I would like for us to live in a town like that. A place where people know who we are and where we know who they are. And Patricia agreed.
And it’s happened, right here in Castlebar. These days, I am always late for work after lunch because on my way home and back I meet so many people who I know and we smile and chat. Perhaps it’ll never be quite as embedded as the childhood imprints of a Sligo upbringing. But bonds have been forged here in Castlebar and firm friendships have been made.
And the first thing I said, when I stood up, was how delighted I am to be welcomed into such lovely company. It turns out that wasn’t just a simple platitude. That was the truth. The differences between my Sligo home and my Castlebar home, day by day, year by year become fewer and fewer.
Such that, here today, with you, at Sunday Morning Coming Down, I feel very much… at home. So, thank you.