Galway has been immortalised in word and song over the years, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and on a sunny weekend in June the streets of the city centre were full of music. Most Irish of Ireland’s cities, it often comes as a surprise to visitors just how small it really is – the population is just under 80,000 – due to the weight of its cultural heft. The pubs are legendary.
For the next few days I ambled about aimlessly, enjoying the sun, the crowds of holidaymakers, the pubs. It was a lovely city – laced through with rivers and green spaces, the expanse of Galway Bay giving the light a watery, shimmering quality. I headed out to Salthill to eat fish and chips on the seafront in the company of dozens of families enjoying a sunny Sunday, and afterwards, walking back along the waterfront through a swathe of parkland, I just lay down in the tall grass and fell asleep to the sound of a lark overhead and the shushing waves in the background. Each evening there was a different gig – known in Ireland as a ‘session’: Tigh Coili, Neachtain’s, Roisin Dubh, The Quays. Sometimes there’d be a party afterwards at someone’s house, and I’d find myself wandering home with the sun coming up, listening to the dawn chorus, feeling the softness of the brief northern summer.
I’d arranged to hire a car from a company in the city centre and made my way to their office one morning. The guy in the car hire shop was clearly struggling with a titanic hangover. He rested a hand on his forehead and winced a little as the door banged. Three Swiss were poring over a map at one end of the room, having just collected their keys.
“Excuse me,” said one. “In Northern Ireland is also driving on the left side?”
He sighed, perhaps imagining cars randomly swerving across the road on crossing an invisible border. “Sure, it’s all one country isn’t it?”
The Swiss, confronted with unaccustomed territorial complexity, decided to loudly agree.
The car was a small silver Opel with Dublin plates. In the UK it would’ve been branded a Vauxhall. I followed the road signs as best I could to get out of the city centre, and wondered at how many times I had done this – arrive in an unfamiliar city, pick up a car or a bike, and find my way to the next place. There was that quickening sense of adventure again, of getting deliberately lost. The entire country lay spread out before me. I had a large Michelin map of Ireland lying across the front seat, and in its upper quarter was a broad line in yellow highlighter marking the border with Northern Ireland.
As it turned out, the only problem I had was that the Opel’s speedometer was in kilometres, as per the Republic. In the North the signs were in miles an hour. What I found was that the Republic of Ireland cars stuck together, trying to guess at the correct speed, as the Northern Irish cars, with their British-style plates – white at front, yellow at rear – went zooming past. The Republic number plates had the county name written in Irish, and some were easier to guess than others. Ros Comáin was Roscommon. Gaillimh denoted Galway. The further north I went the more I saw Maigh Eo (Mayo) and Dún na nGall (Donegal). My own was marked Baile Átha Cliath, pronounced something like “Bally Aw Clear”. Dublin in Irish.
For now, though, I was heading through the mountains of Connemara, towards Maam Cross, then on into Joyce Country – named not after the author, but for one of the fourteen families that had long dominated the region, giving Galway its unofficial name of “City of the Tribes”. The history here ran so deep that to dip a toe in might find you plunging headlong into an ancient bog of shifting allegiances, where centuries-old feuds and rivalries still held, immortalised in the old songs; even the national anthem, the Soldier’s Song, mentioned the looming Saxon foe.
I wondered about the Irish sense of identity in the 21st century, as a modern European nation built on a turbulent history. How could a people who had long defined themselves as fighters against an oppressor continue to do so now that the conflict had died down, with the age-old enemy becoming something more ambiguous? One of the strangest things, to an outsider, was how the consequences of the Williamite War in the 17th Century were still so important, with Unionists parading to commemorate the victory over the Catholics every 12th of July. Many, of course, felt that the struggle would not be over until Ireland was united, with the six counties of Northern Ireland merging with the rest of the Republic – a prospect which infuriated the Unionists, who still (just) held a majority in the north. Could economic pragmatism surmount the populist spasm of Brexit? The intransigence of the Brexiteers, seemingly willing to jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement which had brought peace to the region, showed how dogmatic some of the ideologues had become, how polarised the positions. How to avoid creating a hard border again between Northern Ireland (UK) and the Republic (EU)? It seemed incredible that the British government had not considered such a scenario from the outset, and could now only come up with vague and contradictory platitudes in place of a solution.
Everyone of my generation remembered the news reports from the 80s. Footage of cars queuing at checkpoints as British soldiers searched them. The chequerboard fields with rising hills beyond, dotted with watchtowers. Masked men in jeans, combat jackets and balaclavas patrolling in narrow green lanes, mounting their own checkpoints. A body in a layby, face down, hands bound behind his back. “The gunmen escaped across the border into the Republic,” the reporter would often say. The bombings – 20 in one day in Belfast in 1972 – the shootings, the punishment beatings. How did it reconcile with this picture-postcard landscape?
“They haven’t gone away, you know,” people would say, with a vague threat of menace – “they” being the gunmen, the dissidents, the paramilitaries. “They” were so ordinary: they were workmen, farm labourers, acne-scarred teenagers, paunchy men in their 50s, raddled by alimony and alcohol. It was the guy sitting next to you in the bar, the man queueing behind you in the service station, the bored adolescents hanging round the bus stop, grey-faced and pasty in a land of no sun. A 1988 film by Alan Clarke called Elephant – so named because of the elephant in the room, the perpetual spectre of violence during the Troubles beneath a veneer of normality – depicted a series of murders all the more shocking for their randomness, in the banality of suburban streets familiar to any British or Irish viewer, semi-detached houses, a factory car park, a swimming pool, a garage. Two men walking through a park, one suddenly gunned down by a passer-by. A young guy walking into a taxi office and shooting the man behind the desk. Three men playing football in a muddy field, their breath smoking in the chill air, dressed like farm-workers in gumboots and boiler suits. One suddenly pulls out a revolver. His teammate, to whom he has just kicked the ball, turns to run, but is shot in the back. The killer slowly trudges away. In the distance a motorway roars.
The killings are apparently motiveless. In total 18 murders are shown, all without context or explanation – though each was based on actual police reports at the time. The camera lingers uncomfortably long on each of the victims after their death, and the effect is cumulative; stripped of any attempt at rationalisation or narrative, we only see the futility and the savagery of the reality. In a culture where murder is served up as entertainment in films and TV series, after the first shooting we wait for the storyline – who was the victim, who the killer? Where is the detective (with the inevitably dysfunctional social life) who will solve the crime and make sense of it all for us? But there is none; what follows is another inexplicable murder, and then another, and another. The only message the film imparts is that the killing must stop.
I was making for Achill Island, a remote and windswept spot off the west coast. It wasn’t far, as the crow flies, but I knew that driving in Ireland was like entering some strange time/space continuum where a journey marked as being a couple of hundred kilometres could end up taking the best part of a day. The road was narrow, lined with rhododendrons, and dipped up and down over the land, past small, white cottages with green fields beyond. Sheep drifted across the hillsides, giving high, distant cries. It was idyllic. I stopped briefly beside a river in the dappled shade of willow trees, the water the peaty colour of whiskey in a crystal tumbler, sparkles of sunshine leaping upon it. Trout were visible beneath the surface, swimming amidst the streaming weeds.
Everyone, I suspect, has an inner landscape to which they belong – a kind of imagined idyll. It might be coconut palms and golden sands, or herb-scented hillsides that shrill to the chirp of cicadas, with cliffs that plummet into an indigo sea. I had found a home in India – in the treacly heat, the vivid colours, the rural soundtrack of crowing cockerels and the scent of woodsmoke, on those drowsy, golden afternoons – which all reminded me of growing up in Africa, and the child’s sense of joy on waking up on the first day of the holiday with a summer that stretched on forever before you. Even so, there was an emotional familiarity to this landscape: these sunlit uplands, the sheep-cropped fields with their dry stone walls, the farm set in an expanse of verdant greens, the billowing white clouds. And yet it wasn’t an exclusively Irish scene at all; it could have been the north of England, or parts of Scotland, or Wales.
But it was extraordinary how quickly the landscape changed mood with the weather. J. M. Synge had spent five summers on the Aran islands, where he had written The Playboy of the Western World, and mused on how the elements had shaped the character of the locals: “The continual passing in these islands from the misery of last night and the splendour of to-day seems to create an affinity between the moods of these people and the moods of varying rapture and dismay that are frequent in artists, or certain kinds of alienation.”
Suddenly the bare grey flank of a mountain would loom ominously off to the right and raindrops would spatter on the windscreen. I drove over a high moorland road with the wind buffeting the small car. In the distance a pair of headlights would appear and then vanish into a dip. They’d reappear and vanish again. The mist would gather. Eventually the car would come into sight and as we passed each other the driver would raise a hand in greeting. Fellow travellers in rough country. A month earlier I’d been in Scotland, in a similar landscape, and had noted the same thing: the wilder the terrain became, the more people waved, brought together in solidarity. Each passer-by became a potential rescuer.
Ireland’s coast fragments in the west, splintering into hundreds of small islands, the solidity of the landmass dissipating in the nebulous, watery light of the Atlantic. Some are no larger than rocks, swept over by huge rollers. Some once had settlements that were abandoned as life simply proved too harsh to sustain. The island of Inishark, seven miles off the coast of Connemara, was often cut off for months at a time, with heavy seas making it impossible for boats to land. In 1960, after a man died of appendicitis with no way of getting medical assistance, the Irish government evacuated the last 23 residents in response to the islanders’ plea: “For pity’s sake, take us off here forever.”
Despite the difficulty of trying to scrape a living from such a barren land, writers and artists had always been attracted to the wild landscape, and the sense of being on the very periphery of things – perhaps for the very reasons Synge had outlined. It was a place that seemed to belong neither to the land nor wholly the sea; a shimmering hinterland of the mind at the edge of the known world. Achill (Pronounced with a hard k) was the largest island off the Irish coast, with a population of 2700, and Heinrich Boll, a regular visitor throughout the 1950s and 60s, captured the sense of its isolation in his Irish Journal:
Sitting here by the fire it is possible to play truant from Europe, while Moscow has lain in darkness for the past four hours, Berlin for two, even Dublin for half an hour: there is still a clear light over the sea, and the Atlantic persistently carries away piece by piece the Western bastion of Europe; rocks fall into the sea, soundlessly the bog streams carry the dark European soil out into the Atlantic; over the years, gently plashing, they smuggle whole fields out into the open sea, crumb by crumb.
Graham Greene had come here too, in the 1940s, writing The Heart of the Matter while staying in a simple stone cottage with no electricity and a cold water tap in the village of Dooagh. He was having an affair with Catherine Walston, the American wife of a British MP, which had been going on for some years in a whirlwind of exotic locations: Paris, Capri, the Riviera. They were happy on Achill, by all accounts, living a simple existence far from the constraining social mores of England, with Greene working on the outline of a new novel and playing billiards in the evenings at the local pub. They spoke of getting married, and of perhaps buying a small country hotel to run together.
Gradually, though, they drifted apart. After their relationship ended Greene never returned to Achill, finding the memories too painful. The notes that he had been writing on the island became his novel The End of the Affair.
It was late afternoon by the time I bumped over the bridge onto the island. Most of the traffic was heading in the other direction. I passed a cafe and a handful of gift shops, then the signs of settlement fell away and I was driving over moorland, the grass bent sideways by the wind. In the distance I could see a curving bay overlooking the deep blue of the Atlantic. A village stretched out along the shoreline beneath a mountain. Following the instructions I had been sent that morning, I took a right at the T-junction in Bunnacurry and descended a narrow farm lane, pulling up outside a small whitewashed cottage set back from the road.
A woman was standing in the garden, waving her arms while uttering a series of strange cries. When she saw me she said: “Quick! – help me get the sheep out.” I emerged stiffly from the car and together we wandered around the garden shooing a number of sheep this way and that. They were half-feral animals with enormous horns and matted coats, and they galloped back and forth across the lawn until we cornered them by a hedgerow and gradually ushered them out of the gate. They went clattering off along the road, bleating resentfully.
“I can’t keep them out,” she said with a laugh. “They just wriggle under the fence and then eat everything.” This was my host for the night, and she showed me into a wood-panelled kitchen that overlooked miles of bog with a distant mountain wearing a cap of white cloud. We sat and had tea at the kitchen table and talked about the island, and the outside world, while in the corner of the room the low flames of a turf fire flickered and sang. This was a place at the edge of an island, at the edge of Ireland, at the edge of Europe. Were it not for the few signs of modernity in the cottage – the flickering lights of the modem, the microwave – the sensation was of living in an earlier, more unhurried age.
In the long twilight of summer in these latitudes I headed out in search of dinner. The pub in Dugort had a sign outside it saying food was served till 9pm, but it was clearly shut. The road carried on towards Slievemore, a dark mountain raked with scree, in the lee of which lay a deserted village. The ruins of around a hundred rough stone houses were visible, some used within living memory as summer shelters for families who grazed cattle on the flanks of Slievemore, though archaeological surveys had shown evidence of settlement from early Mediaeval times, and elsewhere on the island megalithic tombs dated back 5000 years. In the low sun my shadow stretched far across the hillside before me, and I walked along the furrows between the cottages, ducked beneath a lintel and stood for a while in what might once have been someone’s living room. The only sounds were birdsong and the hiss of the wind in the grass.
Back in the car again, surrounded by the detritus of my day-long journey – barley sugar wrappers, coffee cups and various receipts – I followed the narrow road around the mountain. The radio was playing some lilting fiddle music, occasionally losing the signal in a cloud of static. Although I vaguely recognised the tune, when the announcer came on they spoke a strange language in which I couldn’t make out a single word. This was Radio na Gaeltachta, or Irish language radio. I became quite a fan over the next few days, even if the amount of the language I picked up was limited to “haon, do, tri” before the band launched into its next song.
I could see I was approaching a village ahead – a scattered settlement of cottages stretching along the foreshore. The lane I was on merged with another road, and there on the junction stood a larger building advertising itself as the Achill Cliff House Hotel. It looked pretty fancy, and I wasn’t really dressed for it, in leather jacket and muddy boots, but I was hoping that a place this far out would have a fairly casual approach.
They couldn’t have been more welcoming: a table was set for me by the window overlooking the bay, where the huge Minaun Cliffs marched out to sea, darkening in colour as the sun dipped towards the horizon, painting them in shades of burnt umber. The staff were charming and efficient, the roast beef was excellent. I thought of all the flyblown roadside dhabas in India, where you’d sit on a rope bed for an oily paratha or a mess of lentils and rice slopped into a steel tray, and in a pleasant state of well-being I raised my glass and silently toasted the view.