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Celtic Twilight

Two new books evoke a rural Ireland of Arcadian memory and grim reality

One of the last times I went on holiday as a boy, before I began planning trips of my own volition, I found myself standing with my father on Enniscrone Beach, in County Sligo, just across the margins of our once and no-longer home turf of County Mayo. I would have been about fifteen, or sixteen, prey—theoretically—to ration and sentience, but my main memory of the day is filtered through my father’s unalloyed pleasure at the barely ruffling sea breeze, the unpopulated stretch of sand, the sky for once untroubled by clouds. It stands out as possibly the most content I’ve ever seen him, not least because he kept remarking on the scene, half with an air of surprise, half in seeming need of confirmation. I say “holiday,” but these annual trips during the school break from London to Mayo were supposed to be homecomings. They were always framed as “going home,” despite the fact that “leaving home” felt like a more accurate description when we would squeeze into a car with luggage piled high on its roof rack and head, interminably outbound, for the ferry in Holyhead. The journey itself constituted a minor odyssey; six hours or so to the Welsh port, another three on the boat, and then a drive across Ireland, from Dún Laoghaire in Dublin to Mayo in the West, usually all in one go, with little in the way of comfort and nothing in the way of comfort breaks. We didn’t seem to know about planes.

The reason we were no longer taking the bends like the natives we were said to be dated back to a perennial problem for Mayo, and Ireland as a whole—mass unemployment.

This picture of us on the sand that afternoon came back to me while reading Homesickness, the new collection of short stories by Mayo writer Colin Barrett, his follow-up to his first collection Young Skins (2013), in which he further atomizes a range of often unsettled characters, almost exclusively in the towns and villages of Mayo. Enniscrone Beach recurs as a setting in Homesickness. First, in “The Silver Coast,” it is the location of a golf club hosting a wake, “a meal for the mourners.” Next, it shows up as a sort of objective correlative for a fragile, tentatively repairing psyche in “Whoever Is There, Come On Through,” as Murt, a man with “the stringy, unfinished quality of adolescence” and just out of the hospital, having “managed to once again step back from the ledge of himself,” is driven there by his dutiful friend Eileen: “They went to Enniscrone beach and stood on a dune crest and watched the Atlantic gather in long, wobbling furrows and smack on to the shore.” That sense of the Atlantic’s imminence occurs a lot in Barrett’s work and is a feature of the county itself, the sea a kind of lurking presence on certain routes, along roads that—at least when I was being driven down them—were dark, narrow, and approached with very little caution by other motorists.

The reason we were no longer taking the bends like the natives we were said to be dated back to a perennial problem for Mayo, and Ireland as a whole—mass unemployment. Having spent the previous decade or so in London, my parents and siblings moved back to try to make a go of living in Ireland and I was born in Mayo, in 1983. Within a year, it became clear that my father couldn’t find any means of keeping the lights on, despite various local employment schemes, largely council-related tidying and busy-work, and would have to return to England. The initial plan was that the rest of us would remain and he would shuttle back and forth, an echo of his own father’s life—traveling between the family farm and the agricultural centers of England for seasonal work in the 1940s and 1950s—but that too became unworkable and so our re-patriation was off, having lasted about eighteen months. Through a series of coincidences and galling acceptances, we would find ourselves living, within two years of our return, in the same north London house they had left, having bought it back from the people they’d sold to, and on worse terms.

Another recent book about small-town Ireland, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, her latest (and now Booker shortlisted) novel, as similarly crystalline as her previous novella Foster (2010) and also concerned, elliptically, with how Ireland treats its children, is not set in Mayo but has a scene redolent of the problems facing my father, set more or less contemporaneously, in 1985:

The dole queues were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn’t pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their overcoats. Women, on the first Friday of every month, lined up at the post-office wall with shopping bags, waiting to collect their children’s allowances. And farther out the country, he’d known cows to be left bawling to be milked because the man who had their care had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat to England.

A great part of the trouble with work was that Mayo was, like much of the rest of the country in the 1980s, caught between identities, and economies. Ireland had the third-lowest per capita income in the European Economic Community in 1980, trailed only by Greece and Portugal. Between 1970 and 1995 the number of people for whom agriculture was the main means of making a living fell by half. Unemployment doubled in the 1970s, after what initially looked like something of a building boom, as Keegan’s novel has it, the country was once again reprising its old ways: “the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York.” The ghost of farming life lingered on in our corners of the county, barely sustaining—often through grants and other inducements—a life of sorts for farmers with meager holdings that had survived the succession of generations. What scant alternatives existed for a so-called “unskilled laborer” like my father were mostly limited to the factories and plants of the rare multinational corporation that had been induced by the promise of tax breaks to set up shop in Mayo. Much of this work was, however, somewhat technical, to do with machinery or in some cases the advent of computer technology, beyond the reach of a man whose working life to date had been spent on building sites in north London.

The other problem with “getting the start” was that—alongside the already troublesome scarcity of opportunity—there was also the deep-rooted problem of nepotism, a sort of chain-migration approach to introducing new staff in these sought-after centers of employment, into which my father was struggling to tap. As Keegan shows, there was still a degree of institutional influence held by the church, by being —in the case of the community in Small Things Like These—in the good graces of the nuns who hold the keys to a good education, and any prospects after it, their own misdeeds hidden behind a veil of righteousness. In the corner of Keegan’s novel are the wider atrocities of the Magdalene Laundries, the fear and mistreatment of the young women who were taken in, nominally to work for the nuns after having had babies, but who were appallingly treated, their children often sold to childless couples overseas, or meeting an even worse fate, as in the scandalous mass grave found in Tuam, Galway. In Keegan’s book, this history appears only in flashes, and is quickly covered up with tea and sweet cake, as when the book’s protagonist, the coal and timber merchant Bill Furlong, stumbles upon a girl in the coal shed “just about fit to stand, with her hair roughly cut.” “Where does thinking get us?” Furlong’s wife asks him at one stage, as he starts to question what he’s seen at the convent. “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.” But Ireland’s political and institutional history has been a study in the turning of blind eyes, the hidden and sometimes flagrant carving-off of resources and cash-stuffed brown envelopes, the wider and more systematic abuses of mothers and their children.

Certainly, the all-powerful dominance of the church my parents had known growing up had dwindled by the 1980s, but the sort of ring-kissing deference required to “get on” that’s shown in Keegan’s book had been commuted to the need for a patron, or at least wink-tipper, the struggle to find a way in if one was not already born into the business, not to mention the need to pay for the shortcut once one did manage to smuggle themselves aboard. Ireland’s then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey—who in Keegan’s book “had gone down to snip the ribbon” on the new Knock Airport that opened up the West for international travel—was a kind of horseback Berlusconi, a one-man symbol for conspicuous consumption. He set the tone. With my father having initially cleared off to London in his twenties, there were now few people left around who knew him, at least any who were in a position to offer practical help, and a meeting arranged with the local Teachta Dála (an Irish member of parliament) yielded little other than the minor sting of being smilingly patronized.

We had a direct tie to the rural, farming life as it then limped on, in the shape of my father’s older brother, Tommy, who had been running their small family farm since before I was born, when my grandparents died. In some ways, my family line was neatly divided between the rural on my father’s side—Tommy and a sister in the parish of Bohola—and my mother’s less rustic native parish of Backs, which contained her tidy village of Knockmore, where we tended to stay on these trips. Visits to Tommy’s, meanwhile, were almost an exercise in time travel. For years there was no indoor toilet, and the linoleum by the open fire was scorched from the heat’s various incursions, giving it an air of recent disaster. I remember being taken for walks around fields that led up to a barn, a couple of cows—perhaps more than that depending on the cycles of the cattle market—standing by. There are photographs of me walking with him as a young child, mostly looking sullen or lost; he by contrast a broad, ruddy, strident figure, wearing a seemingly ever-present hankie-as-hat over his red hair. I’ve been reminded that I named one of the calves. There was one rainy afternoon in which I walked for a long time with him holding a spring onion; another where I was taken to see the barn, at one time relatively high caliber but by then in disrepair. The other striking element of our arrival at Tommy’s was the dogs. These were ferocious, toothsome creatures who launched themselves at any approaching car, ours included, the second they sensed its approach. I was told that when I’d been small enough to be portable my baby carriage had been placed on Tommy’s table while Captain, the most vocal of the pair, attempted to get up and investigate its contents.

Tommy had lived in London too, and my father’s early years in the city were spent in his wake, sometimes lodging with him around Finsbury Park and going to the same sites and the same jobs—but rarely the same pubs. Tommy was gregarious, at least in company, a drinking man, a pub man, well equipped for the London scene, rich as it was then with fellow Irish, men who worked on the buildings, settling in to the pub afterwards for the evening, reminiscing about their shared origins in the various hinterlands. He was the only one of the siblings who was unmarried when their parents died, and it fell to him to go back to take care of the place, a temporary arrangement which ended up lasting fifty years, until his death. Always something of a reluctant farmer, there was as much nostalgia and obligation to his role as inheritor as there was desire to work the land or perform the few necessary acts of animal husbandry. When we visited he often seemed surly, short-tempered, and something of a castaway. It was only in later years it became clear that frustration and loneliness must have been a large part of that. He was a bright man, a reader of the newspapers, who kept the local radio on for company as much as news. The village had, since his return, cleared out further. People died or moved away, with few in the way of replacements. He had, in the local parlance, “a set on” those who were about, and they were given nicknames, suspicious motives imagined for any apparent kindness shown. There was “the fox on the hill,” watching everyone’s business, and a neighbor who spent a little too long worrying about the boundaries of his fields. Tommy was, he felt, under siege, his only refuge one of two or three local pubs which, as his mobility began to wane, became increasingly inaccessible.

The question of women was almost never broached, other than jokingly, say a courtly sort of sham flirtation offered to my mother or any other woman he might find himself with at an event or gathering. The request for a “whizzy,” his slang for a kiss, became more benign as the years wore on him. I’m not sure if there was ever anything beyond the joke in London, but certainly by the time he returned to the farm his options had moved into the realms of fantasy; his contemporaries had married or migrated and the village was stripped of all but its widows. His was a home version of a type of Irish man I’d encountered in London, too, the transplanted village bachelor, those of my father’s generation or slightly older who had, like him, made the move to England for work but hadn’t, for whatever reason, fallen into any kind of family setup. We went to visit them sometimes, in Kilburn bedsits, or hospitals, their bare walls and solitary frying pans. Tommy’s lifestyle was in that sense familiar, albeit somewhat starker for its lack of urbanity, with its more pronounced solitude. The shop van came once a week with fig rolls and other supplies, there was conversation at Mass, but really it was the dogs for company. Them and a gallery of photographs of myself, my siblings, and our cousins in our disappeared childhoods.

There’s something of Tommy in Barrett’s description of “Nuge” in “Whoever Is There, Come On Through”: “In his heart, Nuge is an innocent. A man without guile.” He goes on: “Small towns are incubators for these men. It’s not even that they are secretly gay or anything like that. They just never developed the cop to have anything to do with it at all. These are the men who faithfully do the messages, by foot, every day for the mother, year in and year out, until one of them drops dead.” There’s also something of him in “The Alps,” a story about tradeless tradesmen, of whom it is said that “what they did was try things at a competitive rate,” and who are otherwise blighted. “The Alps,” Barrett writes, “were not men comfortably acquainted with the carnal, but they could become as fissured and rent with yearning as anyone.” It is only as an adult that I can see what Tommy gave up. It wasn’t just his lifestyle—the Camden and Kilburn pubs he loved, the handiness of the high street bookies—but also the possibility, the potential, of a different sort of life than one spent maintaining a family home vacant since his death, its surrounding fields never properly signed into his name in all the years he spent working them.  

If my father’s side of the family represented its rural aspect, my mother’s larger branch was mostly to be found in the towns, or at least on their edges. There were scores of cousins, most of them around my age or slightly older, and to some extent they represented the sorts of opportunities which might have been available to me had we stayed in Mayo. A few of them came over to London, out of need or curiosity, but broadly they remained, moving on from school to jobs in local shops, factories, the odd bout of signing on to the dole. Barrett refers to “The Heads,” described as “a certain type of local, the ones to whom it would never occur to leave” and, broadly speaking, most of my cousins would have fitted into that set. There were a lot of them, with a startling fecundity to follow; early marriages, early children. As my visits became more infrequent, it became next to impossible to keep up with the increasing population of the various branches. One cousin especially came to mind when reading “A Shooting in Rathreedane” in Barrett’s collection. He—like the story’s shooting victim Dylan Judge—“was what you would call ‘known to the police.’” Alan was a few years older than me and, in the manner of these annual installments, I saw him developing from roguish scoundrel into something more troublesome, youthful mischief calcifying into petty criminality. There were reports of his being banned from the house, of his having come round and caused scenes, of having been in hard, nasty brawls with his brothers and father or breaking his mother’s little porcelain ornaments. Small, spiteful acts, shattering the illusion of his being more sinned against than sinner.  

The holiday pace, the rounds of visits; it was all on a temporary basis, this life opaque but untouchable.

My two most vivid memories of him come at different stages of that slide into perfidy that culminated in police attention. In the first he would have been about thirteen or fourteen, clambering up a sheer incline of pebbles at the back of the cottage we were renting for the holiday—which happened to have a large drop on the other side and no guardrail—a type of reckless daredevilry I’d rarely if ever witnessed back in London, among my friends with their suburban fencing-in. There was an innocence to a lot of what he got up to at that age, matched with the disarming quick wit (and equally disarming doe eyes) of the incorrigible. The next was much later, possibly the same trip that saw us on Enniscrone Beach, and he’d have been in his early twenties, hitchhiking at the side of the road out of the town where he grew up. As we happened to drive past, I remember my father picking him up and the pretense and small talk that ensued, the measured warmth, all this at a point where—as far as I can recall—he was on especially bad terms with most of his own lot, and perennially being sought out, by name, if a car disappeared. He kept up something of a monologue for most of the ride, elevated in what I didn’t at the time recognize was an artificial way, his eyes bulging, on some chemical trip or other. A natural underdog, shy behind his front, I wouldn’t see him again after that night. There were children, a few stints in various institutions, a final, horrible discovery for someone of him, holding a set of rosary beads in an otherwise unholy room, his habits having overmastered him.

If Alan was a source of worry, and eventually sorrow, my remaining cousins were part of the ordinary business of life in the town, recognizable in Barrett’s observation that “the thing about boys was that they only had the one haircut. That haircut changed every couple of years, but whatever it was, they all had it.” There was the peculiar distance of a small town, where everything is known but just out of reach, a melding together of American and English influence, the Manchester United and Liverpool football shirts, the country music and MTV incursions. You could be blinded by beauty or local pride, the easy access to lakes, rivers, stonework bridges, and the village in bloom. But for us, the returning types who couldn’t achieve a real re-entry, there was the bitter realization that this kind of life was unsustainable. The holiday pace, the rounds of visits; it was all on a temporary basis, this life opaque but untouchable.

“That’s the thing about Mayo. I find it’s very presentable from a distance. It’s only up close it lets you down,” Barrett has one of the policemen say in “A Shooting in Rathreedane” and there’s something in that of my own somewhat conflicted feelings about those summer trips, and about the doomed attempts at return on the part of my parents. Claire Keegan has a similar moment: “The day had not yet dawned, and Furlong looked down at the dark shining river whose surface reflected equal parts of the lighted town. So many things had a way of looking finer, when they were not so close.” My parents allowed themselves—maybe even forced themselves—to fall for the fantasy and buy into the surface reflections of “home,” as refuge over the water, an illusory alternative to the life being lived in London eleven months of the year. In part that was to do with maintaining their separateness when in England. There was something sentimental in their need to continue to pine after villages which, when tested, failed to offer them a means of living. They saw, to a certain degree, what they wanted to. These places were touchstones of their youth, for which they were no doubt homesick, but also antidotes to the intoxication of city life, away from their own accents and relations, from the raising of “two fingers from the steering wheel in that ubiquitous gesture of laconic country salute,” as Barrett puts it. It could all be overlooked—the lack of employment, the hard graft that they always knew was to come for them on returning to their sites and factories—for those moments by the wild Atlantic, the breeze on the beach, the long wobbling furrows that still smacked on the shore.