Now, don’t be fooled by my name: I’ve never been to Claremorris or to County Mayo for that matter. I would really love to, though, if only to take a selfie in front of the town sign and see my name in black and white. Shallow, aren’t I?
But I have been to Dublin. Once.
It’s the streets I remember most – or rather the pavements. The same ones that James Joyce walked along. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Plenty of people wondered if I’d lost something. I just shook my head. It was difficult to explain; it’s difficult even now. It was just that glorious thought of sharing the same pavement with James Joyce. I fancied I might see the spectral outline of his footprints but ended up just bumping into lamp posts. ‘Shut your eyes and see,’ the man said – I tell you, it didn’t work.
I’d travelled to Ireland with some friends when I was at university. We had decided to take a couple of plays on tour, not that I remember anyone actually inviting us to do so – it was a long time ago, the details were fuzzy (more of that later) and, to be honest, I wasn’t very good at acting. But, there you go, the dreams of youth.
We caught the Swansea to Cork ferry. It was the first time I’d been on a ferry. I remember the smell, that gut-wrenching mix of diesel oil, sweat and stale air. It was an overnight crossing and a rough one at that. There may have been berths available, I can’t recall, but my funds didn’t stretch to that anyway. My finances were threadbare at the best of times but holes had now begun to appear in the fabric and were daily demanding my attention.
It was a rough crossing. I’d never seen such waves. I spent most of the night, alone, in the corner of the lounge bar, staring at my feet and imagining my tired, grey soul seeping from each toe, one by one. I was not a strong sailor.
I felt a swift dig in my ribs –
– Your first time, darlin’?
– Your first time?
– Mary, now what kind of question is that to ask a young girl?
Gales of laughter.
– Oh Mikey, stop it! Pay him no mind, pet. Is it your first time on a ferry?
– Not feeling too good?
– No, I mean yes. I’m not feeling too good.
I thought it best to expand further as I was clearly having trouble with the prospect of negotiating a double negative.
– Oh I can see that, poor lamb.
– I know what she needs – a drink with an e in it.
Tea, did he mean tea? I could murder a cup.
The rasp and scrape of a bottle top being unscrewed, the glug of liquid being poured, the chink of glasses and there under my nose a small tumbler of amber liquid smelling like –
– Whisky? But there’s no e in it.
Silence. Then more gales of laughter and wiping of eyes.
– She doesn’t know, does she, Mary?
– No, she doesn’t, Mikey.
– Know what?
Nodding, smiling, pointing at the bottle’s label.
– Irish whiskey, spelt with an e. There’s nothing finer. Now knock it back, like in the cowboy films, all in one.
– All in one, really?
I looked for an escape route, judging the time it would take for me to get to the door and the nearest loo. This could go one of two ways and the odds were stacked against me. I shut my eyes and dutifully knocked it back. In one. And waited. Mike and Mary stared, nodding in expectation.
There was a sudden explosion of heat at the back of my throat that spread upwards and downwards with alarming speed.
I opened my eyes.
– Actually, yes, better. Much better. Thank you.
– There I told you. Whiskey with an e – you can’t beat it. Now, call your friends over and let’s have another.
In no time at all the lounge was filled with friends and strangers raising glasses, playing cards, smoking cigars, cracking jokes and laughing. And I laughed too. A lot. Evening morphed into morning by which time I’d laughed so much my sides ached, aided no doubt by Mike and Mary’s whiskey (I never discovered their surnames; it seemed rude to ask), their stories and the general mood of happiness that prevailed.
It was my first experience of that wonderful phenomenon known as the craic.
By morning the storm had gone. As we sailed into Cork harbour, and I saw the multi-coloured sun-washed houses of Cobh, I thought the captain had somehow confused his coordinates. Surely we were sailing to Capri or Sorrento or some other Mediterranean haunt? My heart opened like a flower. I had fallen in love.
This feeling of euphoria didn’t last long of course; a bumpy minibus drive soon put paid to that. I closed my eyes, leaned against the window and wondered whether death might be a welcome blessing.
Around midday we pulled up outside what looked like a residential house in the middle of nowhere. I assumed we must be visiting someone’s relatives. Once inside we were greeted by a diminutive white-haired old lady offering a plate of cucumber sandwiches.
She fixed me with her piercing blue eyes in that way some people do when they know that the truth isn’t too far away and they mean to unearth it.
– You look ready to drop.
– You look about ready for the drop.
Well that was true, if a little brutal; I had been feeling worse and worse throughout the journey as the effects of Mike and Mary’s whiskey had begun to fade. But I did think death by hanging was a little extreme. Unless it was a joke. I smiled thinly, hoping it was.
– Yes, I suppose I do.
– A half is it?
Now I was confused. What did she mean?
The next thing I knew I was clutching half a Guinness. I had misheard: it was ‘a drop’ not ‘the drop’ that I was ready for. And I wasn’t standing in someone’s front room, I was standing in a pub. I had a lot to learn.
That was my first half of Guinness, as a gauche young girl, far from home, exhausted, hung over and oh my, oh my, it was gorgeous. I have tasted Guinness since, each time hoping to capture the flavour of that first half – but nothing has ever come near. It was like supping on smoked double cream.
Three days later, with three overblown, unsubtle performances under my belt we reached Dublin, where we had half a day free before it was time to head off for the next performance. I found Trinity College gates locked and gazed forlornly through the bars imagining the glow of the Book of Kells within. Instead, with no money for pork kidneys, I set off in search of No 7 Eccles Street, the National Library, Duke Street (no Gorgonzola sandwich and glass of Burgundy either), O’ Connell Bridge and the River Liffey – there was more, so much more that I wanted to see but didn’t have time for, but what I did find bristled with significance. And the sadness was that it was all over too soon. Not to worry, I’ll be back in no time…
That was several decades ago. I always imagined that I would quickly return but then life took over, and with it the everyday toil of getting by. So, that’s why June 16th, or Bloomsday for those in the know, always finds me pensive. But I still dream of walking along Dublin’s streets again. ‘Longest way round is the shortest way home’ after all. Well then, if that’s the case, maybe I’ll make it home, not this year, but one Bloomsday, sometime soon.