The unbearable rightness of being alive in Leitrim
I used to get carnal urges mowing the lawn
The world has changed. The melting polar ice has chilled the ocean and we don’t get many warm summer breezes in Leitrim any more, and on midsummer’s day the rain swept across my rooftop and made me shiver.
And I too have changed. I remember long ago when I used to get carnal urges just mowing the lawn. The smell of grass intoxicated me. The smell of the barbecue sent my libido into launch mode, and wine was like petrol poured on a fire, especially at midsummer parties that went on all night and house guests stretched like cats behind cream curtains and remained awake to make love when the sun rose.
This year I was forced to fly off to Portugal to stir the libido, and when I returned the garden was a meadow.
So I went into town to get petrol for the lawnmower and there was an elderly couple ahead of me driving a black Toyota. The woman leaned across to the driver’s side and gawked out at a fancy house surrounded by roses, laburnum trees and a green lawn.
Hedge clippers in one hand
A young woman stood on the gravel avenue with hedge clippers in one hand and a gaudy plastic toy in the other. The elderly couple drove so slowly that I almost crashed into their rear end.
So I began to wonder about them. “Maybe they’re the grandparents,” I thought. “Maybe the woman on the lawn is their daughter-in-law, and she’s separated, and maybe they drive past her house once a week just to get a glimpse of the children. Or, on the other hand, maybe they’re just fascinated with roses.
In fact I hadn’t a clue what the truth was about them – Leitrim has changed so much in recent years that nothing is predictable any more.
In the old days there was just one Leitrim: an emotionally impoverished world, according to John McGahern, a grim island of silence and obedience, of dark fathers with gorilla paws that could clasp a spade like a toothpick and open a ridge of virgin soil with the delicacy of a surgeon slicing into living flesh. A world of little shops where the doorbells were cheerless and tinkled with the temerity of a keening woman’s cough and behind the counter there was always an elderly lady slicing ham in silence.
But there are other Leitrims now. There are sculptors from the United States and England and ceramic artists from Hungary. The pubs and hotels are alive with hen and stag parties, and the Glens Centre buzzes with radical political theatre and musicians who come from all over the world to gig.
And scattered along the slopes of various hills there are refugees from the urban jungles of Europe, and English boys in cottages or mobile homes. They worry about fracking and have lonely hearts, like gardens choked with weed, and as yet untended by psychotherapy.
There is another Leitrim too, hidden away between the hills, one with a kind of Germanic order, a neat organic world sectioned off by high-grade green fencing wire, where people in greenhouses the size of little bungalows nurture gigantic cabbages and exotic fruits so juicy that McGahern’s father might have self-
combusted had he ever tasted one.
There is also a Leitrim of Celtic Tiger cubs clinging by their fingernails to the interiors of their grand houses, an affluent middle-class land of trim hedges where smooth-shaven men tend their lawns and jawbones with equal attention, shaving in the gym on weeknights and clipping the grass to the roots on dry Saturdays.
I filled a canister with petrol for the lawnmower and then, for no particular reason, I abandoned the lawn and drove off towards Ballinamore.
Maybe because sometimes I need to get my bearings; I need to find again the soul of Leitrim. Beyond Ballinamore I took a turn to the left, up a small lane, and parked beside the serene field where McGahern spent his childhood in the shelter of his mother. It’s just a field now. The house seems to have dissolved, stone by stone, and only the gateposts still stand, with the rusting gate hanging between them.
On the ditches around the sloping field there were alders and hawthorn. The field itself was full of yellow flowers. I leaned on the gate and clung to the serenity of it all, and for a moment the sun came out and Leitrim appeared almost unbearably beautiful.