This country is too small to find a stranger
I can never get a sense that I am away from home. Even in the most remote Centra filling station, I always end up talking to someone who knows me, or knows someone I know
Michael Harding. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
I was in a hotel in Cork one night last week, stuffing myself with duck and ice cream and home-made chocolates, and washing it all down with brandy, while a friend talked to me about her husband’s passion for football. She was saying he never shows any emotion with her, but it doesn’t bother her because she knows he loves her and he shows it in other ways.
When she was gone I went upstairs with a last brandy and fell asleep before I could finish it so that in the morning the room was soured with the aroma of stale alcohol. I had a kipper for breakfast, and then I drove as far as Ballycotton just to walk on the cliffs.
The sky was blue, and a helicopter was hovering over a boat in the distance. I walked for two hours and met three young American boys who are studying politics in Cork. They asked me to take a photograph and they giggled at the camera like teenage girls.
On the way back I met two young French women approaching on the narrow passage. We exchanged pleasantries about the blue sky and the whiteness of waves crashing beneath us. They were from Paris, and wondered where they might get a good meal. I recommended Ballymaloe House, mainly because I intended staying there that night, and the thought of sharing a glass of wine with them later in the afternoon excited me.
“I woo-ed be glad to join you peut-être, for launch,” I said in a comic French accent.
“I think you are a funny man,” one of them exclaimed, and they giggled like the boys did earlier and then went off down the cliff walk.
“See you later,” one of them shouted back, “at Ballymaloe,” which for some reason made me feel as light as a feather and as jolly as a girl in a Jane Austen novel. But it was at that moment that I got a text from a friend in Cavan to say that Mary Ellen Dolan had died.
Mary Ellen was more than 100 years old, a tall slim woman, and a patient wife to the robust Jimmy, who used to sing Willie John, a salacious ballad about a man who did nothing but lie in bed while the wife did all the farm work.
In the song she complains to him with the words, “Get up Willie John, it’s the middle of the day,” and he tells her that he is minding his health underneath the blankets, where he lies as snug as a bug in a rug, and that she’ll have a man when others have none.
It was a lilting, teasing song, that Jimmy sang with understated fun, and I often heard him sing in the middle of the night, in houses full of returned Yankees, good whiskey accordion music, in the long ago days when it seemed normal to be up all night singing, because nobody had much to do in the daytime, and we used to tell the Americans that Live at Three was the Irish version of breakfast television.
Envy of Americans
I always envied American men, whenever I saw chrome trucks on television and long highways stretching towards the setting sun, where a man could lose himself between cities, like someone in a Steinbeck novel, or a drifter with a guitar, like Bob Dylan.
I drift in the jeep sometimes, on Ireland’s new motorways, but I can never get a sense that I am away from home. Even in the most remote Centra filling station, I always end up talking to someone who knows me, or knows someone I know. This country is too small to ever find a stranger.
Later, in the hotel I found Jimmy Dolan on You Tube, singing a love song, which made me think of Mary Ellen. She would tap her foot to the music as her husband sang, a graceful woman in the corner, and light as a feather to dance.
I imagined her coffin resting before the altar in winter sunlight, and the congregation of old friends around Glangevlin chapel bidding her a restrained farewell as she headed out on her big adventure; because in Ireland death is the big adventure, the place where we get lost, the mythic west where no one grows old. Our nomadic home lies beyond the grave, a space that opens vastly for us to wander in.
Then I saw the young French women walking up the avenue and I rushed out of my room in the hope of joining them for lunch.