Place and story: Where you are is a function of fiction

‘A place may be made-up. But I was there, in person, as the writer in residence’

Recently, I was made the writer in residence in my own town. A simple formula, on the face of it, except I fulfilled half of the assignment remotely. The experience prompted questions; where do we reside anymore, and what makes a place?

I was born and grew up in Carlow. I jumped into the 11ft6 end of the pool in the summer, danced in Mimes Nightclub, played gigs in Archies, acted with the Dolmen Musical Society, and inhaled the treacly smell from the sugar factory as I kicked the fallen leaves from the Court House trees on my way to school.

None of these things exist anymore.

My mother recalls our town with the swimming club on the river Barrow, The Ritz Ballroom, and Governey’s boot factory. She remembers entering a darkened forge near Graiguecullen bridge and watching sparks float in the gloom as a blacksmith shod a horse.

None of those things existed for me.

Are we talking about the same place?

We know this idea. You never step in the same Barrow twice, or as Thomas Wolfe offers, in advice I routinely ignore, you can’t go home again. But even the most Buddha-like among us choose to think that, of all of life’s changeable components, at least place is fixed.

But it’s as fixed as fog.

The story of place is constantly evolving, as ineluctable as shifting tectonic plates, or coastal erosion that continuously reshapes its surface. But the protean force of this human construct acts faster and has more change-making power than flowing glaciers or dissipating topsoil.

As for fog, it didn’t exist, according to Oscar Wilde, until Whistler painted it.

Bricks and concrete

When the Romans sacked Jerusalem, breaching three protective walls, their leader made straight for the city’s hub, the Temple. Here he continued to the inner sanctum, seeking the essence of a site that 12,000 Jews had laid down their lives to defend. At the centre was the Holy Place in which a mere piece of fabric stood between him and the Holy of Holies, the navel of the world. Whipping back the curtain he found an empty room. The heart of the city was incorporeal. A historian from that same place, Yuval Noah Harari, tells us most people think in stories, and “the best stories are not abstract; they are concrete”.

When I think of the bricks and concrete of my hometown, am I bringing to mind nothing more than a fiction? Carlow, the town in the county of the same name, arbitrarily delineated, as all Irish counties are, by peoples from elsewhere, with a name supposedly an anglicisation of the word Ceatharlach, the Gaelic for four lakes. Where these four lakes dwell has yet to be disclosed. It sounds like someone made it up.

The place may be made-up, but at least I was there, right – in person as, you know, the writer in residence?

Well, partially. Covid obliged me to carry out my duties at first remotely. I was bodily in the place where your remote takes you, the land of TV and films and fairy stories; Los Angeles, or to give its original title, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles sobre el Río Porciúncula, that is, The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels on the Prociuncula River.

Well-crafted tale

In celebration of an assumption, the missionary men who first stepped into this river, christened it after a small chapel in Italy where St Francis formed his order of mendicants. California itself takes its name from a fantastic account of Amazonian tribes, Virgin Queens and Griffins. The west coast did not await the emergence of Tinseltown to get into the myth-making game.

Even my presence in this bright and guilty place is thanks ultimately to a well-crafted tale. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I made a film that won a scholarship that sent me to university in upstate New York. It was the first time I had been to America. But in fact it wasn’t. I had grown up in America. Sesame Street, Mohammad Ali, Star Wars, Roots, Dallas, A-Team, Starsky&Hutch. You get the picture, we had a TV. My external world may have been a reluctant slouching towards the Christian Brothers in a rain-soaked duffle-coat, a leather satchel on my back. Inside I was leaping from building to building with my spidey senses a-tingling, or tip-tapping through the raindrops, beaming like Gene Kelly.

America was a sort of homecoming. Like on the telly, New York had yellow cabs and fire hydrants and steam coming up from the ground, Americans asked me to have a nice day and if I wanted fries with it. Some of these Americans were exceptionally welcoming, because they were Irish too. Born in Ireland? No. Parents born in Ireland? No. Grandparents born in Ireland? No. Okay, not Irish then. That’s how I felt at the time but that was before I realised place is a function of story.

Land of fable

The United States is the ultimate land wrought from fable. Since its inception it has been a destination for millions writing their own story. And when they arrived, rewrote the lands they left behind. I now accept someone’s identity as Irish even if their people have lived for five generations in Illinois. We reside in a world of our own making.

This is truer now than ever. Technology connects with a punch of such force it separates the mind from the body. When my digital avatar zoomed in to perform my residential role to psychically traverse the fictional landscapes of local writers, I was physically in an apartment at the midpoint between Paramount Studios and St Brendan’s Church. I was virtually in my hometown but actually nestled between far-flung monuments to story both sacred and profane. Stories often crafted by the Irish, which in turn motivated their voyages of imagination and exile. The studios have always embraced the sons and daughters of Róisín and their gift for telling tales, while the church maintains that Brendan, a boy from Kerry, sailed west to discover this whole kooky, mixed up hill of beans. Ireland is a nation of pilgrims, but not all pilgrimages involve travel.

Gertrude Stein said of another Californian city, “There is no there, there.” But she could be describing anywhere and everywhere. Writers, like navigators, help us find our place in the world. We create home by creating stories about ourselves, narrating meaning into our existence, where we’re from and where we are going. In this way, I’m the same as everyone else, I’m a writer of residence.

Marc-Ivan O’Gorman’s shows Looking for William and Mouths Making Water will be staged later this year in Carlow and Los Angeles, respectively

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