An Irishman's diary: In search of the time to read a classic

An Irishman’s Diary about Proust and Monaghan football


All familiar journeys evoke mental associations that, once acquired, become indelible. So it is with the road between Ballybay and Clones, which for me is forever linked with the work of the French novelist Marcel Proust.

I’d like to claim a profound reason for this. Unfortunately, the truth is more prosaic. It so happens that the R183 – its official title – passes through a place known locally as “Swann’s Cross”.

And insofar as I can claim intimate knowledge with Proust’s sprawling masterpiece, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, it is exclusively with that book’s opening volume, Swann’s Way.

Swann’s Way begins famously with the line: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” Which hardly prepares readers for the deluge to follow. But sure enough, after passing reflection on the mind-altering effects of sleep, the author then has his celebrated encounter with a cake.

This sets him “In Search of Lost Time” (as the title is now usually translated, “Remembrance of Things Past” having long since died of tautological shame). After that, the floodgates of memory burst open, over seven volumes and 4,000 pages.

Once, in a fit of optimism, I set out to read the entire thing, and found it mesmerising as far as I went. It meanders pleasantly in a way that makes even the R183 seem straight. But I must have taken a wrong turn at Swann’s Cross. Whatever the reason, I never made it to Volume 2.

(I’m unaware, by the way, of any connection between the Monaghan family and Proust’s Charles Swann, the fictionalised version of a real-life Charles Ephrussi. Maybe current or former inmates of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, who will be familiar with the R183 and would also be at high risk of reading Proust, know otherwise.)

Of course, no less than the road leading to it, Clones itself is a place always heavy with memories, especially on Ulster Final day. This was all the more true this year.

With the imminent departure of the GAA showpiece to Belfast, the 2014 instalment was cloaked in premature nostalgia. I watched, for example, the build-up of a typical three-tractor tailback at the junction of ’98 Avenue and Church Hill and thought: You won’t see that in Andersonstown. Such charms aside, the loss of big-game days will hit local businesses hard. I know one publican who says the Ulster Final weekend is worth more than €50,000, subsidising the rest of his year.

On the other hand, in this Bible belt town, Mammon’s loss may be God’s gain. Before Sunday’s match, I witnessed an inebriated Donegal fan urinating in the doorway of Clones Gospel Hall, and agreed with a passer-by who said: “He couldn’t have any luck.”

We were wrong there, at least as far as the game went. It had plenty of Old Testament football all right, but any vengeance was Donegal’s. Long before the end, we Monaghan fans were empathising with Proust’s search for lost time. And the ref added only four minutes of it.

My car being off the road, I had to get a lift to Clones and then catch the last bus from Carrickmacross to Dublin. This was delayed by more than half an hour, so that it was 10.40pm, near the end of a long day, by the time I boarded.

On the plus side, the bus was one of those sleek, double-decker expresses. And soon after installing myself in a comfortable upstairs seat I nodded off. Then I woke again, a while later, to another Proustian moment: the dramatic shift of perspective that can follow even a short sleep.

The surroundings – a motorway exit – were temporarily unrecognisable, a fact exaggerated by my unusual altitude. But even after I realised we were pulling into Dublin airport, a scheduled stop, the state of altered consciousness persisted.

After a day in Clones, the lit-up outline of Terminal Two looked like a thing from science fiction, or an LSD trip: as dramatic a contrast, in its way, as the one between traditional, eye-for-an-eye Ulster football and that exotic new game Dublin play.

With a fleeting burst of enthusiasm, I vowed to have another go at reading Proust soon, maybe during the holidays. Then, on the drab approaches to the north inner city, familiar reality reasserted.

We arrived in Busaras just in time to see the last Luas disappear around a corner. The last buses had just left too. So I walked home, feeling rather deflated, and knowing that if I ever attempt Proust again, it probably won’t be this year.


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