I was never on Skellig but I made love in Kerry in the 1970s with a petite German girl
Michael Harding: She could see beneath the mask of codology that I was still a peasant of simple tastes and devotions
Cavan beating Kerry again in an All-Ireland final is about as likely as Luke Skywalker winning at chess against a Coptic monk on the top of Skellig Michael. Photograph: David Sleator
I always feel at home in Kerry. Maybe it’s because Cavan beat them at football in the All-Ireland final of 1947. When I was growing up in Cavan in the 1960s, they were still talking about it. As if it only happened yesterday. Or as if Cavan’s superiority on the field was proven in perpetuity, by that single win, despite the contrary account of history. Or as if it might all happen again some day; an event about as likely as Luke Skywalker winning at chess against a Coptic monk on the top of Skellig Michael.
I was never on Skellig but I did make love in Kerry in the 1970s with a petite German girl named Beate; which she explained meant “blessed one”.
I was driving my father’s Morris 1100 out of Ennis and she was on the road with a rucksack and in those days an eager man would drive a woman anywhere, no matter if it wasn’t even where he was going; just so long as she was carrying a tent and a sleeping bag on her back.
And the “blessed one” liked me. She was intelligent, educated, sharp and fluent in English and, as I learned later that night, she could play reels with fizz on a tin whistle. I could only muster a few flat jigs, and one Kerry man in the session, with a bodhran cradled in his bronze arms and a pint of Guinness sitting in his paw as dainty as a cup of milk, looked at me with fright and whispered in my ear.
“Uuurr a bit of a cod on that whistle. Why don’t you give it back to the girleen?”
I was a pure cod, as my mother used to say; mediocre at everything, poorly educated, and limited in my hopes and dreams. The possibility that I would some day eat fish and chips with a German woman had never entered my unlettered little mind. So no matter what the blessed one talked about, from the man on the moon to the mystery of why Irish men enjoyed exposing the flesh of their beer bellies to the world, I listened attentively, and fervently agreed with everything. And when I was asked for my opinion on anything, I held my own by acting the cod.
Me and the little German woman had a lovely time, using her big Aran cardigan as a pillow, and one tin whistle between the two of us, as we got smashed in Kilorglin the night the puck goat was crowned king.
It was in Cahersiveen that we came apart. We were in a pub the following day and I went walking down town for crisps because there was none in the shop. But I didn’t come back for ages.
“Where were you?” she wondered.
“I was at Mass,” I declared, joking. Because there was a church further down the street named after Daniel O’Connell, and I couldn’t resist slipping in to have a gawk. It wasn’t that the blessed one had anything to be jealous about. My religion posed no threat to our gymnastic adventures in a two-berth tent.
But she looked through me, as if she were an anthropologist. As if she had assumed that we were both professional field workers studying the cultural patterns of the Kerry peasantry, and now suddenly she realised that such was not the case. She saw in my shamed face the rash of religious devotion. I had been passing myself off as modern, liberal and rational, but beneath the mask of codology I was still a peasant of simple tastes and devotions.
Codology is a mimicking of intelligent discourse with a lightness that masks a deep lack of comprehension. And she had figured from my fascination with all things religious that I was not a smart man. And she was probably right.
I was sorry to see her roll up her sleeping bag and unpin the tent in the field near the filling station. She sat aloof on a stone wall, scrutinizing a map of Ireland, with all the clouds of Mount Brandon gathering in her face.
“What’s up?” I asked, though I knew the truth.
“I must see Cork,” she explained.
“What do you want to see Cork for?” I retorted. But it was over. I dropped her at the Killarney road and U-turned back into town without waving, still not quite realising that I was at a turning point in life; setting my face against the city, in favour of whatever medieval grace still resonated in the shambles of rural Ireland.