MANCHÁN MAGAN'stales of a travel addict
MY GRANNY USED to tell me I should clean my body as thoroughly in readiness for Jesus entering it at Mass as I would the house if the pope were coming to visit. Irish festivals remind me a bit of Mass, not in the sense of puritanical scouring or simplistic sermonising, but the way people put their best face forward. Festivals show Ireland at its most bright-buttoned, Sunday-suited best, with even a similar bunch of world-weary cynics propping up the back wall.
Locals at festivals behave as though on a first meeting with the in-laws, pasting on their brightest smiles, making everyone feel welcome. Visit Ennis during its Book Club Festival, or Westport during its upcoming arts festival, or Enniskillen during the fantastic new Happy Days festival, or Galway during any of its phenomenal fleadhs and féiles, and you are immediately made feel part of the family. Social conventions shift: one can initiate conversation with strangers, even share meals and buy drinks for people you’ve never met before.
For the next two months every spare moment I have will be spent between the canals at the Absolut Fringe Festival and the Dublin Theatre Festival. The latter has the funds to attract shows from all around the world, but the former requires the audience use their imaginations. Two years ago Berlin Love Tour brought us on a tour of the war sites of Berlin through the streets of Temple Bar, ending up with a choir of angels in the heavenly realms of Fleet Street car park. Last year, Fergal McCarthy built a desert island on the Liffey and camped there for a week. This year he’s got himself a rowboat and will bring us on journeys into the worlds of stray words between Bachelors Walk and Usher’s Island, while Susan Boyle, a wine expert, claims she will bring us on a Wine Goose Chase from a basement off Dawson Street across the finest vineyards of France via the contents of fine wines produced by the descendants of the persecuted Irish who fled in the 17th and 18th century. The expensive French wines created by the Phelans, the Bartons and Lynches taunt me in wine shops, and I am hoping this show may be my opportunity to finally taste them.
I am pretty certain the audience will be chatting away together and sipping wine long after the show has ended. It was 2am when the group of us who went on the Berlin Love Tour finally went home – we had never met before and probably never will again. Likewise, the chats I had with bystanders along the quays while watching McCarthy camped on the river was one of the highlights of his performance. One of them told me how much wine used to pass along the Liffey long before Guinness ever brought a barge up, at a time when Ireland consumed four times as much wine as England: 12 million barrels a year in the 1720s.
Even long before that, according to this stranger, the Vikings were bringing French wine up the Liffey. In the 10th century, Brian Boru received a ton of wine for every day of the year from the Vikings of Limerick and 150 casks from those of Dublin. Ireland and France have seemed more closely interconnected to me ever since I learnt that.
Even before the Vikings, Ireland was bound to France through wine, with St Patrick believed to have planted vines in the village of St Patrice in the Loire Valley, where his Chateauneuf-du-Pape Clos St Patrice was still produced until the 1950s.
This is the sort of intriguing, but useless insight you learn at festivals, if not at Mass. My granny was a teetotaller and a daily communicant, but I wonder if she’d known about St Patrick’s fine Loire red, might she have allowed herself a sip?