Star witness to the past

 

MAGAN'S WORLD:Manchán Magan’s tales of a travel addict

THE BOOK Voyage Around my Roomought to be the world’s most myopic travelogue. It deals with Xavier de Maistre’s 42-day journey around his bedroom while under house arrest for his involvement in a duel in 1790.

Fortunately, his imagination and erudition make up for any spatial limitations, and the book reveals him as an endearing travel companion with a rake of off-kilter opinions. On duelling, he says, “you present yourself with your chest bared, and run the risk of getting yourself killed by your enemy so as to be avenged on him. Obviously nothing could be more logical, and yet you come across people who disapprove of this praiseworthy custom.”

We follow his journey around his pink and white bed to his armchair and his desk, revelling as his mind “yields merrily” to thoughts and revelations as he goes. What becomes obvious is just how revealing four walls can be.

I was reminded of this last spring while travelling around other people’s houses for a TG4 series that sets out to unlock the stories hidden within our walls. The series, Cé a Chónaigh i mo Theachsa?, involves me nosing around people’s homes trying to dig up who was murdered in their basement, who made love in the back bedroom and who hid under the stairs during the Civil War. The sort of prurient snooping that might be termed deviant were it not under the guise of a television series.

Each new door I knocked upon set my mind racing about the stories hidden within, of the ghosts and shadow-memories that we might bring to light. It was the same feeling I got wandering around the tenement blocks of the old Jewish Ghetto in Venice last month, and that I’ve been getting here for the past four weeks in the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Not only do walls have ears, they have tongues too, rather loose ones at that, and are only too willing to whisper their stories to passing strangers.

Nights here in Paris are alive with resonances of the 235 years of covert Irish activity that took place inside these elegant 18th century walls. Irish clerics and noblemen sought sanctuary here from the French Revolution and the Franco-Prussian War; as did US citizens during the second World War, and Polish clerics during the Cold War. I suspect some of them stayed in my very bedroom down the long corridor on the third floor. The room seems eager to share its stories – sometimes it’s not about getting a house to reveal itself, but getting it to shut the hell up, so you can get some sleep.

Buildings are one of the most effective keys to unlocking our history, as tourists to Bunratty and the Ulster Folk Museum attest. Even after being transported stone by stone from miles away and rebuilt in a judiciously chosen spot between the lavatories and the souvenir shop, they keep their power to enchant. Not only can houses unlock the past, but the future too: my parents met while guiding at Castletown House for the Irish Georgian Society. Without Castletown there’d be no me.

The inherent mojo of old homes was made clearer than ever in Kate Nic Chonaonaigh and Louise White’s Absolut Fringe production last month, in which the dusty cadaver of a North Great George’s Street tenement was brought to life with whispered voices and the darting traces of half-seen figures. It was as if the crumbling stucco and dry-rotted beams had summoned apparitions to tell their tale for them.

I can’t promise dusty cadavers, or bare-chested duelling, in the TG4 series, but if you want to tap into the mojo of Spiddal House in Galway, Luggala in Wicklow, David Norris’ house on North Great George’s Street, and others in Clifdon, Athenry and Ballylongford, Cé a Chónaigh i mo Theachsa?runs on Thursday nights from November 11th.