An Irishman's Diary


THAT was interesting about his passion for cricket, right enough (An Irishman's Diary, Monday). But surely the thing that sets the late Harold Pinter apart as a writer, making him - to my knowledge - unique among the 100-plus winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, is that one of his most famous plays features a cameo appearance by my home town, writes Frank McNally.

I well remember the thrill of first seeing The Birthday Party, in which two sinister figures called Goldberg and McCann visit a nervous man named Stanley in his lodging house to help with the celebrations (even though he insists it's not his birthday), and of hearing this exchange of childhood reminiscences in Act II:

Goldberg: ". . . I can still see it like yesterday. The sun falling behind the dog stadium. Ah!" (He leans back contentedly.)

McCann: "Like behind the town hall."

Goldberg: "What town hall?"

McCann: "In Carrikmacross" (sic).

It would have been an even more special moment if Pinter had spelt the town's name properly. In the only text version I can find, from which the above is quoted, the middle "c" in Carrickmacross is omitted, a pattern repeated in several scholarly works about the play.

But I suppose it's possible that, as a fierce opponent of imperialism, Pinter was making a point here about the essential meaninglessness of the Anglicised name, which is just a phonetic rendering of the Irish original. We'll give him the benefit of doubt on that one.

Also, on a technical point, and at the risk of carping, Carrickmacross does not have a town hall for the sun to set behind. There are a number of other halls, certainly, including the Catholic Hall, and Jackson Hall, which is attached to the old Methodist (later Presbyterian) church. But those halls are both south-facing and if the sun ever set behind either it would be a big news story. Perhaps Pinter/McCann was thinking of the Medical Hall, a pharmacy on Main Street. Who knows?

In any case, Goldberg blithely dismisses McCann's town-hall parallel - "There's no comparison" - and carries on with his own reminiscences of an English upbringing. Undaunted, McCann bides his time and, later, during a lull in conversation with the half-witted boarding house landlady, Meg, he has another go at introducing the subject: "Ever been to Carrikmacross?" he asks Meg; to no avail.

Frustratingly for the south Monaghan tourism sector, he is again deflected from his promotional mission. "I've been to King's Cross," responds Meg, dimly, and the conversation dies anew.

The fleeting nature of the town's role is of a piece with the play, in which language is shifty and meaning even shiftier. Pinter's first full-length work, it was so radical when premiered in 1958 that it almost sank his career there and then. London critics savaged it and it had already closed, after a week, when the Sunday Times gave it a posthumous rave review and saved the playwright's reputation.

Half a century on, the piece is considered a classic, at least by Pinter fans. In contrast, McCann's attempts to advertise Carrickmacross to a global audience would have to be judged a failure. Perhaps if he had managed to work in a further mention, listing a few local pubs and other landmarks, it might have created a much-needed niche tourism product. We might now have a "Pinter trail".

As it is, the town remains just off most tourist maps and has had to make do with other niche markets, including the important "lost-while-trying-to get-somewhere-else" category of visitor (a trade badly hit by the invention of sat-navs).

Not that Carrickmacross lacks a more solid presence in literature. It is, of course, name-checked in the writings of Patrick Kavanagh, albeit in the familiar form used by locals ("Carrick") - which, as a poetic bonus, scans a lot easier than the full version. There are also more oblique references, such as when Kavanagh describes evocatively the aftermath of a fair day, strolling through "the oriental streets of thought". Those are Carrick's streets (in the notorious Chinatown area) he's talking about there.

But for the town to feature in full monosyllabic glory during the course of one of the landmark works of modern theatre is a special claim to fame, even if the play's meaning and Carrick's small role in it are obscure.

It remains a matter of conjecture what exactly McCann and Goldberg are doing when they take the now-subjugated Stanley away at the end, apparently to rejoin the "organisation".

Pinter's biographer Michael Billington has argued that the significance of the visitors - an Irish Catholic and a Jew - is to represent "not only the West's most autocratic religions, but its two most persecuted races". Perhaps Stanley's fate is merely to be swallowed up by the conformism of the oppressed tribe.

As for "Carrikmacross", another British critic has written that, while it is a "real place" (a bit of an understatement, that), it was chosen by Pinter purely as an "aural cypher", to hint at the Christian message: "Carry-my-cross". That would certainly explain his apparent lack of research on the subject.

So there you have it. Maybe it's not such a big deal for my home town to be mentioned twice, without any real significance, in a masterpiece of the so-called "Theatre of the Absurd". But it's more than they can say in Castleblayney.