News Con Houlihan

Monday 22 September 2014

There’s nothing like home sweet home

However much you travel, home will always be with you

Con Houlihan

Published 06/11/2008 | 07:00

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Con Houlihan

If you are ever thinking of writing a book about homesickness, you might read a letter that appeared in the Cork Evening Echo.

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It read as follows: "I was often told that the people in the Southside are cold. Now, since I got married, I know it. Every morning I look towards Blackpool and I cry."

The remarkable aspect of this letter was that it wasn't a case of 'name and address with the editor' -- the girl gave her full name and address. Blackpool was only a few miles away, but that didn't matter.

When Saint Patrick's Athletic were recreating their pitch in Inchicore, they played their home games in Harold's Cross, hardly three miles away -- their supporters were not happy. The local people were not friendly, the drink didn't taste right, the weather was colder. All this may sound funny, even hilarious but homesickness is natural.

The Greek poet, Cavafy, said: "In those streets and fields where you grew up, there you will live and there you will die." It is true and yet there are people who would wish it otherwise. A great book has yet to be written about the Irish navvy. It is doubtful if it ever will -- the research would be enormous.

The word 'navvy' came from the creation of the navigational canals in England. Most of the work on the canals began in the early 19th century: most of the navvies were young men from rural Ireland. The work was easier and much better paid than the work at home. Navvying became a kind of profession. It attracted men trying to forget hopeless love affairs or escaping from unhappy marriages, as exemplified by the hero in John B Keane's Year Of The Hiker.

The profession also attracted what you might call an intellectual elite -- men who gave up good jobs because they couldn't endure middle-class life. Navvying gave them a sense of freedom and a camaraderie that they couldn't find elsewhere. This world became symbolised in a famous image -- the steak being fried on the shovel.

When most of the work on the canals was finished, the brotherhood moved on to the railways and then to the hydro-dams. They acquired a reputation for mental and physical resilience. It was romanticised but at times you must exaggerate to capture the truth.

An oft-quoted verse embodies the myth which isn't a myth at all. It is set in the context of a hydro-dam being created by a joint contract.

Wimpey went up in his Jaguar

Mc Alpine went up in his plane,

Paddy hiked the Great North Road

But he got there all the same.

The age of digging is long since past, but there are still places where the shovel is your only man.

I was reminded of this one evening some years ago when I was in a pub in West London. The pub was so close to Buckingham Palace that it could have been the queen's local. As I sat there I wondered if she would ever make a leap for freedom like royals on the European mainland. The hope that she might walk in was banished and I listened to the pleasant music being selected by a group of young West Indians at the juke box. It was about six o'clock: they were the only other customers.

Soon a middle-sized strongly-built man came in -- you can guess his profession. His face bore the stamp of many weathers and he had the sideburns that were the traditional logo of the Irish navvy. He could have been any age between 35 and 50. He sat down diagonally opposite me and took out his cigarettes and matches. For about 10 minutes he gave himself up to the anodyne of beer and tobacco. Then he lifted his head and our eyes met momentarily -- I could see him saying: "I know you and you know me."

And I wondered about him. Perhaps he was lonely in London and yet felt that it was his home. James Stephens would have understood my query. Early in the last century he was a celebrated poet and novelist. Now he is almost forgotten. Even though he loved Dublin, he was happier in London and yet he was lonely there. Sometimes he was so lonely that he used to sit in the bar in Euston just to see Irish men and women coming and going.

There were some remarkable Irish people in London in that era. Shaw of course was a huge presence, as Wilde had been before him. Robert Lynd had left Belfast and became the most famous journalist of his generation. PS O'Hegarty returned home to become a major figure in the new state.

Padraic O'Conaire, whose Deoraioch could be deemed The Great Irish Novel, did his best work in London. When he returned to Ireland, he became a character rather than a writer.

Sam Maguire was a Fenian and a member of the Republican Brotherhood. It was said that he died brokenhearted because his Protestant fellows were second-class citizens in the new state.

Michael Collins served his political apprenticeship in London, came home and played a huge part in creating the new state. He paid the ultimate price.

Some of us, like the men who gave up good jobs and became navvies, cherish the notion of losing ourselves. We wish to go to some place where we can be as anonymous as a person can be.

A friend of mine conceived that notion after a family row that was really only a storm in an egg cup. He told all of his beloved that they would never see him again.

This little drama took place in a famous mountain village. Next day he got a friend to drive him to the railway station in Castle Island. He sailed on the good old MV Inisfallen to Fishguard and travelled from there to London. In Paddington he went to the bar and sat up at the counter. He asked the wee lass to serve him a pint of Guinness.

As she gave him his change she said: "Tell me Dan, how are they all in Knocknagoshel?" He was home in a week.

Fogra a hAon: Four cheers for the good people who demonstrated in Dublin over the past few weeks. Fogra a Do: It was good to see Eddie Gormley and his Bray Wanderers keep their place in the Premiership.

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