Sunday 16 December 2018

Imagining Ireland in a Ballroom of Romance

Author William Trevor reveals how he was never actually in the original Glenfarne dance hall, writes John McEntee

William Trevor immortalised the Ballroom of Romance in his magnificent short story, written in 1972 and turned into a haunting film by Pat O'Connor 10 years later.

The re-opening of the original ballroom in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim, has prompted Trevor to talk for the first time about the origins of his tale which has been described as the finest short story ever written.

"I think it is delightful that it is re-opening, it's lovely. I'm pleased," he says. "But I never actually visited the ballroom. I was never inside it."

Self-effacing and now quite reclusive, Trevor, 84, has been stricken with a spinal condition which has not only prevented him from making his annual visit to Dublin but has seriously affected his remarkable literary output.

"I haven't really been writing, certainly not at the same level," he admits. "I used to be extremely fit but now I can't walk much. It's a spinal problem. I was struck down with it about six months ago and it has also meant I haven't been back to Ireland."

Trevor, real name William Trevor Cox, lives with Jane, his wife of 60 years, in a quiet Devon backwater. Despite being based in Britain for 50 years, he describes himself as being Irish in "every vein". The couple has two grown up sons.

Despite the bleak human despair of The Ballroom of Romance -- who can forget the grim plight of Bridie played by Brenda Fricker in Pat O'Connor's 1982 film -- its author has extraordinarily happy memories of Irish dance halls.

Though born in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, his father's job in a bank meant that the young Trevor had a nomadic existence, moving from town to town as his father was transferred from Mitchelstown to Skibbereen, Youghal, Enniscorthy and Tipperary.

"We did move around a lot," he recalls. "l remember dances from childhood in the various places we lived. I would be brought along in the evening."

It was at these adult occasions that the young Trevor watched and observed, soaking in nuances, details, mannerisms for his later fiction.

Pat O'Connor has described The Ballroom of Romance -- a depiction of a primitive mating ritual with low expectations on both sides as men lingered along one half of the hall and the girls on the other -- as shorthand for "the kind of dismal dump the country used to be".

Trevor does not share that memory. "I didn't dance. I was too small. I used to watch with great interest, I preferred that. I do remember quite sharply and brightly many dance halls. I would have been watching and hanging about. That is how you write things," he recalls.

A shy child and subsequent reserved adult, Trevor did learn to dance but not very well.

"Jane is a very good dancer," he says. "She would have me out on the floor for a quickstep if she could."

Trevor is on record as saying that O'Connor's cinematic version of The Ballroom of Romance is very true to his original story.

I remember at a screening at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, catching sight of a beaming author as he watched Brenda Fricker's poignant trudge from the ballroom to join the boorish John Kavanagh in the midnight field.

"It is,ultimately, quite sad," says Trevor. "There were many sad encounters in those ballrooms with quite a lot of dissatisfaction. When I was brought along as a child, I remember being quite bored as I watched the dancing. It was something to do."

When he went to Trinity College to study history, he did what most young men do. Visit the ballrooms to meet members of the opposite sex.

"Yes, I did go dancing," he recalls.

"I remember the Crystal Ballroom and the Four Provinces. It was all about picking up girls and seeing how lucky you were or how unlucky you were. But it was quite respectable. Not like now. There is something uneven and rather unsatisfactory about that kind of thing nowadays. People are very casual. In my youth, there was something rather nice about young people going to dances in ballrooms in small country towns. I am very fond of that memory," he says.

At Trinity, the young Protestant from Co Cork met and fell in love with Jane Ryan. They married in 1952. He struggled to make a living as a copywriter and a sculptor. All the time he was writing, achieving success with his second novel, The Old Boys, which won the 1964 Hawthornden prize. Since then he has won three Whitbread prizes, numerous Booker Prize nominations, an honorary CBE and a knighthood. To be called Sir William, he would have to change his nationality, something he would never consider.

Fellow writer Fay Weldon used to encounter Trevor frequently on trains to and from London and the West Country where they both lived at the time.

Weldon recalls: "He was a fantastic train companion. He would talk about so many things, so eloquently. It was that old fashioned sort of conversation, about books, the weather, the landscape, history. Yet at the end of the journey, even though we would talk all the way, I still knew nothing about him. He was courteous, affable, very private and modest. It was the kind of modesty that comes from knowing you have nothing to prove."

Now 20 years later, little has changed except perhaps for Trevor's increasing frailty. Yet though he created a world of quiet despair in The Ballroom of Romance, he retains an affection for the era and the dances that marked it.

He says: "I used to go past the ballroom in Glenfarne on my various travels through Ireland on my motorbike. There were different times in my life in Ireland when I regularly passed it. I really loved the name Ballroom of Romance, but the rest I left to my imagination."

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