Thursday 22 March 2018

Brendan O'Connor: Ireland's a great little country

As we kick off our Great Little Country Campaign, Brendan O'Connor explains why Ireland is a great little country for journeys into ourselves, leaving us more centred, more grounded and more ready for the struggle that is life

Brendan O'Connor... Ireland is a great little country for journeys into ourselves
Brendan O'Connor... Ireland is a great little country for journeys into ourselves

Sensible people wonder why Irish people never learn, why we keep expecting summer to come. Have we not seen enough Irish summers to stop hoping? My theory is that we have to keep hoping, because rain or shine, summer is when our inner traveller comes out. Summer is when we hit the road and embark on the great Irish journey. It could be a few hours or a few weeks, but we have a migratory instinct in us, a draw to get back in touch with what you might call a more real Ireland.

For example, for most of the people of Ringsend, Irishtown, Sandymount and beyond, the closest they get to therapy is to walk out the Great South Wall. Somehow, you walk to the end over the uneven pathway and you leave your troubles out there and come back cleansed and set free. Everyone from Shay Healy to Gaybo to Harry Crosbie are devotees of this spiritual cleansing. And along the way you meet all human life: grizzly old swimmers getting their endorphins at the swimming spot; young lads smoking a spliff and taking in the enormous zen of the bay; locals and Asians fishing; lovers walking talking and fighting; and the odd disbelieving tourist, amazed at this piece of surreal theatre in the middle of a European capital.

When you are out at the end you feel as if you are marooned out in the middle of the sea, far, far away from the land and all its concerns. We all feel like doing a Reginald Perrin now and then and just walking out into the sea, and just keeping walking, never looking back. The South Wall is a safe way of doing that. One foot in front of the other - just keep walking away from it all. It is the perfect way to connect with the seasons too. In summer you witness the most incredible sunsets. In the winter the sea jumps up over wall as if trying to reclaim its bockety stones, and maybe us.

It is mindfulness, gratitude, and being in the moment, all things we are supposed to strive for these days. And then you turn and walk back, back to reality. But reality looks and feels a little bit brighter. And you feel a little bit lighter.

I had a grandaunt who was a nun in Midleton. Auntie Nell we called her. Sister Margaret Mary was her official moniker. We would call to the convent for visits where we would be too giddy, and the younger nuns would be kindly and smiley, and we'd get old-fashioned salad of ham and lettuce and quartered tomatoes. For communions and that you would never get money from her, but some form of holy medals or books, and she might produce a bouncy ball or a colouring book from a stash the nuns maybe kept. And sometimes we would bring Auntie Nell out for a drive (a spin as it would have been known then) and I remember two things about that. I remember how horrified she was once by an Iceberger and its stale old biscuit, and I remember that she never liked to stop or get out of the car anywhere on the spins. She just wanted to keep moving.

I think I understand her more now. Sometimes I just like to drive, to observe whatever is to be observed from the car and to keep moving, just taking it all in, as if it was a movie. I love to drive slowly through the Burren, or Connemara or around the Ring of Kerry. Lyric FM on the radio and the scenery passing you by. I try to get the kids to look out at it sometime, to take their noses out of iPads, and then I realise I have turned into my Aunt Eileen, our second mother, who would exhort us to look out the window because we might never pass this way again. I think of her a lot now when I do pass those ways again. Because I know that I will always pass those ways again, that I will always be drawn back to the hypnotic comfort of driving along while John Kelly jumps between free jazz and Dvorak and Philip Glass.

Since having my Saturdays back, I have taken to forcing my family out for spins. It's short hops with picnics mainly, to South Dublin and Wicklow, and nudging down towards Wexford recently. There is togetherness in the boredom, the fighting, seeing the two kids snooze after the beach, heads back, mouths open, never more beautiful. And now I'm in charge so I can stop and buy whatever I want. But it takes me back.

I love these little spins, the lure of the road and the outing. And sometimes, I even like to stop. For example, I'm not one for gardens and certainly not for overmanicured, Versailles-style tamings of nature, but something draws me back to Powerscourt. I think it is the perfect combination of a pleasing order and a certain ruggedness that makes you feel you are in nature, but yet in an aesthetic form of nature.

And then of course there is the pet cemetery. I like to start on the left hand side as you look out from the house and circle around so that you hit the pet cemetery towards the end of your walk. And somehow it's all there, a sense of these people and the pointless, gilded lives they lived back then. Perhaps because I am not an animal lover, I am fascinated by the love they had not only for their various exotic breeds of dogs, but for horses and even a cow. Potter among the headstones and it brings you back to wartimes, to an era when Chinoiserie was all the go, to generations of sadnesses and tragedies and children growing up. Somehow you can see the people more clearly for looking at the animals' graves. And then tea and a bun that's too big in Avoca. You will be soothed.

In recent years I have come to love East Cork out of necessity. If you want to visit your family in August, I have found that the best option is to base yourself out in Castlemartyr and dip in and out of the city. I was born and bred on the west side of the city and I was second-generation West Cork, so we naturally gravitated west, to Glengarriff to visit the old homestead and around Beara to see graves of ancestors. But East Cork has been an eye-opener for me. I have come to like its relative Protestant order and efficiency compared to the wild west. We have our little routines now. The café at Ballymaloe for a light lunch and a potter around the shop, maybe buy a breadboard or something else I don't need. Down to Stephen Pearce in Shanagarry where the potter himself might be in and might entertain you with mystical, inspirational talk over a cup of tea. We might make Farm Gate in Midleton if we can - a far cry from salad in the convent. We will definitely hit the Farm Gate in the English market in Cork, possibly the finest restaurant in Ireland according to no less than me and AA Gill. Last year we discovered the pizzas at the Ballymaloe cookery school on a Saturday.

But you can't evade your duchas and my heart will always be truly in west Cork. As I drive out past Bishopstown and into the west my shoulders relax slightly and I start to feel among my own a bit more. Because here is where the ghosts who made me came from. I am someone who is never at one with the world around me. But here is where I am closest to understanding the world and feeling it understands me. I don't get there half enough but it relaxes me now even to think of the expanse of Inchydoney beach, a simple lunch at the Glebe near Baltimore with leaves from the garden, a stroll around Glengarriff where I don't recognise them but they recognise me because they think it is the ghost of my grandfather walking among them, and they tell me how and when they knew my mother or my uncles. I bring the children now on boats to Garnish island, and I half remember Poll Gorm when I was a child. All of us in the family are drawn back here. My cool beautiful cousin Suzanne, who died all too young two weeks ago, was drawn back here from wherever she was - Rosslea in Fermanagh as a child, Southampton in recent years. Glengarriff was the centre of gravity that drew her. It was where she wanted her second home.

And maybe that's what is so special about when we do travel the country in summer. We are connected. Wherever we go we have been there before or we know them or they know us. We are knit into its tapestry and our ghosts are there. When I walk around the lakes at Muckross I am small again, the youngest boy and we are all living at home under that one roof, and travelling in that one car, however it was done. And we haven't even dreamt that some day we will all grow up and go our separate ways and we will become the uncles and the parents, and bad things will happen and some of us won't make it. In fact, none of us will ultimately.

And maybe that is the secret. When you travel those roads you don't go away, or escape, like you do when you go abroad. You do the opposite. You go deeper into yourself and where you came from, and there is a melancholy beauty and simplicity in it that is matched by the elemental nature of the scenery around you. Those Irish journeys, whether it's walking out the South Wall, or driving out to Slea Head beyond Dingle, or down east or into the west, are journeys into ourselves, and they leave us slightly more centred and in touch with ourselves, more grounded and ready for the struggle for another while.

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