Friday 20 September 2019

'Towards dawn there are two loud crashes a few minutes apart. It is as if poltergeists are on the loose. I look at the door of our room, half-expecting a phantom to walk hrough it witwith his arm tucked underneath his head'

Hugh Leonard

MONDAY THE week begins with the joy of receiving an email letter from the least judgemental man I know - my friend Father Martin Murnaghan, in far-off Kenya. He says that without Kathy I would have become "a thorough ould curmudgeon" instead of the "amiable variety" I am now. It is a nice state of affairs when a priest puts one of his flock among the also-rans, with Kathy,

MONDAY THE week begins with the joy of receiving an email letter from the least judgemental man I know - my friend Father Martin Murnaghan, in far-off Kenya. He says that without Kathy I would have become "a thorough ould curmudgeon" instead of the "amiable variety" I am now. It is a nice state of affairs when a priest puts one of his flock among the also-rans, with Kathy, a lapsed Episcopalian, ahead of him.

Mind, I suspect that Father Martin is intent on getting me into heaven, if only by way of the scullery window. And I wish that he would come back here, if only because the Irish pagan is a far more pernicious and populous breed than any he might find in Africa. As for me, whenever I begin to doubt the existence of God, I think of: Van Gogh's 'starry starry night'; the interior of Chartres cathedral and the outer aspect of St Pancras railway station in London; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and the prior-to-Agincourt speech from Henry V; Beethoven, Sondheim, Jerome Kern, Tchaikovsky; among novels, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, and Arnold Bennet's The Old Wives' Tale; the cinema of Ernst Lubitsch.

Where belief in a deity is concerned, the existence of any one of these should be proof enough for an agnostic and one in the jaundiced eye for a know-nothing, know-it-all atheist. And, in the matter of belief and disbelief, I myself am stuck half-way through that scullery window.

TUESDAY TO City Hall, where the first shot is fired in the run-up to the 50th Dublin Theatre Festival. I catch sight of Michael Colgan, and immediately think of a penance I received a few years ago from the aforementioned Father Murnaghan, which was a most humbling prospect, and I would rather have had to say a hundred Hail Marys than apologise to someone I might have offended. I duly offered an olive branch to a certain illustrious television icon, whose response was to break the twig into twiglets and hurl them back in my face.

I sent him a second letter, and this time his reply was so nakedly self-pitying that Kathy, who with my blessing opens the mail and separates sheep from goats, would not allow me to read it. So much for the benign darling of the great unwashed, but no such nastiness came from Michael Colgan. I offered him my hand; he took it, and that, at long, long last, was that. I confess that, leaving the City Hall with Kathy, I was mildly airborne. I have a short fuse - it splutters and fizzles out while others smoulder on till doomsday.

As for Sweeney Todd, I very dimly recall that I saw a 1937 film version with the appropriately named Todd Slaughter cackling as, open razor in hand, he addressed a customer with, "You've a lovely throat, you 'ave. I won't be long polishing you orrf!"

The Stephen Sondheim version goes rather deeper than this, and the Gate Theatre version is tremendous. Superlatives are tiresome, but I was knocked out by the staging - there seems to be nothing that the Gate stage cannot accommodate - and Selina Cartmell's direction is as good as I have ever seen on this side of the herring pond.

Traditionalists and other fuddy-duddies may ask what the Gate is coming to, and I confess to loving A Little Night Music above all other musicals; but Mr Sondheim has turned a Victorian (1847) melodrama into a vision of hell that is both comic and filled with horror. More like this, please, Mr Colgan. In fact, send in the clones.

(I knew that this was going to be a special evening when, in Pearse Street at rush hour, there was a tapping on our car window, and it was Dan on her way, as we were, for dinner at Chapter One and thence to the Gate. We gave her a lift, of course, but she would have been quicker walking.)

THURSDAY to MONDAY We set off for the Country House Hotel at Dunbrody, just across the Hook promontory from Waterford. Kenmare is too far distant for a weekend, and in any case there had been an incident on my last stay at the Park Hotel that was a turn-off.

I had booked a certain room in which I had stayed with Paule on several occasions, and as far as I am concerned an hotel room is no more than a matter of four walls, a floor and a ceiling, with a bathroom that is a kind of serif or quiff. But even though the booking had been confirmed to me, we were shown into a much smaller room.

The manager took me to one side and said that "in the circumstances" - these being Paule's passing - I would not wish to stay in my usual room. I recall that my face burned with embarrassment and guilt. I was being made aware that while God might forgive me my trespasses, Kerry would not. At that moment, the Park Hotel won the trophy as 'Hotel of the Year, 1935'.

As for last weekend, Dunbrody Country House Hotel is a joy, and we had a bathroom that was not a 'quiff' but a marbled delight. Nobody comes up and asks, "Is everything all right" - perhaps because they know that everything is all right. The food is first-rate, but the fabled lamb was not on the menu, and no harm either. I am one of those hypocrites who can wolf down a nice piece of spring lamb, yet will shrink from the thought of the poor thing meeting an untimely end. Shades of Sweeney Todd!

Breakfast, on the other hand, is served until noon and will set one up for the day. You simply sneer at the passing of lunch-hour, and as for the pancakes, to the devil with dieting; to use an odious expression, at Dunbrody they are to die for.

Just outside the front gate and down the hill is Arthurstown, which isn't a town at all. Five seconds after you start to drive through it, it is history, but there is a car ferry to Passage East in Waterford across the estuary, and you can sit in Byrne's pub - a civilised delight - and watch it arrive and depart. The epic voyage takes all of five minutes.

Duncannon, which is nearby, has a beach of hard, fine yellow sand. Last weekend, it was all but deserted and a joy to walk along, which I did as if I was once again a seven-year-old with a bucket and spade. By car, this corner of Elysium is only two hours and a bit from Dublin, and the perfect place for a holiday home.

Others seem to have made this discovery. Behind the village there is a nest of hideous 'rubber-stamp' houses, all facing the same way in a display of archetypal Irish architecture, and with fetid Fethard of infamous memory just another village away. Well, what is Eden without a serpent?

When I took ill some time ago, I drove our car in such a manner that Danielle now wears a blonde wig to conceal her mop of white hair and the patches where tufts of it fell out from terror, and now she and Kathy take turns to do the driving while I just sit back and, like Arthur Miller's salesman, Willy Loman, observe the scenery. On the Sunday of our weekend, we take the ferry, and Dan drives us to Annestown and along the coast road. The scenery is as rugged and dramatic as anyone could find in Kerry or Connemara.

Back at the hotel, and as if I needed a soft bed to induce sleep, I dip into The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. One of these - Afterword - is not recommended to a reader who is on his or her own in a very old house; this can stand comparison with MR James's Casting the Runes, which has a ghost that has a face "like crumpled bedclothes". Brrr.

I sleep soundly enough, but towards dawn there are two loud crashes a few minutes apart. It is as if poltergeists are on the loose. I look at the door of our room, half-expecting a phantom to walk through it with his arm tucked underneath his head. Instead, Kathy asks, "Did you sleep through that thunderstorm?"

She drives us home, bulging with Dunbrody pancakes, through

a veritable forest of signs, handwritten in black paint by aggrieved salmon fishermen, all adjuring the passer-by not to vote

for Fianna Fail. At Gorey, half-way on our journey, there is a rogues' gallery

of colour photographs of IRA cheerleaders adorning the lamp posts, and these

want us to vote for Sinn Fein. And yet many of us, in spite of the murders of the not

so distant past, will do just that.

We really are an immoral race.

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