Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tramore, 29.6.90: Gluts of Ruins and Vanishing Nora

Haven’t written for days now because so dispirited. Dublin drab—glad to be away from it. First night there, we arrived just as the Irish soccer team beat Czechoslovakia in the World Cup. You would have thought the saints were marching in. Cheers inside every house and pub, people pouring out into the street singing Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé! A little old lady passed me, tears in her eyes. “Wasn’t it grand?” The implication was that we’re all vitally interested, that we all think Ireland’s fate hung on this. Would London behave this way? All night cars drove up and down the street, people waving flags and singing. Someone passed beating a drum.

Next day went to National Library. It was closed till 2, despite what books said—typical Irish occurrence. So we bookshopped. Some nice bookshops in Dublin, particularly generous poetry sections. Then to National Library where I tried to get Tithe Applotment books—“We don’t have them; they’re at the PRO,” said Sister Librarian, despite guidebook information that the NL has microfilm copies.

In the evening, Steve and I had a very nice Chinese meal at a Chinese-Malaysian restaurant on Dame St., near Temple Bar. We had chicken with ginger and onion, and shrimp (prawns in Dublin) and cashews. The latter served in a nest of shredded fried potatoes—I’ve never seen this. Good, except vinegar had been sprinkled on the potatoes. At night, got A. out of his sulk enough to get K. and A. to go to some Cultural Center whingding in Dun Laoghaire to hear traditional music. Good—a narrator-singer, who was also flautist, another flautist, a harpist, and a violinst. The second flautist a young girl with wild curly black hair who also clogged; the violinist a sensitive young man. They did Roisin Dubh—or, rather, the narrator did a solo of it. Another lady did a ballad about a woman whose lover went to die in the West Indies.

Next day, we all drove into Dublin and I stopped at the Public Records Office. I got instructions to request the Tithe Applotment survey, filled out forms for it, and waited forever (at both NL and PRO, you request and then wait for records). When it came, it was Griffiths. No time for more, because the others were waiting. I felt like giving up. Next, to Registry of Deeds. After having been insulted by a little doorman at PRO—I had questioned his directions because they didn’t make sense, and he said, “Just listen now!”—I didn’t want to ask, and had trouble finding the way.

Inside Registry of Deeds, a nightmare. Signs said, “Don’t write on walls,” “Don’t partake of refreshments,” “Don’t smoke.” One big room full of records and full of people, books everywhere. Women with Liverpudlian accents saying fookin’ this and fookin’ that. A teenager with earrings and a nose ring and long pony tail with two ties, and a shirt saying, “Meet Deth.”

I managed to get the attention of a woman working in the room—Nora, I found out—and she told me I had to pay a £ to search. Which I didn’t have, so I went to the car to get it, knowing full well that Nora (who said just look for me when you return) would be gone when I returned.

Sure enough, paid the £ and never saw her again. Went to wait in the big records room and no one paid the slightest attention to me. Like something out of Kafka—or, as another man waiting said, very Dickensian. There were lots of little buereaucrats or workers bustling around, but with that air of inaccessibility that signals don’t bother me. And all the while all the weird people in the room were talking to each other as though they were regulars, and might have been for all I know. They gave me a feeling that I was too “civil” and too moral or something, because the general air was of a kind of worldweary cynicism, as if all these researchers or whatever they were were indeed out of Hard Times.

This is something I have noticed about the Irish. There is, as observers have noted, a chaotic air to everything. The “stabilizers” purportedly did not work as we docked at Rosslare, and this was announced in florid regretful euphemisms. Then, later in the day I went to the Civil Registry, we went to the National Museum. We watched a video, and the attendant could not get the lights to dim or switch off. He fiddled and fiddled and then walked away, shrugging his shoulders and raising his palms. And no one seemed to mind. Finally an English man got up and turned off the lights.

Chaos, an amazing irritating tolerance for things going wrong. On the one hand, I think how Americans are hyper-scheduled and unrealistic in thinking things should work. And the tolerance for chaos in Ireland goes hand in hand with the ability to take time to sit down and talk.

But on the other hand, they tolerance for chaos seems to go hand in hand with a deplorable fatalism. Has the church inculcated the attitude that nothing matters, nothing will ever be better only heaven counts? Or is it rooted in the experience of horrible hunger and death little more than a century ago? Or is there just some Celtic racial thing that makes the people value song, dance, craic, and not cleanliness and order? They often do, as commentators have noted, appear more European than British—bright gaudy colors in clashing combinations, a shrug and wink attitude when the English would be morally outraged.

This is what I felt as I waited in the Registry of Deeds—none of it helped by the fact that Nora seemed supercilious, assuming I was a stupid American who had no knowledge of how to research. Her face had that bland faintly amused look of one thinking her own sarcastic thoughts while saying words that pretend otherwise.

After Registry of Deeds, the National Museum. Very tired by this point, and sick-feeling. Had lunch between times (and the day before) at the Kilkenny Kitchen in the Kilkenny Design Centre. Curry and lots of salad but bread with no salt. On the whole, Irish food is wretched—no seasoning, lots of starch, nary a veg.

Felt too sick at National Museum to see much of the exhibit on pre-Celtic and Celtic Christian artifacts. Am tiring of all of this—a glut of seeing ruins and carvings. Turned not a hair at the Tara brooch.

Evening, words with Steve, casting a damper on our plans to do something apart from the others. We also had to move from our b and b to another in Dun Laoghaire, and it was not nice. A dirty-seeming but pretentious woman with dyed black hair ran it. She asked—twice, as if she didn’t believe—the sex and marital status of all of us (K. and A. were in the car). The house was not exceedingly clean and was noisy and smoky, and breakfast was abominable—fried eggs swimming in rancid old grease. And as Steve paid her, she said, “We don’t get paid enough for all the work we do.”

Third day in Dublin a washout. Continued tension with Steve. We shopped half a day in Dublin—a few bookshops in Temple Bar, a used clothing shop off Francis St. in the Liberties, where I found two children’s Aran sweaters for £2 each.

I was glad to be shut of Dublin after a lunch of salads in a little street beside a Carmelite church, off Grafton. Dublin is too populated, too bustling, too rude and knowing.

After Dublin, drove all the rest of the day to K.’s ancestral homeplace near Louth village. We had a devil of a time finding it, and when we got near were directed to a b and b nearby, on the road to Eniskeen. It was this old country estate: Mary N., M. House, Louth, etc.

We arrived there late in the day, around 6 P.M., in a spell of rain. The drive had been alternately sunny and rainy, with beautiful fine weather and views around the coast between Dublin and Dundalk. We turned off before Dundalk and went through Drogheda to Louth.

When we got to M. House, I was positively frightened. It’s an old, forlorn grand house hidden back up a drive—neglected air, a plastic pot sitting forlornly on a garden bench beside the front entrance. Carved animal heads looked out at us from around the windows. I thought what a perfect place for a Gothic murder mystery, and wasn’t Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie—“Dementia 13”—set in just such an Irish countryhouse?

Then out came Mary N.—steel gray hair with tight curls (just done today, we later learned), fat, intense blue eyes with squeezed-out look, broken blood vessels in an apoplectic face. Welcome, she said, shaking our hands, and then threw back her head and laughed a mad high-pitched laugh out of all proportion to the situation. All sorts of thoughts went through my head—murdered and cooked for her tea, murdered to keep her company in perpetuity in her wild country retreat, murdered and rearranged in an attic as I saw once in a movie where a young boy killed girls to cut them up and make a perfect one out of their various parts.

Will you have tea, she said, cackling frantically—and I to myself, yes and arsenic, please. A good tea it was—scones and almond slices and raspberry jam, all homemade—but marred because I fancied there was a bitter taste and kept asking myself if arsenic had a detectable taste. As we ate, Mary N. told us Bord Failté would not approve her—said the girl who inspected the house told her it looked unlived in. “And I said, ‘Yes, you can see the bloody briars growing over the front door.’ What did she want, belly dancers? I’ve told this story so many times I’m going to make a video to spare my children. But I don’t give a damn what Bord Failté think.” All this in the half-Scottish sing-song of the North with its harsher metallic tones than those of the South.

The house itself was stunning: molding around the lights, of foxes and birds and fruit and flowers; good massive furniture; crystal and silver. But all this mixed in with junk, and all in great Irish disarray. I peeked into the scullery or larder or whatever it’s called and am sorry I did—all a big jumble, bug sprays and God knows what else thrown together with food.

Then we drove out to see K.’s family’s burial plot in the Knockbridge churchyard, and afterwards S. and I took a walk. Rather depressing part of the country—all vastly overgrown and trashed up and not nearly so cared for as around Co. Kilkenny, and I thought the people looked harder-faced, more suspicious, louder-voiced.

Next day, today, we drove to Tully, where K.’s family, the Marrons, lived. We stopped to ask directions at a house and found we were in Tully, which is near Louth. The mistress of the house, R.W., invited us in for a cup of tea. Very nice of her, but her floor was like a pigsty and her dishtowels dirty and a hair floating in the plastic milk jug. Welcome to Ireland. She also had a very dirty front tooth that wiggled, and I was put off my cuppa.

She kept referring to her son J. as “that wee man”: “That wee man was two pounds when he was born.” When he pushed a toy across the floor, she said, “Don’t be bold, now.” She sent J. off to get a man, James M., who knew something of the Marrons—his nephew Patrick had inherited the Marron homeplace and farm from the last Marron, Peador.

James was red-faced and fat and had only two teeth and spoke with such a Northern accent I understood little of what he said. He kept speaking of a head of hair in the old Marron homeplace, which horrified me. Turned out to be a plait one of the girls had cut off her head when she emigrated to America.

James took us out to the old homeplace. K. was a little leery because she had heard there’s bad blood between the Marrons in the area and Patrick for getting the homeplace. And indeed Patrick seemed shy of us—red-haired, one blue eye and one blue with a brown spot, and seeming not altogether alert, as did many of the people around Louth. The Irish are not a cosmetic culture, do nothing to hide physical or mental “defects,” in fact appear rather to glory in them. In Graigue we saw a woman leaning on her doorpost weeping ,and in one of the largest bookstores in Dublin an old woman was sitting crying loudly and copiously.

The “wee house” of the Marrons to which James took us was an old cottage that has been made two-story and is attached to a barn. It’s “going to rack,” as he said—full of the sad detritus of an old house from which generations have emigrated and in which the last scion has died. There were old letters, some of them from New Orleans, and old photos, and a locked trunk.

Then James took us to see his thatched cottage: “It’s 500 years old, or maybe 1,000.” About his dresser he said, “It’s 100 years old, or probably 200.” He said Americans are unlike the Irish because they don’t have time for craic and a bit of a pipe.

And then we drove on to Waterford, stopping in ugly Navan for a horrible lunch at the Bon Appetit café, which had a stamp in the window advertising its cleanliness—an ill omen. The drive along the N-9 south is generally grim until you get south of Dublin. I’m probably prejudiced, but the North seems much dirtier, trashier, uglier than around Co. Kilkenny.

I’m writing this from Mountain View farmhouse outside Tramore, where we’re staying the night—Mrs. E. R. A lovely old thatched farmhouse horribly ruined—dropped ceiling, cut up into many rooms, decorated in the tweest of twee. Mrs. R. has a cast in one eye, as did our waitress at the Bon Appetit. I must tell Joe Moore about her: his mother was a R. before marriage.

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