It is difficult for a writer when dealing with the west of Ireland and its people, even if he knows both reasonably well, not to be dragged into the Somerville-Ross-Synge controversy which still rages among the Irish literati. Especially difficult if the writer happens to be a 'West Brit, atheist heretic'.
The latter was just one of the epithets hurled at me by my friend, a poet cum radio producer, during the usual drunken aftermath of a recording we had made of my short story about a hireing-fair in Belmullet. (They happened every time, drink and epithets, I mean; one of my ripostes, in a very loud voice - 'Papish bucknya!' - was once the signal for a minor riot in the Club bar.)
We were the best of friends, you see, but I think he never really forgave me for not wearing a bowler hat, jodhpurs and wielding a riding-crop. I was only the second heretic he had had a close encounter with since leaving the wilds of Tyrone, he once told me, the first being the welcoming Bursar at Queen's who gave him, he swore, a Masonic handshake. I asked him to describe the actual entwining of digits and so forth, and when he did I had to inform him that that particular Bursar had been tentatively seeking out adherents of another kind of club entirely... 'So you're a bloody Mason - you know the handshake!' he howled (after vowing to kill the Bursar). I explained to him that those of us not in receipt of Queen Elizabeth's scholastic shilling depended on getting and holding down jobs for a living, and if knowing every handshake from the Ancient Order of the Buffaloes to the Knights of Columbanus made it any easier, so be it.
But the real bone of contention that day was my short story, which in his opinion had steered too close to the Somerville-Ross-Synge fault-line in its portrayal of the western native. It smelt, he said, of the Anglo-Irish Raj and its condescending, indeed proprietorial, attitude to the 'charming fecklessness' of their servants and tenants.
I pointed out to him that the phrase 'charming fecklessness' had not been used by Somerville, Ross or Synge but by the German geneticist Kuno Mayer in describing the trait he most admired in Aran Islanders, among whom he had carried out intensive research. That research, I added - knowing it would rile, as it always did - revealed that the most prevalent physical characteristics were identical to those found in northern Britain, from whence had hailed a squadron of Cromwell's moss troopers who had garrisoned the islands in the 17th century, some of whom, it appeared, had stayed on to thoroughly garrison the island womenfolk. I also pointed out that if he must apply the class and caste systems of the Indian Raj to Ireland, then he must concede that I would be the statistical equivalent of an untouchable digger of military latrines...
'No, no... Much, much more than that, ' he insisted: 'An untouchable digger of military latrines... with literary pretensions.' He could be a waspish bugger at times.
Really, what was sticking in his craw was the fact that he had ventured no further west than the bar of the Imperial Hotel, Sligo during the Yeats Summer School fortnight, whereas I had travelled the wilds of Erris and the islands and had gained a fair experience of the inhabitants in situ and as it happened, elsewhere.
I first hitch-hiked the western seaboard, from Ballyshannon to Galway city, during the 12th of July fortnight in 1947. Most of that time was spent camping, and drinking on Achill island and the Belmullet peninsula.
Culturally, it was then much as it was when Flaherty had shot Man of Aran: oil lamps, donkeys, curraghs and poteen, its tenuous economy based on the rich liver of the Atlantic basking shark - craved by perfume manufacturers the world over - and on the export of human muscle. In the aftermath of war England was again calling for irish 'navigators' to assist in the rebuilding of her shattered infrastructure, just as their forefathers had been called upon to build it.
On Achill I met a local man called Kevin Molloy who was a navvy ganger working on the ruin of Coventry city. (About this time a Minister in DeValera's government visited Coventry to investigate the living conditions of Irish workers. He was shown a small room which housed 20 navvies sleeping in relays, the only furniture being an enamel bucket. The stench was such, a snide scribe reported, that the Minister himself had had sudden recourse to the bucket.)
Kevin was over to visit his mother, but was taking the opportunity to act as recruiting sergeant for his employer, Trollope & Coll. The competition for manpower between the big companies was intense, he told me, especially so since big projects such as oil refineries, power stations and nuclear plants were getting under way. He offered me a job, quoting astounding wages for which I would gladly have embraced that enamel bucket; I was sorely tempted, but decided against it.
Three years later, at Easter time, I was camping, and drinking, with others at Belmullet when we heard of an annual fair being held at a village not far up the coast.
We went along and found the town en fête on a broad white strand under a flawless sky. And there again was Kevin Molloy, this time acting as a full-time recruiter for the new nuclear power plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, still at the heavy duty foundation stage. He again offered me a job, quoting astronomical wages, and I took it.
I am, as I often told the Poet, a writer of fictions, unable to leave a note for the milkman without bending or garnishing the truth...
In the story I wrote about that fair day in Belmullet some 20 years later I set the stage as it had been: the drink tent, pig's feet stand and fish grill amongst the marram grass at the edge of the strand; the parade of a terrible pipe band murdering patriotic airs; the priest and his acolytes organising the footraces and the donkey derby; all culminating in a gaelic football match between teams of local youths. But there reality fades... Kevin Molloy became Abu Ben O'Malley (so nicknamed because of the Arab role as middlemen in the 18th century slave trade), millionaire director of 'Muckshifters Unlimited', who arrives on the strand in a custom-built Mercedes to cheers of approbation for a local boy made good ('Banked his first million by the age of 25 and hasn't walked since', I have one local saying; 'At 17 he sold six of his first cousins to Wimpy in Scunthorpe and hasn't looked back'). The gaelic game I describe is one of the utmost savagery; by half-time the wounded are laid out in rows along the touchline, and in the second half the ball is discarded completely and total mayhem ensues. Truly a needle match, and in my version it is soon apparent why when the winning team files past the open door of Abu Ben's Mercedes to shake hands with the great man and receive their boat and train tickets to 'the fleshpots of Camden Town'.
In reality the gaelic game was a mess and had to be abandoned before half-time. Some of the older players had been slipping off to the drink tent and were obviously half-cut by then. I recall seeing a priest remonstrating angrily with a group of inebriates - but by that time I myself was well on the way and took little notice.
I reported at Sellafield a month later and was assigned to a pick and shovel gang, all of whom were western men (they dubbed me 'Belfast Billy'). Four of them had been players in the Belmullet gaelic match. I mentioned this to Kevin Molloy our boss, congratulating him on a fair crop from that day. It was than that he told me the real, real story...
The priest whom I'd seen chastising the tipsy footballers was in charge of a church orphanage for boys not far from Belmullet. Every year around Easter time it was his duty to cull a percentage of the older, heftier lads for transportation to the church's vast fruit farms in Australia. The priest, a compassionate man, had been there and had witnessed the conditions of work and living in those remote places. So every year he managed, behind the church's back, to cull from the cull a dozen or so lads for Kevin Molloy... A moving story: so why didn't I write it 20 years later?
Nowadays the horrors of child slavery on the fruit farms, and the sexual deviance of some priests, are the themes of such popular BBC dramas as Dalziel and Pascoe. But in the '70s the woodkerne were again out of the trees, this time with semtex, and the Brits were walking on eggs around the Church, hoping perhaps for a threat of excommunication (at the very least for those contemplating action on 'the mainland'). There was as yet no hint of the revelations that would later bring the Church, morally and financially, to its knees. Then, such a story, especially from the pen of a 'West Brit, atheist heretic', would never have been allowed to see the light of day - and, more to the point, I would have been a fee short.
I worked for over a year at Sellafield, long enough to see the next cull of hefty orphans arrive from Belmullet fair. I recall it as one of the happiest times of my life, grafting hard in a gang of 'charmingly feckless' westerners, any one of whom could have stepped from the pages of Somerville and Ross or the plays of John Millington Synge.
When I tried to describe to the Poet their natural air of self-assurance, amounting almost to arrogance, unique in my experience of working men, he called me an incorrigable sentimentalist and an inverted snob. And when, many years later, I told him the real story of Belmullet fair, he refused to believe me, saying I was hopping on the anti-Church bandwagon in retrospect and flinging in my teeth my own admission about 'creative' notes to a hypothetical milkman (quoted above)... So there and then, on the back of an envelope on the wet bar top, I composed the following, just for badness: 'One pint only today. My doctor tells me that my system has become so lactiferous that I am in danger of turning into a woman. The wife and kids have left me. Farewell world... Please cancel above order.'
'That "only" is misplaced,' said the Poet smugly.