Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Chapter 9 The great Irish Potato Famine of 1983

Simon & Charlie in Ireland 1983
Chapter 9 (or: Be Prepared)!

I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine

And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time (Van the Man
So the next time we had a notion to go to Ireland we had a cunning plan. We’d go in luxury, comfort and motorised style in Charlie. To help avoid the arguments we’d take our good friend Simon – who was always up for a jaunt, and whose general amiable steadiness and common sense contrasted starkly with our somewhat tiggerish approach to everything. Anyway – he was great company, and is one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent people we know. The other part of the cunning plan was that rather than spending the whole two weeks on the road, we’d rent a cottage near Westport in County Mayo, and there explore the surrouding countryside and climb Croagh Patrick, the mountain named after Ireland’s patron saint.

Every year thousands of pilgrims make the not particularly perilous ascent to the top of the 765 metre high peak in honour of the great man, and for a long time they insisted in making it far more dangerous by not wearing shoes. Whether this was just out of a spirit of adventure, or because of deep seated religious beliefs, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t till a few unfortunate souls had taken a tumble off the mountain, and gone straight to meet their maker, that the authorities twigged what was going on and put a stop to it. They also had to change the time of the climb from Lent to summer after a particularly vicious storm in 1113 killed 30 pilgrims.
Typically, the Christians actually stole the whole sacred mountain concept from the pagans and subverted it. There are many recorded instances of pagan artefacts which pre-date Christianity on the mountain, and, according to www.sacredsites.com: ‘it was common for early Christians to view pagan religious practices as devil worship; thus the legend of Patrick slaying dragons and demonic forces on the sacred mountain is actually a metaphor for his subjugation and conversion of the pagan priests.’ Fairly typical that a place viewed by the pagans as a ‘sanctuary for the giving of thanks and the celebration of life's abundance’ was turned by the Christians into yet another manifestation of the fear, guilt and control excercised by organised religion generally. Anyway, climb it we did, and I can reliably report that the view from the summit is breathtaking.

I digress. Back to Charlie & Ireland it is then. The great thing about Charlie is that he not only had a bed and a cooker and a table you could get four people round to eat at. There was also a sink, an elevating roof which gave much needed space when erected, a top of the range radio cassette player, and two bunk beds for use by kids or guests. He was literally a home on wheels, and it was hugely reassuring knowing that if we couldn’t find a campsite, we could always pull off the road into a field, and had everything we would need for a comfortable, well fed evening. Put the roof up, turn on the gas canister at the back, put the kettle on, groove on down to some sounds and presto! We used to say that if only we could find the right button, Charlie would fly; something that later fascinated our kids, who would spend hours looking for the magic flying button, until boredom intervened or another more interesting game came along. Charlie also had the equivalent of a priest hole. In the space above the cab, a space just big enough for a small child would reveal itself once the roof was elevated, and, as each of the girls grew up, until the age of about four they saw it as their right and privelige to use the space as a play room by day and as a hideout and sleeping area at night. At festivals this meant that all the under 4’s from nearby fields would be drawn to Charlie like moths to a flame, each desparate to join the accepted elite and be able to make the ascent to the promised land. For those who made it, there was the promise of cookies, chocolate and the kinds of fizzy drinks now banned for their lead and arsenic content, and the van was often crammed with hordes of small children, all of them high on sugar, and many in various states of being, as Private Eye would have it ‘tired and emotional.’ Our trip to Ireland in Charlie was about as perfect as any holiday could be, almost the polar opposite of our previous cycling fiasco. We revisited some of the places from that trip – Wexford, Waterford, Tralee, but at each place we went sailing imperiously through, mindless of the little undulations, impervious to the wind and rain, cowed no longer by thoughts of not finding a campsite; truly masters of our own destiny.

At this time Katharine was pregnant with Ellie, our first child, and somehow this added to the romantic and mystical significance of the Celtic and spiritual aspects of Ireland. Planxty have a song called The Pursuit of Farmer Michael Hayes, and whilst playing it one day we noticed that the towns and Counties mentioned in the song reflected almost perfectly our own itinerary: Dublin, Tipperary, Kilrush, Lisdoon, Miltown Malbay, Galway, Westport, Tralee, Clare, Mayo, Castlerock – we can still map our trip that year by playing the song. Of course we assumed Planxty had written it just for us, and it became a firm travelling favourite. It not only tells a tale of murder, mayhem and madness, it finishes the way most great travelling songs finish – with a solo whipping up a storm; pushing you onwards towards the next destination before the grass under your feet grows too green. In this case the solo comprises pipes, a bodrhann, and I think there’s something called a blarge in there as well, although for my money you can’t beat the classic rock guitar & bass type climax with several false endings and the kind of pounding drum fills that indicate the drummer’s imminent departure from the stage through the floor or disappearance in a puff of smoke.

One day I’ll write something about travelling songs – these need to conjure the spirit of the open road, get the passengers headbanging in true Waynes World fashion, and have the kind of beat that reflects the thrum of the motor and the slap of tyres on the tarmac. So Michael Hayes fits the bill perfectly, as does Night Moves by Bob Seger, Crossroads by Cream, Jammin or No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley, Voodoo Child by Hendrix, Coyote by Joni Mitchell, Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young, And it Stoned Me by Van Morrison and others too numerous to relate here. Doubtless you’ve got your own favourites. Let me know and I’ll incorporate them in a book, make a podcast, whatever.
In Dublin – what a fabulous city – we called into the local record shop, and there purchased, on the original Tara Label, a vinyl copy of the album which contains The Pursuit of Farmer Michael Hayes. Up until that point we’d only had it on cassette (remember them), and our tape was becoming very worn. Beside, we needed a souvenir of our visit, and what could be better than some of the native music? Some people return from holiday with all sorts of artefacts – flags, dolls, biscuits, gold bullion, STDs, valuables of all kinds. Our sole item of value on return was this album – called After the Break, and we’ve still got it and its still great.

At one point, high up in the mountains near Cork, we stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker. She told as a fantastic tale of how she was on the way to meet her boyfriend and that on a nearby plot of land, hidden deep in this magical wooded countyside, they would begin building a house. The fantastic bit resided in the way they had come by the land. For years, she told us, she had looked after an old man who lived near her village and had vaguely known her parents. She cooked and shopped, cleaned his spartan house, and from the frugality of his existence, never suspected that he may be wealthy, or that he may view her as anything more than an unpaid housekeeper. Yet when he had died, he’d not only left her a large sum of money, but also a plot of land and detailed instructions of how she was to build a house and there bring up a family. Well, when some old geezer you hardly know goes and leaves you tons of dosh, a large tract of land, and directions about what to with it, you just have to get on with it don’t you?
At the time I thought this was a manifestation of a peculiarly Irish phenomenon – people who are related only through necessity leaving each other lots of cash, and somehow this magnified the romantic notions I had about the country. Wow, they’re that cool they care nothing for money! I’ve since learnt that there’s an honourable tradition in many societies for this kind of thing to happen; particularly where there is old man, young girl interface, but that it isn’t necessarily always to do with some kind of sexual tryst or motivation. The old man in question had left our hitch-hiker a long letter, apparently detailing the many kindnesses she had shown him and how much these had inspired him. In life he had been, apparently, somewhat taciturn and withdrawn, but in dying had shown himself capable of having a generous and resposive nature. Demonstration, I guess, that we should all express our emotions and thoughts a little more, and not wait for when our wills are being read to reveal them.

‘Where does a potato famine come in to all this?’ I hear you ask. We all know of the desparate history of Ireland and the potato famines, and I really don’t mean to make light of any of this, but it is an engaging story, and indicative of the unfortunate effects of so called ‘globalisation.’ Where’s one place you ought to be able to buy potatoes? Ireland, right, they grow them by the cartload. Well wrong actually; they do indeed grow them in large quantities, but then they all get exported to South Africa or Australia or even England. See, the imperialist oppressors are still at it! What this means in effect is that the Irish themselves get to eat none of their own crop and have to import often substandard potatoes at artificially inflated prices from Holland or somewhere equally unlikely.
This was bought home to us one evening when we attempted to buy some spuds to accompany our evening meal in a shop in a small town somewhere in County Cork. ‘Aint had no potatoes in a month’ the shopkeeper cheerily informed us; ‘and even if I did they’re usually rotten and cost too much.’ This led us into a general discussion of the iniquity of the worldwide potato trade and how many Irish farmers are paid handsomely by the EU to leave their land lie fallow, competing with each other with the determination of prize fighters to earn their place on next years ‘fallow’ list. Wine lakes, potato mountains, the net result was that night we had no root vegetable to go with our *bean stew (Don’t ask what its bean, ask ‘what is it now’, boom boom).

So that was it; our first real travel in Charlie, and it kinda defined the style of most future journeys. Late breakfasts, unpressured forays to places of local interest or towards our next stopping off point, evenings with sunsets unseen in the city, pubs where the wine, music and conversation flowed, and late nights, often fairly inebriated, before the snug refuge of our tiny sleeping compartments took us to the land of far flung dreams for the night.

*Bean stew joke courtesy of Dave Young, of whom more later