What makes small parts of Ireland particular and ‘unto themselves’…

Over the last few days John Waters has had a couple pieces (here and here) on the canals of Dublin (of which there are two, of course)… Belfast doesn’t even quite have one, since the Lagan was until more recent times been navigable into the centre…

But Waters’ pieces put me in mind this description of the poet Phillip Larkin’s description of a bike ride down the Lagan tow path on 7th June 1951:

The weather was hot and splendid, & the riverside deserted except for a horse drawn barge. It’s almost entirely unspoilt, no houses anywhere, only lock gates & occasional refreshment stalls (shut). I saw something I imagined to be a magpie, heard waterrats clopping in and out of the shallows, & hardly sneezed at all, but free to wonder at the unbroken blue sky, cliffs of wood shadow descending to the water, & the thick anonymous dust that softly powdered my pedalling shoes.

After going some miles, I came up onto the road, & stopped at a small licenced house near Ballyskeagh I’d noticed before. An old man came in from the garden to serve me, & the pub was another minor ‘find’, being strangely English, with a dartboard and & Albin (Aldin?) hunting prints on the dark walls, & and behind the counter ancient mirrors inscribed with proprietary brands of spirits dating from about 50 years ago, and a vast collection of regimental badges.

Resting on top of the ‘reredoes’, as you might call it, was a German helmet – not the kind we know, but the real old 1914 Uhlan spike-topped variety, its gold chain tarnished, but still carrying an aura of evil as in the early pages of illustrated histories, Louvain Cathedral mouldering, etc..

The Larkin extract is from Letters to Monica published by Faber and Faber and available from the Slugger book store at Amazon

PS, I’ve an idea that the pub is talking about is Robbie Stewarts, but I’m happy to be corrected…

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  • aquifer

    The Newry Canal was the first ‘summit level’ canal in the British Isles, thirty years before the Bridgewater Canal. It was originally constructed to bring coal from Coalisland to Dublin. In the eighteenth century Newry was bigger than Belfast. Water flows from Lough Neagh both to the Atlantic via the Bann and to the Irish Sea via the Newry Canal. Pity not to make the whole thing navigable again.

  • Red Lion

    Mick do you mean the pub by name of ‘Robbie Cahoons’??

    Rabbie Cahoons, despite its distinctly Scotch sounding name, continues to be ‘strangely English’ to this day – it has a framed picture on the wall celebrating Englands 5-1 victory over Germany from a few years ago!!

  • Tochais Síoraí

    I think sport is a biggie in Ireland where there is a such a widespread deep knowledge and ‘feel’ for certain sports in some places. Towns where the GAA had or has little foothold, swathes of the country where soccer and rugby didn’t exist up to relatively recently, where old men in pubs talk in detailed knowledge of players and games from a half a century ago – it might be rugby in Limerick, hurling in Kilkenny, (gaelic) football in Killarney, soccer in Sligo, boxing in Belfast. Whatever. The tradition of a long standing sporting tradition in an area and it might be a small area makes it an ingrained part of the local fabric.

  • Larkin’s five years as under-librarian (what an extraordinary position, even for Larkin!) at Queen’s is usually accounted as the period when he “found” himself. Certainly, when he returned to England, he seems to have been nostalgic:

    Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
    Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
    Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
    Once that was recognised, we were in touch

    Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
    Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
    The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
    To prove me separate, not unworkable.

    Living in England has no such excuse:
    These are my customs and establishments
    It would be much more serious to refuse.
    Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

    [The Importance of Elsewhere]

    Being Larkin, there had to be a lady in the picture, to be exploited. She was the food- providing, drink-pouring, dog-loving, occasionally pipe-smoking ‘tall, rather gawky brunette’ Patsy Strang (Andrew Motion’s Life).