Registering change is a favourite pastime of writers and, indeed, anybody interested in one’s formative surroundings. Whilst rambling around Limerick during the summer months there is much to occupy the prodigal’s return in the observation of the familiar or in the hand of alteration.
Strolling through the People’s Park the reassuring presence of Spring Rice continues to peer from his plinth and seems to echo the absence of the lame park keeper who would scatter us with his stick when the football struck a precious rose. (Michael Curtin has a wonderful short story about the keeper of the park, written many years ago).
We leave much of us behind in parks. The summer ice creams coming through the small window of the red faced shop, a well dressed couple who could have been going to their own wedding, the ‘fresh air gang’ in preparation for a walk with their dogs along the banks of the Creek as far as Sandy. The welcome additions of the children’s playground and the memorial to cot deaths, however, are acknowledged, as is the gardener’s craft in the lavishly laid out flowerbeds. But one is grateful for the stroll and better for it to tackle the details of our little labyrinth of New York by the Shannon.
But first a re-acquaintance with the gentle spirit of Phil Andrews in the City Gallery, who generously imparted much of his knowledge to me on days when I wasn’t up to much. I could also sense the presence of Paul O’ Reilly in his solution to the problem of space, with his ceiling to floor layout of its permanent collection. A bigger building, no doubt, would bring it all back to eye level, but I am always happy to catch a glimpse of that innovative and erudite man who can be seen whizzing round a corner on his bicycle.
Yeats’ Chairoplanes is surely a metaphor for life’s merry-go-round and earth’s vulnerable orbit, while Charles Lamb’s Country People at Prayer speaks to us of more innocent times. Our rugged past is caught in Keating’s Simple Folk and in St George Hare’s Still Life (Fresh Herring), I recall a painting by John Shinnors, Good Friday Morning Breakfast, where abstinence or temptation adds another dimension. John is destined to join this illustrious company, but not just yet! There is much work to be done and I hope to tackle my long acquaintance with John as friend and painter in my next instalment. Kitty Bredin by Jack Donovan is there also, watching our progress with a candid eye. And who can mention her name without remembering O’Grady’s homage to that great lady of the arts whom my father was proud to have acted with in the College Players and who was as
Haughty as a model gillie, flat
witted as a winkle. I tried to stuff
light into each feathered eye,
flowers into each fly-
bitten blossom while
you looked on from behind
your chewed, cocked fag-holder,
clouty in mixed tweeds.
From Separations (1973)
Upstairs the Art in Prison programme bore testimony to the positive role art can play in our lives, particularly in those who search for a way out of confinement, a means towards understanding the predicament. Surely the purpose of all art. I am particularly reminded of Gavin Hogg’s work, who has been interpreting some of my own poems for a new book.
In Sean Curtin’s book of photographs Limerick – a stroll down Memory Lane Vol 2 (a Christmas present from Dom Taylor) the work of anonymous and better known collections, Limerick Leader photographers and that of Michael Cowhey, (whom I recall paling with my cousin Garry) has captured for me the Limerick I remember that still clings on but now in the grip of imminent change. The opening shot City view, 1950’s style (a little before my time) has Matterson’s and Pa Cassidy’s Kiosk across from the Lyric. Three landmarks etched forever on the subconscious, reminders of who we were when we sat in ‘The Gods’ and watched our first films through clouds of smoke. Reminders also of what we have become amidst the erosive sources of our memories.
Taking a left down Glentworth Street it was time to reflect in my old haunt The White House.
Opening that perennially difficult door I fully expect to be greeted by Eamonn or Ita with news about a recent visiting poet or painter. In my indulgences I recall the day I stood outside on O’Connell street with Aiden Bennis, one of us admiring the Laurel Hill girls who were making their way to the Whimpy, whilst inside, Rober Graves and his entourage talked about his grandfather, the Protestant Bishop of Limerick.
On entering that evening to meet my fellow tertulianos Eamonn hinted at my missed opportunity to have met the great poet and author of The Greek Myths but would not reveal much. I, however, managed to get the whole story from my benevolent friend Seamus ? Cinneide, who coined the title Pound Devalued in White House. Seamus told me the story of how Graves would not come into the bar with a photograph of Pound hanging on the wall, so he dutifully placed it behind a photograph of local poet Gerard Ryan. I duly set to work on a poem of that name for Eamonn to soften his craw and
Today it hangs beside Mr Pound
And still not a word between them.
From Pound Devalued in White House, The Angling Cot (1991)
Another set piece was the morning Eamonn asked me to help him fill the big barrel with whiskey. A cement-caked plank was placed between the windowsill and the counter, and my job was to hand the bonded whiskey in a keg to Eamonn who walked the plank with it towards the big barrel. The contents were poured into a rusty funnel lodged in the bunghole. For my participation in this ritual Eamonn stood me a small one. Years later, as I was passing up O Connell Street with my brother Liam, we saw the barrel going into an Aer Lingus van, bound for America. If ever I am in that country again I hope to have one from that same source, in honour of the former proprietor and his sister Ita.
Today, the bar is a welcoming, hospitable hostelry in the efficient and friendly care of Glenn and his staff. One of the highlights of my summer visit is to read some poems for friends in the intimacy of its unending tradition. Where in Ireland would the listener be offered a glass of wine and a sandwich at a poetry reading?
Such brooding makes the morning slip away but I know I am on holiday when I can take a pint at one, wondering who will pass the threshold for a chat. Tom Cahill, Michael Hartnett, Willie English, Flann O Connor, Terry Miller or Johnny Hennessy will never walk in again but I have their company and their conversations tucked away in my heart. Seamus ? Cinneide, Jim Kemmy, Claude and Dairine Byrne will not open the door either but their ‘Solas agus Anam’ brings a smile to my lips in the recognition of how fortunate I was to have known them all.
In another landmark of hospitality, Tom Collins’, (of which I will have more to say about) I set the scene in a poem for Jim which could well apply to all the aforementioned. It ends with
Above the sing song chorus of that mirrored bar
I heard gentleness of shy greeting again; saw truth
Evaporating with a smile. I had followed him as far
As I could and in return he showed me how to chip
At what disdains, make our lives and where we come
From exemplary in the eyes of a bigger stage.
From Cut Stone: Jim Kemmy (1936-1997), Wine and Hope/Vino y Esperanza (1999)
It was time now for a bite to eat in Cruises Hotel with my dear friend Nora McNamara. I could hear the sound of a hundred Remington typewriters. Background music to my first attempts at writing poetry. A sudden hand on my shoulder and the copybook confiscated. Expulsion was my first thought but to my amazed delight Nora liked the poems and wanted to publish them. The Leader was contacted and the book, Boundaries, came out with O Mahoney’s and Easons giving generous window space. That was 1974 and I am still receiving encouragement from Nora. Lunch was on me inspite of protestations.