The annual summer visit to Limerick this year was marked by the turn of the key in the door of the house that is now the family home without my mother. I wrote about that feeling of absence many years ago, in a poem called Emptynest, on the death of my father, when we children
Jumped for those impossible bites
Or raced round the room
In search of the silver sixpence
That was my father’s eye.
And I tried to imagine how my mother felt, in the lines:
Such energy she doubts existed.
Now that the piano’s shut tight
As a coffin lid, the room
Where she sits full of absence.
(from The Angling Cot)
Mother had now become the absence and would not be sitting, waiting for us.
To alleviate this confrontation with one of life’s sorrows, was my brother Mark and sister Miriam, standing on the platform of Colbert station, that monument to ‘Chivalrous Con Colbert of Athea’, in the words of Madge Daly. Over a drink with my brother in the Railway Hotel I recounted a detail of the journey from Dublin.
My wife, Pilar, and two sons, Marcus and Sean sat across the isle from me as I joined in the easy flow of chat between a retired teacher from Clonmel and two elderly women, who might have been sisters, from Thurles. I noticed the man reading The Little Prince in Spanish and soon the talk turned to Spain and language learning with my eldest joining in.
We were treated to an invited reading of a chapter by Marcus to the amusement of fellow travellers and then the talk turned to sons and daughters living abroad and married to Austrians, French and Italians.
“It’s great”, said one of the ladies, “I can visit whenever I want and I am now trying to pick up some of the language.” The retired teacher, who was learning Spanish, mentioned the need for a bilingual approach to Irish and so we then had the copla focal agus rud a ra i mbeag’n until the train reached Thurles.
I mused on the range of our chat and thought how the time must surely be right for a national push towards a bilingual Ireland. Multicultural, cosmopolitan Dublin, that Tir na nog of the third millennium, was living proof of another kind of absence, the absence of the Irish language amidst the sounds of foreign words wafting in the Grafton street air.
Perhaps in some near future, as Irish people grow accustomed to other nationalities speaking their languages with uninhibited pride, there will be a national willingness to converse in Irish as there is in English. A widespread, bilingual Ireland, or do I dream?
This I recounted in the place where we had our farewell drink amidst ‘that sing-song at a wedding before departure’, shortly after my mother’s funeral. Before leaving for home I quoted the closing lines for my brother from a recent poem Recalling Mother
No further revelation could make the journey without you
More acceptable, or fill my eyes with the goodness
I have known despite this empty pain.
(The Stony Thursday Book, Vol 2, 2.)
It was time to partake of the welcoming warmth of my sister and my brother. The orphanage was still a home and a happy place to be. My mother’s absence was everywhere in the presence of a benevolent spirit. The road to recovery had been taken.
Walking around Limerick I glimpsed from different angles, the new hotel by the river. Shaped like a towering ship’s bridge, or as the wits will have it, a phallic edifice, vying for supremacy of the skyline with the Cathedral spire where, as the poet O’Grady recalls, in his poem Homecoming:
Feathereye Mykey my uncle told me a soldier
Once shot down a hawk dead from the cross
With a telescope fixed to his rifle.
(from The Road Taken . Poems 1956-1996.)
Prosperous looking buildings and bustling streets have now replaced the silence of the cannonballed ruins that seemed to belong to the time of the sieges. But, thankfully, there is still the feel of a country town about the place, in spite of the glitz and the gloss.
This is the great challenge of modern architecture: to blend the old with the new in the harmonious flow from generation to generation.
The critical eye will have much to praise and, perhaps, bemoan. Whenever I pass where Cruises Hotel used to be, I decry the loss of at least the facade, and recall the shiny, brass circular bar, the meeting of country people in the foyer, a wedding party of four, and my own wedding dinner, the last (supper) to be served by waitresses who joined us for a glass of champagne before the big lead ball swung into action.
In the centre of this strollable quarter the bronze sculpture of the woman with the tambourine plays us along towards, what we used to call, Joe Malone’s Lane, where The Corner Stone guided carriages safely off Todds Row onto Denmark street, and was, as I remember it:
Chipped by centuries of safe homecoming,
Along tight streets where no lamp shone,
That polished granite-resting place
Steadfast, tenacious, almost forgotten.
(from Wine and Hope/Vino y Esperanza)
Or sometimes guided me up to my flat overhead Clunes after a night of revelry in the bohemian 70’s of Malone’s (formerly O’ Briens’), and Dinny O’Malley’s.
Often those nights would sneak into morning with talk of politics, art and local gossip in the American-style kitchen that was home to many a vagrant soul and broken spirit.
Some of us survived those live performances of private hells and are reminded that, perhaps, regrettably, youthful concerns have less a future than the power of Mammon. For the flat is now in the hands of a certain bank, and the walls have only ears for the sound of money-talk.
Yet there is solace in memory.
Whenever I walk along Denmark Street I can hear myself again playing the bodhran with Tommy “spoons” and Danny Hynes on the banjo. And imagine us busking outside the Augustinians with my sister tugging the sleeve of my mother, trying to get her to cross the street in order to avoid the spectacle.
But, maybe, they are the notes of the accordion-playing poet on Chapel Street, opening the way to the Milk Market.
This oasis of colour and character has never lost its appeal for me and seems to improve with the years as new blood peddle their cheeses and spiced pat’s, copper works and wood carvings, alongside the older breed of sellers with their shocking bunches of carrots and earth-caked potatoes. I wonder about the photographs of Gerry Andrews taken of the Market in 1979 for Joe Taylor’s newspaper The Limerick People.
But it is time now for respite in one of the cobblestoned cafes or join a ‘tertulia’ of Limerickites in O’Blathmhaic, where talk turns on a whim of fancy over coffee and Sweet Afton.
One could roam around the world without leaving your seat. Meet Nelson Eddy and Veronica Lake, get off at the station of Inishfree and have Barry Fitzgerald waiting or imagine yourself buying a newspaper again from Fonsie, or hear his pen-pal Gigli when he came to town to sing Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.
Here is another watering hole where stories are hatched to be read in the novels of one of Ireland’s gifted and much neglected writers, Michael Curtin, who has accepted the baton from writers like Kate O’Brien and become Limerick’s answer to Madrid’s Galdos.
Raconteurs, poets and painters might drop in to mull over the conversation, check the day’s racing card or settle a line of translation before catching the train to Cork enroute to Kinsale, for it is still morning in early July and this year’s visit has only begun.