WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAYS
Being the first of, I hope, many monochromatic memories from five decades of technicolour globe trotting.
I started keeping diaries, some might call them journals or day books, back in 1974, and I still keep them today. I use undated, lined A4 books in which I number the pages myself, and keep indexes both of subjects covered and of the people who have written in them. So it’s a relatively simple matter for me to find, for example, that the first holiday I recorded in this way was a jaunt by Carol and I around Southern Ireland in September 1977.
This book will consist of entries from those diaries, sometimes edited, paraphrased or precised, to make them flow more easily. So, effectively, the original diary entries will become the first draft of the book. I have also included some pages scanned directly from the diaries, from which a reader can get a more authentic flavour of exactly how they were written.
The holidays ramble from Ireland to Mexico, Africa, India, Japan, Europe and, several times, the USA. They cover our first global wanderings from before Carol and I got married, through the years when we had our children with us and conclude with our trips after the children had left home. The first holiday is in 1974, and the most recent (for the purpose of this project) was in Sri Lanka during 2016.
For the record, I spent most of my working life as a music journalist, while Carol worked as a BBC tv producer for many years, before becoming a secondary school teacher. This book barely touches on those aspects of our lives, so it might add a hint of colour if I say that I interviewed the likes of Paul McCartney, Abba and The Cure, and Carol produced Points Of View during the course of which she found herself being chased down the corridors of the BBC tv centre by a cyberman.
1 September 1977 : Southern Ireland
Thursday : This place is not real. Dublin is a decaying, archaic city and, in its own way, very beautiful, even in the drizzling rain. You know you’re not in England anymore because of the telephone boxes, street signs, car number plates and butter pats, all of which are quite different from their mainland equivalents.
Kerry butter is particularly delicious, as are their potatoes.
We spent our first night in the Gresham Hotel, a bizarre establishment where we ordered up a couple pints of Guinness, because we had been told that it was far superior to the drink sold in England under the same name. It turned out to be fizzy.
Sunday : Dublin is in the grip of hurling fever. We drove out towards Glendalough in County Wicklow and, en route, stopped at a pub near Blessington where a sweet little girl called Breeda, urged on by her father, danced jigs for us on the bar while we chatted to several of her relatives and sipped a rather better pint of Ireland’s most famous dry stout.
At Glandalough we walked through its beautiful churches, and met a priest who offered to marry us. Later, we drove on up tiny, winding hillside roads into the clouds, then down again into the valleys aiming for Carlow, but we ended up in Murphy’s Hotel, Tinahely, drinking with two locals called, yes, Mick and Paddy. We enjoyed the music supplied by three accordionists and Carol was the hit of the evening. Every man in the bar danced with her. Mick proved to be a bit of a groper, but a decent dancer. Lovely way to spend an evening. We also encountered a drunk truck driver, very enamoured of Elvis Presley, who sang and danced by himself.
Before we left London, we had been supplied with notes and advice about Ireland from Carol’s tv producer colleague Nuala O’Faolain which proved invaluable. For example, Des, the publican in Murphy’s, turned out to know Nuala well, and also knew some friends of our Islington neighbour Carol Hutton’s up in the North. We immediately had a sense of Ireland as a place where a sense of community is very meaningful.
In O’Connor’s pub, we saw a three-piece group rendering country and western songs with strong Irish accents. “Some o’ dem’s goin’ down to Mexico” and ‘Da ting dat Oi love most of all’s da ting dat Oi can’t get.”
Monday : After a duff night in a b’n’b near Tramore, my spirits were lifted by discovering a cache of copies of the Marvel comic Howard The Duck No1 in a local newsagent’s.
Tuesday : The weather improved dramatically for our visits to Cork, Dungarvon and the Old Head Of Kinsale. In Cork, we bought an LP of traditional Irish pipe and fiddle music, only to realise later that it had been recorded in America. Of course it was. During the great depression, hundreds of thousands of Irish people moved to America seeking a better life, and they took their music with them. Recording facilities in Ireland at that time were minimal, so most off the early recordings of Irish folk music were made in studios across the Atlantic. Also in Cork, we bought some Barry’s tea to take home for friends, plus Wheels Of The World, a sampler of traditional Irish music.
We explored the 17th century Charles Fort in Kinsale and spent the night at a b’n’b in Ballinspittle, where we also took some time out to wander through the overgrown ancient ring fort of Cahervagliar.
In Nash’s pub at Ballinspittle we played pool very badly and were introduced to the local porter, Beamish, which is not unlike Guinness but less dark and creamy. Carol was offered a banana by the town drunk, Sullivan.
On the road again towards Youghall, we picked up our third hitchhiker who advised us of good music to be had at Gabe’s Place in Ballydehob but, as luck would have it, there was none on when we arrived, so we continued on to Kilchrohane and rented a delightful cottage from Mrs. O’Mahilly.
Carol : In this cottage in Kilchrohane the water is so soft that the bathwater feels like oil against your skin. Looking out of the left-hand window I can see the slate-roofed outhouse where two pied wagtails are chasing each other up and down. The weather changes every few minutes – we’ve had everything so far this morning, except snow, and that, according to Mrs. O’Mahilly, is hardly ever seen here. Yesterday I saw the cows being milked on the farm and we brought back two pints of fresh milk.
The view out to the front is especially beautiful, with the sea and the hills beyond. The water is mirror-like, silver and grey. Sparkling. White clouds throw shadows on the water and the land. There are no sounds of people. No cars or even voices. At night, the occasional dog barks or howls. Headlights flash briefly from behind the hills across the inlet.
In the daytime, the only sounds are of wind, flies buzzing and, more mundanely, the fridge switching itself on and off. Last night I lit my first peat fire and it worked!
We were increasingly aware of the poverty in Ireland, made all the more evident by the many deserted mansions we passed which in former times had belonged to wealthy landlords. We met a man who was restoring one old mansion house, not for any reasons of preservation of the Irish heritage, or even sentimentality, but only because he wanted to develop the area as a caravan site.
We stumbled across the tiny village of Timoleague between Ballinspittle and Clonakilty. Apart from a splendid selection of dogs in the streets it boasts a Cistercian Abbey of the 13th century which isn’t on maps or even in guide books as far as we can see. After it outlived its usefulness as an abbey it became the local cemetery and many a Hurley is laid to rest within. Sadly, the postcard makers haven’t recognised its beauty, so no cards are available.
The village also has a village idiot. Irish villages are still almost medieval in this respect. Every village has its drunk, its idiot and its characters. Village life does not stifle them. They are tolerated, given their head, and society expands to encompass them. In many ways, this immeasurably enriches the villages. Sadly, our urban civilisation cannot, or will not, follow suit.
Thursday : Spent most of the day loafing about, eating blackberries and reading. We attempted to walk the three miles to Kilcrohane, but our way to the top of the hill was barred by bog so we both got wet feet and pricked by brambles. we walked back.
Friday : Visited Bantry, the nearest gigantic sprawling urban conurbation (pop. about 3,000). We met a local thespian in the pub. The Irish are great natural blethers. They strike up conversations at the drop of a tam o’shanter. In the afternoon we visited Bantry House. It was big, impressive and featured sprawling gardens plus an eccentric female owner.
Every village, no matter how poor, has a well-kept, beautiful and opulent church. These symbolise how Irish society works. The church is at once a place of worship, provider to its flock, source of inspiration, force for stability and drain on village resources. Hard to say whether this is good or bad.
Carol : The road to Bantry is called Goat’s Path, which is what it is. We are amazed at the amount of busy-ness that goes on all around us in the hedgerows. Crickets and grasshoppers. Lots of different kinds of flies – not just ordinary house ones; spiders, many and beautiful butterflies. On cliffs near Charles Fort we saw several chalk blues – I’ve previously seen pictures of them but not real ones. Lots of tortoiseshells, peacocks, cabbage whites. A small brown and cream one – don’t know its name. For birds – wagtails (as above) oystercatchers, many robins. Flowers – hundreds, particularly beautiful is the wild fuchsia; scabious, honeysuckle. A tiny bright crimson wiled rose. The heather and gorse are especially bright here. Blackberries by the ton, and we ;picked wild mint to cook with the delicious potatoes. It’s true – the potatoes are magnificent. I suppose it is that farming is being done on such a small scale, still done on traditional lines because it’s uneconomical to use large agricultural machinery on tiny fields. I suspect artificial fertilisers and weed-killers are hardly used, so that the butterflies in particular have a chance to flourish. Also, small fields mean more hedgerows so there’s better protection for insect and animal life. We’ve seen rats, water-rats and rabbits. Cattle, pigs, hens, goats, horses and donkeys often wander on the open road, so that traffic jams are often replaced by sheep or cow jams, or even by the odd panic-struck hen.
Saturday : We’re leaving the cottage today and moving north. We woke up to a dense mist and drove all day in it. We stopped at St. Bridget’s Well, where miracles are said to have been wrought. While I didn’t feel the magic, Carol did, but then I’m a hell of a cynic. I was most struck by the writings on the walls of the little shrine. They ask St. Bridget to pray for people. One, very sad, was asking her to pray to help someone’s father stop drinking. Another, somewhat less touching, was, “Pray for Elvis, R.I.P.”
Carol : On our way from somewhere to somewhere else, we stopped to take a photo of some ethnic hayricks. Two Irish lads, passing by, laughed at the mad Englishwoman. One observed, “You should have said ‘Cheese’ They might have smiled.”
At nightfall we stopped in a b’n’b in the village of Doonbeg and heard music and watched the dancing in Tubridy’s bar.
Driving in Ireland is weird. All of the roads twist and turn so the easiest way to proceed is by driving in the middle of the road and moving to the left only when another car approaches, which is rarely. Their best roads are about as good as old A1. The worst are dirt tracks.
Sunday : On to County Clare over the Tarbert Ferry and into Kilrush. Still in dense fog we traipsed off to the famed Cliffs of Moher, but saw nothing. We’d heard of the music festival in this area and so rented another cottage in the village of Listdoonvarna, where we paid a visit to the local castle. Carol spent some time in the cottage doing drawings of places we had visited. In this cottage we get our milk by dipping a jug in the milk churn which the farmer leaves outside the cowshed after he has milked the cows.
The first music we heard in Listdoonvarna (Paper Roses, When You Wore A Tulip etc etc) was awful but when we made our way to the Kincora Bar and the Roadhouse thanked perked up considerably. Especially fascinating was the female pianist in the Kincora and the two aged violinists (man and wife).
Monday : Beautiful sunny day. We returned to the Cliffs Of Moher and took some rather better photos. The place is breathtaking, and reminded me of Shetland. We then drove back to Lisdoonvarna and the difference from the night before is astounding, transformed into a kind of mini-Blackpool transported to Ireland. In a pub called The Savoy we saw a gent singing holiday camp songs but with lewd lyrics. The most memorable of these was She Came To Listdoonvarna For A Man, sung to the tune of She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountains. The song documents the fact that Listdoonvarna is famed as a place to go in search of, er, romantic liaisons, and it got the crowd of sixteen to twenty year olds dancing merrily to the accompaniment of accordion and drums. Everything was expensive – beer at 23p a half pint, so we got out fast and drove to The Burren. Just south of Galway, it’s a vast area of limestone rock, eroded by glaciers. We set off in search of a huge dolmen which Carol drew for the diary. It’s way out in the middle of nowhere and feels somehow other-worldly. There are all sorts of unusual wild flowers, and the area around the dolmen was overflowing with snails. Only goats graze in the Burren as far as we saw. At sunset the area was so still that we could clearly the wing beats of a huge bird which flew by in the distance. And we could hear its call even after it had disappeared over the horizon.
Late that night we went outside our cottage and watched the sky. It was a clear night and the Milky Way was bright. We saw the Plough and Orion and thousands, probably millions, of other clustered stars, plus we were lucky enough to see several shooting stars. I remember skies being like that when I was child out in the country at our family house near Roslin. They always remind me of how small and insignificant the earth really is in the grand scheme of things.
Carol has been smoking Sweet Afton, an Irish cigarette brand, since we arrived here, as well as Carroll’s No1 and Major. We’ve also just discovered that Smarties are sold here in in oblong boxes – no tubes.
Tuesday : Another lovely day. We left our cottage at Doolin and withdrew some cash from the mobile bank van at Lisdoonvarna, then set off for Aillwee Cave and Galway. The cave is very interesting and runs for about 400 yards into the hillside in the Burren. We drove on through The Burren to Sort and Ballylee where we visited Yeats’ Tower.
On the way through Galway we saw a very weird light in the evening sky. It looked like a square section of a rainbow. Very odd indeed.
We later enjoyed a superb meal – Breton sea food – at a small hotel, Ty Ar Mor on Bearna Pier, which is nestled beside a tiny harbour. Their food was exquisite. This was the first time I ate turbot and I was very glad I did. Do try their crepes if you’re ever in Galway.
We stayed the night in a b,’n’b (Ardaoibhinn) which was good and clean. We each got two sausages for breakfast.
Wednesday : The Irish cannot give directions. The only occasion on which we’ve been given good instructions on how to get from A to B was when we asked a Liverpudlian who now happens to live in Eire.
We drove through some fabulous Connemara scenery – particularly the pass between The Twelve Pins and the Mamturk Mountains, where we picked up a French lady hitch-hiker. We met lots of lovely donkeys and all sorts of farm beasts strolling along the road.
We reached Westport, then Newport, on market day and saw sheep all over the main street before driving on to Achill Island. The view over to Clare Island was breathtaking.
That night we returned to Chambers Bar in Westport and suffered some genuinely awful Irish ‘traditional’ music. At 11.30pm, driving back to the pub in which we were staying overnight we came, first of all, across five donkeys in the road. Then, a mile further on, we were stopped by a herd of Connemara ponies in our path, looking quite ghostly in our headlights.
Thursday : On leaving our hotel – Mulranny-Dever’s Bar – in the last morning, we realised we had no money. I had no cheques left and Carol’s bank account was empty, but we eventually secured some cash via Barclaycard. We set off across the middle of Ireland for Dublin and encountered no less than four clearly insane drivers along our route. Quite suicidal these Irish, despite which we got to Dublin in the early evening and proceeded to O’Donoghue’s Bar, then on to Captain America’s Cookhouse for some authentic Irish cheeseburgers. Later we heard some great Irish fiddlers and flute players in the Four Seasons pub where we met an American Peace researcher. He observed that the pace of life in Ireland is often compared to that in Mexico. He said he had once asked an Irishman if there was any equivalent idea in Irish to the Mexican concept of manyana. The Irishman thought about it for a moment or two before responding, “Well, no, I don’t believe we have anything with quite the same sense of urgency.”
Friday : Up at the crack o’dawn, we set off to do some shopping, including The Chieftains 1st LP and The Russell Family Of Doolin. We took time out to visit Trinity College Library to see The Book Of Kells which was magnificent, despite the library being full of coach loads of sub-human blue-rinsed Americans. Finished the morning off with several cups of excellent coffee at Bewlay’s. Come the afternoon, we bussed out to the Guinness Brewery, hoping to tour the factory, but this was no longer being done. We were treated instead to an audio-visual display accompanied by a pint of the best porter. It has to be admitted that this was probably the best Guinness I’d ever tasted, and a fine reason on its own account to visit Ireland.
We promenaded along the banks of the Liffey on the famed Bachelors Walk where the majority of Dublin’s antique shops can be found. Finally, we headed for Dun Laoghaire to catch the Sealink ferry back to Wales.
On the jetty, Carol and I practised playing the Z Cars Theme, African Waltz, The Pastoral Symphony and Silent Night on the tin whistles we had bought somewhere on our trip. Last thought – go to Ireland at your earliest opportunity, get off the beaten track and explore the tiny villages, speak to locals in the pubs and shops. In fact, they’ll probably speak to you first and their advice on what to do is usually sound. They’re a lovely race.
Later episodes to include holidays with our children (mostly USA and Europe) plus, after our children had left home, Brazil (with The Cure), Japan, Africa, Sri Lanka etc etc