Sunday, 24 March 2013

Back Home to Sligo

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

I had occasion recently to visit a part of my past, a period immensely important and formative for me, a place which was, for seven years, both focus and circumference of my whole world, the centrality of which was so self-evident to me that I could not then imagine that it would ever be otherwise in my life.

I was seventeen years old when I left Sligo. The leaving was a wrench, soul-tearing, ambiguous; on the one hand I was taking a self-chosen step into a different world, a new life, for I had decided to join the Dominican Order, on the other hand I was leaving nearly everything and everyone I knew behind me. The parting was all the more radical, for at the same time, my father was transferred and our whole family moved to the other end of the country. Although I was to return there frequently in the years that followed, the basic bond was broken; the continuous connection formed by the unity of family and place was gone. It meant that the inevitable decay of most youthful friendships was greatly accelerated in my case, for home had been sundered and the most basic part of it had moved elsewhere.

It hurt, that sundering. I remember feeling very aggrieved, with the unthinking, naïve selfishness of youth, that my parents had moved away from Sligo while at the same time being perfectly self-righteous about my own move into a new life, which also took me to other places. But I recovered. After all, in the following years, I still went back there, even if not as frequently or for as long as I might have wished, and I still retained my basic feeling of identity with and love for the place. Given my peripatetic history, the simple question “Where are you from?” has always been a little problematic for me, but Sligo still remains one of the default answers.

After I was ordained a Catholic priest, therefore, in 1985, it was completely clear to me that Sligo would be one of the places where I would celebrate a formal “First Mass.” And if someone had told me that day that it would be twenty eight years before I would return, I would have laughed in disbelief.

But that is what happened. In the following year, primed by the potent fuse of love, my life exploded into scintillating chunks and shards of new directions, possibilities, preoccupations and priorities. I found myself in a different country, living a very different life, with a wife and baby daughter, and practical decisions concerning job and career to be made and carried through. While I continued to visit Ireland throughout the following nearly three decades, limitations of time and practical considerations somehow never made the journey to the north-west of the country possible.

Another in my family had made a very different choice; my sister, Máire, had found her way back to Sligo and has lived in the coastal village of Strandhill, six miles from the main town, for many years now. So when she invited the whole family to join her in celebrating her fiftieth birthday this month I finally found myself on my way back to the town of my youth, on a journey into the world of my own memories and the contrast between their local background and the reality of the present.

Ireland has changed enormously since the mid-1980s. The country I left was still, for the most part, traditional and conservative. It was poor, in recession, unable to provide attractive prospects for many of my generation, who were leaving to find decent, interesting jobs and adventure in a world of much wider horizons. But then the Celtic Tiger came, nurtured in its infancy by a massive transfer of structural funds from Europe. It grew up, roared mightily for around ten years before becoming so bloated on a diet of hubris, fantasy and speculative funny games with international capital that it crawled into a corner and died – of a strange combination of economic gluttony and malnutrition.

The traces of all this were clear to be seen on my journey, from the new motorway leading out of Dublin to the empty property developments in towns like Carrick-on-Shannon along the way. Even the approach to Sligo was completely different to that of my memories; the towns of Collooney and Ballysadare bypassed, a new road to the town itself, leading to a new bridge across the Garavogue river.

The following morning, Saturday, I spent a couple of hours walking around town. It was very strange. The basic geographical skeleton remained as I remembered it but much of the flesh on the bones had changed; new buildings, new shops and businesses in old buildings. Deeper, stranger changes too; children of African and Asian backgrounds speaking with the distinctive Sligo accent, a Polish butcher’s shop – signs of the internationalisation of Ireland through immigrants, drawn by the boom of the Tiger years, something unimaginable in the mono-cultural world of my youth in the seventies when Ireland was a country which exported rather than imported people. In the past five years the export has begun once more.

I knew, of course, that things would not be as I remembered them; I had no expectations that the place would spontaneously open its arms to me, recognising and welcoming the long lost son. It was curiosity which led my steps, a desire to see just what had changed. But as my feet led me along the streets I had walked so often as a teenager, I found myself becoming more detached. The time elapsed was just too great, the changes – perhaps, most of all, the changes in myself – too profound. Though I had already intellectually known that there is no such thing as time travel, that the past is irrevocably gone, it was something more to really practically experience it in this fashion. “Something’s lost and something’s gained,” Joni Mitchell sings, “in living every day.” Over ten thousand days had past since I last set foot in Sligo, so much lost and so much gained in all that time that it had, I thought, become impossible to regain any sort of deep contemporary contact.

And so my urge to walk further waned. There was a Sligo which was real for me, that town which had been the stage for my life during those oh so intense years of the ending of childhood and the unbearably exciting and frightening growth into increasing adulthood, but it had little to do with the town in which I now found myself. Looking at my watch, I realised that I still had an hour before the next bus would leave for Strandhill where I was saying. Finding myself at the junction of Wine Street and Quay Street, I noticed that Lyons’ Café was still there and decided to spend the time I had to wait with a cappuccino.

Climbing the stairs to the hundred and fifty year old café, I discovered that here at least much remained as I remembered it. Oh, the menu is more extensive, sophisticated and cosmopolitan but someone has been careful to preserve the basic character of the place and the small tables and wooden chairs are still the same as they were in the seventies when this was one of the favourite haunts of the teenagers of the town. There weren’t all that many places where the boys from Summerhill College and the girls from the two nuns’ schools could meet on common ground and do all those things which are so important for teenagers; preening, flirting, talking, teasing, laughing, showing off, making dates and plans … just hanging out and wasting time. Lyons’ was one of the few establishments back then which tolerated us, though we were all experts in making a Coke or a coffee last for a whole afternoon, far more interested in each other than in giving custom to the café. Today the coffee was good and the place, I was glad to see, was doing a brisk business.

As I drank a second cappuccino, I tried to understand what I was doing; what I had expected of my perambulation and what exactly I had experienced. Perhaps some part of me had been hoping for the kind of epiphany described by Proust in his famous madeleine episode in À la recherche du temps perdu, where a particular taste throws his protagonist completely into a memory of the past. If so, it didn’t happen for me; sitting there in the café, many recollections of my youthful years did come to mind, but still far away and detached from me, the teenagers of the mid-seventies populating the room around me like barely perceived, transparent ghosts. Reality, I thought, was more like L.P. Hartley described it, the past is a foreign country.

And then, that evening at my sister’s party, I had an encounter which changed everything. One of the guests was someone I had known back in the time, the memories of which I had been attempting to recall with my walkabout through town. She was another member of that clique to which I had belonged as a teenager – to be honest, I’d had quite a crush on her when I was sixteen, but had been too uncertain and insecure to ever mention it to her then, or to attempt to move it beyond the confused desires of my youthful wishes into the realm of practical action. Now we were meeting again after more than thirty five years of life and all that it had done with us during that time. I had gone away and never returned; she had left for a number of years but had come back, and married another of my friends from that time. Our children are now older than we were back then.

And as we talked, I suddenly I realised that I had somehow come to the place I had been looking for that morning. Having exchanged the broad outlines of our stories of the long interim, we started reminiscing together about that faraway world of our youth. I discovered myself (and so, in a real sense, rediscovered my earlier self) asking about people I hadn’t thought of for decades and she (who had remained in – or, rather, returned to – Sligo) knew a lot of the answers. We found ourselves sharing memories of things that we had done together, of events commonly experienced. The past, which had seemed so irretrievably far away to me just a few hours earlier, was suddenly just around the last corner we had turned, the years between not negated but somehow bridged. It occurred to me later that I’d had this kind of experience on a number of occasions over the past decade or so, a period where I have had the great good fortune to reconnect with quite a few friends with whom I had lost contact. It’s what happens when you meet old friends and discover that you can, amazingly, just pick up where you left off.

And I realised a truth – at least something that is true for me. While place is important (and one would suffer from some kind of serious deficiency not to cherish the beauty of Sligo, magnificently set as it is on an Atlantic bay to the west, framed by the mountains of Benbulben to the north and Knocknarea to the south), in the end it is people and not place which are more central to a feeling of belonging, of home. And though in memory we organise things by assigning them a location, this is only background, the setting of the stage of life on which we perform the stories of our lives in interaction with others. In my case, I would wager (and I suspect that my mistake is not uncommon) that I had tended to confuse the importance of people in my life, and the stories we created together, with the place in which these stories took place. Setting is of course important – context is everything, as Derrida once remarked – but people, not place, are the most significant component of context.

It is a realisation with which I, for one, am quite content.

"Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

Pictures retrieved from:!0/2ocqn930ubywvi8z0wl9dhefnm6z926$eb12sbh0qz22rny8m0x0tay0mjelewi


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