A not so foreign correspondent in Ireland, by Kieran Cooke, Kilsallagh Press, ISBN 978-1916459601
A former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times who has lived on and off in Ireland for more than thirty years, Kieran Cooke has published a collection of his reports over those years with short updates added as postscripts. He started living in the west of Ireland around the same year as Peter Mayle moved to Provence and in similar vein he records the characters and eccentricities of a changing Ireland. His account contains whimsical, sometimes nostalgic, reflections by someone who has observed places and people with the insight of the outsider.
Personalities pop up in familiar places, frequently in public houses, the routine haunts of journalists. Graham Greene didn’t want to be here on probably his last public appearance before his death in 1991, and was wistful about Achill Island, where he had stowed away with his lover in the 1940s. Sean Mac Reamonn, probably on first name terms with many bishops and cardinals, entertained with his limericks. In Parsons bookshop in 1989, Miss King reminisced about Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan ‑ who “would intoxicate me with his eloquence ‑ and Flann O’Brien, who would “shuffle in to look words up in the big Oxford dictionary”.
The barman in The Long Hall in South Great Georges Street in 1991 remembered the old days when “you never saw a woman in the bar”. Big changes came with the disappearance of the smoke-filled pubs in 2004 – doomsayers with yellowed fingers inhaling smoke “in almighty gulps” gloomily forecast the end of life as we knew it. In an old Behan haunt, where he had been barred on many occasions, “tourists milled around reverentially, like ardent Catholics stepping into St Peter’s for the first time, trying desperately to soak up the atmosphere”. Samuel Beckett’s house for sale in 1996 was a comfortable middle class place in idyllic surroundings that contrasted with the sparseness and bleakness of his writing. There are many memories of a dirty Dublin in the ’80s, though Cooke wonders if something got lost in the clean-up. He remembered “standing on the edge of Stephen’s Green and catching the aroma of freshly ground coffee from Bewleys drifting up Grafton Street on a winter’s morning”. Bewleys was a place of fleeting romance too ‑ as “she sat there in the corner, eyes like mountain lakes and a faint small of hay about her”.
There is no egoism or conceit in Cooke’s recollections about his often fruitless assignments. PJ Mara’s “weekly briefings were highly amusing but generally hopeless as a source of news”. Mara did eventually arrange an interview with Charles Haughey in 1990, which was not a success: fifteen minutes were frittered away with an elaborate serving of tea and eloquent pronouncements about France and Europe – Ireland was taking over the presidency of the EU in 1990 and Haughey avoided questions on the Troubles or on emigration: his “eyelids came down like shop shutters”. Lunch in 1997 with Martin McGuinness – “good officer material” according to a senior British soldier ‑ was equally unproductive. Cooke discovered his love of fishing, knowledge of cricket and fondness for too much salt on his food, but little enough about the Troubles or the impending peace process. Jack Hermon, head of the RUC, laid out the red carpet for Cooke in the mistaken belief that he was a financial expert (being from the Financial Times) who could advise him about stocks and shares.
The west of Ireland features a lot in Cooke’s narrative. As he drives west the “metropolitan sounds of Dublin fade from the car radio, to be replaced by a more local diet of country and western music, adverts for sheep dip and solemn announcements of deaths and funerals”. And the pubs of the west back in the ’80s sold everything from screws, plugs, radios, long-handled spades, boxes of nails, saws on the wall, tubs of paint beside bacon slicers, loaves of bread, and pints of Guinness. There was also friendliness and ease of conversation. The barman in Ballaghaderreen had been expecting his arrival and started pulling him a pint as soon as he walked in the door.
He met a man standing still on a Mayo roadside, “contemplating” in his own words ‑ a recurring image of the west that National Geographic reporters had reported back in the ’30s and ’40s, where people and animals seemed to stand stock-still silhouetted on the horizon. On Inishturk island, Cooke noticed “on a nearby hillock a sheep, a cow and a duck standing perfectly still, looking out to sea. Half a mile down the road I look back; the magic threesome, etched against a high, blue sky, has not moved.” He sought out Wittgenstein’s hideaway near Killary and the sequel of the notebooks he left behind in 1948. A German book dealer had called many years later to find that the locals had used the notebooks as chicken litter, and Cooke thought he recognised “a slightly bewildered look” in their chicken descendants.
Cooke now works as an environmental journalist (https://climatenewsnetwork.net/) and it is no coincidence that his reportage came peppered with very sensory recollections of wind, rain and weather as he searched the nooks and crannies of the west of Ireland for stories. In Donegal, the “Atlantic winds chase across the sea from the east coast of the US like a team of rampaging rugby players. In mid-ocean they scrum down and regroup before hurtling themselves at the coast of the west of Ireland.” Under the influence of the Atlantic, weather in the west must be a benchmark for climate change. In Achill, the “wind is so strong, just opening the car door takes considerable effort. A spitting downpour of hail hits the flesh like shards of glass.”
Emigration is also a constant theme. Cooke’s Roscommon uncle remembered the “whistle of the train and the lonely feeling washing over him” as family and neighbours headed off to England. There were American wakes in Louisburgh town square in the fifties to see off young people heading west to America. The western islands were particularly vulnerable to the trauma of emigration, with poignant statistics of dwindling population and hopeless aspirations that “something has to be done”. “Inishbiggle is a bit of a dream. It has desolate beauty hard to find in a busy world. For a day or week it might seem idyllic but with no children, no shop, no pub, it could be crushingly lonely.” It had about 150 people in the 1970s; seventy-five in 1990. There are fifteen left in 2018.
There are grim stories from reporting the Troubles, often under “the constant threatening whirl of army helicopters”, including an assignment dodging bullets in Belfast’s Milltown cemetery in 1988. He recalls the funeral of an IRA man who had blown himself up making a bomb – and the police playing The Dave Clark Five’s sixties hit song “Bits and Pieces”. One day he would be listening to Ian Paisley’s anti-Catholic rants, the next sitting in Paisley’s neat house, “his sweet wife urging me to have more cream with my scone”.
In the pre-Celtic tiger days of 1991, people knew when they crossed the border ‑ the car stopped rattling on the smoother British-funded roads. “Fermanagh is neat, almost prim. The whole place reeks of order. The verges are cut, the fences freshly painted. The south has a more haphazard but warmer feel to it.” In 1991, “petrol stations on the southern side are derelict … and the shops had a fusty unused look”. Northerners view the southerners as easy-going but unreliable, untidy, full of “blather”. Clones had a “Balkan look about it”. There were hundreds of roads and tracks crisscrossing the border, with concrete bollards and blown-up bridges. With Brexit looming it might all come back.
Patrick Duffy is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University.