Skip to main content

The next day we’re back in the campervan heading south to Sligo then west to the north Mayo coast. 


The passage of time astounds me, but I was here forty seven years ago during my first visit to Ireland as an adult. In 1976 I was a young software engineer working in a dull village outside Leiden in Holland. My social life revolved around Irish expat friends living in The Hague and Rotterdam. The best of these friends was Gerry Quan from Carrick-on-Suir who gave me a map of Kerry and encouraged me to take a road trip from Rosslare to Kerry and Sligo. I in turn persuaded my sister, Maria, that her old Volkswagen Beetle was just the car for the job.    

Events proved otherwise. Arriving on the ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare, the Beetle failed to start and we were pushed off the boat and towed to a garage to have the starter motor replaced. It must have been autumn; my recollections of the trip are tinted with the colours grey, ochre, brown and dark green. We seemed to exist in a permanent twilight.

Our first destination was Dingle in County Kerry. Dingle in those days was a bit of a backwater, despite having over fifty Guinness taps in all sorts of outlets: greengrocers, cobblers, newsagents. This was years before the arrival in the bay of a lone bottlenose dolphin christened Fungie, when Irish marketing ramped up and Dingle succumbed to an annual invasion of hundreds of thousands of tourists. Aside from the pubs there was only one restaurant, Doyles Seafood Restaurant – it’s still there but it’s wonderful owner and chef John Doyle moved to the Pyrenees years ago. We lingered about in the rain for a couple of days, visiting several pubs Gerry recommended in Dingle and Dunquin, then drove north to a village somewhere near Sligo town.

I can’t remember the name of that village, outside of which, in a damp, cold, ramshackle three storey, Victorian, cement rendered house lived a young couple, friends from England; Welsh Brian, and Irish Brigid, together with their cat Seamus and an anonymous ferret. Maria and I were to be their guests for a bizarre long weekend, the details of which are chiselled in my memory.

The kitchen, lounge and all the bedrooms had open peat fires permanently alight to fend off the cold and damp. The first floor comprised an enormous front to back bedroom with two double beds. Brian and Brigid slept in one, I was to sleep in the other. Maria was offered a room on the second floor. Eugene, a young, red faced, redheaded alcoholic with bushy ginger sideburns camped on the big sofa in front of the lounge fireplace from where he poked the ferret with a stick. Seamus, the black cat and the ferret slept wherever and engaged in furious fights, accompanied with hissing, honking, spitting and growling.

Social care in the community was just being established in Ireland in 1976 and Brian and Brigid were hired as two of the country’s first social workers. But Social Care Ireland weren’t quite ready for them so they were at home, at a bit of a loss as to what to do with themselves. Brian had a couple of cheap Russian shotguns that we’d take out into the fields and attempt, without success, to kill things. Boozing was an important time filler so there were long lunchtime and evening sessions at the local pub. I remember the pub vividly and now, in 2023, I’m casting about for clues to help me find it. It was ancient, isolated, near a cliff and the ocean. The only carpark was the grass verge of the narrow lane approaching it. 

The first evening we all squeezed into Brian’s ridiculous Austin Allegro with its rectangular steering wheel and no number plates, and roared down the lanes to the anonymous pub, Eugene in the back between Maria and Brigid, getting in a few pre-pub sharpeners from a bottle of Paddy’s whiskey. In the uproariously loud bar we met the landlord and the locals including Máirtín, a cheerful old, grey whiskered fella with one leg. He had no prosthetic limb, just a couple of wooden crutches. I’d no idea how he acquired his disability and nor did anybody else. Live music, fiddles mainly, kicked off late in a side room whose walls were lined with wooden benches. I was sitting on a bench, enjoying a fast reel, next to a wizened toothless leprechaun of a man who raised a gnarled fist to my face and snarled ‘Do ya want a fite?’ To my amazement, as if he’d just offered me a cucumber sandwich, I said in my finest English accent, ‘No thank you, not just now.’ It worked a treat as he paid me no further attention and lost himself in the music. 

We were all truly hammered when last last orders was called sometime around 1am when we piled back into the Allegro and sped into the night. ‘Máirtín was mighty drunk tonight.’ said Brian, who was himself way too drunk to make such an assessment. ’I don’t know how he drives that old truck of his with just one leg. I’m going to swing past his place. Make sure he’s ok.’ ‘Like feck you are, in your state.’ said Brigid. Back at the house everyone was swiftly in bed, or in Eugene’s case on the couch. ‘Come on.’ said Brian to me, ‘Let’s see Máirtín’s ok.’

It was a black moonless night and another drunken, hair-raising half hour drive to Máirtín’s place; a small two room cottage with a corrugated iron roof, set in an open field in an expanse of stone wall enclosed fields, near to the border with the north. The main inside light of the cottage was flashing on and off – steadily, like somebody was working it from the light switch. ‘What the hell’s that?’ said Brian. Not wanting to consider that this might be a wasted journey he said, ‘He must be in some difficulty.’ We left the car, walked down the rough track past Máirtín’s truck and knocked on the door. The light stopped flashing and remained on. ‘Who de fecks dere? Who’s dat?’ ‘It’s Brian and Armand, Máirtín. Are you ok?’ Máirtín swiftly opened the door, hopped outside on one crutch and surveyed the surrounding fields. I peered inside his sparsely furnished room; a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, a small square wooden table, one chair, a single bed. But what caught my eye were the walls, covered with newspaper clippings relating to the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians at a civil rights protest march, killing thirteen. ‘Ulster’s Bloody Sunday, 13 Slain In Derry, This was murder.’ screamed the headlines. The faces of the thirteen peered out at me in the room’s stark light. Máirtín swung nimbly round to face us. ‘What the feck are yous two doing here? You’ve no business here.’ His charm from earlier in the pub had evaporated. ‘We just wanted to check you were ok,” said Brian. ‘We saw the light flashing.’ ‘Do I not look ok? This is no place for you. Now fuck off outta here. Now.’ We didn’t stop to argue. On the drive back to Sligo I said to Brian ‘Did you see the walls of his room? There’s something going on there tonight.’ ‘Its a porous border’ said Brian, ‘There’s a lot of smuggling: cigarettes, alcohol, sheep, guns, ammunition. He’s mixed up in something that’s for sure. Don’t say anything about this to Brigid.’

The next morning there were rashers, eggs and all the trimmings for breakfast, and in Eugene’s case a few good slugs of Powers, He thrust the bottle at me. ‘No thanks Eugene. Not before breakfast.’ ‘Suit yourself so.’ he said and necked another triple shot. Brian and I left him leering at Brigid and poking a stick at the ferret, and set off with the shotguns. He was still a bit pissed and took a shot at a seal far off in the bay. ‘There’s a bounty on seals.’ he said. But it’s half a mile away and even if he did hit it, how would he secure it to claim his rotten bounty. It was nonsense. There’s nothing to shoot hereabouts. In frustration Brian took a shot at a seagull overhead. He missed.

We were back in the boisterous pub at lunchtime. Máirtín was there, all smiles and good cheer. He bought the first round. no mention was made of last night’s shenanigans. There was another monumental session in the evening – the craic was unstoppable. At midnight the landlord declared that one of his more troublesome locals had just been banned. Somebody added that he’d gone home to get his gun to ‘sort things out’. ‘I’m locking the doors.’ Said the landlord, ‘So if you want to go home, go now.’ A lockin in all senses of the word. Later I saw a  couple of Gardai officers greeting the locals before sneaking off into a backroom for a few jars. The place finally closed at three or four am and we all piled, hopelessly pissed again, into the Allegro for the manic drive home. I say ‘all’ but Eugene didn’t quite make it. Brian was accelerating away from the pub when I looked back and saw him trying to run after us, leaning clumsily forward, arms flailing. ‘Brian stop!’ said Brigid, ‘Eugene’s trying to catch up.’ My last view of Eugene was him pitching forward and sliding on his head. ‘I think Eugene’s fallen over.’ I announced.  ‘For God’s sake Brian will ya stop. Eugene’s fallen.’ shouted Brigid. ‘Fuck Eugene.’ said Brian as he powered the Allegro around a tight bend.    

My final memory of that long weekend was being awoken before dawn by a noisy roar by my right ear. I opened my reluctant eyelids and squinted to see Brian standing by my bed in his striped pyjamas pissing a stream of urine onto the bare floorboards by my bed. ‘Jeezzus, Brian what are ye feckin doing ya feckin eejit. Get back into bed. ’ He turned, walked quietly back to his and Brigid’s bed, crawled under the blankets and went straight back to sleep. Maria and I left early the next morning.

For the next stage of our Irish journey please visit The North Mayo Coast.

Leave a Reply