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Home » Ireland » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel–Irish Blood in Me, Part 2

JEAN SHEPHERD Travel–Irish Blood in Me, Part 2

ireland green 2

And I remember one afternoon, walking along a winding street in Dublin, right near the river.  And that’s one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.  And across the river you could see the brewery and you could smell the Guinness Stout hanging in the air.  What a country!

guiness

We’re walking along this winding street that was a little wet, and I’m with Shamus, and I said, “You know, Shamus, it’s a funny country.”  And this is after I had been there two or three times.  The actual feeling of Ireland began to drift down into me.  When you’re first there, all you’re interested in is the great dialog and the dialect and the way the people talk.

Shamus and I were going out to lunch.  Shamus is a writer in Ireland.  Almost all Irishmen are writers in one way or another, even if they never write, even if they only talk.  Again, maybe it’s that sense of something lost and gone which cause Irishmen to be what they are and talk the way they do and think the way they think.  And we went into this tavern.

The curious thing about Ireland too, is the love/hate quality about it.  That all Irishmen love Ireland and hate Ireland.  Maybe it’s like life itself.  Maybe this is why Ireland has a unique place in the hearts of everyone all over the world.  Because I suspect that more of life—I mean the real quality of life is—can be found in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.

Just like your own life—you hate it and you love it.  It’s hard to know which is the more important.  And you keep going back and forth, drifting around between those two poles—love and hate, love and hate.  And in Ireland it’s always there.  You look around and it’s green and soft, you can smell the sea, hear the birds and bells, and there’s that drifting haze and peat bog and smoke and the magnificent horses and the beautiful cattle and the roads, the winding roads and the old castles.  And you have the sense of love and hate.  And it’s not really hate, it’s sadness really, more than anything else, because I don’t think most people hate life, they get sad about life.  And at the same time they don’t really love life, they exhilarate in it.  They ecstasy in it.

And this is the way it is in Ireland.  You can’t say you love it, you can’t say you hate it.  And the Irishmen themselves, you notice—most Irishmen leave Ireland and then spend the rest of their lives writing about it.  Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Frank Sullivan, you can go on down the line and there they are, all of them.

 •

You know, Ireland is a country I don’t talk much about.  Well, I have Irish blood in me and you can probably tell that.  The Irish are born storytellers—and, well, there’s a word for it.   My grandmother was a Rafferty and the type she was, was South-Side-of-Chicago-Irish, which is very different from the Boston Irish.

The first night that I was in Dublin.  It’s a funny thing about Ireland. It is a silent country.  Very little sound in Ireland.  And this, perhaps, adds to the strange poignancy of the country.  There’s a curious kind of silence that hangs over even the biggest cities!  Even in the middle of a giant traffic jam, somehow it’s muted.  Silent.  And I remember walking out of the hotel that I was living in, which was not far from the river in Dublin.  It was March and the streets were wet.  There was a kind of grayness, a sort of wrapped-in-cotton softness to everything.  Ireland doesn’t really get cold, you know, like we get cold here in New York or in America, because it is an island country and the sea tempers everything—it doesn’t get warm either.  It’s always sort of muted, and it’s always vaguely green and gray.  It’s always a sense of somehow somebody hasn’t quite opened the curtain.  There’s a quality continually of you can’t quite see in Ireland.  Even in the bright sunlight it’s muted and soft.

I was walking along, it must have been about nine or ten o’clock and I’d arrived at night, and I checked in, and I walked out and it was vaguely foggy.  So, I was walking along a winding street—it was a stone street, the bricks were rounded and wet and kind of slippery and gleaming.  You could see the fog hanging around the streetlights.  And there was something that was kind of bothering me and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  A strange thing.  And then I began to discover what it was.  I could hear my own footsteps.  The first time in a long time I’d ever heard my feet on a street in a big city.  I could hear my feet and I could hear them echoing from side to side.  And then, as I became conscious of this, I could hear feet all around me, I could hear feet in the next street, I could hear feet of people ahead of me, behind me.  And then I heard sounds of windows—someone would open a window.  I would hear the sound of a door close and I walked along the street and made a turn and it was a soft light—there’s not much brightness in Dublin when you get out of the main square where the recent explosion was—if you can remember a year or two ago. Everything is quiet and dark, and I saw a tavern and I went into the tavern bar.

Bars and taverns in Ireland are almost exclusively masculine, you know.  This is the bar.  The tavern world of Ireland is a special thing and it’s almost always masculine, or very old ladies.  Somehow, when people get to be very old, they cease to have sex—I mean they have no sex about them at all.  And so you find old ladies quite often in a very masculine bar.  Something called “The Boar’s Head” or something called “Paddy’s Shillelagh,” and you go in and they have these huge spigots and that long bar and all the men are standing, wearing their caps and leaning against the bar and drinking that magnificent beer, and that fantastic stout they drink in Ireland.  One of the world’s greatest beer countries must be Ireland.

guiness in glass

STOUT

We were standing there.  I dropped in and had my beer and then I went back out into this street after I’d heard the soft, murmuring voices, a curious kind of music that is always in the air in Ireland.  And I walked down the street and a little further and I could see people ahead in the haze.  You know the halo-effect you get when there’s a fog and a light is shining through it.  I saw these people walking along through it and the light shining off their rubber raincoats, and I heard their feet echoing.

And I went home that night—I went back to the hotel room, which looked like it had been built roughly in the eighteen-seventies.  It had this curious kind of striped wallpaper with vines growing up the side of it, and a great wooden cabinet up against the wall that was made out some kind of bent, dark-brownish wood, with a key sticking out of it and great doors all varnished and heavy.  And the ceiling was thirty feet above my head with what was left of gas jets, believe it or not, still sticking out of the plaster.  They had just recently put in electricity.  You could see it was sort of jerry-built.  It was a green wire, you know the kind of electrical wire that has green silk over it—that old kind of wire that grandmas have in their houses attached to their lamps—green wire came down and there was a yellow light bulb.  And this was my room in Ireland.  And the threadbare carpet.  And I was reminded of my grandmother on the South Side of Chicago and I sat down on that squeaking bed and I took out of my bag a copy of one of my absolutely favorite books—James Joyce’s The Dubliners.

 Dubliners

Whenever they talk of Joyce, they always speak of Finnegan’s Wake, or they talk about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or they talk about Ulysses, but to me, some of the best of all Joyce is found in The Dubliners.  And once you’re in Dublin and Ireland in general, you understand what Joyce is talking about with these stories of the old priests and the young boys and the river and the story of the girls under the street lights, and all of it comes to life in an unbelievable way.  A great writer.  And particularly in this evocation of a strange, elusive mood.

And so I lay in bed, this lumpy bed that smelled like straw and smelled like old bedsprings.  I looked down, I could see that worn carpet.  One thing about the Irish, somehow, there’s a curious kind of honesty.  But it’s not the kind of honesty that we talk about—honesty—honesty.  They have an honest poverty.  They don’t mind if the carpet is worn.  Nobody seems to say anything about it.  It’s all worn, you can see it’s unraveling at the edges.

And I’m lying in the bed there with the yellow light bulb hanging over me and I could hear the footsteps outside.  I’d opened these high, old fashioned windows that opened up to the outside air.  That foggy air was drifting in.  I could smell the river and I could hear these feet walking past.  And it was Ireland.

I’m the kind who gets up very early in the morning, whenever I go anyplace because I figure I could sleep a lot back home.  So I am up at five-thirty in the morning and I’m awakened by a sound of banging and rattling.  I was almost on the ground floor in my hotel room, and I got up and looked out the window and down below me was a man delivering milk in big bottles.  He was wearing this cap and he had a horse.  This was something I had not seen or heard of in a long time.  There was this horse and this big wagon with rubber tires, the bottles banging, and off he went with the clipping and the clopping in the dark, soft, easy air.

It sounds like it’s something out of the ancient past but it’s not.  Ireland is still there.  This is one of the reasons why there is a strange sense of poignancy about Ireland.  As you ride along the roads in Ireland you keep coming upon old horses pulling old carts with old men sitting on piles of straw and peat, looking with watery-blue eyes at the soft gray hills.  It’s a curious feeling.  And they’re not there for the tourists, they’re there because they’re there.  They’re there because that’s the way life is.  And so I thought that afternoon, as the sun came up and I walked all over Dublin.

 dublin-map

I remember that night I was sitting in a theater in a garage.  A friend of mine—I’m moving backwards in time and space here, the way Joyce does.  This friend of mine said, “Would you like to go to a strange theater?  A good theater.  I know you are doing a lot of off-Broadway.”

At that time I had been doing a lot of off-Broadway acting.  I’d been in several off-Broadway productions that they’d heard about in Ireland.  He said, “As an off-Broadway actor you’d be interested in this.”

And we went down an alley.  It was maybe eleven or twelve o’clock at night, and we drove up this little old rattle-trap Anglia, his car.  We drove up and down a dark, cold, dank alley and finally we arrived back of a garage, and he knocked and a man looked out, peered at him, said, “Oh, oh come in, come in.  Who’s this who is with you?”

And he introduced me.  And we were now in a dank little theater that had been built into what looked like a stone garage that was part of a whole series of garages, and it had maybe seventy-five seats at the most and the people sat in this cold garage that was unheated, and they wore coats and fur hats and we sat huddled and watched the rehearsal of a play that was beginning to go into production, up on this tiny, postage-stamp stage.

There must have been no more than five of us sitting in this little, dark, huddled theater, and all five of the people in some way had other business with this production.  And I sat and watched them rehearse.  They were actors from the Abbey Theatre who were acting after their Abbey work.  They were doing this in their off-time.  It was an underground theater.

And this man sat next to me and he’d been drinking.  And he turned to me and he said, “You’re Shepherd, aren’t you?”

And I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Ah, Night People.”

And I said, “Yeah, Night People.”

He said, “Ah, Night People.  A-huh.”

And I could smell the whisky about him.  And that was the night that I met and got to know Brendan Behan.  And that was before Brendan Behan had his first production.   And he was sitting in this theater and they were about to do his first show.  He was sitting hunched down and we talked for hours after that and went out to a tavern on the other side of Dublin that night, that was open.  It was like an underground tavern, because they have very strict liquor laws, believe it or not, in Ireland.  And people have to knock twice and crawl in through the basement window to get in after curfew hour.  And this is another reminiscence that has little importance to the afternoon that I spent with another friend, Shamus.

I was meeting Shamus for lunch, and we went down this long, winding street, and we finally came to this tavern where Shamus always ate.  He was a newspaperman.  A genuine, ink-stained wretch in the Dickensian sense.  They really are, you know, the Dickensian newspaper still exists in places like Ireland and Scotland, where there is ink and the guys who write for the papers actually get ink stain.  And so I was with this ink-stained wretch, who, by the way, was also a member of the IRA I got to know very well, and we talked much about the IRA.  And so we were now sitting in this tavern and around us were all these men, and they were all in one way or another connected with the IRA,   The Irish underground.

You know what they eat quite often in Ireland, in an afternoon for lunch?  It’s a funny thing, Irish food.  You don’t hear much about real Irish food in America, but the one thing I recall having, as we sat down, was a plate of mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, that had been picked that afternoon.  And fried in butter and served with braised  kidney.  In Ireland, a mushroom, in a way, is their equivalent of French fried potatoes.  As you know, you go into a tavern in America and you can get French fries with almost anything you eat.  In Ireland in that kind of place, the one thing they sell is these magnificent, tiny, button mushrooms—which grow so much in this climate of Ireland, that sometimes you stand and you look down on the shady side of a hill and it seems to be all white and gray, and when you get close to it you see that it’s coated with a soft covering of tiny button mushrooms that have grown since the night before and they fry them in butter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Button mushrooms

fried in butter.

So we sat there and ate the buttered mushroom in this tavern in Dublin, and I said to Shamus, “You know, Shamus, it’s almost a cult now, isn’t it?  This thing of James Joyce.”

He said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact, you know, Joyce is probably Dublin’s biggest business now.”  He said, “Joyce is our big industry now here.”

And I said, “Wouldn’t that have kind of amused Joyce?  Don’t you think that Joyce would have been kind of bugged by this?”

And he said, “Yes.  You know, I knew him well.”  He said, “I knew Joyce when he lived here in town and I knew him when he was an ex-patriot.  I knew him then.”

And I said, “What did he feel about Ireland after he became this famous person—everybody loved him?”

There was a long pause.  We were eating the mushrooms and you could hear the taps drawing the stout, drawing the fantastic Irish beer, and all the men were sitting around—it was lunch time, this was not tourist time.  People do not go to Ireland at that time of the year—it’s considered one of their worst times of the year as far as climate is concerned.  It was just a lot of Irish working men and men from the newspapers, all sitting around drinking and talking.  And Shamus looked out over the crowd and he said, “Aye, half of these men here knew him.”

And sitting over in a corner was a man who looked a little like a debauched Charles Laughton.  Great handlebar moustache, the kind of handlebar moustache that comes out of Dickens.  And he was sitting there, and Shamus said, “Sean, come over here.”

And Sean got up and dropped cigar ashes all over the place and came and sat down at our table with us.

And Shamus said, “This is my friend Shepherd.  His mother was a Rafferty.”  That kind of made me “in,” you see.  My grandmother would have flipped her cork if she’d thought that all of a sudden I was using her South Chicago Irish, which is much different from Boston Irish.  Much different.  I can’t tell you how different the worlds are.  You’ll find a lot of the South Chicago Irish written about in the works of James T. Farrell, who wrote the Lonigan Trilogy.  Lonigan, you know, was a typical South Chicago Irishman.  Studs Lonigan.  Lonigan is an Irish name, and my father lived one block away from Farrell in the land of the Raffertys.

You know that almost all of the people who worked in the stockyards on the South Side of Chicago and who worked in the steel mill, were Irish at one point in the evolution of the Irish in America.  And they had a very important impact on the whole life of Chicago.  Bathhouse Kelly, Bathhouse John, that whole crowd.  And even today, I would say, and I would dare to suggest, that Chicago is a more Irish city than is Boston.  Boston is something else again.  Oh yes, they have had a Mayor Kelly in Chicago for a long time!

So, as I sat there, Shamus said, “His mother is Flora Rafferty, from Cork, you know.”

I said, “Yes.”  I have no Irish accent at all, but I have an Irish look.  So I sat there and looked vaguely sinister, and then Sean said, “Ah, good to see you,” and we drank some more stout and then Sean said, “And what are you doing here?”

I said, “Just being here.  It’s the best thing to be.”

We sat for another ten minutes and then Shamus said, “He’s curious about Joyce, you know.”

And there was a long pause.

Sean said, “I always was too, you know, although I was one of his old friends.”

We sat for another long, pregnant moment.

He said, “You know, this is where he actually really came, you know.  He lived here, in this tavern, not the one all the tourists go to, you know.”

And I said, “What did he do?”

“You know, what he really did here, you know—ate mushrooms.”

joyce_1904

James Joyce, 1904.

So we ate mushrooms.  Outside, people walked past, you could see the gray, soft fog drifting in from the sea, and you could smell the river, and you could hear a footstep now and again, and then it became one o’clock suddenly, and the men all got up and went back to work.  And I was in Ireland.

Shamus said, “I’ll see you tonight.”

I said, “See you tonight, Shamus.”

And he walked down the street with his coat collar turned up against that kind of cutting March wind.  And I’d been in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, which is very different from being in New York on St. Patrick’s Day.  Very different indeed.

 •

And the river flowed on.  And there it was.  Ireland.  That strange, indefinable, peculiar, tugging, poignant, beautiful, gray, green, soft, shadowy country.  Where there really are elves and there really are fairies, and they really do eat fried, buttered mushrooms on a quiet Friday afternoon.

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