ONE day when I am old and grey and full of sleep, I may tell Grace and Lucy about the trip I made to Sligo in the time of the virus, just as it was going viral.
I thought ‘why not?’ I packed a copy of Yeats’s Selected Poems.
We had a very bumpy landing in Dublin, at the second go-round. “Sudden wind shift,” the captain said. “Normal practice.” The plane shuddered on the ground. Spontaneous applause erupted—a chorus of relief.
The go-round persuaded me to take a taxi to Connolly Station to make sure I made the connection. The taxi driver asked me to get in the back seat. He had the radio on, one of these dreadful phone-in programmes, all about the virus. Gabriel has a Chinese fiancée. No one would sit beside her on a crowded DART. “It’s fear and ignorance, not racism,” a caller bellowed. “Racism is born out of fear and ignorance,” another said. “Panic buying is selfish and immoral,” the show’s host added.
The train was very quiet. I listened on the headphones to the No Crows singing Rainbow over Sligo and read an epic western called Whiskey When We’re Dry—from a Gillian Welch song. Borges once said that Western Culture has lost the art of the epic. If you want to find epic read westerns. The Iarnrod rolled across Ireland, by canals and ponies and saturated fields, and arrived in Sligo station—named for a hero of the 1916 Easter Rising, MacDiarmada—on time.
Savouring Sligo town
I instinctively took a liking to Sligo town, despite the welcome it offered of hailstones and torrential rain. I walked, head down, along Wine Street and then along the side of the Garavogue River to the Riverside Hotel, thinking ‘what a great name for a river’ and ‘this could be a long two days.’ The rain took the hint and poured down all afternoon, while I walked the streets. It’s a lovely county town with only one building—the Quayside Centre—over two storeys and it an eyesore compared to the limestone terraces. I lit candles in the Cathedral—the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception; the Church of Ireland’s St John was padlocked. I browsed in the excellent independent bookshop—Liber—and bought a WB Yeats tote bag. Yeats was everywhere. I paused by the rather bizarre statue near a bridge. In WB coffee shop, an oul’ fella looked down at the odds in his paper while behind him the Grand Old Man gazed grandly up into a visionary distance. “Dance like a wave of the sea.” I had a slice of Bakewell cake with the coffee.
When 5 o ’clock rolled around I stepped damply into Hargadon Bros pub in O’Connell Street. It is magnificent—counters, snugs and booths, dark varnished gloom, glistening gantry, staff in white shirts and black bowties, a touch of the classic. You could imagine a time when Hargadon’s was a wine merchant and a grocery store as well as a pub. Leo Varadkar—still Taoiseach—was on the TV screen. The virus was breaking news. I had a seafood risotto in Bistro Bianconi, in the lane wishfully described as the Italian Quarter. It put the bog into ‘bog standard.’ I was entertained by a cheerful waitress who rushed around throwing dishes down onto tables and once into the lap of a customer.
The Garavogue River went gliding through the town as if the town wasn’t there, flowing from Lough Gill over a weir or two to Sligo Bay.
A landscape to love
On Friday morning I walked eastwards into Doorly Park along the lakeshore and yes, I did mutter: “I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree.” I hoped to see the Lake Isle but the track disappeared under water and I had to turn back. Thickets of reeds and rushes swayed out in the waters and wild swans—‘now they drift on the still water/ Mysterious, beautiful.’
I had dropped into the Tourist office on the Thursday and picked up a leaflet about North Sligo tours. By Friday all public buildings were closed, schools and colleges too. The hotel phoned Zero Cabs for me and at noon Tina O’Reilly arrived to drive me through Yeats Country. “Everyone calls me Mammy,” Tina said, who was happy for me to sit beside her. I couldn’t call her ‘Mammy.’ Tina, she was. The morning mists that had twirled about the steeples of the town burned away. The sun shone on the summits of Knocknarea and Ben Bulben. We drove out to Rosses Point. I walked on the beautiful strand, a stretch of unspoiled sand, a bay held in green arms. I stood on a headland and looked out over the Wild Atlantic—actually the sea was serene. Behind me the bulk of Ben Bulben, Sligo’s table mountain, was thrumming with legend.
Above the small harbour the statue of a woman with outstretched arms—‘Waiting on the shore.’ Then to Drumcliffe Churchyard, under Ben Bulben, and Yeats’ grave. I cast a cold eye on life and death. The wee tearoom was doing good business. I took photographs of the old watchtower. Then into Glencar, between Ben Bulben and the Killary Mountain. I walked up the path to the mighty waterfall, glad of the goretex waterproof as spray soaked the way. Tina delivered me back to The Music Room in Sligo. I was well pleased with the tour. I remembered a tutorial in English Literature in the autumn of 1967 in which we examined the improvements WB made over the years to one of his poems— The Cold Heaven—as he moved from the Celtic twilight to a harder edged poetry. I did not think I would ever stand by his grave.
On a gable end was a portrait of Constance Markiewicz, a major in the IRA, and somewhat mad and wonderful, I think. Back in Hargadon’s I sat in a booth and supped Guinness. In normal times I would have savoured the scene, the dark varnished wood panels, the barrels and the high stools, the light falling in through the big windows from the street outside, the murmur of voices. I did savour the moment but without doubt it was flavoured by all the broken news, the sense of panic gathering momentum. Already these were extraordinary times.
I had dinner in Eala Bhan (the White Swan). I had a rack of lamb and a carafe of the house red. It was excellent. On the wall nearby were lines from The Fiddler of Dooney: “For the good are always the merry, save for an evil chance and the merry love the fiddle and the merry love to dance.” Kevin, the affable server, said they were expecting a curfew for pubs and restaurants.
On Saturday morning I took the 9.05am train back to Dublin. Once again, it was very quiet. I dropped my bag in a wee luggage room/internet café place near Connolly station. A gentle smirr darkened the streets. The GPO was open, but of course all the galleries and museums were closed. I wandered up Grafton Street, which was—on a Saturday afternoon—strangely quiet. I continued on through St Stephen’s Green. I lit candles in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral—no more than 100 allowed in at any one time. Normal attendance at Mass was suspended. Mass was being live-streamed.
I was at the airport far too early. I had worried—irrationally—that there might be disruption to flights. In fact we landed in Glasgow—another bumpy ride—25 minutes early. However, at the next gate, boarding on a Ryanair flight to Malta was about to begin when there was an announcement that the Maltese Government had just decreed that new arrivals would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days! And I read on the internet that Jet 2 flights to Spain had turned back mid-flight. I was pleased to be back in Glasgow with more than the usual feelings of relief.
I enjoyed Sligo and will go again, when the time of the virus is over.