24th June 2008
Return to the West of Ireland
by Mike Scott
I've been picked up at Dublin airport by Sharon Shannon's tour manager Damien, who is driving me to Galway to do some recording with Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlethwaite for a future album of Sharon's. I know this old east-west road across Ireland well; I've travelled it hundreds of times over the years, especially in the Waterboys' Irish days during the second half of the 1980s.
Today, however, I learn just how much of it has been replaced by new motorway. No longer do we zip through Kinnegad, Enfield, Tyrellspass and a dozen other small towns and villages. All are bypassed. But we veer off the motorway to have lunch in Athlone, one of my favourite points on the old road; the spot where the Shannon is crossed and east becomes west. I also remember a good fry-up joint here called The Genoa Cafe.
Damien parks and we walk up to the Genoa, but its front section has been changed into a fast food parlour, and we decide to try elsewhere. Fifty yards up the main street is a little bistro, with a funky modern Starbucks-esque coffee logo in the window. Looks promising. We go in, and it looks like a pub. But wait, over there's a sign saying 'Bistro upstairs'. We climb the old-fashioned carpeted staircase to the first floor - and step into the past. For on the landing it's still the 1960s, or maybe even the '50s: ancient decor, ancient old wooden and glass doors, frosted skylight windows, outmoded pastoral paintings. We go through the doors into the Bistro itself, and the timewarp deepens. Everything - the look, the smell, the wallpaper, the tables, the placemats, the menu, the desperately naff Irish tune muzak - is from the middle of the last century, unchanged, unmodified, not redecorated since 1965 at the earliest. I remember places like this from my childhood, and I thought they were all gone.
At first Damien and I are bemused and somewhat enchanted by this novelty. And when we get to the counter we find they're still selling hot food, so we order up a hearty fry. But between sitting down and the fry arriving the novelty wears off, as these things do, and we begin to feel about as out of sync and threadbare as the place. Finally the food arrives. We wolf it down in three minutes flat - and it's not bad, it just tastes of the 1960s - and head back out into the street and the twenty-first century.
Next door is a joke shop. I slip inside and spot a handsome horse's head. Twenty euros later it's mine. This'll raise a few laughs in the studio especially when Wickham gets a hold of it.
We get back into the car and drive out of town. Within a few minutes I notice, or am reminded, that the landscape west of the Shannon has a different soul. Less is changed from the deep past; prospects and views remain unchanged from centuries ago. And the motorway has hardly protruted into the West at all. The road is an ancient one, its old character still preserved. And as Damien throws the miles under our wheels my eyes begin to "come on" and I start to see the soul of the West shining through the landscape. It's a sweet, old, familiar sight, partly like returning to a loved homeland, partly like being stoned without any drugs.
After Ballinasloe, as we come within 20 or 30 miles of the Atlantic, the quality of the light changes. It becomes somehow 'expectant', and a significance, sad and luminous at the same time, is on every line of trees that stands silhouetted on the ridges and low hills. An old atmosphere is here, still intact from the youth of Ireland, not yet dispelled by the modern age, and this renders everything different, makes alternate ways of seeing possible. And as we come closer to the coast there is a sense of finality, of rolling downhill towards the great end of all things; the sense that something magical, festive, convivial and dramatic waits there for us.
In the last miles the final wonders of the Burren mountains emerge above the horizon to crown the landscape; queer, scarped, conical hills rising on the far side of not-yet-visible Galway Bay, looking huge and immediate, their dramatic faces all stark, visceral and rich with personality. And over all the land is nature in her power, and Pan in his. This is His stronghold. Britain is tamed, but here? No.
A stand of trees, incredibly abundant, appears on the left, half a mile away. It has an aura about it, as if it's in an old Dutch or Victorian painting. And I notice that in the presence of the Atlantic wind and air, things grow and look different; lichen on a wall, bushes, trees. All is wilder, archaic.
And now the headwaters of Galway Bay itself can be seen through the trees lining the road, countless delicate inlets, peninsulas and sweet mazy headlands becoming visible, flashing through the gaps in the trees.
We roll down a west-facing slope into Galway city and enter human territory. Down we drive through streets that are old friends. The natural landscape now recedes but the soul of the West of Ireland becomes visible instead in the faces of the people; canny, sharp-eyed men and imperious women out strolling, glimpsed as we hurtle past.
At last, hitting South Park and the Claddagh, we reach the open, unobstructed Bay for the first time, its whole twelve mile westward sweep coming visible, with the Burren hills wholly revealed, tumbling in great reckless slopes to the water. The physical power of stone and sea is overwhelming.
Here is the border between two of the four great Irish provinces: Connacht, domain of knowledge, to the north and Munster, land of music and poetry, to the south. Here is the end of Europe and of all that constituted the known world before the discovery of America. Here is where the human domain gives way to the wild, faery realm which still casts a presence over Connemara and the Aran Islands to the west. Here is the border between English speaking regions and the Gaeltacht, where Irish is the native tongue. Here is the border between the fertile and the wild, between the known and the unknown, between the tangible and the dreamtime.
Here also happens to be my favourite place in the whole world. And now, walking into the hotel lobby, comes one of my favorite people in the world. Anto looks well, still sporting his rather fetching slaphead baldy look, dressed in a brown jacket, a smile on his tanned face, eyes blue and sparkling. Wickham won't arrive till the morning, and Sharon, who we both want to see and hug tight after the death of her partner Leo last month, isn't around till later on. So there are a few hours of evening free to us, and Anto and I head out into the wild night of Galway, aiming for some old haunts, laughing as we go.