Traveller’s Tale by Mary Newsome
Mary Newsome is an inveterate traveller and has engaged in a variety of artistic practices as she travels, sometimes painting French cakes before consuming them, or depicting the scene from her window every day. She travelled in Ireland for the first time in 1994, partly for the joy of travelling, but also in the hopes of finding traces of her great-great grandfather, Roger Reynolds whose son Edward Reynolds migrated to Melbourne in 1854 on the ship Merlin to practise law. Mary has a quizzical and whimsical eye and the charm of this diary is its mixture of language and illustrations in the form of ink and watercolour sketches. On this trip, she typically took notes and sketched and completed her diary and the watercolours at night on the same day. We’ve reproduced her images, but not always properly sized (limitations of the program used for this magazine) and they look much better in the original, so we include one page in its original format (3 September), with text winding around sketches. Mary later became a much-collected and celebrated print-maker and maker of artist’s books. We thought our readers might relish a slightly edited account of a sympathetic outsider’s view of Ireland in 1994.
WEDNESDAY 31st August 1994. BRIGHTON – MULLINGAR
Our First Day in Ireland and the day the IRA have declared a ceasefire – to take place at midnight tonight. Drove to Gatwick by 7, in misty rain. Left late, flying a circuitous route because of the Farnborough Air Show, over English fields, green and brown, newly harvested like sheets of roughly hammered gold. Flying over Ireland – flat fields as far as the eye could see, harvest-rowed, green sheep dotted.
Collected our enormously expensive hire car & drove north to New Grange (Brú na Boinne), the oldest structure in the world, a great mound containing a burial chamber and passage leading to it. The sun shines in at the winter solstice for 9 minutes & illuminates the chamber. Spiral & geometric decorations. A very helpful chap called Dermott.
After looking at B&Bs called Tower View & Hill Top (both fibs) we settled on Lake View (pine trees in the distance perhaps surround the lake). With our host Jack Daly’s advice (an almost retired policeman with 6 grownup children, three sons in the force), we found Danny Byrne’s a pub in town and had a good meal (Irish stew & lamb’s fry) with a pile of huge boiled potatoes in their skins, washed down with Guinness (and through a card from Jack Daly) free Irish whiskey coffees. Found unpainted Staffordshire dogs in shop window. Home, watching TV in the sitting room and about to have a large green bath.
THURSDAY 1st September 1994. MULLINGAR – near Inniscrone, Easkey. Thick mist quickly cleared. We spent some time in Mullingar, a very slow youth in Tourist office. Bought the Staffordshire dogs for £6.99 (- decorated with flowers they were £39). How do we get them to Australia? More men doing nothing with lawnmowers or sitting on walls. Vast areas of peat bogs covered with heather.
Clonmacnoise, at Shannonbridge, founded by St Ciaran in the 6th century. High crosses, wonderfully carved out of a solid piece of stone, round towers & Romanesque archways.
Roads are narrow, but not crowded – the only delays are slow farm machines. Drivers tend to be erratic. Drove past Sligo to the Coast Rd to Enniskillen, booked into a Farm B&B (£12pp), then went in to Inniscrone to have our steam and hot seaweed baths. Went in together. First sat in cedar cabinet & steamed, then into hot bath, browned by a bucket of green seaweed -left a thick coating of oil on one’s skin. Then a cold shower. Walked along the beach path in the pale evening sun. Pub meal – Guinness, potato soup with soda bread & apple pie. Gathered fossils on the beach, through five green fields back to the B&B farm.
FRIDAY 2nd September 1994 near EASKEY – SPIDALL
Bright morning, through cows going to milking & tankers sucking up milk. Misty blue mountains across a highland peat bog, peat in plastic bags in fields being harvested (i.e., dug, turned, put into small pointed stacks, then bigger stacks, then into walls beside farmhouses. The only product we saw being transported along roads was peat. In the Connemara Visitors Centre was a display on the People of the Bog:
Who will say ‘corpse’ to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’ to his opaque repose?
And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely as a foetus’s
I first saw his twisted face
In a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat
bruised like a forceps baby.
Along very bumpy roads (because built on bogs) to Pearse’s cottage, almost totally rebuilt, but in a wild stony watery place, two whitewashed thatched cottages, small and plain. ‘MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse…’
Before we went in to the cottage, we saw some blue sheep we intended to photograph. They were gone when we came out, so I asked an old man leaning on a fence:
‘Excuse me, do you know where the blue sheep are?’
‘Can you tell me why they’re blue?’
We think he didn’t understand or thought I was mad. Roadsigns are all in Gaelic , the English often painted out. Mountains lay hidden in mist. Dinner in Spidall, …and watched the sun go down on Galway Bay’.
SATURDAY 3rd September 1994. SPIDDAL – BALLYMORRIS
Mist obscuring Galway Bay. The Burren – purple and green hills, limestone, assembling into crisscrossing stone walls. Finally tracked down our dolmen (stone table), on a terrace of cracked limestone, terns, harebells, clover, daisies, alpine plants growing in the clefts. A barbaric landscape, seen in the mist.
Took a narrow road hemmed in by stone walls (luckily met no car) to Canon, to the Turlough or Vanishing Lake, now half there & surrounded by green paddocks and stone walls. Prehistoric field forts (looked for one supposed to be signposted, and through a farmer’s yard, but suspect the farmer removes the sign).
Ennistymon & the Cascades viewed through a large arch. Ennis, people hurrying off to a hurling semi-final, us to the Friary (could have watched the game from the top of the tower). Shown round by history student, very enthusiastic about the 13th-15th century carvings. B&B at Ryan Sunnybank, with a glowing peat fire & a cabinet of stuffed birds shot by our landlord. Dinner at Limerick Inn Hotel.
SUNDAY 4th September 1994 BALLYMORRIS – nr ATHY
Raining gently as the cars zoomed off to Dublin for the Hurling Final, green & white Limerick flags fluttering out of the windows. Viewed the Rock of Cashel (after going through Tipperary), another magnificent ruin crumbling away. Tombs with carvings, lancet windows, Romanesque arches. An old white-bearded leprechaun playing an accordion on a rock outside. Passed travelling people, snug in caravans with their washing spread out on a hedge with an overhang; man with gun and two spaniels; on our way to Kilkenny, pursuing the path of our Office of Public Works yearly ticket. Parked beside a rushing stream, ate our picnic lunch of bread and bacon from breakfast with half and apple, washed down with a small Laphroaig whiskey.
In the castle went on a guided tour (obligatory) with about 50 other visitors. It is the only castle to be lived in for eight centuries by one family – the Butlers (W B Yeats was illegitimately connected).
The guides had an amazing collection of hysterical facts – it’s bad luck to touch the wake table (but it can be negated by touching a stone head on the way out; little boys were dressed as girls to fool the fairies; candlewick bedspreads were made from the wicks of candles; lying flat was bad for the digestion so people slept sitting up in order to eat 30 courses next day; people never smiled for portraits because their teeth were bad and rotten etc etc etc.
Then to the Cathedral of St Canice’s church of Ireland and DEANERY writ in Gaelic lettering. A splendid collection of stone tombs and grave slabs.
Drove and drove until we finally found this B&B down a long winding road. Were given fruit scones, jam and tea – didn’t need dinner.
MONDAY 5th September 1994. Nr ATHY – DUBLIN
Fresh OJ, home-made strawberry jam, white sausage, farm milk and eggs. Vincent showed us round the farm – milking processes, artificial insemination store, mileage, winter quarters, feeding rotation & old farmhouse. At the Japanese Gardens (strangely combined with the Irish National Stud) we placed our trembling feet on the Path of Life (through the Gateway of Oblivion), hoping we would not end up in the Foaling Unit.
Drove over the Newbridge Downs and through loose sheep (met one walking along the town street) & past the Curragh Racecourse. With some heated discussion & outside help we made our way to Rathfarnham & following A. Norman Jeffares’ diagram, which he gave to us in Scotland, past the Yellow House to Riversdale, a house my Reynold’s ancestor lived in, as did briefly Yeats. Here we met an extremely taciturn & rude inhabitant, so could only take a few photos. Went & booked in at the B&B in Ranelagh, into a corner Victorian house & a room of eccentric shape, two windows (lace curtains & pink & red geraniums), a cast iron fireplace & pink lampshades. I put the two Staffordshire dogs on the mantelpiece where they immediately felt at home. Then, with empty car, returned to Rathfarnham and parked in the village. Not knowing if Roger Reynolds was Catholic or not, we found a kind man in the Church of Ireland who ran off to the bicycle shop to phone (the Curate wasn’t in) to get the record keeper, Digby Turpin’s address, then to the Catholic Church where a kind man hoovering the carpet directed us to Father Mondo, Tony the Barber (keeps old photos & documents, and a notice written by the ceiling stainers in 1877). Hearing we were from Melbourne, he enquired if we knew Jim Stynes. We took more photos of Riversdale & the rushing stream (now littered with rubbish) and the old gate and cottage. Guinnesses at the Yellow House. A tour round Rathfarnham Castle, bereft of furniture & most fittings & being fixed up with ‘money from Europe’ – millions has gone into fixing up dry rot and sagging ceilings. The Jesuit occupation did not improve it, paintings by Angelica Kauffman being replaced by bad religious scenes. Father Mondo and Tony not home. Visited the old graveyard in the setting sun – totally derelict, gravestones smashed, fallen over, neglected. Anyway no discernible Reynolds – did they exist? Indifferent pub meal. Home in room after thin shower. Baths not allowed.
TUESDAY 6th September 1994 DUBLIN
Breakfast with three enormous women, then delivered the car to Dun Laoghaire and bussed back to Dublin. A relief to be free of the car and all its attendant worries, especially in Dublin (‘do not leave luggage visible in car as it will be stolen & customer will be responsible for glass breakage and lock damage …customer will be responsible for damage is not left overnight in a secure car park’ ).
Lunch at Davey Byrne’s pub in Duke St where Bloom ate a gorgonzola sandwich and drank a glass of Burgundy and where we shared a cheese sandwich and each had half a pint of Guinness. I had a tiny shop in Grafton St., then we paid £1 to a poet reciter to do Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ (at which I wept). The buskers here keep getting moved on by the police, according to a Welsh Minstrel.
The National Museum (one Bronze Shield, 3 Rattle pendants, 4 coral/1 side-blown Horn, 2 end-blown,horns, and 1 side blown horn = 1 display case) where we got slightly hysterical and had to have a coffee and an audio-visual to recover. Wonderful amber beads and beaten gold and the Cross of Cong with a piece of the True Cross.
Walked home, across the canals to inspect Oisin’s Irish Restaurant, the only place that serves Irish food, but we found that Irish Stew and Dumplings cost £19 + 15% VAT so after a restoring whiskey, went to a local wine bar and had fish, taties & a cheap bottle of French red ( £16.50 including tip), and at home a delicious fresh raspberry tart and coffee.
WEDNESDAY 7 September 1994 DUBLIN
We were the only two for breakfast this morning, so Mrs (Mai) Bird gave us an enlightened address on the Irish problems and what it meant to her. The sun was shining so we went forth without brollies & me in sandals. En route, we had lovely chats with shopkeepers (‘thank you very much indeed’) (for taking an ASA 400 when they were out of 200s) & ‘Melbourne’s my second favourite city’. Kind, interested, friendly people.
St Patrick’s Cathedral where the famous Dubliners are buried, chiefly Dean Swift ‘where fierce indignation can no longer rend the heart (ubi sæve indignitus/Uterus/Cor lacerate nequit) or, as Yeats put it: ‘Swift has sailed into his rest./Savage indignation there / Cannot lacerate his breast, /Imitate him if you dare,/World-besotted traveller: he / served human liberty’ (and also wrote a sermon on sleeping in Church).
St Michan’s Church. A Public Confession Chair and Penitent’s Pew. The organ was played on by Handel when he came for the first production of the Messiah. In the group was a Bavarian organist & he played it for ten minutes, including the Hallelujah Chorus. In the vaults are preserved bodies – a criminal without one hand (& two feet) & a Crusader 190cm tall, thighs crossed & legs bent. The small girl was allowed to touch his hand for luck. 1798 men of the Rebellion there in coffins and perhaps Robert Emmett. In the Winding Steps Bookshop and Cafe, I had a fruit scone and mint tea sitting in the window in the sun overlooking the Ha’Penny Bridge and the Liffey.
We caught a bus to the Chester Beatty Library where we had a tour of a magnificent collection of books, prints & objects. Warm room, soup, pizza, blackberry tart. Packing.
Mary Newsome, artist and diary-keeper, and of Irish descent.