When you learn something new every day, life takes on new meaning. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. It doesn’t have to be life-changing. It just has be new. Mind you, my ‘I never knew that’ is usually followed quickly by ‘why didn’t I know that’, especially when it’s about someone I know or somewhere I’ve been.
I’ve just discovered that we have three fjords in Ireland. I’m surprised because I didn’t think we had any. I’m a fan of fjords and when I heard this little snippet, I was immediately back in Oslo. But Oslofjord (which technically, apparently, isn’t a fjord at all) is nothing like the one in Killary Harbour in the west of Ireland [and, if you’re curious, the other two are Carlingford Lough and Lough Swilly].
I’d heard of Killary Harbour because of the dolphins. It’s here in late spring and early summer that they follow the migration path of the salmon and I believe it’s a sight to behold [seeing a dolphin in Ireland is on my bucket list]. The fjord runs for about 16 km and came into being about 20 000 years ago.
On the side of the road as you travel in from Westport stands a monument, which was erected by AFRI and unveiled by Karen Gearon, one of the Dunnes Stores Strikers, back in 1994 . Ten years earlier, in 1984, Karen along with 10 other members of the Irish Distributive & Administrative Union, followed an instruction from their union not to handle goods from South Africa in protest of the apartheid regime. The strike lasted three months shy of three years and resulted in Ireland being the first country to ban goods from South Africa in 1987.
It seemed like an odd place to put such a monument, but that was before I realised I was standing on the old famine road that runs along the southern shore. It was here, in 1849, that tens of thousands of hungry farmers slaved to earn just a penny a day. We wondered aloud why, with our abundance of fish, did so many people starve when the potatoes failed: apparently, in this area anyway, it was not because there was no fish; it was because the people had no nets.
The fjord forms a natural boundary between the counties of Galway and Mayo and perched on its side is the village of Leenane or Leenaun. It’s a place that many pass through and stop for a pint in the very pub where the Bull McCabe would come for his pint of porter. The Field, starring Richard Harris as the Bull, is a legend in its own right. I saw Neil Tóibín play the Bull on stage at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin a few lifetimes ago and I can still hear him bellow: Are these the same outsiders….
There was something a tad surreal about sitting in the corner by the fire, looking down the length of the bar all the while expecting the Bull McCabe to barge in through the door. The walls are covered in black and white stills from the movies and, 24 years later, it’s still as real as ever.
But Leenane has a second fame hanging from its name. One of my favourite playwrights, Martin McDonagh, used it as the setting for his trilogy, the most famous of which is no doubt The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the other two being A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. I saw a Hungarian production of the latter here in Budapest last year, Vaknyugat – in Hungarian with English surtitles- and any fears I might have had about it not surviving a translation were put to bed. McDonagh is gifted and Alföldi Róbert as the priest was mesmerising.
So, far from being a place so blighted by rancour ignorance, and spite that, as the local priest complains, God Himself seems to have no jurisdiction, this village and the 1850 or so acres that surround it, is populated by no more than 200 people. And yet, through the ministries of playwrights JB Keane and Martin McDonagh, it will be on the map for years to come. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by.