There are a great many enduring images of Ireland; breath-taking scenery freshly misted by gentle rains, lichen-stained Celtic Crosses in the ruins of medieval monasteries, fading Georgian splendor from the days when Dublin was a jewel of the Empire, and a green and lush country of pious and happy folks just waiting to be friendly.
But it was very different growing up there. It rained a lot and everyone had to go around looking miserable in public. Irish mythology has it that when the English used to run the place, they’d tax or arrest anyone who looked too happy. In my time, it was the Church. Priests and nuns scoured the streets on the look-out for anyone who might be straying from the path. Anybody with a smile was obviously up to no-good, or was having impure thoughts, or was about to.
I often reflected on this while having a few pints, sitting in Grogan’s of South William Street where the seeds of Lagan Love were sown. Grogan’s, aka ‘The Castle Lounge,’ was an island for the dissenters and had inherited a literary tradition from McDaids, the preferred local for many of the great Irish writers of the 1950’s.
The flight of the faithful:
It was in 1972 that Grogans became a favored meeting place for cutting-edge Irish writers of the time. Renowned barman Paddy O’Brian, formerly of McDaids pub, began working in Grogans bringing with him regular customers of McDaids including the likes of poet Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, J.P. Donleavy, Liam O’Flaherty. Thus cementing Grogans popularity amongst the city’s’ artistic avant-garde . . . http://www.groganspub.ie/?page_id=7
I wandered in a year or two later to meet with my great friends, Joe McPeak, Jimmy Neil and Shuggie Murray, all refugees from Glasgow, and Emmanuel Greenan who had fled the troubles in Belfast for the relative peace of Dublin. We liked to sit in the little nook near the door and in time were dubbed ‘Scot’s Corner’ by the great man, Paddy O’Brian, himself.
Our conversations were always varied, influenced by the great literariness of the place and interspersed with Jimmy’s acerbic tirades against Fascism and Capitalism, Shuggie’s unquenchable optimism, Joe’s ancient mysticism and the occasional nod from Emmanuel who was taciturn.
We talked about all that troubled the world and the growing threats from the apartheid of the self-appointed righteous, but we had reassurance—it had all been done before. History, and humanities ability to survive it, was our great source of comfort as the world seemed to be spinning out of control again.
But the history in Grogan’s was very different from that which the Irish Tourist Board would have you believe. There were no leaping leprechauns around—they were barred from the premises—and those who clung to pious subservience kept their impositions to themselves.
No! The smoke filled air of Grogan’s was pristine.
There my young and confused self could glimpse another reality—the one that artists speak of—the truth behind the veil! We were the descendants of the Celts—those proud and noble tribes that defied even the Romans who had to build a wall to limit their expansion and to keep us out. At least that’s what they did when they encountered the Scots—they didn’t even dare set foot in Ireland! But we had suffered too.
A millennium of harassment by the Vikings and then the Normans had left us beaten but unbowed. We had become the undesirables in our own land that was filling up with settlers and other carpet-baggers, put in place as our overlords. And, while the world around us evolved from Feudalism to Nationalism, and Autocracy to the great sham of Democracy, we learned to laugh at it all for what it was—just the ebb and flow of the times.
Not that we didn’t have our fair share of resistance, too, and some of those that fought the good fight drank in the corners, but only when they were off duty, muttering about revolutions and splits in the cause.
It just added to the music of the place—the songs that would make stones cry and the gentle poetry of muttered defiance against the numbing consumerism the world was scurrying towards.
I made a hazy promise then that I would capture all of that and put it in a book. I would leave a record of the lives and times of the great ordinary people who knew far more than the wise. I would—right after I had another few pints!
Lagan Love did not see the light of day for another forty years but like good wine, it had to settle and mature.
Peter Murphy is the author of Lagan Love. His next novel, Born & Bred, will be out in early 2014. You can learn more about him at our website.