Every year as a child I was packed into the back of my Aunt Teresa’s Mini and with her driving and my mum, Maureen, in the front seat, the three of us would head out from her house in the south Dublin suburbs to spend a holiday on the west coast of Ireland. Teresa was one of the world’s slowest drivers and pretty soon there would be a long, long line of cars on our tail. Maureen, the eldest sister, would diplomatically point out some interesting feature in the landscape and suggest we pull over to take a closer look thus allowing all the frustrated drivers behind us to pass and sparing Teresa’s feelings about her driving. To me, that journey west was always full of anticipation.
My Aunt Teresa in the hallway of her Dublin house before we head west, looking rather pensive. Maybe she’s worrying about the drive.
Maureen and Teresa as young women on holiday, somewhere on the west coast.
Sometimes we would head south to Cork and Kerry but most of the time we’d drive in a straight line across Ireland to Galway and then head north to Mayo, Sligo and Donegal. The one place we never went to was Roscommon – the county Maureen and Teresa came from. Maureen was an unmarried single mother, an unheard of and deeply shameful state of affairs in Ireland in the 1960’s. We avoided Roscommon for fear of bumping into anyone who knew her. My existence would not have been easy to explain.
Maureen on a beach in Donegal – you can just about pick her out. In later years, we’d go on short breaks out of season when we’d encounter some spectacular weather coming in off the Atlantic.
Going back to the west coast as an adult, my mother would buy me a packet of Irish cigarettes – ‘Sweet Afton’ – as a holiday treat. We were both smokers. Untipped, they weren’t the smoothest of smokes but they came in a beautiful, old-fashioned box complete with a quote from Burns on the cover. As a footnote they were Margot’s choice of cigarette in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’.
Myself and Teresa on a bench – I’m very excited, pointing out the west coast of Ireland.
Being taken there as child, I’d never encountered such a remote, ruinous, harsh and disorderly place – the weather, the seas, the mountains, the lanes running down to deserted beaches that seemed to stretch for miles. The coast wormed its way into my head and took a grip on me that has never let go. I would stand there as a child or an adult and think of the vastness of the distance between me and North America – the feeling of being on the edge of Europe was intoxicating. My attachment to the place was cemented by the sheer exuberance and warmth of everyone I met there.
The islands off the west coast of Ireland have played huge symbolic role in Irish culture. The film ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ is only the latest in a long line of artistic depictions of island life. The islands were often held up as an image of an old gaelic world and their depopulation over the nineteenth and twentieth century came to represent the disappearance of a particular Irish way of life. On this trip I visited Keem Bay on Achill, the location for Brendan Gleeson’s cottage in the film. At the same time I was reading Kevin Toolis’s excellent book ‘Rebel Hearts’, which in passing described his family’s origins in Achill and how over centuries, famine and poverty had forced people from the island.