Recently I was invited to examine a doctoral thesis at the National University in Galway, Ireland. I looked forward to this for weeks as it seemed something of an adventure as well as a duty. I had never been to Galway although I have frequently visited my brother and his family in West Cork: he has painted there for more than thirty years.
While preparing for the viva voce, I found myself preoccupied by the simple logistical task of getting to Galway. Travelling to Ireland, a country very near yet across a turbulent sea, never seems quite straightforward. Moreover, the phrase “flying to Galway” jostled in my brain with “sailing to Byzantium”. I could hardly be described as a tattered coat upon a stick, but Yeats was younger than I when he wrote his poem, and I half hoped that the journey would be somehow transformative.
My previous journeys to Ireland have usually been memorable if only for their discomfort. For many years I used to catch the “express” bus from Bristol bus station that toiled along dark, damp Welsh roads to Fishguard, arriving at 3 a.m. for embarkation onto the Fishguard-Rosslare ferry. Whichever direction one was travelling, concern about migration and terrorism seemed always to be on the British side. Before being allowed to board the ferry, bemused bus passengers were directed into a large, bare security room where we had to walk in a circle while being filmed by a video camera and observed by armed guards.
The advent of affordable flight – Ryanair and easyJet – has much reduced the popularity of the bus journey. I had no doubt that I was going to fly to Galway, but by which route? There is an airport at Galway itself, but this no longer operates a passenger service. The most direct alternative flight from Bristol was to Knock, about 35 miles north of Galway. There are only two flights a week, but I could arrive a day earlier than necessary, reread the thesis in the hotel, and see something of the area before returning to Britain.
The 50 minute flight from Bristol to Knock was calm and sunlit above a virtual sea of small white clouds. As we descended, I saw a scattering of buildings across the green landscape. As we got closer to the ground, there seem to be no habitation at all. The plane landed abruptly, hitting the runway hard and slowing to a halt.
Knock airport was built at the instigation of a priest who wished to encourage pilgrims to visit the shrine of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to the faithful at Knock church in 1873. As I left the plane, I saw an enormous statue of Mary overlooking the runway, which is carved into the encroaching Irish countryside in a way that appears barely finished. A large poster in the terminal building celebrates the airport’s ambition to act as a hub of communications between New York to the west and mainland Europe to the east, Knock apparently being the central point and the Atlantic strikingly foreshortened.
The stopping bus took an hour and forty minutes to Galway. The passenger next to me struck up a conversation and blessed me when he left the bus. My hotel was off the main road, on the outskirts of the city. Spacious and modern, it could have been in London or New York, apart from the same-sex couples who sat holding hands in the lounge. In some respects, social mores in Ireland have changed astonishingly, although not necessarily in ways the priests would have wished.
I spent much of the next day re-reading the thesis but took time out to walk into town along the main road. In terms of traffic and townscape too, Ireland has joined the modern world. I could have been almost anywhere on the globe as I walked along a four-lane highway of crowded, shuffling traffic surrounded by retail parks. In the town, hoping to buy a coat to protect me from the cold of what was nonetheless a bright day, I made the mistake of entering a subterranean shopping mall where the stores were nearly all national and international chains, the walkways too narrow and the displays too bright.
My day at the University was delightful. The viva voce examination was delayed because the other examiner had an earlier meeting with a government minister about a history text he had recently published; it was good to hear that government was taking a interest in the scholarly function of the academy. The utilitarian, vocational view of higher learning may not yet have affected Ireland as it has the UK. Over lunch we discussed the Rugby World Cup, which was starting the following weekend, and the Michael Fassbender Macbeth, which I went to see in the local cinema that evening.
It was the next day – a Saturday, my last day in Ireland – that I felt I understood something of Ireland’s version of modernity. Sheila Gallagher showed me the tiny house that was the childhood home of Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce and inspiration for Molly Bloom. Sheila and her sister bought the house in 1987 and have preserved it to convey vividly the life of a large family in two small rooms. The house contains several photographs of Nora Barnacle, Joyce and their companions, some taken on holidays abroad which clearly took Nora well away from her humble Galway origins. Standing in the cramped house, one room above the other and an outside area little larger than a single bed, it was easy to remember that the Irish are no strangers to austerity. Walking with Sheila through the older parts of Galway, I was struck by the combination of traditional street life – performers, buskers, sellers – and non-traditional same-sex couples embracing and holding hands. In Galway, I was at one moment on a Los Angeles highway; at another, in a living museum of the traditional harshness of Irish life; at another, in an embrace of new freedom in relationships. It was an invigorating experience.