Thursday, 6 June 2013

International Frontiers

The title of this sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is, the international frontier in question is that which exists between Northern Ireland and the Republic - specifically in a small town called Pettigo which straddles said frontier. So what is it about Pettigo that made me drag my pal who I was visiting in Northern Ireland to this small border town 130 miles away and to a point slightly beyond? Unfortunately I'm going to tell you.

It starts with a book called McCarthy's Bar by a man called Pete McCarthy, I read it a few years ago and have read it several times since. He wrote another book called The Road To McCarthy and I don't mind saying; its one of my most favourite reads - I've read it and McCarthy's Bar several times.

These are both humorous and informative travelogues about Ireland and the Irish diaspora. In McCarthy's Bar he sets out to discover what it is to be Irish and if you can somehow  be English and Irish at the same time. He does this - essentially - by travelling around Ireland and entering any bar that has his name above the door and having a drink.

In The Road to McCarthy, he starts in Tangiers hunting down the McCarthy Mor (the alleged descendant of an ancient Irish king) and ends in the tiny Alaskan town of McCarthy visiting Tasmania,  Montserrat, the United States and of course Ireland in between.

But it is McCarthy's Bar we're interested in, the climax takes place at St Patrick's Purgatory on - or perhaps in - Lough Derg; about 6 miles beyond the Irish town of Pettigo. Although not at all religious, he decided that in order to reconnect with his Irish roots, he might try participating in the ancient Lough Derg pilgrimage that people from across the world have been doing for over 1000 years.

Lasting three days, pilgrims must go with out food or drink (one Lough Derg meal is allowed each day consisting of dry toast and black tea.) They must also complete - in bare feet -  nine 'stations' (the remains of monastic cells or beds dedicated to the memory of mainly Irish Saints) over the three days, stations consist of kneeling at alters around the island and its buildings and saying certain prayers or liturgies - according to Pete's account - it didn't seem to matter what God or deity you directed your pleas at.

Since he spent the weeks leading up to his pilgrimage visiting a great many pubs around Ireland (many not necessarily having his name above the door,) the pilgrimage was more of a detox than a religious observance.

I love his books, the warmth and humour with which he tells his stories and shares his experiences is amiable yet deliciously dry. 

We didn't get to go out to the island itself, (you need to commit to a three day pilgrimage and frankly - my friend wasn't up for it.) We did get to stand on the dock where Pete left for his pilgrimage - or ordeal as I prefer to think of it. While I don't think my friend was overly enthused, I got a kick out of standing there knowing one of my favourite writers had been there years before while writing McCarthy's Bar.

Pete McCarthy died at the age of 52, he only managed two books before cancer took him down. While I would have preferred a third, fourth, fifth and at least sixth book, the two books he did write are a testament to his memory and an inspiration; I cannot recommend them enough.

St Patrick with St Patrick's Purgatory on Station Island in the background.

McCarthy's Bar - Pete McCarthy.

00.05 Day 2.

When I got to the dorm there were two fat guys getting layered up with fat clothes. They were discussing Chinese food with an intensity that bordered on sexual fantasy. They were clearly mad with hunger. The mention of Kung Po Prawns had one of them bent double, grimacing with lust. The sexiest Chinese and Malaysian food on the planet they reckoned was to be found in Tullamore. They're making elaborate plans to break their fast with a spectacular blow out of satay chicken, crispy duck, sweet & sour pork, beef in black bean sauce, and chilli crabs, to be delivered to their doors at midnight on Sunday. Perhaps they should consider skipping toast for the next couple of days, to make sure they've got an appetite.

I'm sitting in the night shelter at the back of the basilica where we can come between sessions of prayer of we don't fancy wandering outside barefoot in the pitch-black howling deluge. We're packed together on long benches, some smoking, some chatting and other sipping water. There's a woman over there reading Hello! magazine. I'd have thought that was against the rules. Perhaps there's some religious content though; exclusive shots of the ex-Bishop of Galway at home with his family, something like that.

Right opposite me, there's a bony woman who looks like she works in a fish shop. She's wearing leg warmers, which she's pulled down so that they cover her feet. That can't be allowed, can it? Surely she's cheating. It's not fair. I find myself wanting a priest to come and confiscate them. This thing is beginning to take on a momentum of its own. Even if you don't buy in to the philosophy, once you're here you find yourself playing by their rules. Something inside you takes over, and it becomes a matter of pride. You want to succeed, to score points, to finish the race, to accumulate the prayers. If they can do it, so can I.

I don't want to go on about it. I just think they should confiscate her leg warmers, that's all. I mean, it's not unreasonable is it?

It won't be light for another six hours.

I find myself thinking of something I did a couple of years ago in Australia, when I let an aging hippy called Graham bury me alive in the outback. The idea was that it was a kind of rebirthing, an initiation ceremony in which you'd break through your own barriers. of fear and discomfort and be born anew. You spend all day in a remote place in the New South Wales bush, digging what Graham comfortingly calls 'your own grave', then at sunset you get in it, while another hippy, who's just showed up in a van, plays the didgeridoo. Then Graham fills it in up to your neck, leaving just your head sticking out of the ground, like David Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, only not so badly made up. Then you're left to the mercy of the poisonous spiders you've been finding all day, the terrifying sounds of the Australian night, and the crushing weight of the soil. After covering my face with insect repellent,  Graham made a circle of salt on the ground around my neck. I asked him what it was for.

'To keep the leeches of your face.'

Up to this point, I hadn't considered the possibility of leeches on my face, which is what made this the worst moment of all. Anyway, the understanding was that I would stay in the ground as long as I could bear - all night if possible -  but that Graham was my buddy, so that when I asked to be released, he would comply. After a few hours I asked; and of course he refused, which is when the row began, with me just a ranting head sticking out the ground, like something from a Sam Beckett play.

But next day - even though I hated Graham, and never wanted to set eyes on the bastard again - I felt very good, at ease with myself and full of energy, and the feeling persisted for several days. Maybe it was just banging your head on the wall syndrome, and I was glad it had stopped; or maybe that the challenge of dealing with something i'd been dreading, and coming out the other side, had indeed done some good.

So perhaps being here tonight is like being buried alive in the Australian outback by a hippy. If I can somehow make myself see it through, maybe I'll reap the benefits of it - even if they're not the ones the priests might be intending. I did go into a kind of contemplative trance earlier, during some rather beautiful chanting in the basilica, and I came to one unexpected realisation. If I were them I'd order another seafood dish, and cancel the beef in black bean sauce.

Skinhead seems to be the enforcer round here, the bad priest in the old good-priest/bad-priest routine. He's just come in and told us time's up, back to our prayers. How did that old joke about hell go? 'All right lads, tea break over, back on your heads.'

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Thanks for comment as always and I apologise if you have to jump through any hoops to do so. Its just that, I'm still being spammed by organisations who are certain I can't get it up or when it is up its not big enough or that I don't have anyone to get it up for.

Who knew blogging could be so bad for ones self-confidence?