Few people know that the Palace of Versailles is based on Bagenalstown railway station.
Carole-Anne Delaney must have extraordinary influence within the Irish media, or else the jungle drums of County Wicklow work remarkably fast. I was no more than ten minutes up the road, having escaped from her clutches, when I noticed people waving at me, pointing at me, or shouting in the distance and running after me. “Surely,” I thought, she cannot already have written a book review mentioning me in passing and had it published in the Irish Times. Even if she phoned it in and it went straight into the online edition.” But then I reminded myself that Wicklow is the natural home for the Irish literary intelligentsia/mafia, ever alert to developments at the leading edge of scriptorial erudition and technics, and they would inevitably have been following Miss Delaney on Twitter or Facebook. Thus it followed that those mobs in the distance vigorously shaking baseball bats, pikes, and golf clubs above their heads were well-wishers from the book-reading classes alerted to my endeavours and keen to offer some encouragement in whatever way they could, no matter how small and inconsequential. I waved back and offered them my most sincerest cheery smile.
I was half-way across the Wicklow Mountains National Park when I really started to feel the cold and thought it might be a good idea to put some clothes on. When it was first made, in 1954, the Dürkopp Diana was regarded as one of the most luxurious scooters on the market, but time has moved on, and heated handlebars, shatterproof windshields, and woolly gloves and boots come as standard on most scooters, I understand. I am reluctant to move with the times, but such an adherence to tradition has its downsides. Fortunately, the Diana does have sufficient room for a ruck sack or travel bag, a suitcase at a push, and I had had the foresight to bring with me an extra set of clothes should I lose my original and preferred travel outfit under such circumstances as had occurred at Miss Delaney’s house. This change of clothes consisted in a pair of swimming trunks, 70-denier tights (jet black and therefore resembling leggings or, in my case, my legs), an Aran Isle sweater, a Real Madrid shirt (home), a deer-stalker hat, and a pair of expensive Italian shoes belonging to my dissolute and delinquent brother Hornolo. I had taken them from him without his permission but knowing that they are wasted on him. He has dozens more pairs besides.
A quick survey of the map upon exiting the park showed me that a small diversion of only several hours would take me to the Poulaphouca Reservoir, which I was determined to visit solely on account of its splendid name. Indeed, as I wended my way northwards along the R756 and R758, the wind smiled as it caught my words, unable as I was to avoid revelling in the name, reciting it endlessly to myself: “Reh-Serr-Voir. Reh-Serr-Voir. Reh-Serr-Voir.” It has such a resonance, don’t you think? For me it conjures up Celtic mists, hills of bracken, diseases long unknown to Western civilization but still kept alive in Irish hamlets cut off from the world for centuries.
Sadly, when I arrived, it turned out to be a lake. Nothing more. Two workman who saw my perplexity from across the road in their hut came over and were most helpful, explaining that “Poulaphouca” is an Irish word meaning “Pool of Water,” “Phouca” or “Phucca,” to give it its traditional pronunciation, being the old Irish word for water. I committed it to my memory on the off-chance that it might come in handy later during my journey should I be dehydrated, and counted my diversion as not entirely wasted. Interestingly enough, the workmen were at a loss to translate for me the word “Reservoir,” that pungent and eloquent word so redolent of a lost Hibernia, and my Irish-Spanish dictionary was of no help. The nearest word I could find was “Rastafáraí.”
I cut my losses. I wanted to get to Bagenalstown by nightfall, which meant a straight run southwards along the N81 towards Tullow before heading cross-country on some of the scenic backroads of County Carlow. The county’s roads have long been known for their terrible state, the only rival to those of Cavan in Irish folklore for their potholes, crevasses, and sudden disappearances (to be replaced by paths of cowpat-friendly rubble). There is an Irish tribute band from Drogheda called the Ring o’Stars* who have a line in one of their songs about “10,000 holes in the R170122,” which is a two-mile stretch of road just outside Borris. That said, the last two decades saw a remarkable turnaround in the maintenance and treatment of Carlow’s roads, the intent being to attract tourists who would otherwise not feel inclined to visit the county, which has very little going for it other than its famed blandness. But with the brand new roads, the place had something else to offer. “Come to Carlow whether you have Haemorrhoids or Not!” was the Carlow County Tourist Board’s slogan between 1998 and 2007. And people did indeed come. Tourism more than doubled during that period: up to as many as 831 people in 2003 alone.
The recession really bit in 2009, and last year’s dreadful winter took even larger bites, mostly out of the concrete and Tarmacadam that had so mellifluously lulled visitors to sleep for many a trip. Consequently, Carlow’s roads are as bad now as they ever were. Although it isn’t just Carlow that’s suffering. Winter was winter everywhere in Ireland. Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin’s city centre now has chasms that stretch across several lanes, hardy weeds sprouting up from them due to a lack of upkeep, a decline in tourist traffic, and the price of petrol. Evolution seems to have bred a particularly hardy weed there, immune to fumes and with an impressive elasticity that allows the plant to spring back to full size after being run over by the 145 bus. Not that I believe in evolution. I use the term as shorthand for my deity, the way Richard Dawkins does.
In a futile effort to increase road use and thereby increase revenue through a tax on petrol use, the government recently widened the M1 motorway around Dublin airport, having been made aware of research showing that if you add more lanes to a road, they soon fill up with more traffic. This is an argument generally used against the adding of extra lanes and is premised on the existence of cheap fuel, but the government figured that if they make cuts to public transport at the same time, they could save money and force people onto the roads, thereby increasing state coffers. A brilliant move, if people have jobs to go to, although as it has transpired, the Port Tunnel, the largest construction project in the history of the state, transporting goods and tourists to and from the ferry port without creating congestion in the city centre, currently has a rate of use of one vehicle per hour. It is anticipated that, at such a rate, the project will have paid for itself around the time that our Sun goes nova.
With the population of Ireland back down to 3½ million and counting, it’s difficult to know who the government thinks will be driving these cars. Children barely know their left from their right and don’t have much pocket money left over for petrol once they’ve budgeted for essentials like red lemonade and condoms, and it may surprise this government to learn that the dead don’t get out much. Zombies might be ubiquitous in the popular culture these days, but you never see them driving a car. It isn’t possible without a functioning brain stem. Unless you count fans of Top Gear, that is, but they’re already out on the road killing people. And in some cases, eating them. Perhaps the government is banking on the Death Coach picking up some of the slack.
But as we like to say in Spain, “He who shops with Catalans must take two wallets.” Or, in other words, a hedged bet is better than a bet head. In Spain a few years ago, we had a very famous case of a disabled man in his motorized bed who was arrested for drunk-driving on the motorway on his way to visit the local bordello. José Antonio Navarro, who is 95% disabled, had got drunk and was intending to visit ‘Jade,’ a local whorehouse, but took a wrong turning off the roundabout. When he realized that he had taken the wrong turnoff, he decided to continue along the motorway in order not to put other drivers in danger. And fair play to him. This is the sort of inspiring attitude that the Irish government should be encouraging. I do not mean drunk-driving, of course, which even the Spanish only do at night-time, but if only the government was to open a few knocking-shops at the newly opened Apple services at strategic points along the motorways of this country (one just outside Galway would be particularly well-frequented), they could guarantee getting at least half of the Irish population out on the roads, whether they had cars or not. I have frequently seen Spanish men crawling on their hands and knees both to and from such bordellos.
I am not entirely sure how a bordello would go down in Bagenalstown, which strikes me as a very pious and devout place, even if at times ominous and filled with foreboding. My history book The Truth About Carlow!: Saints, Murderers, Sodomites, and Celebrities tells me that this was the place where Saint Laserian first considered establishing his church, before eventually building his cathedral in Old Leighlin. Apparently, he was deterred from building in Bagenalstown on Day One of construction because the first person he saw that morning was a red-haired woman, considered even back then to be a terrible sign. Consequently, he took the rest of the day off, like any sensible construction industry boss, but the next morning an angel came to him and told him to sit in the stone chair on the top of Ballycormac Hill and to build his church on the spot where the sun first shone. It turned out to be Old Leighlin. My history book says the stone chair was preserved over dozens of generations at Ballycormac until 30 years ago, near to a house now occupied by a Mr. Radwell. The father of the present Mr. Radwell broke up the chair, however, and used the stones in making a fence. His fate is not recorded, but I expect it was death.
Saint Laserian is recorded as having miraculously healed a boy who had been decapitated, but my book does not say if he, like Our Lady of Mount Carmel (see County Wicklow), used his laser vision (it was Saint Laserian who gave this particular holy power its name) in a kind of cauterizing/welding operation or if he just did it by praying. It does, however, explain why Saint Laserian is now the patron saint of shipbuilders, microprocessor manufacturers, and Bond villains. Even so, it was a holy power of no avail when Saint Laserian met his match, Saint Sillán of County Louth. While he did not have laser vision, Saint Sillán’s eyebrow more than compensated for this lack. It was said that anyone who saw Sillán’s eyebrow would die immediately. Laserian, being a plucky saint, tried to pluck it out. Unfortunately, he had to look to see what he was doing (my suspicion is that he pulled out hair from somewhere else on Sillán’s body and upon looking at them doubted that they could be eyebrow hairs). One look at Sillán’s eyebrow and it was curtains for Laserian. Black curtains.
This happened over 1,000 years ago, on April 18th. Which is his feast day.
There is a range of opinion as to where Laserian’s remains can be found. Some say that he was buried under his church at Old Leighlin or under the high cross in Leighlin, whereas others say that looking at Sillán’s eyebrow results in death by explosion and that Laserian has no remains other than those scattered around the fields of Leighlin and now well mulched into the earth that he once trod and ploughed with his laser vision. Still others wonder why Laserian didn’t just use his laser vision on Saint Sillán and evaporate him instead of using his normal vision, but the rules of engagement for saints in combat against each other preclude offensive use of holy weapons. Sillán’s eyebrow constitutes a defensive weapon, and anyway Laserian started it.
Famous people from this town include Beauchamp Bagenal, famous rake, drunkard, duellist, and former MP who fought his duels leaning against a tombstone; Swami Dennis D’arcy, the guru with a whip; and Barack Obama. Although there is some dispute about this.
Lucky numbers: 23, 12, 9, 1,034
Next week: County Wexford
* The Ring o’Stars are less a tribute band than an Irish Oasis, updating and localizing the Beatles’ lyrics rather than their music. Thus, they boast in their repertoire such classics as “Let It Beef,” “Norbrinstown Wood,” and “Lucy in the Spar with Dermot.”