The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the streets of a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off, and many areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration.
Despite the poverty, there was another, more carefree side to life which respected the arts, heritage and traditions. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had.
This was the Ireland that captivated Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland. Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of the second World War. He set off from the Shannon Pot in Co Cavan in a 12-horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan hired from the Irish Caravan Company at a cost of £10.
The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. He was one of the first travellers to write about it in the 20th century. The book’s title came from a song by James Russell, sung by his brother John. It was released around the turn of the century when the Shannon was labelled “The Irish Swanee River”. The song was later recorded by John Count McCormack and by that honorary Irishman, Bing Crosby.
Time-travel, or footstepping, involves recreating an earlier journey, linking the past to the present
That summer Hayward’s book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times and was top of the paper’s non-fiction list under a section called “What Dublin is Reading”. A prolific author, Walsh was acknowledged as a brilliant storyteller. His novel The Key Above the Door (1927), set in Scotland, sold more than a quarter of a million copies.
Walsh’s books were popular not just in Ireland but in Britain and America. The Quiet Man was originally published by the Saturday Evening Post, for which Walsh received $2,000. It was later included in his story collection Green Rushes (1935) and became an enduring film in 1951.
There was a spirit of camaraderie among writers, who supported each other in difficult times. Walsh was president of Irish PEN and its authors adopted the organisation’s ideals to “maintain friendship between writers in every country in the interests of literature, freedom of artistic expression and international goodwill”.
Time-travel, or footstepping, involves recreating an earlier journey, linking the past to the present. It brings a destination, as well as another era, to life. Many writers have been inspired by shades of travellers long past and the world they experienced. Some of the most celebrated subject names that crop up in the genre include Alexander the Great, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and, more recently, those who have followed Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trail of his long walk across Europe which started in December 1933.
My time-switching involved transporting myself back to the late 1930s to try to capture Hayward’s spirit and follow in his footsteps, tyre tracks and ripples.
One of the worst roads in Ireland then was the dirt track from Rooskey to Tarmonbarry in Co Roscommon, which had seen cartwheels, hoofs and boots. Hayward recounted the misery created by the clouds of limestone dust as his party drove along it. He wrote that they aged 30 years in five minutes because of the grime that got into their hair and eyebrows. (The road has since taken on a new lease of life and been rebranded the East Roscommon Scenic Drive.)
The timing of Hayward’s book has parallels with today, since people were not travelling because of the war, which began at the start of September 1939. One reviewer, James Stephens, author of The Crock of Gold, said of it: “For some time now we must do all our travelling by book, and this one will carry you to the real Ireland.”
This summer, many aspects of travel were thrown into the spotlight because of the pandemic. But nearly 50 years ago, in the early 1960s, Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her remarkable poem Questions of Travel about why people went abroad.
“Think of the long trip home./ Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” her tourist narrator asks. “What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/ in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around? [ . . .] And have we room/ for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?”
The edgelands may be regarded as an eyesore, but frequently they are filled with nature and wonder
Few pause to explore the Shannon sunset or its in-between places, the overlooked and the marginal, known as the edgelands. At first glance there may be little aesthetic appeal in the bauxite factory at Aughinish, the cement factory in Mungret, ruined castles, derelict hotels, old quaysides, abandoned locks or corroded barges – but they all come with their own rich tapestry of history. Some of the most absorbing locations include the estuary and its unkempt mudflats, as well as the precious habitats of the callows and boglands.
The edgelands may be regarded as an eyesore, but frequently they are filled with nature and wonder, somewhere to watch birds, study wildflowers, stare into the water or perhaps just dream a little.
In his poem A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, Derek Mahon celebrates them as “places where a thought might grow – / Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned [ . . .] Indian compounds where the wind dances”, and the shed itself, “Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,/ Among the bathtubs and the washbasins/ A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.”
Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by the Lilliput Press and is out now. His biography Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964, is also published by Lilliput