William Trevor’s Skibbereen – “The Back of Beyond”

Yellow furniture vans – Nat Ross of Cork – carted your possessions off, through Cork itself, westward through the town that people call “Clonakilty God Help Us”, to Skibbereen, the back of beyond . . .

William Trevor, one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers of short stories and novels, grew up in Skibbereen. His father worked for the Bank of Ireland, and the family was frequently moved to pastures new, but Trevor’s memories of our own West Cork town are amongst his earliest, encompassing his first schooldays and all the traumas of that ‘learning experience’.

Where and when did my writing life begin? I suppose it was in a small schoolroom in Skibbereen when, as an alternative to parsing and analysis, I was occasionally required to compose six sentences on such random subjects as A Wet Afternoon or A Day in the Life of a Dog. I did my best, but even at seven I believe I probably guessed that there was more to words and what you did with them than recording rainfall or reporting that our smooth-haired fox terrier was infatuated by our cat . . .

The way to school? Bridge Street, Skibbereen today. William Trevor’s family lived a mile and a half out of town, so we are not really sure what path his daily journey took

William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, and moved to the town before he began to go to school, so he would have known what the Skibbereen of the 1930s looked like. He provides wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of his memories of the time in Excursions in the Real World, autobiographical sketches published in 1993 but now out of print. I have used some of his descriptions from this work and others from various sources – including a 2001 school exam paper – to make a narrative in his own words. I have illustrated this with some of my own present day images of the town, and some historic material. In fact I have as yet found no photographs from 1930s Skibb! But – reading between his lines (and, remember, he was renowned as a storyteller) – we can get a good feel for the place and those times.

A bit too early for William Trevor . . . This photograph of the Square with the Maid of Erin statue was taken in 1912. It has in fact changed very little even in the present day: the statue has been moved backwards but the visible buildings (that’s the Post Office in the background) are recognisable, so this is a good picture of what the writer is likely to have seen

My world at that time was not extensive. There was memory, as far back as it would go, and the modest reality of Skibbereen, which afterwards became memory also. A mile and a half it was, the journey to school, past Driscoll’s sweetshop and Murphy’s Medical Hall, and Power’s drapery, where you could buy oilcloth as well as dresses. Pots of geraniums nestled among chops and ribs in butchers’ windows. A sunburnt poster advertised the arrival of Duffy’s Circus a year ago. Horses trudged slowly, carts laden with a single churn for the creamery. On fair-days, farmers stood stoically by their animals, hoping for the best; there was a smell of whiskey and sawdust and stout . . .

This photo of Main Street was taken before the Maid of Erin statue was moved – and while Skibereen’s main streets were two-way (and also while sign-posts were still in miles)- so it must be pre-1988

In the town’s approximate centre, where four streets meet, a grey woman still stands, a statue of the Maid of Erin. E O’Donovan, undertaker, still sells ice-cream and chocolate. The brass plate of Redmond O’Regan, solicitor, once awkwardly high, is now below eye-level. In the grocers’ shops the big-jawed West Cork women buy bread and sausages and tins of plums, but no longer wear the heavy black cloaks that made them seem like figures from another century. They still speak in the same West Cork lisp, a lingering careful voice, never in a hurry. I ask one if she could tell me the way to a house I half-remember. “Ah, I could tell you grand,” she replies. “It’s dead and buried, sir.”

 

Extract from the 6″ Ordnance Survey map showing Skibbereen town centre during the first half of the twentieth century. The Station and railway to Baltimore can be seen on the left (it closed in 1961); the Bank of Ireland where Trevor’s father worked is outlined in blue, and Trevor went to a school that was ‘next to the Methodist Church’ – outlined in pink. Note the ‘Urinal’ usefully marked on the map!

You made the journey home again at three, the buying and selling over, the publican’s takings safely banked, the last of the dung sliding to the gutters. If you had money you spent it on liquorice pipes or stuff for making lemonade that was delicious if you ate it as it was. The daughters of Power’s drapery sometimes had money. But they were always far ahead, on bicycles because they were well-to-do. Or their mother drove them home in the Hillman car because of the dung.

Upper – the Maid of Erin statue and the Town Hall clock tower, both familiar elements in the Sklibbereen streetscape, both in William Trevor’s time, and today. Lower – the facade of the Methodist Church still stands, although the building was converted to a restaurant in 2005. Trevor’s school adjoined the church, although we are not sure on which side

The door beside the methodist church, once green, is purple. The church, small and red-brick, stands behind high iron railings and gates, with gravel in front of it. Beyond the door that used to be green is the dank passage that leads to Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, where first I learnt that the world is not an easy-going place. Miss Willoughby was stern and young, in love with the cashier from the Provincial Bank. Like the church beside her schoolroom, she was a Methodist and there burnt in her breast an evangelical spirit which stated that we, her pupils, except for her chosen few, must somehow be made less wicked than we were. Her chosen few were angels of a kind, their handwriting blessed, their compositions a gift from God. I was not one of them . . .

Upper – an anonymous building stands at the back of the former Methodist Church – a possible site for Miss Willoughby’s school? Lower – the impressively gaunt Bank of Ireland building in Skibbereen – unchanged externally since William’s father worked there. Although we know that his father became a Bank Manager in his career, it probably wasn’t when he was in Skibbereen, otherwise William would have lived with the family in the rooms above the bank. Instead, we know that he walked a mile and a half to school in the town

On the gravel in front of the red-brick church, I vividly recall Miss Willoughby. Terribly, she appears. Severe, and beautiful, she pedals against the wind on her huge black bicycle. ‘Someone laughed during prayers,’ her stern voice accuses, and you feel at once that it was you, although you know it wasn’t. V poor she writes in your headline book when you’ve done your best to reproduce, four times, perfectly, Pride goeth before destruction. As I stand on the gravel, her evangelical eyes seem again to dart over me without pleasure. Once I took the valves out of the tyres of her bicycle. Once I looked in her answer book. ‘Typical,’ her spectre says. ‘Typical, to come prying.’ I am late. I am stupid. I cannot write twenty sentences on A Day in the Life of an Old Shoe, I cannot do simple arithmetic or geography. I am always fighting with Jasper Swanton. I move swiftly on the gravel out on to the street and into the bar of the Eldon Hotel: in spectral form or otherwise, Miss Willoughby will not be there . . .

In Shannon’s grocery there is a man who breeds smooth-haired fox-terriers. He gave us one, a strange animal, infatuated by our cat. The man was tall and thin, and behind the counter now he’s only different because he’s old. Other faces, forgotten and now remembered, are different in that way too. But Barbara, the belle of Miss Willoughby’s schoolroom, eldest daughter of Power’s drapery, is nowhere to be found. She runs a café in the main street, I’d heard, with an exotic African name, where every morning at coffee-time she presides. Perhaps I dreamed it, for the café in the main street has no name at all, and trades mundanely in lunchtime fare of stewed meat and vegetables. I peer through the window, and through the diners seated at chromium-legged tables, but the soft-haired Barbara is not there. No figure stands there as gracious as the Lady of Shallott, no face recalls the nine-year-old beauty of Class III. Can she really be one of those hurrying women with trays? A man consuming turnips wags his head at me. A message in the window says someone has found a purse . . .

William Trevor, photographed by Jerry Bauer, Bauer (1934-2010), often called “the author’s photographer,” made portraits of an endless list of writers

Biographical note – William Trevor died on 20 November 2016, aged 88. His full name was William Trevor Cox, but he always wrote under ‘William Trevor’. Although his first career was as a sculptor he is known only for his considerable literature output: he had published fifteen novels, three novellas and twelve volumes of short stories, and he won numerous awards for his work. He described the Irish family he was born into as ‘lace curtain’ middle class Protestants. He left Ireland in 1954 and spent the rest of his life in England, settling near Crediton in Devon.

With thanks to Philip O’Regan and Skibbereen Heritage Centre for alerting me to William Trevor’s local connections

Illusions fall fast in the narrow streets of Skibbereen, as elsewhere they have fallen . . .

Hail the Mail

Rossbrin wall box

The first act of the Irish Free State after independence was to paint all the post boxes throughout the country green. It was a brilliant stroke – royal red replaced by emerald green in one of the most visible and ubiquitous symbols of national administration.

Penfold Skibb

The Penfold post box in Skibbereen, one of only a handful left in Ireland

Ironically, the post boxes themselves did not change, so the royal insignias were simply over-painted by the new colour. The result was a charming mixture of tradition and adaptation that serves as an ongoing reminder of the history of Ireland and its institutions.

A commemorative sheet of stamps which are going on sale to mark 200 years since the birth of Anthony Trollope (Royal Mail/PA)

Special stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2015 to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Anthony Trollope

The first post boxes were introduced to Ireland in the 1850s by the novelist Anthony Trollope, then a Surveyor for the Post Office. Trollope was happy in Ireland and wrote several novels and stories set here, although they are not the works for which he is most remembered.

Trollope Book Cover

We don’t usually think of Anthony Trollope as an Irish novelist but he lived here for almost 20 years, spent working for the Post Office and writing

One of the earliest models for a free-standing post box came to be known as the Penfold, after its designer, J W Penfold. They were manufactured and deployed from 1866 to 1879 and very few have survived in Ireland to this day – only six are known and of these only three are still in operation. Skibbereen has one of those, and very fine it is: one hundred and fifty years old and still in daily use!

Penfold Acanthus Leaf

The hexagonal Penfold designed was apparently inspired by the Temple of the Winds in Athens (although the Temple is octagonal), with the addition of an acanthus leaf on the cap and a smart bud-shaped finial and beading.

BenQ Digital Camera

Photograph of the Temple of the Winds from Wikipedia

Our Skibbereen Penfold is in excellent condition: note the royal insignia and the entwined VR for Victoria Regina.

Penfold Skibb closer

The Penfolds were replaced by round pillar boxes because there were too many complaints that the hexagonal design caused letters to stick. These cylindrical boxes can be seen everywhere in Ireland still, although mostly in towns and cities. The one below is on Grand Parade in Cork.

Cork Post box

Ferguson post box book

In his book The Irish Post Box, which I gratefully acknowledge as the source of much of the information in this blog post, Stephen Ferguson describes the three main types of post boxes that have been developed for use in Ireland: pillar, wall and lamp. In rural areas, such as West Cork, wall and lamp boxes are the most common forms I have encountered.

Skibb wall box

Here’s a representative wall box in Skibbereen. Interestingly, it’s part of a mini-complex of historical markers including the plaque to the Clerke sisters (see my posts From Skibbereen to the Moon Part 1 and Part 2 for more about these remarkable women and their family) and signs for the Skibbereen heritage walking trail, all mounted together on the wall of what was the main bank in Skibbereen during the Famine period.

Skibb post box

The box was manufactured by W T Allen and Co of London and bears the ornately scrolled insignia  and crown of Edward the VII, which places it between 1901 to 1910.

Bantry Wall Box

Here’s another nice one in Bantry, a Victorian one, although this time the VR lettering is simpler than on the Penfold. This one has been painted so often that the embossed POST OFFICE on the protective hood has almost disappeared under the layers.

Bantry Wall Box closer

Lamp boxes were designed for remote areas where a suitable wall might not be readily available. Ferguson explains: 

Lamp post boxes, based on a design used by the United States Postal Service, were first introduced in 1896 in London as a response to calls for more post boxes throughout the city. Affixed to a street lamp, the boxes were used at locations where the expense of a pillar or wall box could not be justified. In Ireland, however, they were often deployed in rural areas where, attached to a telegraph or specially erected pole by metal clips, they were very useful in extending postal collections to remote and sparsely populated regions. Tucked under hedges or used sometimes as a smaller version of a wall box, these post boxes were relatively cheap to make and easy to install and they symbolise…the extraordinary influence and reach of the Post Office as an institution at the height of its powers.

Post box near Barleycove

Driving or walking around rural Ireland, look out for ‘lamp’ boxes. Here’s one from the road near Barley Cove.

Pole Box near Barley Cove

Post_Box_P_T_SE_Washington_Street__Cork.A closer inspection reveals this one bears the P & T logo that was in use between 1939 and 1984, before it was replaced by the brand ‘An Post’. Sometimes the old royal initials were ground off the boxes, or sometimes the doors were replaced with new ones bearing the P&T lettering, but it seems that considerations of cost (always paramount with the careful Post Office) allowed many to simply remain in place as they were. In the early years of the new state, some were embossed with the Saorstát Éireann logo (even sharing the door with a VR insignia) but that practice was relatively short lived and I have found no examples to it yet in West Cork. The website Irish Postal History has this example from Washington Street in Cork.

Most scenic postbox

On Cape  Clear – the most scenic post box in Ireland?

If no lamp post or suitable pole existed, a simple stake was erected to which a box could be attached. Cape Clear Island didn’t get electricity until the 1970s, so this post box (above and below) must predate the advent of poles. The logo, however, is that of An Post, which was established as the new brand in 1984. Perhaps the poles were only erected island-wide after the submarine cable was laid in the 1990s.

Cape Clear post box closer

Not all mail boxes have been retained for active use – so what happens to them? Many simply remain in situ, as a picturesque reminder of times when we actually wrote to each other instead of texting or emailing. The one below at Rossbrin, near Ballydehob, was once attached to the wall outside the old schoolhouse. The first photograph at the start of today’s post shows its location.

Rossbring Wall box 3

And this one, at Ahakista, has been repurposed as a wayside shrine.

repurposed

But even if it’s still in use, sometimes a mail boxes can’t be used for its real purpose, but has more important work to do! I don’t know where this last photograph was taken or whose work this is – it was widely circulated on the internet – but I would be happy to credit the photographer if I knew who it was. Delighted to have this also as an example of a post box from the reign of George V, 1910 to 1936.

Post box birds nest

Food Glorious Food

Taste of West Cork

There’s yet another festival on at the moment, and this one is a yummy one: A Taste of West Cork Food Festival. It will culminate next Sunday in a giant market that will take over the main street of Skibbereen, but in the meantime every day brings something new – a farm tour, cooking and fish-smoking demonstrations, walking and boating tours, tasting menus, and special dinners.

Finola and Regina

Finola and Regina

Today we attended a lecture by Regina Sexton, a brilliant writer, broadcaster and food historian. Under the title “Teaching the Poor to Cook in 1847,” Regina led us through the contents of what might have been one of the earliest ever Irish recipe books. Published by a member of the Northern Irish gentry, it instructed the Irish ‘Peasantry’ on how to cook the foods available at the time as substitutes for the potato, then in catastrophic failure due to blight. Revealing as a document of the social and political philosophy of its time, it was eerily poignant given the death toll occurring all around at the height of the Great Famine. I was keenly aware of our surroundings at Liss Ard House, once a mansion where people enjoyed a fine standard of living, while the town of Skibbereen, down the road, had been an epicentre of starvation.

Everything locally grown!

Everything locally grown!

I have written before about West Cork Food (here and here): this really is Foodie Heaven, with fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, homemade preserves and relishes, breads of every description and a wide variety of seafood and organic meats all readily available not only in the weekend markets but in local shops and supermarkets. To add to this, my friend and neighbour Hildegard has been generous with her garden and we have been enjoying fresh beans, zucchini and lettuce and flavouring dishes with her wonderful basil and savoury.

Robert and I love to eat breakfast out as a treat. On one recent foray I ordered boiled eggs and it brought me back to my childhood and time-honoured rituals. Lift the top off the egg with a spoon, drop in butter and salt and put the top back on. Cut your toast into fingers to dip into the buttery yolk. When you have finished your egg, turn it upside-down in the egg cup and present it to an unsuspecting sibling.

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Relaunching

Image

Nead an Iolair

We have returned to West Cork, to the house we bought overlooking Roaringwater Bay, and this time it’s for keeps. Our first month has been a whirlwind of unpacking, sorting, making the house our own, meeting neighbours and friends from our winter stay, and taking in everything West Cork has to offer in the summer. Within a few days of arriving we had been to markets, a play, and several concerts; spent a day at an agricultural fair and another on a beach; attended gallery openings and a classic boat gathering; participated once again in the Friday night music sessions in Ballydehob; hosted dinner parties and been hosted in return; in short – settled back into the marvellous rhythm of West Cork life, but this time as permanent residents.

 Cruinniú na mBád: Ballydehob boat gathering

Cruinniú na mBád: Ballydehob boat gathering

We will be writing in Roaringwater Journal about aspects of life and why we love it here. An enormous part of it all, of course, is the people we meet – their open welcome and friendly acceptance has made us feel at home. But it’s more than that: people here are still close to the land, fiercely proud of this area, keepers of the lore and the history and uniquely expressive. Everyone loves to talk, so you’d better not be in a hurry. Today, for example…

After a late night at the session (made exceptional by the addition of a group of French musicians) we had slept in a bit and decided to head into Skibbereen to breakfast and the market. But even though it’s Saturday here comes Ger, the electrician, with the replacement bathroom fan. Abandoning the plan, we made breakfast for all of us and Ger, having installed the fan, regaled us with stories of the townland he comes from, a mile down the road. We told him we had tramped up and down the roads there, the other day, looking for a piece of rock art, a large boulder with cupmarks on the top, and couldn’t find it. He grinned, “’Tis in my yard,” he said. “The legend is that Finn McCool threw it down from Mount Gabriel.” We made a date to go next week to record it and moved on to discussing the theatre. Ger is an actor and knowledgeable dramatist and, over the eggs and toast, he gave us an insightful review of the recent “Fit Up Theatre” productions (excellent!) we had been going to.

West Cork Arts Centre

West Cork Arts Centre

Then it was off to Skibb, to see if Richard, the cable guy, could come back and finish installing the wireless network in the house. In the store, the manager, who turned out to be Richard’s father, explained to us that Richard was on a hurling team that had just won the County finals for their division and needed to celebrate. With a twinkle in his eye, he suggested that we not look out for him before Wednesday. And while we were waiting, he added, why didn’t we take in this great presentation on Tuesday night, for which he would be delighted to sell us tickets. Half an hour later, we left the store, having been brought up to date on the plans for a new Arts Centre and been told the history of his name, family and business.

First Visitors

First Visitors

And so go our days. The summer is winding down and the villages will soon lose the tourist-mecca bustle. Already many of the houses in our little cove have the blinds down as their owners return to the city. There’s a slight hint of autumn in the evenings. Our walks are slowed by the temptations offered by the blackberry brambles, our mornings enlivened by visits from Ferdia, our friendly fox.

From Canada and from England, from cities, from careers and responsibilities, from vastly different lives, we have come together to this extraordinary place.

And now here we are – at home in West Cork.

Living in Colour

Main Street, Ballydehob

Main Street, Ballydehob

I remember greyness. Grey stone, grey plaster, grey slate, grey concrete, rain-washed grey windows. In 1965 my parents painted our house navy blue, with white trim. In the middle of a terrace of grey houses it caused a minor scandal.

Kilmore Quay Thatched CottageWhile the traditional Irish cottage of the postcards was whitewashed and thatched, with perhaps a daring red half-door, there were always isolated farmhouses in lurid colours in the deep countryside. Inexplicably painted bright purple or tangerine or electric green, they hinted at the farmer wanting something he could find in the middle of the night coming home on the bicycle after a long evening in the pub. But the general change came gradually with the popularity of the Tidy Towns competition, where villagers were encouraged to spruce up their houses, trim their lawns and keep the village neat and clean. I left Ireland in 1974 and a constant delight of visits home since then has been the discovery of Ireland of the Colourful Houses.

2012-05-08 10.51.272012-12-16 12.15.29Towns and villages are a riot of multi-coloured shop fronts and dwellings. In some, the decorous and tastefully pastel abound. The streets that provide most eye candy, though, are those that have kissed goodbye to any sense of discretion in favour of in-your-face vivid and clashing shades. The rainbow streetscapes, whether quietly elegant or flamboyant, work delightfully, buoying the spirits and infusing every shopping trip or sightseeing expedition with a sense of play and exuberance.

2012-05-08 10.45.342012-05-08 11.46.20This is our last post for 2012. HAPPY NEW YEAR to all our dear family and friends, wherever you are. May 2013 bring all good things your way.

Oh, and by the way, the place names competition is still open for entries. Prizes still to be won!

The Sober Streets of Skibbereen

The Sober Streets of Skibbereen

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

2012-12-05 15.08.44

This week revolved around two trips, to Baltimore and Cork City, and observing the Irish spirit of Christmas.

Stolen VillageBaltimore – wha..? No – we didn’t take a quick trip to the States: Baltimore, the original one, is a small town in West Cork. It’s where you catch the ferries to Sherkin and Cape Clear Islands, and right now it’s hosting whale-watching tours because the humpbacks are in town. We walked out to the Beacon, an iconic landmark that in earlier times provided guidance into the harbour, hoping to catch a glimpse of the humpbacks. Although there were no whales to be seen, it was another ‘pet day’ and we were more than adequately compensated by the views over Sherkin and the Harbour, glowing in the low afternoon sun. A friend has loaned us her copy of The Stolen Village by Des Ekin – a riveting account of the Sack of Baltimore, in 1631, when Barbary Pirates laid waste to the town and bore away almost all the villagers into a life of slavery.

I lived in Cork City for seven years in the late 60’s and early 70, finishing secondary school and completing two degrees. Then, it was an undistinguished provincial town, with its own culture, sense of place and humour, and an uninspiring Victorian architecture. Nowadays it’s a lively city with a huge variety of stores and a European vibe. Many of the narrow streets have been pedestrianised, leading to a downtown core made for strolling and gawking, and on every street corner were carol singers, brass bands, or entertainers. We stayed in a wonderful place, the River Lee Hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river, great food and friendly and accommodating staff. While the main purpose of our trip was to attend a rock art meeting at UCC, we whiled away several happy hours on Christmas shopping.

2012-12-08 12.18.072012-12-08 12.15.19Back in West Cork, we took in one of the local Christmas events in Skibbereen – a Live Crib. Our entry ticket came with a carrot for the donkey. The animals were live, but Mary, Joseph and the baby were mannequins. It was explained to us that “t’would be nice, like, to have them played by real people, but sure ‘twas freezing for them, and the last girl who played Mary was most of the time on her mobile.”

We rounded off the week by erecting our Christmas tree. It’s surprising what you can do with  a tree branch, some holly and berries, and five ornaments.

2012-12-08 14.11.54