Knot tightens on dickie bow

I was as proud as punch a month ago, when the famed bard of Mologga, in Mitchelstown, asked me to be the weekend MC for the Mitchelstown Literary Festival, which opens in the town this Friday evening.

I said ‘yes’ like a shot and went into Ennis to buy the kind of maroon dickie bow that adorns the throats of MCs at literary festivals. This festival honours William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen and, to be honest, a common or garden hack like myself is out of his depth unless he has an extremely brassy neck. The pure truth, for sure.

The MC invitation resulted from an earthy talk I delivered, some years ago, celebrating the fact that, as a very young man in the north west, I did my dancing in a Leitrim ballroom believed locally to be the ‘ballroom of romance’ made famous by Trevor.

The ballroom is in lovely Glenfarne, in County Leitrim, is still thriving brightly, was known as the ‘ballroom of romance’ and was operated by a lovely entrepreneur, John McGivern. In his time, because of his romantic interludes during the night’s dancing, McGivern activated more marriages in our region than the Knock Marriage Agency.

He’d go up on the stage, as a slow set started on the maple floor, croon a honey version of ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely?’ and gently command shy boys to introduce themselves to the shy girls they were dancing with in that sharply different rural Ireland.

Romance had a strong chance of blossoming after those romantic interludes, and hundreds of happy couples confirmed, in later years, that it was because of John’s intervention that they eventually walked up the aisle together.

That was the hack’s report I delivered to the academics and writers in Mitchelstown three years ago. I might also have told them that I was a very good jiver, at the time, when jiving was all the rage, and that it was a great advantage to have the soft hands of a shorthand writer.

The Leitrim ladies of that era were not all that keen to marry farmers, you see, and if you had hands that were often as soft as theirs, then you might be an off-farm matrimonial choice.

A teacher? A bank clerk? A civil servant? The negative was you could never confess to being a reporter for a local paper, because, frankly, this confirmed you as being lower on the social scale than a snake’s belly.

It was you who published the court report that Uncle Dan assaulted a neighbour over a boggy right of way or, worse, was caught driving home drunk and was banned for a year. And that is the pure truth, too.

Anyway, when the bard, Mike Cullen Aherne, the current chairman, invited me back as weekend MC, I went out and bought my maroon dickie bow and looked forward to meeting friends down there, again.

But life is cruel always and, yesterday, when I checked the weekend programme on the school’s website, I was shocked to the core to discover the first guest I am expected to introduce is none other than the fabled historian, author and journalist, Tim Pat Coogan.

I’m quite certain, now, that the malevolent bard knows well that Tim Pat Coogan was my editor for my 20-plus years, working in Connacht for The Irish Press, and hacks like me always hold their editors in awe.

No way will I be able to look senior and learned, above a dickie bow, in the presence of Tim Pat. I will be a green young country reporter again, meeting him on my first day in the famous Burgh Quay newsroom.

I will be feeling 25 years old, the hair Brylcreemed, sports jacket and slacks and white shirt around a shell of nervous anticipation. I will be stuttering and stammering again, like at that first meeting. No dickie bow, for sure.

Maybe it won’t be like that. Tim Pat was a special editor of a special paper. When we first met, he stuck out his hand and said “Welcome, I’m glad you are joining us. I’ve heard good things about you.”

No more than that, but you remember sentences like that. Quite apart from him being the definitive historian of this Republic, with his magnificent biographies of Collins and de Valera, and many other works, he was also an editor with a great interest in, and commitment to, rural Ireland.

It was because of his decision that I was posted to the West for so many enjoyable years, and I forgive him for posting me to Belfast and Derry when the Troubles started 30 years ago. Dammit, I had a Northern accent and was a speedy runner, when that was necessary.

Anyway, I look forward to meeting him again and I will berate the bard in private, some time during what is always an enjoyable and stimulating weekend. It’s just such a pity that I wasted €10 on that bloody dickie bow, which I will be unable to wear in the presence of a legend of his craft.

And that, finally, is also the pure truth.


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