FERGUS FINLAY: I’m still learning about myself and about this beautiful country

The beautiful Castlefreke Castle, near Rosscarbery, in West Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

I’ve just finished reading a book that has made me realise there’s still a pile of stuff I don’t know about, writes Fergus Finlay

WHEN you’re young, one of the things you don’t know is how little you know.

That remark isn’t aimed at Leo Varadker, the new Fine Gael leader (although it mightn’t do him any harm to remember it). When I look back on some of the things I did badly in my own life, and in my career, it often astonishes me that I survived to tell the tale. And here’s the thing. You never stop discovering the things you didn’t know.

My very first job, when I was a lad, was making and selling candy floss on the promenade in Bray. Apart from the fact that I ate so much of what I was supposed to be selling that I’ve never been able to bear the taste of it since, what I remember was how thoughtless I was.

The woman who owned the stall was Mrs Kane. She was in constant pain from the brain tumour that killed her not long afterwards — such pain that she would sometimes bang her head off the concrete wall behind us. Such pain that she had no interest in her little business, and trusted me, a stupid teenager, to run it for her. I just thought she was eccentric, and laughed at her curses when the pain got too much for her.

When she had to give up the business, I moved on without a backward glance, and got a job, in the summer of ’64, taking the money at the entrance to the Bray Baths — derelict now, but then a hive of daily fun and games, at the bottom of Bray Head.

My memory of that summer is the music on the little transistor radio I bought with my first week’s wages: ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’, by a then unknown band called the Rolling Stones, and ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, by The Animals. That music was a revelation. There’s never been music like it since — indeed, I’ve never fully understood why people bothered listening to pop music after the middle to late ’60s.

I wasn’t much less callow when I got my first “real” job. I started at the top and went down. I really thought I had arrived, when I was made general secretary of a trade union, albeit a very small and unrecognised trade union. It was my job to represent white-collar workers in the post offices around the country.

There’s a longer story to tell about that, but the bottom line is I did a couple of things right, and an awful lot wrong. We parted company after a year, with rancour on both sides, and I was lucky to work again, after that.

But there’s one thing I’ll always be grateful to that job for. In that year, I drove to every town in Ireland that had a GPO, and if I was half well-received, I went back several times. By the time I was unemployed again, I knew my country better than the vast majority of 22-year-olds did.

I was lucky to get other jobs — as I learned and grew up and realised that I didn’t know everything — that kept me on the road.

I spent a number of happy years, for instance, working for the union now known as Impact, and covering a huge region encompassed by a line from Wicklow town through Carlow to Limerick — three health board areas and eleven local authorities.

The job of representation meant that I didn’t just get to know geography, but people. The stubbornness of Clare people, the opaqueness of Kerry people, the complex and quite remarkable characteristics of Cork people.

Can I tell you what I learned from those years, and have been learning ever since? That this is a country of unique character and beauty. I’ve been working in Ireland, full-time, for a little over 45 years. I’ve driven 20,000 miles a year, and many years a lot more than that, around the country.

That’s a million miles or more, with lots of stops, lots of conversations, getting to know lots of people. There are parts of the country where I think I know every blade of grass.

At least I thought I did. But I’ve just finished reading a book that has taught me all sorts of stuff I didn’t know at all, and which has made me realise that there’s still a pile of stuff I don’t know enough about. In fact, it’s made me want to retrace my steps, to start the million-mile journey all over again, and to undertake some new journeys, as well.

The book is Europe’s Atlantic Fringe, by a former architect named Michael Fewer. Written in a breezy, conversational style, it’s ostensibly an account of a journey he and his wife took, from the southern-most tip of Portugal — a headland called Cape St Vincent — right up the west coast into Spain, around the western tip of that country to Cabo Prior.

And then, the last 100 pages or so have them travelling due north, landing (figuratively, at least) at Roberts Cove, in Cork, and travelling right through the bits of Ireland that stick out into the Atlantic — which is to say, the entire west coast, until they end their journey at Horn Head, up beyond the Blood Foreland, in Donegal.

But Mr and Mrs Fewer are no ordinary travellers. I don’t know whether they did their research as they travelled, or before or after the journey, but they have stories to tell about every single place in which they stopped.

I could give you dozens of examples, if I had the space. For instance, I know Castlefreke, which overlooks Rosscarbery Bay, intimately, and I’ve known it all my adult life.

But I’d never heard of the Frekes, or, to call them by their more elevated title, the Lords Carbery, who built the ruined castle that overlooks the bay. The last lord who lived there, the 10th Lord Carbery, was one of the earliest aviators in Ireland, and earned a Military Cross in the First World War.

There’s an air of mystery about how he left Castlefreke, and how it was allowed to fall into rack and ruin. What is known, and faithfully recounted in the book, was that his last act as lord was to take a shotgun and blast each and every portrait of his ancestors which adorned the great staircase of the house.

You’d love to know more, wouldn’t you? That’s part of the intrigue of the book, packed as it is with fresh and different stories, about places that have made an impact on all of us.

Here’s the thing I learned as I turned the pages. We’re fringe people, and that’s what makes us just a bit different. Our relationship with each other, and, our relationship with the Atlantic, separate us from the rest of Europe in tangible ways. We belong, and yet we cling to something a bit lonelier and a bit wilder.

And long may that last!

Footnote: The book is called Europe’s Atlantic Fringe – Exploring the West Coasts of Portugal, Spain and Ireland. Published by Ashfield Press.


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