I wonder if everyone has a special place that is not exactly home, but is near home, or near where home once was. If people in Tralee, for example, dream of Dingle, or people in Nice dream of Saint-Paul de Vence, or people in Waterford dream of Tramore, or people in Genoa dream of Portofino.
Or people in Wexford dream of Rosslare. Or people – like me – brought up in Enniscorthy - dream of Wexford town.
I have never warmed to the new road from Ferrycarrig into Wexford town. It made sense on paper perhaps, but the journey loses the lovely intimacy when you used to turn just after the bridge at Ferrycarrig and then follow the narrow road along by the Slaney estuary leading into Wexford town.
Nowadays, because I live on the other side of the estuary, I cross into the town along the wide-spanned bridge which remains, in my opinion, one of the world’s glories. As you drive across, you can see the big block of White’s Hotel and the spires of the two nineteenth century churches and the rise of the new opera house – now called the National Opera House - and then myriad rooftops and views of the backs of house.
Once I park the car, I can set out to walk along the Main Street. On a good day, I can wallow in nostalgia and easy memory. On the first stretch between Dunne’s Stores and Green Acres, there used to be an old-fashioned fruit and vegetable shop, the shadowy interior smelling of ripe apples in the autumn. Or close to Hore’s drapery shop, there used to be a Woolworth’s with a Perspex box near the door that contained cold orange juice, with a plastic orange floating at the top.
Almost directly opposite, there was a sort of coffee shop with a juke-box, an early site of counter-culture in the town.
The long narrow main street snakes its way, then, from Redmond Square to the Faythe, running parallel to the quays. Most of the shops are small with large plate glass windows. Half the town manages to walk along the main street at some time of the day or other, and everyone in the shops keeps an eye out, checking on the passers-by.
In one way, this main street belongs to memory. But in a more real way it belongs to Billy Roche. His plays are mainly set in the streets around here. He has re-created Wexford in his own likeness.
Billy Roche's Wexford begins as a real place. The speech in his plays begins as a living speech. There is not a single line in his plays which could not be spoken by real people in the town.
His Wexford is fading and faded. The port has silted up and the fishing industry is a thing of memory. But the Wexford Billy Roche was brought up in had all the characteristics of a metropolis, and some of its energy.
The town has a medieval shape and its cultural make-up is unusual in Ireland, being a mixture of Norman and Gaelic, with some English and Huguenot added.
The flag which Billy Roche flies over the town is as much an act of rebellion as the flags that commemorate the rising of 1798. Roche’s flag insists that there is another story that must be told, a narrative which is not heroic, another reality which must be attended to. His urge is to represent the talk of the town, the disappointed lives, the sense of a haunting not by history, but by the doings of parents and by the parts of the self we seem powerless to control. His Wexford is a Trojan horse with no Troy in sight, no opening available. He is prepared to dramatise the business of existence as raw sadness.
Sometimes, as I walk along the Main Street in Wexford, I meet someone I was in school with, or someone I know from home. But just as often I see coming towards me someone who could easily be a character from a Billy Roche play – Tony or Jimmy from ‘A Handful of Stars’, Eagle from ‘Amphibians’, Danger Doyle from ‘Poor Beast in the Rain.’
In John Banville’s latest novel ‘The Singularities’, when Freddie Montgomery, the murderer, whom we have first met in Banville’s novel ‘The Book of Evidence’ (1989), gets out of prison, he inhabits a dream world peopled by other characters from Banville’s fiction. ‘The Singularities’ is fiction within fiction, a painting framed within another painting. It is all allusion, illusion, like a game with light and shadow.
But out of this come moments that are sharply real and exact, human dramas that are strangely moving. Relations between Banville’s puppets, his imagined creature, feel like urgent entanglements where there is much at stake. His houses, his rooms, his landscapes and vistas are dreamy, like something oddly remembered, suddenly clear, or just as suddenly covered in haze.
And then there is Rosslare. Enniscorthy people didn’t go there much except in the time before people had easy access to cars. Then, on a hot summer Sunday, families could get the train to Rosslare. But that habit had faded by the time I was growing up. You would have to have some special reason to go to Rosslare.
Rosslare Strand has one long road running parallel to the strand. A lot of old bungalows with palm trees in the gardens. Some little shops. A few guest houses. And then the Strand Hotel which looks onto the beach and another hotel – could it have been called The Cedars?
In ‘The Singularities’, we know it as Ballyless on Sea.
‘He knew the place,’ Banville writes of Freddie Montgomery, ‘he had spent summers here as a boy, and something of his childhood endures even yet, even if only in the smell of the salt air and the quaint look of everything. The village is a straggle of hotels and boarding-houses and sun-bleached villas, and little shops along one side of a straight mile or so of road, on the other side of which there is an indecisive margin of rushy dunes and beyond that the beach.’
Freddie found the village ‘all too convincingly unchanged,’ with its two hotels and ‘the tin-roofed church that inside on summer Sunday mornings gave off an unsanctified, mingled smell of distemper and warm wood and probably still does.’
I had forgotten the tin-roofed church, painted a kind of oxblood red.
I go onto the website of Pádraig Grant, the photographer who has made charting Wexford into a lifetime’s work. Under ‘Rosslare’, I find a picture of a small tin house. There used to be houses like that up and down the Wexford coast, thrown up before the planning laws tried to put order on things.
What Pádraig Grant has been doing more recently is photographing the Wexford coast, townland by townland – the first volume ‘Coastlight’ goes from Kilmichael Point to Ballyvaloo. Working in black-and-white, he manages in some of the pictures to show us what glare looks like on a good day on that coast. His camera gets that image – pure sunlight on still water – that belongs most sharply to memory.
On the days when I saw that molten light on the water, I wondered how will I ever remember this? How will this seem on the windswept days of winter or the days in spring and even summer when the sky is grey and there is always a threat of rain?
We used to sit on the strand in Ballyconnigar on days in July and August when the sky would fill up with grey cloud. And no matter what, some adult would insist that the clouds would blow over. And then you would feel the first drops of rain. And soon it would start spilling, and all the adults and all the children would have to gather everything up – rugs, toys, towels, transistor radios, carrycots – and make a run for it.
This was Ballyconnigar in the early 1960s. I suppose it is sixty years ago. Just now, I can remember it most vividly when I looked at Pádraig Grant’s photographs taken in the past few years, just as I can see Rosslare best through the eyes of Freddie Montgomery, and envisage Wexford town through the characters invented by Billy Roche. But maybe soon I will start writing another novel, and slowly work out if I can find another way of seeing the town, hearing the voices, noticing the way light slants on the sea.
Colm Tóibín (April 2023)