A Resident Writer in every Irish Georgian B & B

On a recent visit to the city of Cork my suspicion that in Ireland each Georgian Guest house has a writer in residence, was confirmed. Several years ago I spent a few days in a Dublin guest house and not only was it the haunt of Thomas Keneally of Shindlers Ark fame but I was actually sleeping in his bed! In Cork, I didn’t have the privilege of sleeping in John Montague’s bed but I did eat a delicious breakfast in his full view. I was informed that he spent his time between the United States and Cork and that he always stayed at the same guest house even though some time ago the hired help, looking remarkably like a refugee from the excellent Father Ted TV series, sent a diary and some of his autobiographical writings to the tip. On one of his many trips to American he had left a box of, what appeared to be, rubbish and Ruby had efficiently cleaned and tidied his room consigning the contents to the bin. It underlines how much he appreciates the kindness and care he’s been shown over the years when, instead of demanding Ruby’s head on a plate, he settled for cutting his autobiography short. This time he was visiting Cork in order to open an art exhibition.

I landed in Cork on the 11 September, a now significant date. Rather like the assassination of President Kennedy each one of us will remember where we were when we first realised the enormity of the event. I was walking around a department store and happened on a bank of television screens all showing, what appeared to be, an American film. That is when I came to realise the full of horror of the day. People stood in shocked silence. An American film. Only they hadn’t written the script for this one.

The Irish, like the rest of the world, were horrified at the extent of the loss of innocent lives and the unprecedented means of perpetrating such an act. Ireland has a very special relationship with the US stretching back to the famines of the mid 1840′s when those who could afford the fare took sail for America and those who couldn’t, and who had become a drain on the landlords, were often sponsored on what became known as ‘coffin ships’. Leaky, overcrowded vessels with insufficient food and water set sail. People lived in cramped quarters and disease was rife. Only the hardy made it to their destination. The Irish have been exporting their sons and daughters ever since and it’s unusual to meet anyone in Ireland without a connection to the US.

Friday 14th was designated a national day of mourning in Ireland and shops, schools, colleges, offices and restaurants closed for the day. Even the pubs closed, surely a remarkable happening, the landlords having taken a vote on it the previous day. Only the emergency services stayed on duty. The bus and trains ran a Sunday service. Handwritten and typed notices sprang up on doors and windows throughout the city telling of their solidarity with their friends in the US and explaining that due to the tragedy they would be closing all day on Friday as a mark of respect.

Throughout the week, huge television screens in all the bars had relayed the same horrific pictures over and over again. An Irish family were interviewed about the death of their sister and young niece aboard one of the suicide planes. Their dignity was overwhelming as they pleaded for ‘no revenge’. They expressed in strong terms that they didn’t want any more innocent people killed. Newspapers were filled from beginning to end with heartbreaking tales of families split apart, of not knowing who was dead or alive, whether any further rescues were imminent. We heard of last-minute messages of love and farewell. Instead of the usual, banal mobile ‘phone messages we all overhear to our exasperation on trains and in the street, ‘I’m at so-and-so and I’ll be home in half-an-hour’, these chilling messages told loved ones that they wouldn’t ever be going home again.

Just before 11 o’ clock, I walked up to St Finbar’s Cathedral to a remembrance service and was already too late to get inside. I joined the huge crowd standing outside. During the three-minute silence I heard only two sounds from the vast crowd; one little girl near me hiccoughed and a child’s voice called, ‘Daddy’. Queues, waiting to sign books of remembrance, formed throughout the city.

I took a train out to Cobh harbour, best known for being the last port of call of the Titanic on its final, tragic sailing. There’s a beautiful bronze statue of Annie Moor and her brother Anthony pointing out to sea with the inscription, ‘First through the new immigration Centre, Ellis Ireland, 20th December 1891. Someone had placed a bouquet of flowers in Annie’s arms with a message attached, ‘For all that lost their lives in NY and Washington. Thinking of you all’. A simple gesture, moving and poignant.

The hedges were heavy with honeysuckle and fuchsia as the bus trundled out to Kinsale; a beautiful day of blue skies and sunshine. The old town with its brightly coloured houses and shops was busy, filled with people who had unexpectedly found themselves with a day’s ‘holiday’. In the market place, a priest conducted an impromptu, open-air service accompanied by a group of sweet singers and a nun, playing guitar. It seemed fitting that the priest included thoughts of Omagh in his service and prayers. Back at the harbour, a shoal of tiny fish moving like a giant curtain across the surface of the water were suddenly invaded by a shoal of mackerel flashing through the water.

Maureen Oliphant