Controversy has a way of revolving around words in Ireland in a strange way. Even when Barak Obama, President of the United States, visits we get caught up in a national debate about Enda Kenny’s welcoming speech in College Green, Dublin, and his use of Barak Obama’s very own words.
But, An Taoiseach’s gift of words to the Obamas was inspired: a copy of Padraic Colum’s Legends of Hawaii for their daughters, Malia and Sasha. In 1922, as a new independent Irish State was taking shape, the Hawaiian legislature commissioned Padraic Colum to collect myths and legends from their State and write them as children’s stories. Dr Padraic Whyte of Trinity College, remarking during the week about the appropriateness of the gift for the Obamas, said that ‘myths not only explain where we come from, but they can also guide us to where we want to go to.’
I have my own connection with words and Barak Obama and Enda Kenny’s native County Mayo. For, on the day of President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, I made a trip to the Erris Peninsula – in the footsteps of John Millington Synge – while I listened on radio to Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
It was the inauguration verse of the Harlem-born poet, Elizabeth Alexander, that caught my imagination on the car radio in Erris that day: ‘We encounter each other in words, words / spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, / words to consider, reconsider.’
Obama – and The Queen – have gone. We are left with the images, and the words, and the controversy.
Ireland is agog with her – with Molly Allgood. What would she have thought if she had even the faintest imagining that her name would be flying around the nation on the airwaves, on the web, in rooms and libraries where book club members gather in 2010? It seems that Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light has made Molly more famous than her ‘tweedy tramp’, Johnny Synge, whom she carried in her head all her days.
She did not like all the walking but she traipsed after him on the Wicklow hills while the cancer was growing within him and he told her of the strange work he was writing about a storyteller in Mayo as they tramped over the crushed butterwurt and heather. And he read her a few soliloquies from The Playboy and told her the play was driving him mad.
I went in Synge’s footsteps once to the places in North Mayo, in Mullet and Erris, where Synge travelled – briefly in 1904 – and for a month with Jack Yeats in 1905. My trip was the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration on a bleak January day in Belmullet when I listened on the car radio to Elizabeth Alexander read the inauguration verse: ‘Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.’
The drizzle was rolling in when I reached Doolough where Synge watched the girls picking cockles; a red fishing boat bobbled in the water at Doohoma where the ‘Achill boat’ once came in. This was the boat where, in Playboy, the Widow Quinn and Sara Tansey wanted to conceal Christy Mahon and whisk him away.
Though they never visited these parts together, I imagine Molly and Johnny ‘astray in Erris’ – an easier image on the imagination than the inebriated old woman meandering around the streets of London, unable to get him out of her head.