And with his hand, the young lad offered me the roadside before him.
‘But you were here first.’
‘I know, but I’m not the man with the fridge, am I? Honestly, I’m in no hurry, off you go. Best of luck to you. Where are you headed?’
‘Clifden, then Galway, I think.’
‘Ah, you’ll have no problems. Not with that thing in front of you.’
Padrig, a student at the woodwork school which was directly behind us, sat on a nearby wall and chatted to me whilst I hitched away. A number of cars came by and indicated to me that they were shortly turning off, by pointing to the left.
‘I hate it when they do that,’ said Padrig, ‘because there are no left turns on the stretch of road between here and Clifden.’
I had to admire his pedantry.
A young van driver pulled up who knew Padrig quite well, but he only had room for one person and a fridge in his van, so it was a case of ‘second come, first served’ and Padrig stayed where he was. He didn’t mind one bit, and he waved enthusiastically as Brian drove me off towards Clifden. Brian shared what was becoming a universal approval of my quest, and made a stop to show me off at the hand-weavers craft store where he worked, where I was given a cup of tea and a sandwich, and encouraged to sign the visitors book.
By one o’clock I had walked through quaint Clifden, the town which passes for the capital of Connemara, and set myself up on the solitary main road out of town. Fatigue was setting in, and I was barely able to keep my eyes open as I slumped down on my fridge and stuck my thumb out once again. A driver in a lorry from the building site opposite saw me and called out, ‘Is that a washing machine?’
How nice, a variation on a theme.
‘No, a fridge,’ I replied.
‘Oh right. I hope you do okay where you are. I’ve seen hitchers there for a very long time.’
Ah, but they probably didn’t have fridges, I thought.
Half an hour later, with my continued presence by the roadside bearing out his words, the builder returned with his load, and on seeing me, shrugged sympathetically. I shrugged back. It had been a meaningless exchange, but oddly, it had lifted my spirits ever so slightly, just at a point when they needed it. Shrugging, I decided, was good. More people should shrug. You never see a politician shrug (they see it as a sign of weakness), but surely one of the reasons the problems in Northern Ireland have been so prolonged is because the politicians on either side never shrug. There is no other physical gesture which comes as close to an embodiment of the fridge philosophy—a quiet acceptance of what has gone, and a healthy lack of concern about what is to come.
Two Spanish-looking types cycled by on bikes, catching sight of the fridge and nearly falling off. When they had gone past, one of them turned and yelled back.
‘Hey, good luck, man!’
That was nice of him. It made me feel good, a Spanish cyclist responding positively to a fridge. Perhaps I’d do this in Spain next year.
The cyclist’s wish was fulfilled and good luck arrived in the form of Matt, whose job was driving around Mayo and Galway repairing any tills, slicers and scales which went on the blink. I suppose that just as things needed delivering, they needed repairing too. Matt was getting married in three months.
‘It’s embarrassing though,’ he said, ‘because if you’re getting married in a church, you have to go on a pre-marital course.’
‘Run by who?’
‘The Catholic Church, the priests.’
‘And how long is this course?’
Terrific idea. Two days of advice on how to cope with married life, from a body of people who have never been married, and don’t indulge in any sexual activity. (Now don’t scoff, it’s true—they don’t.)
‘And what happens at the end of the course?’
‘They give you a certificate. You can’t get married in a church without it.’
‘So it’s compulsory?’
‘No, it’s not compulsory, but you have to do it.’
Matt dropped me in the car park of a big shopping centre on the outskirts of Galway, having driven about forty miles out of his way to do so, and after thanking him profusely I began pulling my belongings into the town centre. The trolley, which up to now had performed way beyond my expectations, for some reason or other insisted on shedding its load every thirty yards or so. A less tired man would have coped with it better than I did. It was a long way into the town centre, and I passed no hotels or B&Bs on the way in. Had it not been for the occasional supportive toot of a car horn, or shout of encouragement from a friendly Galway shopper, I might have lifted the fridge on to the nearest skip and called the whole thing off.
I had decided to reward myself with a nice hotel tonight, regardless of cost, but was dismayed to find them all full. Or maybe that was just what they told me. I must have looked a bedraggled figure, struggling into reception carrying a rucksack and pulling a fridge behind me on a distinctly wobbly trolley, so I probably didn’t represent the select clientele they actively sought. The last receptionist to reject me produced a list of bed and breakfast phone numbers.
From the street, I put the mobile into action. A woman answered.
‘Hello, Stella speaking.’
‘Hello Stella, my name is Tony, do you have any vacancies?’
‘I do Tony, for how many is it?’
She gave me the address and started to give directions. I stopped her, ‘No, it’s all right, I’ll get a taxi.’
‘Where are you?’
‘Oh, you don’t need to get a taxi, you’re very near.’
‘Are you sure? It’s just that I’ve walked a long way already, and I’ve got a fridge with me.’
There had been no need to mention it, but experience so far had shown me that if people had heard about my adventure, their attitude changed dramatically towards me. Stella was definitely not in the know.
‘A what? ’
‘A fridge. I’m travelling with a fridge.’
‘I see.. Well either way you’ll not want to be bothering with a taxi, it’s not far.’
It was far. It was very far, and what’s more Stella’s directions made no sense. Half an hour and three mobile phone calls later, I finally reached the guest house, in the heart of the Galway suburbs, and Stella, a smiling middle-aged woman with suspiciously black hair, answered the door.
She clocked the fridge, ‘Oh, so you weren’t joking then. You should have got a taxi with that thing.’
Over a cup of tea I learned two important pieces of information. That Pet Rescue was Stella’s favourite television programme, and that her memory for names was on a par with her ability to issue accurate directions.
‘Whereabouts in England are you from, Chris?’ she asked.
I was about to tell her that Chris wasn’t my name, but I checked myself, finding that being called Chris made a pleasant change.
‘Ooh London, that’s a coincidence, Chris, because I’ve just had another lad from London arrive, a quarter of an hour ago. He’s upstairs, you might meet him later.’
I never did, but Stella explained that when he had arrived, because of his English accent, she had assumed that he was me, and had asked him where his fridge was. She didn’t tell me what his reply was, and we can only hazard a guess, but I was impressed that he had been prepared to stay the night. It is surely a brave man who goes ahead and checks into an establishment where the first question is ‘Where’s your fridge?’ Especially if, as he had done, you had arrived by motorcycle.
Stella cooked a homely evening meal for myself and Owen, the student lodger from Kildare, to whom I had carelessly introduced myself as Tony.
‘Do you want more dessert, Chris?’ Stella asked me.
Owen looked around the room for a Chris.
‘Yes please,’ I replied, with the only sensible answer to that question.
Owen shrugged. Good lad. Correct response.
Gerry Ryan had spoken highly of Galway;
‘You’ll be much welcomed in Galway I can tell you, there are some fine hostelries, and indeed a very learned and cultured people they are too,’he had said.
But exhaustion meant that my experience of Galway was limited to an evening with Owen, in front of the TV in Stella’s living room, watching Ireland play Liechtenstein at football. And I had to call on all my reserves of energy even to manage that much. I quite enjoyed the game, but mainly because the positioning of the microphones at the ground were such that the comments of some of the crowd were clearly audible: ‘Come on Kennedy! Move your arse on you!’ offered an old man sup-portively.
It worked, Kennedy did move his arse on him, and Ireland won 5-0. Owen was happy enough, and as I said goodnight, I congratulated him on his team’s performance. It would have been churlish to have pointed out that Liechtenstein were hardly giants in the world of football.
I was woken in the morning by my mobile phone ringing. It was Galway Bay FM wanting to do an interview. My number was evidently doing the rounds. They said they would call back in twenty minutes, and as I waited, I tuned into their frequency to get a flavour of what they were all about. I heard the adverts. One stood out above all the others. An excitable voice announced with gusto: ‘Come to Ballingary, County Tipperary, this Saturday May 24 from 10 am to 6 pm, for the event of a lifetime—SHEEP’97!’
I liked it already. The overly excited man continued, ‘Events include the RDS National pedigree sheep championships, plus competitions for lambs, wool and sheep shearing. There’ll be a display by David Pagan, the current world shearing champion, and many information and trade exhibits, assessments and repair of silage pits, machinery displays, and a major high-speed wilting demonstration! So call 06721282 for further information, and remember, if you’re in the business of sheep rearing, then get along to SHEEP ‘97!!’
Never mind whether you’re in the business of sheep rearing or not, SHEEP ‘97 has got to be a must for the entire family hasn’t it? Is there a healthy ten-year-old anywhere who wouldn’t be chomping at the bit to get to an ‘assessment or repair of a silage pif? And only a fool would miss a ‘major high-speed wilting demonstration’. Most of us don’t get to see any wilting, but those of us who do, only see it taking place at a snail’s pace. At last! An opportunity to see wilting not only done well, but at high speeds. The mind boggled. If fate delivered me anywhere near Ballingary on Saturday, then SHEEP ‘97 could count on my presence. I could take Roisin. If she phoned. That was a point—why hadn’t she phoned? Ah well, patience Tony, patience. To my delight, just before Keith Finnegan began his interview, the SHEEP ‘97 ad came on again, and this time I noticed that the accent of the voiceover artist was such that the word ‘shearer’ sounded like ‘sharer’. So, for some, this advert included the sentence,’…plus competitions for lambs, wool, and sheep sharing.’
That should guarantee a few pervy-looking types turning up for entirely the wrong reasons, and with their own very personalised definitions of ‘high speed wilting’.
Keith Finnegan, understandably enough, covered much of the same ground as Gerry Ryan and Live At Three had done. ‘Why?’ being the most important and natural question to ask. Once I had explained my case, and told him I was headed south, Keith happily signed up to the merry band of those who wanted to help me, and put out an appeal for a taxi driver to take me to the main road out of town. Within seconds, a driver from Ocean Hackneys responded, and said he was on his way to pick me up. I thanked Keith, hung up, smiled, looked in the mirror, and pinched myself. No, I was awake all right, this was really happening.
I took out my map and scanned the area south of Galway for a suitable destination. I saw a place called Ennistymon and recognised it as being the town on the piece of paper handed to me in Westport by Tony, the man who had offered to take the fridge scuba diving.
Ennistymon it was then, unless fate intervened.
I asked Noel, the taxi driver, why he had responded to the radio station’s call.
‘Because you’ve got guts and a sense of humour.’
I suppose both were prerequisites for what I was doing.
Noel signed the fridge with a flourishing hand and left me standing with my thumb out just the other side of a roundabout at the edge of a busy dual carriageway. The mobile phone rang again. I heard a cockney voice, ‘Ello, is that Tony?’
‘Yes, is that Andy?’ I thought it was Andy from Bunbeg, ringing to see how I was getting on.
‘No, it’s Tony. From Swan Rescue.’
‘If you tell me whereabouts you are, I’ll come and pick you up.’
What on earth was going on? An Englishman called Tony appeared to have taken me for a swan and was on his way to rescue me.
‘I ‘card you on the radio this mornin’,’ explained Tony, ‘and I thought I’d come and give you a lift, so tell me exactly where you are.’
I did precisely that, to which he responded, ‘Stay there, and I’ll be with you in ten minutes. Look out for a small white van with Swan Rescue written on the side.’
It was difficult to imagine a more peculiar set of circumstances. I now found myself by a roadside hitching but not actually wanting a lift, and, to be sure of not getting one, I had to hide my fridge, fearing that its fame would cause someone to stop, regardless of whether I was hitching or not I propped my rucksack up against it and draped my jacket over the top. I had broken new ground in the world of hitch-hiking. I was taking bookings.
Twenty minutes later I was beginning to think I had been the victim of the world’s oddest hoax call, but sure enough the Swan Rescue van appeared, and I was rescued. It didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t a swan. The net had been thrown wide enough that day to encompass wayward hitch-hikers.
‘How far are you going?’ I asked Tony.
‘I’m not going anywhere, but I’ll take you as far as Gort.’
‘What do you mean you’re not going anywhere?’
‘I’m not going anywhere. I came out specially to give you a lift—you know—to lend an ‘elpin’
‘and. HI take you as far as Gort, that’s about an hour from here.’
The behaviour of the English people I had run into was making it very difficult to nail down a theory that the reason my trip so far had been such a bizarre success, was that Irish people were crazy. One Englishman had spent a morning on the telephone trying to organise a helicopter to take me out to an island, when a boat was leaving only a few yards away, and here was another, making a two-hour round trip for no reason other than to lend a helping hand. Two of the more eccentric pieces of behaviour hadn’t been performed by the Irish, but by my fellow countrymen. However, both Andy and Tony had embraced wholeheartedly a love of the Irish way of living life.
‘I spent most of my life in Hampton Court,’ explained Tony, ‘but I love it ‘ere. You live life ‘ere. In England you exist’
I think it was fair to say that Tony wasn’t exactly rushed off his feet over here either. The fact that he could afford to make this purely philanthropic journey suggested to me that there simply weren’t enough swans in the Galway area that needed rescuing. It seemed an odd life sitting by the phone waiting for an emergency call of a swan in distress. Would he be busier if he didn’t limit himself totally to swans? I was intrigued as to what his response would be if he received a call with reference to an injured duck, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve got the wrong number—we’re swan rescue. You want duck rescue; if you hold on I’ll get you the number’.
Tony dropped me in a driveway at the end of the dreary and sparse Gort main street. Most of the traffic passing appeared to be local, and I began to feel like a swan which hadn’t so much been rescued as picked up and moved on to another less salubrious pond. There wasn’t an awful lot to Gort, and what there was of it, didn’t exactly inspire. Gort. It looked like it sounded. I settled down to what I believed would be a long wait.
I hadn’t been there long when I was approached by a smiling drunk with no teeth.
‘Oi, you’re the man with the fridge!’ he shouted.
It was yet another English accent. He took a swig from a can of cider and pointed to another one he had in a string bag. ‘Do you wanna drink?’
‘No thanks, I’m trying to avoid drinking at lunchtime.’
‘Me too, but I’ve got a broken jaw.’
I recalled Gerry Ryan’s words: ‘I must use that as an excuse myself one day.’
‘My name’s Ian, what’s yours?’ he offered in tribute to playground talk.
‘Where are you headed?’ he slurred.
He pointed meaningfully just beyond me and pronounced, ‘Give me five minutes.’
Was this another booking? If it was, and if this man was the driver just off to pick up his car, I would have to find a polite way of turning it down. It mightn’t be easy, but it would have to be done.
Five minutes later a decrepit looking vehicle emerged from a narrow lane behind me. Inside it I could see four bodies, one of which was my toothless chum, who was beaming away in the back. He wound down the window and shouted out, ‘Jump in! We can take you as far as Ennis.’
I needed to think long and hard about this, but there wasn’t time, so I thought short and hard and decided to risk it. In the end, I was swayed by the fact that the driver had no can of drink in his hand, and considerably more teeth than Ian. I know that a glimpse of a full set of teeth isn’t necessarily a tried and tested method of verifying someone’s driving skills, but I believe it’s generally used in an emergency.
I was bundled into the back with Ian and a small child, and the fridge was unceremoniously dumped in the boot. We were in an old Toyota Carina which was the vehicular equivalent of lan’s face: gnarled, toothless, but still running. It made Antoinette’s car seem shiny and new.
I was in the company of travellers. Ian was a veteran of twenty years on the road, whilst Neil, Vicky and their small son were relative newcomers to this community existence. They liked it though, preferring a caravan to a semi-detached in Sheffield. We talked about their lifestyle, which seemed agreeable enough, although it was based on a fundamental belief that the rest of society should be prepared to subsidise it.
‘How do you manage for money?’ I asked.
I was given two simultaneous replies of ‘We get by’ from Ian and ‘Don’t ask’ from Neil. I favoured lan’s reply because it had less-sinister connotations. ‘Don’t ask’ left open the possibility that they raised funds by selling hitch-hikers into slavery. I changed the subject.
‘Where is your base at the moment?’ I asked, incompetently addressing them as if they were in the RAF.
‘Right slap in the middle of the Burren,’ replied Ian.
The Burren—that rang a bell. I’d read about that One hundred square miles of sculpted grey limestone formed by glaciation and wind and rain erosion. A surveyor for Cromwell in the 1640s had described it as ‘a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury’. A summary which rather gave away the principle objective of Cromwell’s excursions in Ireland.
‘Are we near the Burren here then?’ I enquired ignorandy.
‘It’s just east of where we are now,’ said Vicky. ‘You came from Galway and you’re headed for Ennistymon, aren’t you?’
‘Well, you would have driven right through the middle of it if you’d followed the coast instead of coming through Gort.’
Good old Swan Rescue. I had been rescued from experiencing one of the geological wonders of the world, said to remind some visitors of the surface of the moon. Instead I had seen Gort. Still, something to tell the grandchildren.
Paddy, a green keeper at the local golf course, was my final ride. When he stopped, he had thought that I had bought the fridge in town and was bringing it home. It was reassuring to get lifts from people who weren’t aware of what I was doing as a result of hearing it on the radio. It proved that the task in hand could be achieved without media assistance, though it was questionable whether it would be so much fun. From the car I called Tony and Nora’s and arranged to meet Tony at a pub called Daly’s in Ennistymon’s main street.
In Ennistymon I felt like I was in the unspoiled heart of rural Ireland. It was a pretty place with colourful shop fronts and an abundance of small bars, but there was no sense of all this being there for the benefit of tourists. I looked up and down the main street and counted more than twenty bars. Presently I learned that at one time there had been forfy-twe, all there largely to serve the customers for the cattle market which used to swell the town’s population many times over.
I located Daly’s, a tiny bar directly next to two others—Davorea’s and P. Begley’s. I noted that P. Begley’s was closed and assumed it had Men victim to the intense competition. I walked into Daly’s and was greeted by the usual turning of surprised heads. One head wasn’t so surprised. Tony’s.
‘Ah look! The eejit has landed!’ he announced.
A pint was poured and the fridge was lifted to a place of honour on a bar stool alongside us, and to any pub newcomer it would have appeared like just another regular drinker. Tony told me that he had to go and pick up his daughter from school and that when he got back he’d take me on a sightseeing tour of the area.
I noticed that a man with a healthy head of white hair and matching beard had been surveying the fridge with interest as he slowly supped on his pint After a few minutes we made eye contact, and he nodded to me, pointing at the fridge on its bar stool, ‘Ah sure, it’s nice enough to see it out of context.’
I was delighted by the measured delicacy of his remark, which was in stark contrast to the usual uproarious reaction which the fridge would elicit I went and joined him.
His name was Willy Daly, and he was the owner having a quiet drink in his own pub. A few minutes into our conversation I discovered that he had probably earned a sit down, since he ran a farm, a pony-trekking business, a pub, a restaurant and he had seven children.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep a man busy, in the month of September he was the chief matchmaker in the Usdoonvarna matchmaking festival. He told me that this festival had been going since before the turn of the century and had started when affluent farmers from neighbouring counties converged on the town to take the healing waters’ of a health spa. They would get talking about their eligible sons and daughters back on their respective farms, and soon a tradition of bringing people together developed. Years ago in rural Ireland, meeting others further than a few miles away wasn’t easy, and close inter-marrying had begun to produce offspring whose only real skill was waving at planes. So any device which would facilitate breeding with someone who didn’t have the same surname and a similar shaped nose, was more than welcome. These days the festival has an international element A lot of men and women travel from as far as America and the Philippines in the search for a suitable mate or life partner. According to Willy, many middle-aged American women who had maybe been married a few times and were financially solvent, would come looking to fall in love with an Irish character with scruffy clothes and bad teeth, who could play a few tunes on the tin whistle and drink a lot.
‘They’re not seriously looking for a man with bad teeth?’
‘They are too. The biggest attribute for an Irishman from an American point of view is if your teeth aren’t good. In America, the men get to sixty, seventy, or eighty, and their teeth are too good for the rest of their body. I once put a woman together with a man who only had one tooth, and she was delighted. ‘At least it’s his own,’ she said.’
I knew where Ian the traveller ought to spend his Septembers.
‘A lot of these women are successful,’ Willy continued. ‘They’ll maybe find a man who hasn’t had any contact with a woman for many many years. They’ll maybe have twenty or thirty years of unused love to offer.’
Should make for an interesting wedding night.
‘You couldn’t match my fridge with another one could you?’ I politely enquired.
He laughed. ‘Ah, now that is beyond my area of expertise.’
Honestly. And he called himself a matchmaker.
As Tony and I drove off on his sightseeing tour, I learned that there were two alternative spellings for Ennistymon, and that the local authorities had failed to make any decision on the matter. How you spelled it, depended on whether you were coming in or going out of town. As you arrived, you were greeted with the sign ‘ENNISTYMON’, but on your departure, it was a sign with a line through ‘ENNISTIMON’ which had the last word. A totally pointless compromise and fudge.
The tour included the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, the village of Doolin, lisdoonvarna itself, and the Burren Smoke House, where Tony’s sister-in-law worked. She was a bubbly woman who insisted on showing me a video usually shown to tourists of how a salmon is smoked. I patiently sat through it despite a spectacular lack of interest (I had never considered being au fait with the procedure involved in smoking a salmon a social advantage), and afterwards I was rewarded with a good-sized portion of the final product to take away. The irony was that I had no way of keeping it fresh even though I was touring the country with a fridge.
Apart from the woman who was serving behind the bar, the evening clientele of Cooky’s were entirely male, and I was the youngest by some margin. There was a chap playing the banjo rather well up at the far end of the bar, and a less competent guitarist attempting to accompany him. As Tony and I walked in, the resident drunk called out, ‘Hey Tony, go and get your box.’
At first I thought it was someone calling for me to go and get my fridge, but the other Tony disappeared outside and made for his car. I smiled to those present, keen to give the impression that I knew what a ‘box’ was, and why one might be needed on a social occasion like this.
The drunk, doing his utmost to focus his bloodshot eyes on me, put his hand on my shoulder in a gesture of friendship which serendipitously also prevented him from falling over. He explained needlessly, ‘He’s gone to get his box.’
Yes, I thought, and there was a good chance we would be putting this fellow in it at the end of the evening.
Tony returned with an accordion, and musicians and instruments materialised from nowhere. The resident drunk suddenly produced a pair of spoons from his pocket, and proceeded to play them with great skill and dexterity. After the ability to order a drink, this must have been the last of his faculties to go. I had always thought of the spoons as being played as a novelty purely to get laughs, but in the correct hands it made an authentic percussive instrument. The four-piece band became a five-piece when Willy Daly entered carrying a bodhran (the tambouriney thing hit with a stick) and joined the merry band of players. He must have had a device within him which could instinctively sound out a session when it was beginning.
What followed was a great treat for me. This was Irish traditional music as I had hoped to see and hear it, spontaneous and from the heart, and not produced for the sake of the tourist industry. As I sat there with my pint in my hand, enjoying the jigs and the reels, I watched the joy in the player’s faces and in those around them who tapped their feet and applauded enthusiastically. Music the joybringer. No question of being paid, or any requirement to perform for a certain amount of time. Just play for as long as it makes you feel good. This was self expression, not performance. Someone would begin playing a tune and the fellow musicians would listen to it once through, hear how it went and join in when they felt comfortable, until, on its last run through, it was being played with gusto by the entire ensemble. This process provided each piece with the dynamic of a natural crescendo which could almost have been orchestrated.
The banjo player was from out of town, but his playing assured him the hospitality that might be showered on a long-lost son. He had an extremely large belly hanging over his trousers, which were held up by a belt which looked incapable of withstanding the strain. Were it to break, then his weight would be re-distributed to such a degree that he would surely topple over forwards. It was too much responsibility for a belt which was showing signs of fraying.
He bonded with Tony, recognising him for the accomplished accordion player that he was, and they smiled at each other in mutual admiration. The less talented guitarist continued to play, providing the right and wrong chords in equal measure. Though at times he spoiled the sound that the combo were producing, he received no admonishment or looks of censure, and was made as welcome as the most able musician.