About Me

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I like to write and I like to party, but mostly just the writing. Disclaimer: A lot of these stories are true ones. The memory of growing-up in and around Killybegs. When you hold a mirror up to small communities, sometimes there are those who don't like the reflection. Capote knew this only too well. If you find the refraction just a little too much and would like the angle of incidence changed in your favor, please email me at georgevial@hotmail.com and I will be happy to make a name change here or there.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Chapter 1

21 Years in Ireland


George Vial


Where are you? Are you at the airport, waiting, waiting because there’s something wrong with the wing, they’ve overbooked a flight and there’s a storm coming in, and you’ve got to wait another four hours. Perhaps you’re on a crowded bus in the city and your late for work or leaving two hours after you should have shut down the computer and got back to your family and you’re hurt ‘cause they make such a big deal out of being ten minutes late and never give a damn about the extra hours you give at the end of the day? Then again your bus could be completely empty and you have no schedule and it’s rolling across-country and you want to be at your destination, you want to go places, but you don’t want to travel, you’ve a crick in your neck and you can’t sleep and all you have to keep you company is this stupid book that someone gave you for your birthday, Christmas or an out of the blue gift and said they thought you might like it. Maybe you’re at home and you’ve lost someone close to you, your mother died or your husband of fifteen years left you or you left him and because of that you are somewhere else. Often we find ourselves where we don’t want to be and we wish and wish we could be in that other place, the place where we were last happy and if we could go back there we’d freeze time, we’d make it stop completely and choose to live out those moments as the rest of our lives, ‘cause they’re safe, we know them and we never have to face the bad change. Then again, you could be somewhere I could never imagine and that is fine too, but no matter where you are I ask that you let me come along and I will be company. I will try to make you laugh, make you mad, confuse you, clarify you and when nobody is looking we can cry together.

I’m going to tell you my story, feel free to interrupt me, I’ve been know to talk too much and when we are all done, if you feel like, if you are in the mood, you can tell me your story or we can take another voyage together, we can go to sacred places, places where the wind is silent and natures beautiful colors roar in significance and we lay upon soft ground and feel a faint warmth of a fading sun. Come on, grab your hat, we’re already late to go nowhere.

Chapter 1

Origin of the Species

Before we get too lost in my story let me give you a few basic bites of information that are important to me, think of it as the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to My Life: but you won’t need a towel or a privet bush. It’s just a few bursts of information I feel everybody should know about the little island of Ireland. You see, that’s where I come from and too many people have tried to force this round peg into the shamrock shaped hole. It rubs me the wrong way and I always like to be rubbed the right way. So let me bore you, or thrill you, it’s up to you how you take it, and listen to my rant.

Ireland, the Island of saints and scholars, shamrocks and leprechauns, Guinness and whiskey, a country with thousands of years of history that have all been reduced to a handful of obnoxious stereotypes. When I walk into a bookstore I see shelves stuffed with books on Ireland. They have scenic pictures of green beauty, pubs to visit, songs to sing and histories to read. There are the tales about how poor the Irish are and have nothing to eat but potatoes and dirt. Books that blame the English for all her ills, even after eighty years and more of independence and not a mention of the self-serving crooked Irish politicians that have tried their hardest to choke the life out of the island. Have you ever noticed that if you take a map of England and Ireland and flip it sideways, it looks like a collie dog fucking a terrier? Geographic predestined antagonism between the two islands if you ask me.

Then there is the poetry; modern day Celtic bards, not an original thought in their own heads, but reproductions of a time that is gilded and lost. They are filling away at their own craft making it fit the shamrock shaped hole – cookie cutter literature.

A few years ago I read a book by an Irish author, it was a great book, you’d be hard pushed to find even one of my complaints between the covers. It was a story of ordinary people and the ordinary tragedies that befall us all whether we’re Irish, Norwegian, American, Russian, English or Mexican. In point, it was a universal book, like the poetry of Thomas Kinsella. You read it and realize it could have been penned by anyone from anywhere. Then after putting it down you’re proud that such universality exists and emanates from the little island that is intellectually chained by her clichés.

Rather than complain and moan and talk about it with a pint in my hand (which doesn’t sound half bad), I hope to open up that world to you, if you’ll listen. I want to take the typical Irish poor-mouth, Celtic winged, song singing, happy-beer-drinking-green-leprechaun with his crock of gold story and make it dissolve in the light of reality, but you’ll have to forgive me for putting on the Quiet Man and running around the place like a mad lunatic on March 17th 1998.

Even if some of the stereotypes appear in these pages, I want you to recognize that they do make up part of the Irish character, but there is far more to the beast. An American is not just a cheeseburger and coke, a Mexican is not just tequila and beans and a German is not just beer and sauerkraut (well, actually…just kidding)! The soul is an individual creature, more than the sum of its parts and should never be taken for granted. As the old Indian said “You cannot know a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins,” or something very close to that.

Now here’s the history lesson and there will be an open book test at the end! The Irish are an amalgamated people, mongrels of the best sort (a cross between a collie and a terrier you might say). A pure Irish person is a myth, a figment of the imagination. The history books tell us since we are an island out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, we’ve been subjected to many invasions. The Celts, contrary to popular thought, were one of the late invaders, we’d already been quite shaken up by the time they came along, all manner of Cro-Magnon man and all that. We’ve got monuments older than the Great Pyramids, but it’s hard to get the tourists without the sun and sand – Board Failte (our tourism board) need to get on that a little more – imagine ‘Newgrange: The Egypt of Ireland!’

The Romans touched the island for a brief moment, but decided not to stay. I imagine the day their tour bus came it was a wet and windy, wintry Tuesday afternoon, they took one look around the place: a piss-poor climate with primal men running around in loincloths and decided to leave it alone. If only they’d taken their raincoats with them, the Vatican City might be in Ireland today! At least we’d have given Avignon a run for its money – come on Board Failte get on it – ‘Athlone: The Rome of Ireland!’ Chateauneuf de Pape would have a whole new meaning.

The Vikings planted their seed among the soils of Ireland when they gave us our capital city in 988 AD, adding a little Norse aggression to the blood of the Celtic warrior and setting Dublin up for a great Gaelige Football team; Jason Sherlock pure fucking Viking. However, the mix was not thick enough because around 1171 AD the Normans (soon to be known as the English) arrived by invitation and never left. They turned a little sour under King Henry VIII and his split with Rome (told you we should have had the Vatican). Then we became the famous persecuted Irish. Gaining control again of the island was going to take a very long time.

The Spanish, the good Catholics they are, helped us out with little effect, but added a nice little bit of Mediterranean blood to the race, giving us the Black Irish. Then we went through all the tough years of Penal Law, Emigration and Famine. In the early part of the 19th Century the population of Ireland sat around 8 million smiling Paddies; then came Pytotopthora the bastard, the catalyst for the potato famine. Bad years such as Black ’47 drove the number down to around two million depressed and bitter souls, fueling generations of poets, novelists and musicians with-hard-done-by inspiration, the kind of inspiration you just can’t receive from magnetic poetry. Finally in the 1920’s we gained something that looked like independence. The Irish Free State was created, minus six counties in the North of the island up in Ulster. Counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan escaped the annexation, retaining a little of Ulster for the Irish and that was the beginning of a whole bunch of new troubles.

In 1959 a New Zealander by the name of Dr. Vivian Vial came to rest on the shores of Ireland. His invasion went pretty much unnoticed by the general population. Only the few folks in the Department of Agriculture who hired him to teach genetics to the church-made-stupid scientists of Ireland noticed him come quietly in.

His expedition to Ireland came via British Honduras in Central America, where his first son Bill was born and Northumberland in England, where my Dad, Charlie was born in 1956. Along with his wife Nessie, they settled in Blackrock, an emerging suburb on the South Side of Dublin. Then a daughter, Jane, was born completing one of Ireland’s newest families.

All seemed to be going well, until Vivian remembered he didn’t come alone to Ireland and he actually had a family. Ten years or so had passed by this time and a divorce through the bottom of a beer glass made my Grandparents very bitter towards each other. Charlie, after a very rebellious teenage life went north to Greencastle in County Donegal to become a fisherman, when he was only sixteen. Bill followed him soon and Nessie and Jane went back to New Zealand. Granda stayed on in Dublin and began his new career drinking for Ireland.

In Greencastle there’s a fisheries school where Charlie learned his trade and earned his Skipper’s Ticket. The course involved spending a lot of time in Killybegs in the south of Donegal. Killybegs at the time was emerging as Ireland’s premier fishing port, but it was here Dad learned to drink like a man and met my mother Noelle Sharkey.

She was the daughter of Peggy and Paddy Sharkey, relative new comers to Donegal, having grown up in Cavan and Louth respectively. There were seven children in the Sharkey clan and Noelle was the third youngest and a dreamer like her father.

The Sharkeys stood out from the rest of the Killybegs locals for a few reasons. Paddy was a self employed inventor with the look of a mad scientist, a shock of white hair, stained yellow from cigarette smoke sweeping across his face as he worked on electric-fish-catchers in his work shop out the back of the house. Peggy, Mrs. Sharkey or Granny Sharkey as most people knew her, was the matriarch of the family and a noted figure in the community of Killybegs. Her garden was the envy of the town, a place filled with fruit trees and flowers, natural rock birdbaths and nests. It was a little paradise and people complained when she wouldn’t give up ten feet at the end of it to make way for a wider road. She loved her garden and many of my memories of her are of her sitting out there feeding the birds and pulling weeds, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth.

They also had a black child, Kevin, adopted as a baby and reared as one of the family. Due to the cool climate in Donegal, Ireland’s not that far from the Iceland on the scale of things, it is racially one of the whitest places on earth and their adopted son really set the Sharkeys apart from the crowd of sallow skinned red and brown headed families, Kevin would be of the later type of Black Irish. They were the kind of family that when dinner conversation ran out in other homes, they could always turn to the Sharkeys for good gossip and pass their mealtime without having to look at themselves.

It was Paddy who met Dad first. He literally found Charlie down the town in a pub and brought him home to get something to eat. My mother instantly fell in love with him, even though she was only thirteen and he three years her senior. At first he didn’t notice her, because she had many older and just as beautiful sisters, but by 1976 there had been courtship and a pregnancy and in June of that year they were married in St. Mary’s church, The Chapel.

There had been some argument about the wedding between Granny and the Church. The two of them being so young, the state of the bride and the fact that Charlie was a Protestant and Noelle and the rest of Killybegs were Catholic. Peggy would have none of it and caused such a ruckus that the Parish Priest could do nothing for fear of her and they were married in the main church and not in the vestry. However the bride wasn’t allowed to wear white and my mother was married in a primrose colored dress.

My brother Derek was born on the 20th of October 1976, the first of a new generation on the island: half-New Zealander and half-Irish. He had dark hair like both the parents but like Dad he had the dark Spanish skin of his Vial heritage. The Vials were from the Basque region in Spain. Miners by trade that went to Cornwall to take part in the tin mining and when Her Majesty’s Empire ear marked New Zealand for colonization and found Gold, they went there to try their luck at a potentially prosperous style of mining. The gold was scarce and they became sheep farmers. My Great Grandfather became the head of the largest meat factory in New Zealand turning over $35 million a year, that’s a lot of lambs to the slaughter.

A year later I was born on the 29th of December 1977, four days after my Mother’s eighteenth birthday. I was a small baby, not a full six pounds, if I had been a salmon I’d have been thrown back. My uncle bill remembers driving over to Letterkenny in the snow to pick me up in an old Volkswagen Beatle, I however have no recollection of the event. I was Christened Charles George Vial after my Dad, but very soon Charlie George was dropped down to just George to avoid confusion.

It’s bad enough growing up in a small Irish catholic town with a Spanish surname, but a first name like George, takes the biscuit. It’s not very Irish, in fact it’s totally English and I had the piss taken out of me all the time when I was in school… “Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie…” You would think I’d have been given a name like Patrick, Michael, Seamus, Mathew, Mark, Luke or John, at least a name that sounded like an apostle or saint, anything but Charles George. The namesake of an English King, actually two lines of Kings! It must have been a subconscious compromise between my parents, since I was raised Catholic and only had to bear the burden of a Protestant name.

When I was five or six I was so upset about my name, the older boys kept making fun of me, that I ran into the kitchen crying and asked Mam why couldn’t she have called me Peter or Patrick. So she picked me up, leaned me over the sink, splashed some water on my head and re-christened me Patrick Vial. It didn’t stick though, and an hour later I was still Charles George Vial as it said on my silver christening mug.

Off all the counties in Ireland, Donegal is the most remote. Not just because it’s geographically the most northern part of the island and almost as close to Iceland as it is to Cork. But because it’s bordered by Northern Ireland for the most part and only connected to the rest of Ireland by the few miles of Leitrim it touches. A local band, The Goats Don’t Shave, once sang a song saying that they “Should build a wall around Donegal and legalize ‘em all, Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal.” The wall is already there psychologically and that is what makes Donegal such a great place. We talk like Northerners, but we’re Southern Irish: We live in the North of Ireland, but we’re not Northern Irish. We’re fecked up that’s what we are.

Well anyway, Killybegs is in Donegal and that is where I grew up. As I said Killybegs is Ireland’s biggest fishing port and is of great importance to the rest of Ireland and Europe for that fact alone. Killybegs is a very deep harbor and many foreign freighters land in there because there is nowhere else in Ireland fit enough to birth them. All this coming and going of foreigners gives a very international air to life in Killybegs. A young Irish lad growing up in the midlands might meet a few tourists here and there and maybe even go on a foreign holiday themselves, but besides that they live in a very Irish world. In Killybegs the young folks get used to sharing their space with Spaniards, Frenchmen, Nigerians, and many, many other nationalities. A Nigerian boat broke down in the harbor in the late eighties and a couple of hundred men from that country had to near enough seek political asylum in Killybegs for over a year and a half. They added a great bit of color to the life around the town in more ways than one and even helped the local soccer team get a bit of skill.

Besides all that, Killybegs is a beautiful place. It sits under the Caledonian fold mountain of Conerad and from the water it appears as if the mountain itself rises almost vertically up out of the sea like a Norwegian Fjord. The bay itself is well sheltered with St. John’s Point on one side, stretching six brave miles out into the Atlantic Ocean and the Donegal coastline on the other side offering a little protection from natures worst advances.

The area is littered with beaches and coves for many miles, but none surpasses the beauty of Fintra beach. Of all the golden stretches of sand I’ve seen in the world, there has never come one to equal her. Perhaps I am biased, but if you are ever there on a warm day in July or any other day of the year, go and visit it and make your own decision. The hinterland of Killybegs is rough and rugged, but an abundance of rivers, lakes and forestry make up in beauty what it looses in practical matters as far as land is concerned. If you want a flat piece of ground, you have to make it yourself. John B. Kean could have written many sequels using Donegal if he was so inclined.

Killybegs is a four-hour drive from Dublin (depending how fast you drive), but only a thirty-minute drive from Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe. They drop 1972 feet straight down into the Atlantic and every year some brave German or Australian tries to scale it without a rope or harness and a few hours later the cliff and rescue service is scooping their remains out of the water with a bucket. They are one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. Everyone goes on and on about the Cliff’s of Moher down in County Clare, but they’ve got nothing on Slieve League.

Killybegs, Na Cealla Beaga the Irish name for the town means “The Little Cells,” a name earned from the beehive cells used by the monks who were the first to settle there, the monks knew what they were doing when they chose the well sheltered bay. Killybegs is a little bit of paradise, as long as you’re not passing the fishmeal plant at low tide. Killybegs has a smell all to itself and the locals learn to live with it, ‘cause they tell themselves “It’s the smell of money.” That may be true for a few in the town, but not for the majority who toil all year round in the factories and boats, loosing limbs and lives for a dream that often never comes. I heard a statistic once that Killybegs had more millionaires per head of population than anywhere else in the country and the town was nicknamed the home of the “Mackerel Millionaires,” in the 80’s. You’re as likely to see a brand new BMW parked beside a 1983 Ford Escort with a bail of hay in the back seat and a collie dog in the front seat, eyeing up a terrier tied up outside a local pub.

If you are up on a hill, looking down over the town at night, it appears small and insignificant to the expanse of the ocean around it. Then you look further across the bay and you can see the town of Bundoran, twinkling like fairy lights and you are reminded that the whole of mankind is insignificant to the awesome size and power of nature and we are all merely here at her discretion. For this you must offer her respect and even though the people of Killybegs make their livelihood from her sea – they do not own it – they are merely tenant farmers on the oceans of the world.

1 comment:

eat1more said...

Thats a brillaint read!!!! Great writing. You capture the place beautifully!