06 January 2008

The Quest for the Comedian's Finger

Well, I'm back, as a certain portly hobbit once said, having tramped his way across the world without losing an ounce, a metabolic feat that can only be explained if we recognise elf-toast as being the most calorific form of carbohydrate yet imagined. Not for Sam Gamgee that proto-Atkins diet so spectacularly pioneered by Gollum, forgetting the taste of bread, living on fish and flesh alone, a diet of pure protein that lost him all his cuddly Hobbit-fat and rendered him the skeletal and somewhat peculiar smelling creature we all know and love.

Er, yes, so I'm back, as I was saying, having essayed yesterday into the Irish midlands for the first time in years, spending my first ever night in Longford.

I was visiting friends who to my shame I've not seen since the morning after their wedding in September 2004, an event at which I let down the side in a rather distinctive and thoroughly embarrassing fashion. I'd been asked some months beforehand if I'd perform photographic duties on the day, and nervously did so, terrified that I'd somehow screw up. Several hours of worrying followed on from a rather long night before the wedding with the groom, and were topped off by a heavy -- albeit thoroughly splendid -- meal which involved an abundance of beef and more than a smidgeon of wine. Devoid of any energy at all, I slipped off with my then frau, thinking that I'd just lie down for half an hour or so, and then, invigorated, I'd rejoin the festivities and party till the early hours. This was at around eight in the evening.

I woke at half one.

Herself hadn't woken me, presumably thinking that I clearly needed the sleep, but thoughtful though this was it left me with a terrible dilemma: clearly everyone would have assumed that we'd been off up to no good, so should we return to face the inevitable -- and thoroughly unjustified -- slagging? In the end, I decided against it, and instead after a full night's sleep braved the ridicule at breakfast.

I've not seen my friends since the breakfast, so was all to glad to hastily fill my overnight bag and hop on the Ballina bus at the Spa Hotel, scene of far too much teenage disgrace, heading out west.

The journey was rather fun, not least because I'd hardly settled into my seat before I was glimpsing the Wonderful Barn and Connolly's Folly, two of the most striking landmarks in my neck of the woods.

The Wonderful Barn must surely be the most peculiar structure within easy cycling range of my house: it's an Eighteenth Century grain silo on the edge of the Castletown Estate, apparently built in 1743 to give idle tenant farmers something to do during a famine, and with two smaller but similarly conical dovecotes nearby.

There must have been a spate of this sort of thing at the time, as it seems that Churchtown's Bottle Tower is only a year or so older, apparently dating from 1742. Oddly, I keep reading both that the Bottle Tower is older than the Wonderful Barn and that its builder, Major Hall, built it in imitation of the bigger folly. Both barns were built as relief works on Connolly estates, so I'm inclined to suspect that the Bottle Tower was modelled on plans for the then unbuilt Wonderful Barn.

Sorry, discrepancies with dates really bother me.

Anyway, on then through Mullingar and Edgeworthstown to Longford, which seems a lot jollier than I remember it. Saint Mel's cathedral looks far less sinister than it did when I was last passing through, on the way back from Mayo, and the Temperance Hall looks remarkable cheerful. I'm told that even the old courthouse has lost its menacing air of gothic dilapidation. Apparently it's been done up.

From Longford then I was driven to Kenagh, there to admire the house and delight in how little my friends had changed in the last three years, despite their having being joined by two very tiny daughters, one of whom, despite being over a year old, is still as bald as an egg. A slightly fuzzy egg, I must concede, but an egg nonetheless.

We ended the night watching Adam and Paul, which was introduced to me as being 'like Laurel and Hardy on heroin'. Telling the story of a day in the lives of two Dublin junkies, friends since childhood, it was one of the funniest, bleakest, and at times shockingly beautiful films I've seen in a long time. It's really rather remarkable.

Mass in the morning so in the local church, where to my bemusement the priest seemed to make a point of leaving me till last at Communion. Hmmm.

And then with time's winged chariot hurrying near, it was away for me after a fill of toast and tea, with a quick and tempting drive round the neighbourhood first, the highlight surely being the house where Dave Allen lived during the Emergency, and the ruined mill across the road where he lost his finger in the summer of 1941.

My friend often wondered whether the crushed fingertip was ever retrieved, and if not whether it's still there to be found. I suspect there could be a sinister Irish reworking of Blue Velvet on the agenda...

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