Extract from Catching the Light: Views & Interviews
When I visited Galway the second time I stayed. In those days of the early 1970s, no one quaffed water from designer bottles but the bus driver used to stop, along with his passengers, at a pub in Roscommon for a couple of pints (and a whisky) before resuming the cross-border journey from Belfast to Galway. There was a border then too. Gardai, Irish defence forces, U.D.R., British soldiers, R.U.C., Customs and Excise men, and various others, whom we probably didn't see, peered out of makeshift roadside bunkers. It was a furtive time, five years of killing, bombings, reprisals, and assassinations, the razing of streets, riots, and looting, political crisis. Madness was in the air. No one really thought it would all become a way of life but in the café in Cavan (passengers changed bus services there, from Ulsterbus to C.I.E.) it felt as if life had not altered terribly much over the generations of tea and sandwiches, knowing nods and silent recognitions. But buses were now being hijacked, set on fire, stopped and searched, re-routed and bus stations had taken on a haunted, frightened aspect, surreptitiously at first and then, after the appalling destruction of Oxford Street Station in Belfast by Provo bombers, it was more than fear caught hold of glances. That bag? That box? That bicycle? That car?
When the bus pulled in alongside the steps to Eamon Ceainnt Station that mid-October I felt a dizzy sense of freedom. Freedom from the dark streets of home, freedom from the ceaseless rant and rancour; freedom from the closing down of the city in which I had grown up; freedom from the thugs and bullies. There was also a feeling of having escaped, just in the nick of time. The Belfast I had left behind was of a very confused summer that included doing final university exams during the Ulster Workers' Council strike, juking through UDA barricades; several months working in the Central Library and moving across the deserted city at night to the small flat I shared with an American pal in an east Belfast estate.
Eyre Square had an autumnal glow and a fresh breeze in the air. Back then the shape of the square had a very real sense of welcome to it. The houses, offices, hotels and shops seemed to set the tone for the rest of the townscape. I can't recall one tacky shop or hoarding. Many canals and bridges with high stone houses and warehouses, which, in those pre-tax incentive development days of the early 1970s, were roofless and windowless, made the city seem small and compact. I dumped my bag in the American Hotel and punctually headed to University College Galway, my first port of call, to introduce myself to my professor, Lorna Reynolds, and to the Dean, the classics scholar, 'Ma' Heavey.
The walk by Moon's Corner, the post office, down to the Law Court and Library and over the Salmon Weir Bridge, stays in my mind in slow motion. Everything was starkly etched in the late afternoon, livid with light. So when I turned into the Archway of U.C.G., Padraic O Flahertaigh, the Porter's answer to my query about directions to Aras de Brun, sounded equally bewitching.
I couldn't really believe my luck. Only a precarious few weeks prior, I had been stared at and finger-pointed and had taken foolish risks in the increasingly manic belief that Belfast was still an open city. My pal and I had been followed to our little flat in east Belfast. Loyalist paramilitaries had called to the door, "They're only collecting money, right?" I had worked my notice as a library assistant in the Fine Arts department of the Central Library in Belfast's Royal Avenue -- bombs to the left of us, bombs to the right, scotch-taped windows left open wide, evacuation procedures, the bomb-disposal officer's hectoring voice on the megaphone, the resigned faces of we poor joe soaps standing waiting before we could resume our lives, "after the bomb goes off". Now I was walking towards the Arts Block, with the heavenly Corrib flowing by, my feet barely touching the ground.
As for Professor Reynolds, she was sitting in behind her desk, a tall spindly woman, wearing a Virginia Woolf-like hat, with an accent I couldn't quite locate. Cool but kind, formal yet interested, she asked how my journey had gone, had I found myself suitable accommodation, recommended I check out the Hardiman Library for its holdings in 19th century journals, newspapers, historical and literary texts, and that I should 'proceed to Kenny's' and see what I might find there.
A brief courtesy call with Prof. Heavey, a smiling adorable woman tending to plants in her office, and I was off again, skirting the canal, the Cathedral and into Nun's Island, passed the imagined home of Joyce's Gretta in 'The Dead', passed Dominick Street, over O Brien's Bridge, and into High Street, where on a corner, stood Tom Kenny's map shop, next door to Sonny Molloy's, which faced the double doors of Kenny's Bookshop, the front shop of which I entered with the jangle of a bell. From then on, for the next twenty years that is, Kenny's became home from home, with all its transformations and expansions -- upstairs, downstairs, next door, towards Middle Street, the recall of the Abbeygate Street premises, the gallery in Salthill, -- all these developments were logged alongside my own vague journey, from hotel to rented room in Spiddal to half a house in Knocknacarra to a flat in Abbeygate Street to a bungalow in Ballindooley on the Headford Road and finally to our home in Glenrevagh in Corrandula.
Kenny's was the backdrop; the fulcrum. My books were launched there, numbers of magazines edited were sent on their way; the walls of our different homes had paintings bought from Kenny's. Older artists were rediscovered, new friends made and met, strangers introduced, interviews conducted, photographs taken, luggage and messages left, drink consumed, rumours heard, first editions bought, borrowed, lost and found; afternoons spent 'perusing', evenings begun, weekends brokered, highlights installed in the memory, guests entertained, lives lived. 'Would you like some tea?' I turned from the bookshelves, William Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (two volumes, illustrations by Phiz) in my hand. 'Tea?' 'Yes' 'always have a cup of tea around this time. Lemon tea. And you can borrow that if you like'. A rare edition. It was Mrs Kenny, a conductor, behind her bureau. A rare moment. A total stranger. Hooked for life 'Yes, thanks' I said. 'Thanks' and told her briefly my story.