In all the present day talk about urban-this and rural-that, it is rarely acknowledged that these categories sidestep the experience of the virtually half of Ireland’s of Ireland’s population who were born in what are condescendingly known as “small towns’’. Perhaps the reason for this is that so few of those with such origins are willing to admit to them, or at least are unable to present this experience in a manner which is neither nostalgic nor prejudicial. In every conceivable medium, the “small town’’ has had a bad press, the very term being capable of unadapted use as a cypher for introversion, inertia and small-mindedness. In truth, the experience of those who grew up in Irish “small towns’’ in the second half of this century probably had a much richer experience than those who, on account of their alleged urbanity, regard us as products of some underdeveloped valley of twitching, squinting windows. I have often remarked that, to walk the length of a street in a west of Ireland town during the 1970’s or 1980’s was to walk through at least three centuries in a few minutes. You could stop at the fairgreen to talk to a mountainy man about the price of cattle or the Civil War, and then move on up to the café to discuss the music and thought of Brian Eno with your peers. Moreover, both encounters would be subject to a mutual respect and a sense of the everyday which was far ahead of the cultural commentaries which would later tell us how culturally deprived we had been.
I’ve often thought that the negative images attaching to small towns have less to do with the reality of such towns than with notions of them carried around in the heads of their erstwhile denizens. It is always slightly amazing to Irish people to hear outsiders praise the place of their origins, and this is especially true of the “small town’’, which has neither the elemental beauty of the countryside nor the aesthetic virtue of the city streetscape. Our invariable expectation is that the opener “I was down your part of the country the other day’’ will be followed by a terse litany of satire or complaint. Of course, this sense of inferiority is just the flipside of the equally exaggerated sense of chauvinism which attaches to one’s relationship with a home town, at least for as long as one is still living in it. The short way of putting it would be to say that, for those who live in the locus of that much maligned entity “Middle Ireland’’, objectively is impossible. While we remain fully paid-up members of that dubious alliance, we are blind to its faults, and as soon as we leave we become blind to its virtues.
It is, of course, precisely a problem with being in the middle. In a certain paradoxical sense, rural and urban are intensely similar, in that they both evoke emotions of either like or dislike in the hearts of those whom they have nurtured and released. But the relationship with a small town is utterly different to that with a rural or an urban area, being characterised by deeply ambiguous feelings, in many cases amounting to a mild neurosis. The town is both metaphor for, and repository of, the entire universe, and yet is saturated by a profound familiarity which can be deeply repugnant to the soul of a young man or woman. In many ways, it is more like the relationship between parent and child than between place and inhabitant. At a certain point, the young adult has not merely to get away, but must actively reject the town as part of the process of growing up.
Although I grew up in Castlerea, I do not believe that it was Ballaghaderreen that enabled me to see these things a little more clearly than I might otherwise have done. “Ballagh’’ was, in my teenage and adult years, a kind of surrogate hometown, which allowed me to project on to it all the positives notions of town, while reserving the negative feelings for my real hometown. In the end, it allowed me to see the extent to which my bad feelings about home were in my own head rather than in the reality of the town with which I associated such negativity. In a word, it gave me objectivity, or at least a degree of that rare commodity.
It is difficult to explain now, without appearing to be ironic or sarcastic, the degree to which it was possible , in the 1960’s and 70’s to grow up in a town like Castlerea and not be aware of a town like Ballaghaderreen as other than a far flung metropolis. But this is how it seemed to us. My father visited Ballaghaderreen twice a day for more than fifty years, and had made it the centre of his universe. Although he lived most of his life in Castlerea, he never seemed quite at home there, rarely daring to work about town except early in the morning or after dark. I have no doubt that this had to do with the extremely strict sense of hierarchy that pervades towns like Castlerea, policing their inhabitants into an identity and mode of behaviour which really bears no resemblance to either their personalities or potential. My father, although working as a mailcar driver, was, like many of his generation, a deeply erudite and politicised human being, with a sense of identity utterly unconnected to notions of background, class or education. In Castlerea, he was expected to be what others decided.
But in Ballaghaderreen, my father seemed entirely at home. Twice a day he drove the mailcar in town, full of its motley crew of characters and sages. Because he worked so long and so hard, Ballagh was his only point of rest in the day. The almost two hour break between delivering the midday mails and collecting the afternoon post from the sorting office meant that he took an extended lunch break in Ballagh every day. He did virtually all his shopping and other business in “Ballagh’’, which, incidentally, he never called “Ballagh’’, or even “Ballagh-a-dreen’’, but always by its full formal title of “Ballagh-ah-derr-reen’’.
As a result, I imagined the town long before I set foot in it. He spoke of it so often that we had a map of it in our heads- from Jimmy Mulligan’s to Monica Duffs to Paddy Lavin’s jeweller’s shop, via the back road behind the post office. We knew, too, that it had a cathedral, which confirmed it as a town of major ecclesiastical importance (Castlerea had only a church). That seemed to settle the issue of metropolitan superiority. (This was at a time when it had still not been countenanced that God could be capable of poor judgement).
I think I was about eleven or twelve at the time when I made my first trip to “Ballagh’’. It came about because of an unscheduled excursion which my father was called upon to make one winter’s night, giving a lift home to a Ballaghaderreen woman who was stranded in Castlerea after missing the bus. For the first time, I was allowed to ride shotgun on my father’s mailcar as we crawled, for the first time in my life, through the countryside beyond Loughglynn. I can still remember the excitement I felt when my father pointed out the lights of Ballaghaderreen as we came towards Crenaun Bridge. And I can even remember the sense of excitement about driving around the deserted streets of this strange, mythical place, seeing for the first time the places of which my father had spoken.
I do believe that, from that night onwards, Ballaghaderreen became my surrogate hometown in much the same way as it had been my father’s. Even though it gradually dawned on me that it was actually smaller than Castlerea, Ballaghaderreen would henceforth be the centre of my young universe. All of the important landmarks in a young man’s life – first drink, first slow dance, first date, even my first car crash – I experienced in on near Ballagh. It was possible, in Ballagh, to experience these things without the patina of inhibition which would have attached to them at home.
In truth, if human beings can dispose of their negative self-images, they need very little to be happy. Most small towns of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, if they had a few pubs, a dance hall and a chipper, were well on the way to meeting the needs of their young citizens. The problem was that the propaganda of the outside world meeting the inferiority of the indigenous mindset resulted in the disintegration of the relationship between person and place. Negativity arises to the top, and the positive qualities of living in a “small town’’ are reduced to a sediment of nostalgia, to be invoked only in drink or in dotage.
Later on, when my father became ill, I took over the mailcar run and took up where he had left off, leading to what I would say was one of the richest experiences of my life. I to was visiting Ballagh twice a day, and feeling that same sense of freedom that was not possible at home. It really comes down to people speaking to you as they find you, and finding you as your character and behaviour, rather than your seed, breed and generation, have ordained.
In time, this sense of freedom allowed me to free myself, in a manner free of accusation or recrimination, to move on without prejudice.
It was a rare and unexpected discovery that, by travelling just twelve miles away from home, I could experience home in a manner uncomplicated by the kind of prejudice, claustrophobia and inhibition that of necessity infects the relationship with one’s hometown. Of course, all of these things really are just in the head, but at the same time serve to colour the relationship in a manner as to make it seem only an encumbrance.
The answer, perhaps, is for every young small town dweller to acquire their own Ballaghaderreen, to adopt a town near their own, on to which they can project the sense of pride and affection which only comes when we have transcended other people’s notions of what or who we are supposed to be. Then we might begin to see that the small town really can be the centre of the universe.