“It’s not on any map, true places never are…”, was the claim made in Moby Dick. A historian should disagree, but even the historian knows that the history he traces is to some extent a work of the imagination. Dates and facts only provide the contours of the historical map; to evoke the past the historian generally has to trespass on the territory of fiction, so this week I’ll pay it my dues. In this Eye on the Past, historians’ stories make way for the rival images of poets and novelists (and even a stray photographer).
A diary is not quite fiction and not quite history, so it provides a convenient enough beginning. The first approach to any place is through the eye of the outsider, so we can take Chevalier de Latocnaye’s account of his visit to Athy in 1796 as a first impression of the town.
“I went to Athy, from whence every day there is a service of public boats to Dublin. At the entrance to the village I was stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity - they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger. I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns.”
Brewer, passing through Athy on his travels around Ireland in 1825 described Athy :-
“Athy, although now decayed, was formerly a place of considerable importance. Its declining state is lamentably contrasted with local circumstances peculiarly favourable to its prosperity. The surrounding country is well adapted to tillage. The Grand Canal, and great southern road to Cork, connect it with the metropolis; and the river Barrow, on which it is seated, is navigable to the opulent trading port of Waterford. These advantages, however, have proved insufficient to retard the decay of a town, unquestionably of high reputation at an early period of national history.”
These passing glances provide a unique approach to late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Ireland, one which is particularly appropriate since the travel journal was characteristic of Irish literature of this time. An unsettled partner to imperial Britain, Ireland offered a strange, and sometimes disturbing, aspect to the English traveller, who presented it in his writing (if in sympathetic mood) as an exotic, tragic country. However, the numerous London publications advertised as ‘travels in Ireland’ were only one consequence of a habit of looking at Ireland as an unfamiliar and somehow unknowable place. Even Irish novelists, largely reliant on London publishers and an English readership, presented the places and the people most familiar to them as they would to a stranger – footnotes included. The ‘true places’ they represented in their fiction were not validated as such by sparking recognition or sympathy in the reader, but because the author insisted on their basis in fact, and typically overloaded the novel of the time with footnotes and explanations of local custom. ‘True places’ they may have aspired to present, but they provided a map and a key.
And then, to skip a bit further into the future, there came this: “Why is Kildare like the leg of a man’s trousers? Because it’s got Athy in it.” Maybe not the most auspicious debut in twentieth-century fiction, but having thrown this squib into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce ensured the immortality of a Kildare town whose unpronouncability would prevent generations of American undergraduates from ever getting the joke. However, if it seems that Athy has degenerated from a place to be travelled through into a bad pun, its next most famous appearance in Irish literature should redress the balance. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Lines written on a seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin, bequeathed both a ‘canal-bank seat for the passer-by’, which sits on the bank of the Grand Canal at Baggot Street Bridge, and these lines:
A swan swims by, head low, with many apologies
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns, mythologies.
And so Athy is once more a place, and not only a place of fact, but a bringer of mythologies. It may have seemed remote to Kavanagh as he sat by the Grand Canal in Dublin, but Athy was hardly ‘far-flung’. Nevertheless, if Kavanagh could imagine such familiar country as mythological territory, then perhaps other writers could find the ‘true places’ of the imagination by turning back to the familiarity of things known at first-hand.
Having skirted around Athy with the outsider, one writer appears who knows the town and its hinterland as an insider. John MacKenna’s fiction owes some debt to Kavanagh’s fondness for the familiar - with the exception of his novel Clare, he has never stepped outside the environs of Kildare. Readers of his books encounter a litany of local place-names, and anyone who knows Castledermot, or Kilkea, or Offaly Street can find their own perceptions of these places, the histories and associations which have gathered in their own mind, displaced by his fictional reality. And yet the invasion can hardly be resented because the stories which replace them (however momentarily) do not seem out of place. Instead, they can have an uncanny resonance – centring on personal, private events rather than the clash and clamour that is more often taken as the stuff of history, these stories are documents of their own kind.
Which brings me to my final link, and the one that’s closest to factual history – the documentary photograph. On publication of John Minihan’s collection of photographs of Athy, Shadows from the Pale, many Athy people revisited old scenes and old faces in John’s photographs, and a selection of these, taken over a period of thirty years, hangs in the town library. I wonder though, how many see the Athy they know reflected in his collection, because the strangest of truisms is that the places most familiar to us can at times seem equally as foreign. The series of photographs documenting the wake of Katie Tyrell most obviously highlights an aspect of life in the town that is long gone, but in any case it is difficult to look at these photographs with an insider’s eye and not feel, if only for a moment, slightly estranged by them. Perhaps the impression is created by looking at the landscape of the town only slightly altered from its present state, so that a quick glance can trick the onlooker into taking a thirty-year old shot as a recent photograph. Or perhaps an assumed familiarity is disturbed by a view of the place that’s undeniably exact, but still almost imperceptibly (if inevitably) foreign to a personal impression.
However, the different images of a local place that a novelist, or a photographer, or a diarist produce can only take their power from the way they interact with our own imagined places. To find a place that’s not on any map is not usually within the historian’s remit, but now and again it’s these imagined places that yield the truer sense of history.