The Canadian couple had been to the Cliffs of Moher; the wind had blown hard off the Atlantic and the rain had come in sideways. They had bought a postcard and declared their intention to photograph it and say this was what they thought they had seen. Clare had seemed to them the most prosaic of places. But Clare is not prosaic, Clare is the stuff of songs, the stuff of longing.
Driving through the long June evening with black clouds scudding across the midland sky, the radio programme was from Doolin. ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’ was played, it is more than thirty years since I first heard it; a sense of place, a sense of apartness, a sense of somewhere other. Dooneen becomes not a place but a state of mind, a symbol of the exile’s longing for home and family and friends.
In distant days, we would go to The Clarence pub in Manchester’s Rusholme area on a Friday night and ‘The Cliff of Dooneen’ would in the repertoire of the band. There were songs for which the place would go quiet and the opening bars of the song would bring down a hush. It was a moment in which to sip the pint of Guinness and to stare away into infinity.
Were many of those in the pub from Clare? It didn’t seem likely, it had a small enough population in times long before the advent of the new industries. Yet Clare seemed the embodiment of all that they missed, it evoked a home that may have been long past.
Should ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’ not be enough to bring down a cloak of melancholy, it might be followed by ‘From Clare to here’. It sometimes seemed odd that a song that so much expressed a sense of Irish exile was written by the English folk singer Ralph McTell, but there was a poignant reality in the lines:
The only time I feel alright is when I’m into drinking
It can sort of ease the pain of it and it levels out my thinking
A glance around the bar would have confirmed the truth of McTell’s observation. Come the morning and the pain would have returned, but for a few moments the craic would dispel the shadows.
Could one have explained to visitors that the place they had visited was at the heart of an entire way of thinking, that even when gales blew and raindrops stung the face, this was a poetic place? Standing on the cliffs, they might have felt McTell’s words,
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean.
It’s not so far from Clare to here, or to the cliffs of Dooneen, but the Ireland they expressed seems far away.