Driven between eighty and ninety kilometres an hour, the blue Morris Minor 1000 was probably near its maximum speed; its paintwork and chrome gleamed in the nigh afternoon sun. It would have been hard to imagine that it had been so immaculate even when it left a Co Westmeath garage for its first journey in 1964. Perhaps the driver could have told the entire history of the car; perhaps he had intervened in its recent history, rescuing it from rusting abandoned dereliction beside a boreen, or reclaiming it from a farmyard indignity of chicken manure and all-encompassing weeds.
Had the car travelled the same road in the year of its manufacture, it would have been heading from Limerick towards Dublin, not that such a journey would have been too often contemplated, a journey to Athlone or Mullingar would have been more likely the extent of a day’s travel.
The Ireland through which the car would have travelled when it was in its pristine condition was a place slipping backwards, its population declining. By 1964, the number of people in Co Westmeath was the lowest since records began, in common with the rest of rural Ireland, its young people were emigrating in search of work and a future. The roads along which the Morris Minor passed would have been dotted with farms where letters would have arrived from across the Irish Sea, or across the Atlantic, or from the other side of the world.
The Ireland of the Morris Minor was the Ireland described by John McGahern, a place of repression and violence and abuse. The character Sergeant Reegan in McGahern’s novel ‘The Barracks’, published in 1963, captures a sense of alienation. Reegan is disillusioned with his police life, his desire is for the rural ways, working the land, making a living from his own labours. Reegan digs his potato patch in Garda time, his only anxiety is that of being caught; he feels no enthusiasm towards the institution he serves, no sense of contentment in the idea of public service.
Ireland of the 1960s was written of in terms of a grim social realism. McGahern depicts a materially poor, culturally stifled, claustrophobic society. Brian Friel’s ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’, published the year the Morris Minor took to the road, describes a rural Ireland from which people seek to escape. McGahern had good cause to express discontent, his novel ‘The Dark’, published in 1965 was banned and its writer dismissed from his teaching post. The clerics ruled.
Admiring the car, the dedication of craftsmanship of its owner, prompts the thought that driving it in its fiftieth year is probably a good deal happier an experience than driving it when new.