It was the summer of 1988 that we first visited San Sebastian. It appeared a once beautiful city down at heel through economic decline and scarred by the graffiti of extremism. It was a delight to return in 2009 and find it transformed, restored to the elegance of its past. Walking the streets of the city yesterday, it was hard to imagine that it had possessed anything other than its present beauty. Has the passage of twenty-five years brought similar changes elsewhere?
That the summer of 1988, I was driving on a road out of Galway city heading westwards. Having been an impoverished student not so long before, I was in the habit of feeling sorry for hitch hikers and picked one up on the outskirts of the city. It turned out that he was an artist, making a few pounds by selling pictures of Galway scenery. He lived in a cottage halfway up a mountain.
We talked about this and that and, given the fact I was wearing a clerical collar, we talked about religion. He said it was something he couldn’t accept. When we reached the turning off the main road for his cottage. I said I would drive him up. I had a little Austin Metro and I had to coax it up the winding mountain road.
When we reached the cottage, he offered me coffee and because I was curious about him, I accepted. The cottage was as I expected. There was a stone floor; embers still glowed in the open fireplace; it was not very clean; the dishes were dirty and a woman’s clothes, including underwear, were strewn around the place; I didn’t ask.
Apart from a fridge, a kettle and a cassette player, the house could have been something out of a museum. We drank black coffee from china teacups that had no saucers and talked about what had brought him to a cottage on a mountainside in Galway.
He had grown up in Co Tyrone. His father had gone to jail for membership of an illegal organisation. From an early age, he had been under pressure to support the cause. He couldn’t agree with the rest of his family, so he left home and school and drifted.
I asked him if he went home at all.
Every couple of years, he said, but it was painful. Going home meant threats, because of the people he mixed with and because he refused to support his family’s beliefs. Two of his brothers were in prison, serving long sentences for terrorist offences. ‘I can’t understand it’, he said, one of them came to visit me when I was down in Cork. He was just an ordinary fella. Two days later he was caught planting a bomb’.
He had no time for religion, or the church, or anything that went with it; he saw them as destroying the life he felt was important. His life was lived outside of the law and outside of society. He spoke warmly of the kindness and care he had received from people he had never met before. He talked about how he was trying to help a friend with drink problems.
As I rose to go, he cuddled a puppy and thanked me for the lift. He walked to the car with me and said he hoped I would call again. I never did call.
Twenty-five years on and it is to be hoped that he also enjoyed found a bright, transformed future.