Books, music, painting are not life, can never be as full, rich, complex, surprising or beautiful, but the best of them can catch an echo of that, can turn you back to look out the window, go out the door aware that you’ve been enriched, that you have been in the company of something alive that has caused you to realise once again how astonishing life is, and you leave the book, gallery or concert hall with that illumination, which feels I’m going to say holy, by which I mean human raptness. So.
The next bit is the fairy tale. There’s a day in April when it’s raining. The river is running fast. The girl whose father had died, whose mother raised her in the crooked house by the river, who grew up with that broken part inside where your father has died and which if you’re a girl and your father was Spencer Tracy you can’t fix or unhurt, that girl who yet found in herself some kind of forbearance and strength and was not bitter, whose name was Mary MacCarroll and who was beautiful without truly knowing it and had her mother and father’s dancing and pride in her, that girl walked the riverbank in the April rain. And standing at that place in Shaughnessy’s called Fisher’s Step, where the ground sort of raises a little and sticks out over the Shannon, right there, the place which in The Salmon in Ireland Abraham Swain says salmon pass daily and though it’s treacherous he calls a blessed little spot, right there, looking like a man who had been away a long time and had come back with what in Absalom, Absalom! (Book 1,666, Penguin Classics, London) William Faulkner calls diffident and tentative amazement, as if he’d been through some solitary furnace experience, and come out the other side, standing right there, suntanned face, pale-blue eyes that look like they are peering through smoke, lips pressed together, aged twenty-nine but looking older, back in Ireland less than two weeks, the ocean-motion still in his legs but strangely the river now lending him a river repose, standing right there, was Virgil Swain.
What you had in the chronicle of the country then was a few centuries of a game of Rebellion-Betrayal, Rebellion-Betrayal, Uprising Put-Down, and Hope Dashed. The History of Ireland in two words: Ah well. The Invasion by the Vikings: Ah well. The Invasion by the Normans. The Flight of the Earls, Mr Oliver Cromwell. Daniel O’Connell, Robert Emmett, The Famine, Charles Stewart Parnell, Easter Rising, Michael Collins, Éamon De Valera, Éamon De Valera again (Dear Germany, so sorry to learn of the death of your Mr Hitler), Éamon De Valera again, the Troubles, the Tribunals, the Fianna Fáil Party, The Church, the Banks, the eight hundred years of rain: Ah well.
Now it takes a certain twist of mind to be able to write anything. And another twist to be able to write every day in a house that’s falling down around you with a mother who’s working her way through the wine cellar and a moist Bank Manager who’s expecting At the very least, Mrs Kittering-Swain, a gesture. My father had both twists. As Matty Nolan said about Father Foley, Poor Man, when he came back with the brown feet after thirty years in Africa, he was Far Gone. Virgil had that power of concentration that he passed on to me. He filled one Salmon Journal and started on the next. He went a bit Marcus Aurelius who (Book 746, Meditations, Penguin Classics, London) said men were born with various mania. Young Marcus’s was, he said, to make a plaything of imaginary events. Virgil Swain meet Marcus. Imaginary events, imaginary people, imaginary places, whatever you’re having yourself. Gold-medal Mania. I suppose it was just pole-vaulting really, only with a smaller pole. Point is, he was very Far Gone.