The fuschia and honeysuckle sparkle in the rainy hedges of West Cork and South Kerry, as I continue to make my way around the coast of Ireland. Valentia Island, from where the first coaxial cable linked the Old World with the New in the 19th century, and communication between the two continents became instant, and eager stockbrokers in Britain and Europe got the news of the latest from the New York Exchange in minutes, rather than days. Which is where, you could say, our current financial problems began.
Across the little bridge that separates the island from the mainland is Portmagee, a village with a name which sounds like it has emigrated from Northern Ireland, where the seafood leaps from the shore on to your plate, and the “craic” in the bar is mighty. Song and dance, fiddle and bodhran, you’d never know there was a Depression. Except for the faces of the instrumentalists. It’s always been a source of wonder to me, that with Irish music, while everybody else is having a whale of a time, the musicians look as if they’re playing at a funeral.
Tralee is Kerry’s capital, home to the Festival of Kerry. The jewel in the diadem of the Festival is “The Rose of Tralee” contest, thought up by some shrewd Kerrymen and women as a last-gasp effort to bring some life into the old town, and remind the rest of Ireland, not to mind the world, that Kerry was still there, somewhere in the Southwest.
The big idea was to exploit the popularity of the old come-all-ye made famous by the great Irish tenor, Count John McCormick. Mindful of the immortal lyric, “But t’was not her beauty alone that won me”, this was never to be classed as a mere, reviled “beauty” contest, so feminist boxes were ticked from the beginning. Intelligence was expected, too. Irish roses arrived from all over the world.
I came over myself, in the early days, to compere the contest. I brought my wife along to enjoy the festivities, and her enduring memory is of an evening at the Festival Club. As she sipped delicately at the regulation pint of stout, a local lad approached: “Excuse me miss, would you like to dance?”
Now, in those days,and perhaps even today, in Ireland, if a fellow asked a girl to dance, she was expected to comply, notwithstanding the unattractive aspect of the proposer, and the usual smell of drink. It was just not done to refuse, reflecting badly as it did on the chap, with loss of face among his peers.
However, the present Lady Wogan, obviously tainted by exposure to sinful British culture, replied, “Sorry, not at the moment, thank you”. The young man was thunderstruck. Refused a dance. The shame of it! But he was equal to the situation, all his training in early Irish manhood coming to the fore: “Ah!” said he, “sure you’re too ould for me anyway.”.