I gave up smoking once for twelve years. Then I had to make a film in Dublin. Within a week I was heavily back onto the Hamlets and the local equivalents (Presidents, ‘Taoiseachs’?). The Irish, they drive you mad. They tickle your yarballs and stroke your derriere and you fall in love with them. Then, when you need a shoulder to rest on, you end up like Del Boy in ‘Only Fools and Horses’ trying to lean on a bar that isn’t there anymore. My GP, a delightful young Dubliner, swears that the only reliable Irishman is one who has quit the emerald isle (well he would, he did) like Sam Beckett and James Joyce, in both cases never to return. The painful Dublin experience denied me a hop over the Irish Sea for nigh on two decades. Then along came bmibaby.
When I first heard of this proposed tour organized by bmibaby and the Irish Tourist Board, I thought they had chosen the wrong person, as my nappy-changing days are long since over. However, it seems that the diminutive in this case refers to the low-cost end of British Midland’s operation, offering very reasonable fares to many European destinations. I assumed by the price that we would be strap-hanging in a biplane but lo, there on the tarmac was a Boeing 737 with all the bells and whistles. Taking off on schedule and with a flight time of only 55 minutes from Birmingham International to Knock Airport, I had barely time to settle in my seat when we were being told to prepare ourselves for arrival. Amazing. I once drove to Dublin via Anglesey and the Holyhead to Dun Laoghuire ferry, and apart from the torture of driving across Wales and ending up on a scrubby island as your point of departure from the UK, the journey itself seemed to take about three weeks. And then you had to deal with Irish road signs, which in those days were deliberately pointing in the wrong direction in order to discourage tourists. What a change a decade or two can make!
So now we arrive at Knock. It is actually in the middle of nowhere, but Knock has an interesting history. On the evening of 21 August 1879, people whose ages ranged from five years to seventy-five, witnessed what they claimed was an apparition of Our Lady, St Joseph, and St John the Evangelist at the south gable of the local parish church, the Church of St John the Baptist. Controversy has raged ever since and although the miracle has official sanction from the Vatican, many claim it was the result of a local magic lantern show. Moving forward a century or so, the church’s parish priest, Monsignor James Horan, himself had a vision, but in this instance of acres of concrete supporting mighty steel birds of passage from all corners of the earth. An airport at Knock – and an international one at that – the man’s mad! Well, moving forward another quarter of a century and who is mad now, one has to ask? Knock has become a hub airport for West Ireland visitors, and services over 25 scheduled and charter destinations in Europe. In excess of 600,000 passengers will pass through its doors this year alone. But surely Knock is really only close to…well, Knock? Indeed, so you have to travel onwards, but the pleasant surprise is that the new roads have transformed Irish transportation and now it is possible to drive from Galway to Dublin in two hours by means of a swish only-just-opened motorway, where it took at least four to five hours previously. (Oh, by the way, Monsignor Horan suffered a somewhat bizarre end. He expired on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, and was the first ‘flying funeral’ to touch down on his own beloved runway).
So it is to celebrate all things Galwayian and Connemarian that we arrive at Knock, and drive onwards for eighty minutes to reach the delightful coastal town of Galway. From the dire recessional days of the eighties and nineties, Galway has pulled itself up by its weather-toughened bootstraps to become a thriving centre not just for the arts, but to a wealth of other festivals throughout the year as well as being a university town attracting many foreign students. It seems not to suffer an ‘off’ season at all, having just presented a film festival and following hard on the heels of the arts fest we attended, will shortly host the famous Galway Races.