Homesick for Leitrim while time flies like a Westmeath duck

DISPLACED IN MULLINGAR: I was in the bathroom one morning, and as I looked out the window I realised that a small hurricane …

DISPLACED IN MULLINGAR:I was in the bathroom one morning, and as I looked out the window I realised that a small hurricane had torn down the backyard fence during the night. On a flat wooden pallet, a blackbird sang defiantly. A song rendered all the sweeter by the acoustic of the surrounding houses and the stillness of the morning, and the solitude of the bird. Although he may have had a good audience of half-awakened humans, stretched behind all those drawn curtains.

He reminded me of other birds; the curlew, and the magpie, and the crow that builds in March; the mysterious bird that beats its wings in the night, and the swallows that used to come every year to the green shed. I will not be in Leitrim to greet them, if they come again this year.

But come they will, because there is no storm that can hold back spring, or stop the blackbirds' song, or the swallows' return.

And no one can stop young people from gallivanting about the town, or doing what they like in night clubs, or gorging on kisses in the dark, or texting lies and starting rows as they wait till daybreak for something to happen or for another morning to fall into their lap.


I still get homesick for Leitrim, each evening, when I look out at the drab facades of other houses. When I walk about the enclosed streets by night, as moonlight turns the roof slates blue. I long for the wild wind and the turbulence of March skies and trees drenched in clean showers.

There are not enough jeeps in the world to ease that pain. Not enough muffins or mochas or midweek breaks in Prague that can erase the memory of afternoons spent before the whispering range, and staring out the window at the March hare on top of the water tank, who always stared back at me.

I drove up to Leitrim last Tuesday, to spend an evening in a small cottage with two sculptors, an artist and an actor.

At a candlelit table the talk was of poetry and street theatre, and a wash of easeful harmony around the table swept away the meticulous hours that usually measure time.

"That evening flew," someone said in the end.

"Where has the time gone?"

A gale screeched through the Scotch pines outside as I revved up the Pajero, and floated down the hill in neutral and saw the cottage fade behind me in the rear view mirror.

Leitrim is full of such magical homesteads where artists shelter in small dwellings, well hidden, though always hunted and made vulnerable by property developers.

Open-minded worlds, tucked away in the crook of some little hill, or in the dip of a valley, or the opening of a forest on the slopes of Sliabh an Iarainn. Rustic spaces where you don't even notice 10 years passing, or your face ageing in the mirror.

By the time I returned to Mullingar, the storm was only a lament in the empty fire grate. I stared at the flickering television for an hour before turning the lights off and winding the clock.

The following day I spoke to a countryman, wheeling his bicycle along the street. It was pouring rain.

When he saw me he stopped.

"There's not a lot of ducks in Mullingar!" he declared.

We meet regularly at the same place, and he views himself in a formal capacity, as my personal advisor, on matters pertaining to the essential character of Westmeath society. He himself came originally from Fore, a place among whose wonders in his youth, was water that ran up a hill, water that never boiled, and water that would cure all cancers.

"The early bird gets the worm but the late bird has the last laugh," he said, as he swung his leg over the crossbar and freewheeled down towards Texas.

"Ducks," he repeated over his shoulder in the lashing rain.

Like an Asian philosopher, his utterances have a truth embedded at a deeper level than the merely literal.

He's a man of riddles and conundrums, who knows that the essential comedy of life is that we are either tormented by the people in the next room, or by the absence of anyone in the next room. His ilk once roamed the hills of Leitrim on bicycles, their rickety dynamo lamps flickering on dark laneways, in a time long before the artists came, to buy derelict houses, and make art out of things remembered.

Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Michael Harding is a playwright, novelist and contributor to The Irish Times