A drive across Ireland can be educational, all the more so if you go north of the straight route across the middle. It is then that you encounter the roundabouts of remembrance – where the M4 motorway takes a loop around Longford town and becomes the M5.
All that roadbuilding involved building several roundabouts, and the council officials decided to name them after literary figures with local connections.
There is also the roundabout with the longest name in Ireland – so long that it was feared its sheer size could be a problem.
But they got around that too, so it now bears the name “Fiddlemaster ‘Blind’ Kiernan Roundabout”. If you include the Irish version it brings the total to 62 letters. Tom Kiernan, also known as Máistir MacTigheranáin, was a major stylistic influence on fiddle-playing in the mid-19th century and his teaching lived on in later generations.
Nearby on the N5 is the startling sight of a huge violin half-buried in the embankment. This steel sculpture by artist Alex Pentek looks like something unearthed during road-building. Some say it commemorates dancing at the crossroads. Alas, not only are the dancers gone, the crossroads are gone too . . . and nobody in their right mind would go dancing at the roundabouts!
You meet the literary circular junctions in no particular order of importance. Padraic Colum is one name that jumps out at those with memories of schooldays long ago.
He was once the only living poet on the Leaving Certificate syllabus when students learned “by heart” huge chunks of verse, mainly by England’s 19th-century poets.
Colum’s works , including “Cradle Song” and “A Poor Scholar of the Forties” stood out as something different.
A quick internet search yields stuff you were never told at school, including that Colum was involved in setting up the Abbey Theatre and was a lifelong friend of James Joyce (whose name never crossed the school threshold).
He lived in the US for years, having gone there for a visit in 1914 with his wife Mary Gunning Maguire. A prolific writer, he wrote stories based on Irish folktales – and even adapted old Hawaiian tales for young readers.
Bizarrely, he claimed (in a 1970 letter to the Irish Times) that he was the author of the lyrics to the song “She Moved Through The Fair” – but this was dismissed when early folk versions were produced. Padraic Colum died at the age of 90, having lived a life worth at least two motorway roundabouts.
Who was Leo Casey, another of the roundabout names? His full name was John Keegan Casey and his pen name was “Leo” under which he wrote extensively for The Nation newspaper. Fiercely nationalistic, he wrote poetry and songs, the most famous of which was “The Rising of the Moon”, and later was in demand as a public orator.
He took part in the Fenian rising of 1867 and was imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail. His health suffered from the ill-treatment he received there and he died in Dublin in 1870.
Charlotte Brooke, from Cavan, came to live in Longford in her last years. The only child of 22 siblings to reach adulthood, she took a keen interest in Irish language poetry, something considered highly unusual for a person of Anglo-Irish background in the 18th century. Educated by her father, the writer Henry Brooke, in their house near Mullagh, she discovered her love of books and writing in the library there. Her work, “Reliques of Irish Poetry”, contains her translations of poems written in Irish.
Not far down the road we meet the Maria Edgeworth roundabout (which some might say is slightly overdoing things, since the writer already seems to have a whole town named after her).
But it was her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth who owned the estate that gave the Edgeworthstown its name.
Maria is best remembered today for her writings: at one early stage her books outsold those of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. During the Famine she worked for the relief of its starving victims and wrote vividly about their plight – but helped only those of her own tenants who had paid their rents in full.
At the other end of Edgeworthstown we find the Goldsmith Roundabout. Oliver spent his early years hereabouts before going to Trinity College and then on to London where he made a name (but never a fortune) for himself. He died in 1774, aged 45. A plaque at the Temple Church in London, where he is buried lists his best-known works, The Deserted Village, The Vicar of Wakefield, She Stoops To Conquer, and the following tribute from Samuel Johnson: “. . .who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn”.
Does any other country have such a roundabout way of remembering people?
Barbados has a similar practice but over there they commemorate their cricket heroes, in particular (Sir Garfield) Gary Sobers, probably the greatest cricketer who ever lived, but as you drive around the island you will also meet the three Ws. They have a roundabout each. As any Irish cricket enthusiast will tell you, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott were stars of the West Indies team that came to England in the early 1950s and wreaked havoc with the best that England’s bowlers could throw at them – and West Indies cricket for the first time joined the sport’s exclusive top echelons.
The effect it had in their native island has never been forgotten: picture Ireland during Italia 90 and you get the picture.