Train of thought – Frank McNally on the Dublin-Wexford railway route, the late Countess de Frenay, and the story of Long Lambkin

To eat or not to eat, that is the question

I caught the Dublin-Wexford train last Friday evening, probably for the first time since a 1980s interrail trip via Rosslare. And as I had somehow forgotten since, it’s a staggeringly beautiful rail route: surely Ireland’s most scenic. Beauty aside, it must also be the wateriest, and not just on the coastal side of the track. There are rivers and estuaries, including of course an official Meeting of the Waters, all the way down. And there was a large, sodden, tract of Wicklow where I wasn’t sure if the many pools and channels to our land side were natural flooding or man-made drainage.

There was plenty of time to appreciate it all, God knows. En route to a production of Hamlet at the National Opera House, I had hoped to reach Wexford in time for a pre-theatre dinner. But it was the day of the snowstorm and the train, already running late when I boarded, continued to procrastinate like a doomed Shakespearean hero.

Dinner was already under threat by Enniscorthy, where an announcement suggested we would have a brief wait pending the arrival of the north-bound service on the single line. The rest was silence, although we waited more than half an hour.

In the end, our journey took nearly as long as an unedited Hamlet, putting paid to dinner. I had to make do with half a bag of chips, gobbled down on the way to the show.



The Volta Theatre production itself, by contrast, was a fast-paced romp through Shakespeare’s epic. A “bold new edit”, as the producers promised, it swept us towards the mass slaughter of the final scene in little more than an hour and a half, without an interval, although the only thing I noticed missing was Guildenstern. Tom Stoppard famously got a whole play out of what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do offstage. Here, Rosencrantz was given involuntary redundancy, with no apparent detriment to the action. If there was a play within the play at the Opera House, it arose from the fact that Hamlet took place in the smaller Jerome Hynes Theatre while the main auditorium hosted a Pink Floyd tribute act.

During quieter parts of the former, you could hear noisier parts of the latter. So as the hero wrestled with his conscience at one point, he was accompanied by the distant soundtrack of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Somehow, this only added to the drama.


Born in Waterford to a Shakespearian actress mother, the late Joan Furlong (1920-2024) became better known as the Countess de Frenay after her marriage to a French aristocrat.

But as Turlough Kelly, who drew my attention to her recent death, puts it, she was “surely the last solid link with that milieu of wartime Dublin, or at least, the last denizen of the Catacombs”. The Catacombs were a warren of rooms in the basement of No 13 Fitzwilliam Square, where the Bohemians of Baggotonia, including Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, once socialised into the early hours.

De Frenay had a flat somewhere above them and hosted many parties there after moving to Dublin in the 1940s. “Everyone was drunk all the time”, she recalled of the time, although she attributed her own great longevity to temperance.

As quoted by the Irish Independent a while back, she said: “I didn’t eat much. I didn’t drink much. I didn’t want to get old and ugly”.

Herself a writer and painter, De Frenay was among many people sought out by Kelly for a forthcoming podcast series on the real-life love story that inspired the song Raglan Road. He interviewed her last year, when she was 103 and “still entirely lucid”.


The continuing success of Lankum – voted best group at the recent Irish Folk Awards – set me reading about the history of the dark and much performed ballad for which they are named.

It’s a Child ballad in more ways that one, numbering among the 305 English and Scottish songs anthologised by the American Francis James Child (1825-1896). Also, in most versions, it’s about the murder of a mother and her infant son. Various spelt as “Lambkin”, “Lamkin” and in many other ways, the eponymous villain ranges from being a blood-drinking bogeyman, a leper, a freemason, a devil, and a random thug. The adjectives applied to him vary too, from “false”, to “bold”, “cruel”, and “long”.

Hence, speaking again of Wexford, the form in which he indirectly helped launch the literary career of John Banville. The stories in Banville’s debut collection, Long Lankin (1970), were united by each having two main characters whose relationships are destroyed by an interloper.

Thus began the career of one of Ireland’s greatest modern writers. But I was amused in my rabbit-hole research to find the mercenary note with which his British publishers recommended the 23-year-old to American counterparts.

“He strikes me as a young man deeply committed to becoming a novelist and very much aware of what it takes. And, though I don’t anticipate making money over Long Lankin, I do feel fairly confident of making money out of him in the future.” If the Americans wanted him too, the recommender added: “I don’t think you’d go wrong.”