In Midnight Oil, in which this memoir appears, Mr. Pritchett describes his two years in Paris, where he earned his living in a photographer’s shop and by selling shellac and glue, and how he went back to London “broke.” His only asset was a few newspaper articles. On the strength of these the reckless editor of The Christian Science Monitor sent him to Ireland early in 1923 to write about the Irish civil war. The Anglo-Irish treaty had been signed, the Irish politicians split, and the two parties were killing each other. When Mr. Pritchett arrived the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin was over and the fighting was drifting away to the south and west.
On a misleadingly sunny day on the first of February, 1923, I took the train from London to Holyhead. In a heavy leather suitcase I carried a volume of Yeats’s poems, an anthology of Irish poetry, Boyd’s Irish Literary Renaissance, Synge’s Plays, and a fanatical book called Priests and People in Ireland by McCabe, lent to me by a malign Irish stationer in Streatham who told me I would get on all right in Ireland so long as I did not talk religion or politics to anyone and kept the book out of sight. Unknown to myself I was headed for the seventeenth century.
The Irish Sea was calm—thank God—and I saw at last that unearthly sight of the Dublin mountains rising with beautiful false innocence in their violets, greens, and golden rust of grasses and bracken from the sea, with heavy rain clouds leaning like a huge umbrella over the northern end of them. My breath went thin: I was feeling again the first symptoms of my liability to spells. I remember wondering, as young men do, whether somewhere in this city was walking a girl with whom I would fall in love: the harbors of Denmark gave way to Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills. The French had planted a little of their sense of limits and reason in me, but already I could feel these vanishing.
Once through customs I was frisked for guns by a Free State soldier with pink face and mackerel-colored eyes. I got out of the local train at Westland Row, into that smell of horse manure and stout which were the ruling Dublin odors, and was driven on an outside car with a smart little pony to (of all things, in Ireland!) a temperance hotel on Harcourt Street. It was on this first trot across the city that I had my first experience of things in Ireland not being what they seem. I have described this in a book on Dublin which I wrote a few years ago. The jarvey whipped along, talking his head off about the state of the “unfortunate country,” in a cloud of Bedads, Begobs, God-help-us-es, but turned out to be a Cockney. The Cockney and Dublin accents are united by adenoids. Cab drivers are, perhaps, the same everywhere.
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Copyright © 1972 by V.S. Pritchett.