A river runs through it

The third in a series of articles by poet Mary O’Malley exploring the concept of civic space in Galway

Pic: Mike Shaughnessy

Pic: Mike Shaughnessy

The campus of Galway University is fortunately situated.

A river runs through it, the river which, tradition has it, houses the rock which marked the spot where Galvia was drowned, she for whom the town is named. The grounds, unified by an occasional architectural felicity and the work of the groundsmen, stretch from the Huston school opposite the cathedral all along the river to the Dangan sports grounds.

They have incorporated the old Franciscan buildings and many houses and protected much of the riverbank that might surely have otherwise been destroyed as Galway rushed madly to become a parody of Caracas and cover every square inch in concrete. It might have been but it hasn’t. It is lovely and it is yours to enjoy.

‘The women who were singers in the west lived on an unforgiving coast.

I want to ask was there ever one moment when all of it relented….?’

So wrote Eavan Boland in a poem entitled ‘The Singers’. There was a moment when all of it relented for me, a late September day, when I entered the front gates of Galway University for the first time. There are no gates of course, but the notion of them is so powerful that I still use the term. Nor did I see the gates as excluding, but as welcoming. The high walls that gird the university are sheltering.

My father pointed out the fossils tracing the watery history of the limestone like Braille. They are soft, and lack the gaoler’s look of the Cathedral stone. I started university in Galway with two thoughts foremost in my mind: to meet people interested in literature and to get away. Gaston Bachelard has written that ‘A hurricane in Paris has not the same personal offensiveness towards the dreamer as it has towards the hermit’s house.’

The university still displays as its logo a sketch of the arch and tower of the quadrangle, that lovely walled enclosure divided by paths into four neat squares of grass. All around, there is a two storey gallery of offices, two of which used to be known as the Greek and Latin halls, respectively.

The Aula Maxima is still there, though it no longer houses the library, with its beautiful glass fronted bookcases, and some if not all of the classical statuary seems to have gone. In the mid 1970s this was still the dominant architecture, though the twin towers of the new concourse rose into the skyline, then stopped on the third storey, as if in fright at their own blunt ugliness.

An egg-yolk yellow piece of sculpture was installed on the concrete plaza, either to compound the crime or assuage the injury. Tennis was played where the tennis courts were, and the odd game of cricket. ‘Go on Marmaduke, hit it again and hit it hard this time’ a Kerry hurler of the engineering persuasion was heard to call to an inept young man with a bat, as he sat with his friends to watch and mock this relic of colonial absurdity, absurd in Galway in the 1970s, a time of hippies and demonstrations and long hair, of fights between prickies and stickies, and packed debates in the Lit & Deb society and long afternoons up the river in the college boats.

The university then had a Men’s Club and a Ladies’ Club. The men had a chaplain and some kind of gym, we had a ladies superintendent. There was knitting, there were sewing machines. I lodged at Mrs Robinson’s excellent establishment at 29 Maunsells Road until Christmas. In January, the lady superintendant called me to account. Why was I thinking of moving to a flat? She was concerned that I, a grant recipient, though bright, might neglect my education.

Walking along by St Mary’s school one day, a severe man dressed in black stopped me. ‘Who are you, little girl, and where are you from?’ I answered politely, I told him my name. There was no need for him to tell me his, so he didn’t. Bishop Brown. He bade me good day. I thought he looked ordinary, like a priest.

I mention all this to sketch a context for the advent of feminism. Actually, coming from Connemara, I had little heed for the bishop at all, but even if I had, we belonged to the Diocese of Tuam where a kinder man held sway. Bishops were distant figures, like saints, and their appearance in the flesh did little for their authority.

The mid to late seventies were, in a way, golden. That was partly because we were eager and partly because we were young. A lot of the most gifted students congregated in the societies and Dramsoc got more than its fair share. There was an unspoken rule that Dramsoc and firsts didn’t mix, because there was a conflict between time needed for cramming and time needed for rehearsal.

I joined, terrified because I knew nothing, but more terrified that I’d miss out on something I wanted more than a boyfriend, more than ideas, more than a first class degree. I didn’t know what that something was but drama was close enough for jazz. We met in the Grammar School on College Road. By one of those cosmic jokes, the Psychology Department also held lectures there. It was there I learned a delight in knocking walls, and how to reconfigure space.

Life in the rehearsal room was heightened. Time stretched and contracted and space could be manipulated in ways which were exciting and to me at least, new. I decided to direct a play. I chose Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. Set in New York, on a bench.

I was out of Connemara about four months. I had never been to America, never acted, directed, or rehearsed. A boy came into the terrapin where the auditions were being held. He wasn’t particularly remarkable. He had a quality I would later associate with good actors, the ability to merge into the background. He might have been 18 or 19. It was autumn. It might have been raining but I remember sun and that he seemed urbane somehow. More worldly than the others. His name was Sean Gannon. He took the script and read, quietly enough with the odd rogue inflexion that was his trademark. I didn’t know much but I knew I had an actor.

At the beginning of degree year Sean handed me a script. ‘Read that,’ he said. ‘It’s for you.’ It was Equus by Peter Schaeffer. Would he be the kid or the psychiatrist? Neither. He wasn’t acting. He had to work. His mother would kill him. Sean became the boy Alan Strang, who blinded a horse he loved in the culminating scene of the play. Only a few years earlier, some boys had cut the tails of the priests’ beautiful hunters in a college in Ballinasloe. We put that into the mix. We knew it could happen. The show was a sell out.

I was told the bishop had a spy in the audience, I’d be a disgrace putting nude men on display in Galway. I was sick with worry, in case my mother would hear of it. Not to mention the bishop. Mrs Gannon was put in the best seat (which wasn’t saying a lot in the Grammar School ). She didn’t kill us. She was very proud of her boy. She was even nice to me. Sean had an otherness, the cold distance of stones under a clean river, some quality I never felt I could fathom. He had eyes like glass and a killer smile.

This added up to a disturbing presence when he moved into character. He had a good voice and a lithe grace. There was a kind of packed tension in his movements, a slight awkwardness along with it that made you notice him. He could wear a coat like a Frenchman — but not quite. Soon we were all leaving, rushing on to the unexpected drama of our own lives. Many of us had no plan, some of us were reluctant, mostly I remember wanting to get away from Ireland and head towards the sun. I hadn’t a clue, just hoped it would all work out .

Mostly it did, for most of us, for a while. Those years at university were then what they are now for the thousands of undergraduates, a testing time, a reprieve and a preparation. And the spaces they inhabit, the parks and walks, the fast flow of the river have been laid down like lines on an internal map. Those places have in turn been inhabited by them. We rowed boats up the river.

Though there were tragedies, there was laughter. The boys with us were mostly the men we married. The notes of a saxophone carried over the water from Mrs O Halloran’s caravan park one August evening: Night in Tunisia. The musician was a young man called Neil Jordan. The boats are gone. Sitting in Moffat’s restaurant on days like this, you are aware of a whole lake emptied into it, with hidden currents, rushing towards the weir. Galway at its loveliest.

Bachelard has remarked that ‘poetry gives not so much a nostalgia for youth, which would be vulgar... but offers us images of the original impulses of youth.’ I met Sean a few times when we were both home for the Galway Arts Festival, both going to whatever shows were on. He had decided to do carpentry in London, he married, had children. So did I. A delight in meeting, promises to meet again. I always thought I’d see him again, that one day we’d catch up. We never did.

The campus has grown haphazardly for the most part, but there is ample space for play and it is mostly in the play space that our education is consolidated. In the debating halls, on the river, in the theatres, and among the quiet groups lazing and reading in the occasional sun. This is what the poet Ramon de La Serna called ‘a freedom behind the world’s back’.

It’s only a few minutes walk away from the centre of town. The university has a policy to break down any division between it and the town, one which welcomes people in. The water is, as they say, lovely. As you wander through, you will come across a tree or a seat with a dedication, here and there a plaque laid simply on the ground. These are quiet memorials, the ‘shade haunted spaces’.

I wrote a poem about one such tree, and a boy whose brief life must have glowed as ours did then. That marvellous boy with a long coat and an outrageous laugh is gone, but he once sported Jaycloth cravats under a quite proper white shirt, mostly the blue ones but occasionally pink. ‘For a change, ya know?’ and he’d laugh that mad slow chuckle of his and fix you with a look and move on under the trees towards the new arts block, which wasn’t there then. I now sometimes lecture there and often see him still.

Faber poet Maurice Riordan reads his poems today (Thursday ) at 8pm in the Siobhan Mc Kenna Theatre in the Arts Millennium building. The closest entrance is on Newcastle Road. Everest climber and documentary maker Dermot Somers gives his talk on wilderness and the city this Tuesday, October 21 at 8pm in the same venue. All welcome.

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