Sacred space

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

The two Wildes. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

The two Wildes. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

The day after being released from my leg brace, I went to the pool in The Ardilaun where Damian and the staff minded me and the surfaces are covered in the perfect tile, secure even when wet. I moved unsteadily, the first few feet from the disabled dressing room to the steps, inched down them and slid, easily and safely, down into the water. When no-one could see me I cried, to be restored to myself again, though I could only manage one lap, grateful that in water I still felt safe. It is the element that bears you up.

“Water does not recognise disability,” the taxi driver had told me, the same taxi driver who told me he is half aquatic and slips out the bay at night, to hang out in his wet suit among the fishes.

That was four weeks ago, and now I can walk unaided, almost. I drive down Taylor’s Hill, past the vacant plot where a riot of blue flowers grow in summer, and butterflies delight in them. Small birds do whatever small birds do. I often stopped there on my walks, amazed at their warmth, their feathery beauty. I am glad nobody has built on it yet.

Last week in Dunne’s I saw a sign for ‘pomegranates/pineapples’. I bought one for those seeds, like a hundred tiny garnets. In Teresa’s greengrocer’s on Mary Street in 1988, I heard how a professor of classics used to order a case of them for Hallowe’en. I don’t know who he was, but I told her the story of Persephone in the kingdom of the dead, how her mother bargained for her life, how a girl must take nothing with her from the underground kingdom, how she was tricked into eating some of these pretty seeds and had to return to Hades for four months of the year. Demeter, her mother, was goddess of the earth’s growth and fertility and she caused the earth to become barren for her daughter’s season in hell.

On Monday October 20 the weather was cold and bright, with what we call occasional showers. The shop windows were festooned with Hallowe’en decorations.

I drove to The Ardilaun, made my way to the hot tub where the rigours of that form of torture known as physiotherapy are much reduced. The physiotherapist has morphed into my first teacher. I want him to tell me I am doing well, but without doing the hard homework. I tell him the truth, that the exercises make me sick in my stomach but you get the sense he’s heard that one before. All guilt fades as I swim, and walk up and down the pool looking silly, but feeling no pain.

“If it’s good for the Sultan’s thoroughbred racehorses, it’s good for you,” was my doctor’s verdict on this activity.

On my left, the vacant lot is all autumnal, its unkempt profusion a riot of browns and russets. There are people who have the names for everything, the worts and tits and phantasmagoria of all that grows and flies and fidgets in the undergrowth. I have no talent for that Victorian fashion for botany and classification, but over the year I lived in Friar’s Hill, that vacant lot sharpened my powers of observation.

I begin my walk at the Fisheries Field, where the big top, like a sky blue cathedral of fun that has provided annual revelry and rí-rá for long enough to be considered permanent, and make my way over the bridge. I am in need of sacred space. Across from me the real cathedral is cavernous, but not contemplative. I pass. On the bridge, traffic is at a standstill. “You’ll never walk alone,” a car window blind assures me. Liverpool Football Club. Across the bridge, a graduate sheepishly adjusts his robe. In the space in front of the courthouse, barristers and clients confer, a man in a suit speaks urgently into his mobile. There is one litter bin, and a few yards away, a green postbox, shared by the Town Hall Theatre and the courts.

The Abbey is shrouded in scaffolding and although a sign assures me it is open, I do not go in. In the café up the street a woman is saying: “She has no family, you see”.

On Mary Street a young woman says “Step it out there now lads,” to her companions, two men in suits emerging in good humour from a pub .

There is a litter bin near the post office on Eglinton Street, another almost directly opposite. Both advise ‘Bin Art’ in yellow block print on black background. I wonder if this is an architectural design statement, or just something that seemed like a good idea to someone at the time.

On Shop Street, Oscar and Eduard Wilde are perched like an unlikely couple of bookends, but at least they have a bench and have bedded into their little corner like hardy perennials.

There is an out of date poster for ‘The Maids’ in Garavan’s window, three bold girls in black and white, the middle one with a bow of carmine lipstick as bored as a cardinal.

Down Abbeygate Street, no bins. On Middle Street I see one, silver with graffiti. Opposite the library I spot another one. This time it just says ‘Bruscar’. Close by there is a postbox. I deposit my books in the library, and head across Buttermilk Walk, which has a sex, sorry, adult shop, offering ‘fetish wear,’ adult toys, and… books. Window paint screens our modesty. An arrow points to the door with the slightly alarming instruction: Enter here. The shop seems shut. The adults will have to shop in daylight for their toys, or do without.

The ‘head shop’ is cheery, with its wares displayed in cases like one of those small Parisian shops, and lit softly. It promises legal highs and hydroponics, which somehow seem more attractive than the products next door, if just as mysterious. There is no bin on Buttermilk Walk, however.

The Augustinian is quiet. A man sits on a chair. A woman prays, seeming agitated. This is no San Sulpice, with its dark lowering Delacroix painting of a desperate Jacob wrestling with the angel, whose face is that of someone everyone would love, if only they could meet him. No, this church is neither Old Testament, nor enslaved to the functional. White statues, white altar, white faces of the little corner angel shaped like a capricious heart. This is sacred space, the trick of stone and geometry made light, drawing the eye upwards, through the arches poised elegantly along both sides, echoed in the high windows where the late evening is lined up, like so many packets of blue.

I go to the small side chapel. Our Lady of Good Counsel, drawn by a glint of gold, needing the luster of those remnants from an older church. I miss the candles, but I make my offering and make do with their poor electric shadows.

This alchemy is not, of course, purely architectural, but this is what Philip Larkin calls ‘a serious house on serious earth’ in his poem about an unbeliever’s compulsion to seek out churches. Reading it brings a shock of recognition. The need for churches has not left us with the departure of both faith and superstition. They were where people congregated, where communities worshipped and wept, where some still do.

They are what all good civic space should be — for everyone, of any creed and none. At a time when auctioneers call houses ‘homes’, when price replaced even the concept of value, and concepts resembled widgets, we learned to accept houses that were devoid of charm, like some casual products of the union of bankers and developers, a marriage now on the rocks. This is the city’s opportunity, as well as its shame. Up until this, not enough people shouted Stop. So we have been given Bin Art.

This church stands the test of time. Here, the tabernacle, the nave and the apse allow the idea of values beyond concrete. They legislate for the sacramantal. They provide little chapels of adoration, nooks and crannies of comfort in an age of nihilism and brutalist design:

‘…In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized and robed as destinies.’

Four men, one of whom may be a priest, enter and recite a short liturgy, then leave. Paul Walsh’s stained glass windows, situated behind the altars and in the side chapels, fill with the cold intense light of approaching night. They have a wintery beauty, on this stark day. Glass is my favourite medium, the only art I saw as a child. I wait as the light drains from the glass, keeping as best I can, a silent vigil with my sister in Chicago.

Like Larkin, I have tended

‘ …towards this cross of ground

Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt

So long and equably what since is found

Only in separation – marriage and birth,

And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built

This special shell?’

I am grateful for its vast spaces, towards the end of this hard bright day.

The streets are streaked with light as I make my way back across the river. He might be heading out this evening, the ex New York taxi driver, a frogman watching over us from the bay. Someone to watch over us. You never know, but quis custodiet ipsos custodies, as Juvenal famously asked Socrates. Who will guard the guardians, if not you?

— Sinead Morrissey will read today (Thursday ) at 8pm in the Siobhan Mc Kenna Theatre , upstairs in the Arts Millennium Building at 8pm. Next Thursday, October 30, at the same time Peter Sirr reads his poems, and the series ends on Thursday November 6 with a joint reading by Mary O’Malley and the playwright Marina Carr in the same venue.

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