A Dream of Maps:
Notes from a Book Launch Tour, June 1981
Chris Rice first met Matthew Sweeney at a poetry workshop in London in 1976, and they remained friends for forty-two years until Matthew’s death in 2018. Chris Rice’s elegy to Matthew and their long friendship appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of The Poetry Review. A collection of Chris Rice’s own poetry, Call of Nature, was published in 2013 by Lapwing Publications, Belfast.
In 1981, I accompanied Matthew Sweeney on a two-week tour of Ireland for the launch of his first full collection of poetry, A Dream of Maps. Thirty-eight years on, you can read extracts from the diary I kept to record what was also my first ever visit to Ireland.
Tuesday 16 June Dublin: Dermot Bolger, Matthew’s publisher at Raven Arts Press, presents Matthew with forty copies of his first ever full collection of poems, A Dream of Maps. Matthew spends a bad-tempered evening correcting the numerous errata: ‘bones’ instead of ‘bombs’ (Lives); ‘struck’ instead of ‘stuck’ (That Street); ‘midlight’ instead of ‘midnight’ (The Page) and so on …
Wednesday 17 June Matthew shows me the sights of Dublin. We spend a quiet few minutes outside Parliament House. Six yawning policemen, all male, guard its black, wrought-iron gates, while six children – five boys, one girl – solemnly patrol the pavement in front of them, each one holding up a picture of six H-Block hunger strikers. I count six bored photographers, all male, standing around waiting for something to happen. My attention keeps returning to the vastness of the sky.
On the spur of the moment, Matthew decides to pay Thomas Kinsella a visit in his grand-looking Georgian house overlooking a canal near the centre of the city. His wife, Eleanor, opens the door. Very warm and friendly, she shows us into a reception room, brings us tea and biscuits, and wonders if we would mind waiting. She returns ten minutes later to inform us sweetly that her husband is ‘up to his neck’ at the moment and won’t be able to see us today.
Jimmy Brennan’s already drunk when we meet him for a lunchtime drink. He proceeds to get drunker and more and more depressed. Matthew tries to cheer him up, flattering him for his achievements, but Jimmy doesn’t respond. One hour later, the three of us are on the bus to a travel agent in Finglas, where A Dream of Maps is to be launched. Jimmy interrupts Matthew’s reading by barking like a dog and shouting incoherent abuse. This is way beyond ordinary heckling. Matthew manages, with difficulty, to finish his reading and immediately escorts Jimmy onto a bus, giving him £3 for a taxi at the other end. Then Matthew promptly sinks into depression. He knows he hasn’t really helped. ‘I know Jimmy Brennan at least as well as I know you,’ he snaps (somewhat needlessly, I feel).
After a reading in a nearby Protestant church, there are drinks at The Village Inn. I chat to Philip Casey, who first recommended the manuscript of A Dream of Maps to Dermot Bolger. At the end of a long day, more or less triumphant, Matthew and I are driven back to Vin and Mary’s by a poet-priest called Padraig. I smoke my last Egyptian cigarette. Tomorrow, I’ll make a start on my duty-free Henry Wintermans.
Thursday 18 June Matthew, Rosemary, baby Nico and I catch the mid-day bus from Dublin to Derry, changing at Omagh. At the first border crossing, a heavily- armed soldier walks menacingly up and down the aisle of the bus. We pass posters of H-Block hunger strikers and Maggie Thatcher (‘Wanted for Murder’). A children’s band is marching through the streets. It’s pouring with rain in Derry, where Rosemary’s sister, Phylis, meets us. A second border crossing: more heavily-armed soldiers. Radioactive with anxiety, they look dangerously young.
Buncranna: a small town in Donegal where Rosemary’s family lives. Matthew’s brother, Paid, a policeman whose ear has just been chewed by a dog (not yet a line from a Sweeney poem, but will be soon) is also on a visit. In the pub, the two brothers lock horns over a cottage each assumes he is going to inherit (a scene straight out of Zola). Rosemary calls Matthew a dreamer. Matthew sulks.
Rosemary’s family makes me feel unbelievably welcome. Her mother, despite my protests, insists on vacating her own bedroom so I have a bed to sleep on. She won’t take no for an answer. I’m embarrassed but overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship shown me; the ease with which I’m made to feel I belong. It’s another world.
Friday 19 June In steady drizzle, Rosemary shows me around Buncranna; rows of stone bungalows, gates and doors all left wide open despite the rain. Everyone seems to have blue eyes. At lunchtime, Matthew beats me at pool 2-1.
This afternoon, Paid drives Matthew and me to Ballyliffin, thirteen kilometres away. Matthew’s people live in a large place called Tirconnaill House, which overlooks a golf course and the Atlantic Ocean. I meet his sister, Damhnait, who teaches music to local children (Matthew has never told me he has sisters!). We visit two elderly aunts who own acres of land and live together in a small cottage – peat stove in the kitchen, unbreakable glass fishing buoys outside the front door, pictures of the Pope and rush crosses left over from St Bridgid’s Day. It’s still daylight at 10.45 when Matthew and I go for a drink. Later, Damhnait plays us jigs; laments and reels on the flute and tin whistle.
Saturday 20 June Walk down to Pollan Bay. The sand is bubble-wrapped with jellyfish. Grass shines upwards, as if lit from within, even when it’s cloudy. It casts a green glow up your legs when you walk on it.
Evening: a disco, where people all around are jiving. Yes, jiving. Rosemary tries to teach me, then her sister Deirdre, but to no great effect. Rosemary says anyone with an English accent would score immediately with the girls around here, though their brothers might well shoot my kneecaps off. To which Matthew adds: ‘They might do that anyway,’ drawing my attention to the red (socks), white (shoes) and blue (shirt) I’m wearing.
Sunday 21 June The longest day of the year; the hottest too: 69˚F. Matthew spends the day on letters, poems etc. I wander down to the beach, where it’s cooler, find a shady rock to sit on and get my diary up to date.
Monday June 22 Matthew and I play a round of golf on the course across the road. Or rather, Matthew plays a full round. I fall asleep at the eleventh tee. Matthew blames me for putting him off and complains that I’m ‘unsporting’ and I’ll ‘never learn to play golf this way’. But I’m happy where I am, drugged on a cocktail of ozone, nicotine and Aspirin for my cold, listening to the jackdaws and the gulls.
Buncranna: dinner in the evening with Rosemary’s family. Talk again revolves around property and land.
Tuesday 23 June Matthew and I catch the early bus from Derry to Dublin. Leaving our luggage at the bus station, we lunch at Trinity College in a pub called Mulligan’s. As I’m reading about John McEnroe tantrums at Wimbledon, Matthew leans across the table:
‘I’m worried about you,’ he says. ‘You’ve been very strange since you got back from Egypt.’
‘Strange? In what way?’
‘Falling asleep on a golf course?’
‘What’s strange about that?’
Matthew smiles, and we drink to ‘difficult company’.
Wednesday 24 June Matthew’s reading at Trinity College. Hurrying to leave the house, he accidentally sets off the burglar alarm. He phones Vin to find out how to turn it off.
On the first floor of the university building, in the bathroom, I try to turn a jammed tap off. I pull at it too hard and its top comes away in my hands. Water spurts from its neck all over Philip Casey and me. A small lake starts forming on the floor. We miss most of Matthew’s reading.
On leaving the pub at lunchtime, Matthew strides ahead with Dermot Bolger. Philip Casey, with his one original leg (he lost the other due to complications following radiation therapy for cancer), stands no chance of keeping up and so I walk at his pace, enjoying his company. We laugh about the morning’s events. Eventually, Philip and I go our different ways. There’s no sign of Matthew, and I have no idea where he was heading. I’m lost. I try to remember where Vin and Mary live and stop a man about my age to ask for directions to the bus station:
‘I’m not sure. “Rath …” something?’
‘Rathfarnham? Sure. But how about a drink first?’
In London, I’d run a mile at such an invitation. But this is Ireland, and I find the zeitgeist here more convivial. ‘Why not?’ I say.
Later, on the bus to Rathfarnham, a stranger sitting next to me asks out of the blue what I think of Margaret Thatcher. I’ve been prepared by Matthew and Rosemary for direct questions like this. ‘I didn’t vote for her,’ I reply without hesitation. To which he nods approvingly ‘Good man.’
When I reach Vin and Mary’s early that evening, there’s no sign of Matthew.
‘We thought he’d be with you,’ Vin says, glancing at Mary as if to say, ‘We’re in for some entertainment.’
They’re not disappointed. When Matthew finally arrives, he’s furious with me. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ he rages. ‘Can you not be trusted to turn on a tap without flooding a bathroom, or step onto a pavement without getting lost?’
I tell him to calm down. ‘There’s a poem in here somewhere,’ I suggest.
‘There’d better fuckin’ be,’ he says, all the more furious because Vin and Mary, unlike him, find it funny.
Thursday 25 June We oversleep and catch the 12.30 train to Cork with seconds to spare. In a lively pub called The Long Valley, where girls sit alone reading poetry and it doesn’t look pretentious, we meet Aidan Murphy’s sister, Deirdre, and her friend Rita, (who reminds me of a girlfriend I had in Plymouth ten years ago). After a drink, we move on to the Café Lorca, where Matthew introduces me to Thomas McCarthy. Matthew reads from A Dream of Maps to a small but attentive audience.
Friday 26 June Matthew and I wander the streets of Cork – a beautiful city surrounded by hills. The girls, as in Dublin, I find very attractive – blue-eyed, dark-haired, friendly, human (unlike the wan and dowdy humanoids you see everywhere in London with their pierced faces and grubby tattoos; who stare at you cement-eyed with indifference). Thomas McCarthy takes us up one of the surrounding hills to Shandon church. It has a bronze-salmon weathervane and four clock faces, each one showing a different time. Below us: a panoramic view of Cork. Churches are its tallest buildings. Lovely.
Saturday 27 June We should have been back in Dublin today, but Nico’s unwell and Rosemary will be staying in Donegal until Monday. This evening, we argue the merits of John McEnroe’s behaviour. I’m against. Matthew disagrees. He says he dislikes anyone who is not arrogant. He claims that to think otherwise is a ‘typically English sentiment’.
Sunday 28 June We catch the nine o’clock train to Dublin, again with seconds to spare. I’m getting a bit fed up with these constant last-minute rushes, Matthew striding ahead expecting others to carry his bags and babies.
Monday 29 June I have lunch with Dermot Bolger while Matthew collects Rosemary and Nico from the station. Matthew is depressed. He tells me that Rosemary is planning to leave him and he can’t cope. I go out with Rosemary for a drink. She tells me how Matthew’s inability to attempt to find a job is driving them apart. Back at Vin and Mary’s, Matthew reminds Rosemary that a £4,000 bursary is coming his way in September. Rosemary isn’t impressed, so he gets angry and tells her off for having smoked a cigarette while she was with me in the pub.
I prepare for our early start tomorrow – we catch the 8.30 boat from Dun Leoghere. Despite the gloom of the last two days, I know that the last two weeks have been a special, unforgettable experience: something which, like an Irish meadow, will keep on glowing even when there’s nothing shining on it from above.
Chris Rice is a retired teacher who has also adapted modern and classic fiction for Penguin Readers. In 2011, he started to write poetry again after a twenty-year silence. Since then, his work has been published in magazines and anthologies and has been placed in several competitions. A first collection, Call of Nature (Lapwing, Belfast), was published in 2013.
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