Yesterday, I spotted a tree that looked like an orchestra conductor. He wore a top hat and held his baton high in his gnarled hands. In his knots and wild branches, in the bravado of his stance, he reminded me of Patrick McCabe.
The ‘wild man from Clones’, as the Irish Times calls him, seems the essence of all that is ancient and all that is organic. Some writers become. Patrick McCabe simply is.
We gathered on Saturday afternoon in the charming Church of Ireland, bathed for the occasion in magenta and lilac light, to hear what he had to say.
We expected brilliance.
We expected a dark and vibrant wit.
We were not disappointed.
(I can’t read McCabe when I’m writing. The power of his work spills into whatever I’m doing. I am conscious, even as I write this, of his cadences. I know. I should be so lucky.)
Patrick has been working on a theatrical work inspired by Elizabeth Fort in Cork, and the stories he told and the ghost of the Fort itself filled the little chapel as we listened. When it was all over, we blinked to find the town of Kells was still standing where we left it just an hour — an hour! — earlier.
The first story he read was an excerpt from The Handsome Cabin Boy, a piece inspired by the folk song of the same name. Here’s Kate Bush singing it, if you need a reminder, though she does skip a couple of verses: The Handsome Cabin Boy
Something about the story itself, or was it the way he read it, made me mindful of the sea. Almost I could smell the green water and taste the salt. This is what sublime writing does: It bypasses the brain and goes right to the soul. Mr McCabe doesn’t think a story, he has to “feel it through.”
Before he read his next piece, Dreams by the River: A Hunger-Striker’s View of History, he apologised for the language, given we were in the church. He read his admittedly profane prose, but the ceiling didn’t come down on us. Maybe God’s a fan, too.
He tells us the Hunger Striker’s story ran fifteen pages and is pure stream of consciousness. The words have an urgency like the stream flowing down the side of a mountain. Nothing can stop them. But why would you want to?
He begins to read softly, in a conversational voice. Then, as his characters take hold, he roars, he cries, he sings. It’s not so much a reading as performance art. Someone in the audience suggested he has been spending too much time with actors, but there’s no artifice here. I suspect the words rise and take to the air because that’s how he hears them in his head.
With great comic timing he tells you about the girl who is “Addicted to eating flies.” His eyes bulge as he stares into the audience.
As he reads, he does not lean on the lectern. Though he keeps the pages before him, you can tell he could do it by heart. The pages are no more than a prop. What’s not a prop is the pen he holds in his right hand through the entire event. Any minute now, I thought, he’ll pause and scratch a change, a correction in the text, before he moves on. He didn’t. But I suspect that Mr McCabe, like myself, just thinks better with a pen in hand.
Between readings he pauses to add words of wisdom or to tell a joke. Like the one about the man who turns 100. His granddaughter visits and says, “Granddad, you’ve seen it all: Two world wars, the sinking of the Titanic, the evolution of electronics. With all the things you’ve seen, is there anything you’d change if you could?” The old man thinks a long time and at last he answers. “I’d part my hair in the middle,” he says.
Patrick finishes by answering some questions. Here are some gems these shook out:
You can’t write about a thing, he says, for about ten or fifteen years. It takes you that long to know how you feel about it.
Don’t listen to music when you write.
He’s associated with a style called ‘Bog Gothic’. How does he feel about that phrase? “It offended me more than you.”
What does he do it for, this writing? “I can’t answer that. It’s a disorder. ‘Graphomania.'” Later, he adds, “Poets and writers travel the same road as religious people.”
Asked if he ever drew inspiration from people he knew, he admits that for a long time, “I was putting everyone in town in these books.I do it all the time.” A neighbour once called to him across the street, “I see I’m in your new book.” He admitted it. “Thank you,” she said.
So we come to the end and we spill out into the less rarefied air of the Kells churchyard. As we all went our separate ways, I’m sure many took with them a hope that they’ll spot themselves in Patrick McCabe’s next book.
“There he is – gone! as they say in Tyreelin” — Patrick McCabe Breakfast on Pluto