Irish Encounters by Keith Roberts

A short travel. Kerosina Books, 1988, 80 p.

Irish Encounters cover

This is an account, initially written for his friends, of a trip Roberts took to Ireland but which he later used as background for his BSFA Award winning novel Gráinne.

It was Roberts’s first time flying and he was nervous but was equally astonished at the quickness of the flight. His trip came before the Celtic Tiger days and Roberts contrasts Ireland – mostly favourably – with the England he had travelled from but does note encounters with beggars. The politeness and hospitality he met with were initially strange to him and he describes navigating Dublin’s streets in a hired car as a daunting task. On only one occasion did he encounter a lack of consideration, when a man in a pub questioned him about the North.

His comparison of real Irish pubs to those in England is very favourable, “smarter and cleaner, and the service leaves us standing.” The addendum, “Try asking for tea in your local English boozer; then count the number of times you bounce before you land in the street,” is perhaps no longer so true. Even so he says about English attitudes to Ireland, “bigotry is time saving; you can form opinions without troubling to get the facts.” It was the ancient monuments he was mainly there to visit though (Tara of the Kings etc.)

One of the things that struck me most about this account was that almost without exception every female (women and girls) Roberts mentions is described as either pretty or beautiful; he even goes so far as to apologise in his head and in print to the author of Molly Malone for assuming he had described Dublin’s girls as “so pretty” merely for the rhyme. Roberts also has a fascination for describing their eyes.

At his trip’s end he had a curious sensation that, “I was led, conducted, given as much at any one time as I could handle. Shown carefully what someone, or some thing, wished me to see,” and conceived “a debt to Eirann, and its tutelary deity”, a debt which became Gráinne.

I rarely read travel books and did so here only for completeness – though there is still some of Roberts’s œuvre I have yet to catch up with. But good writing is good writing wherever you meet it and Roberts was a good writer. Better than good.

Pedant’s corner:- nictating (nictitating,) a stationers (a stationer’s,) tricolors (tricolours,) facia (fascia,) a missing comma before a speech quote, a group of tourists are (a group is,) murmer (murmur.)

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