Well, well, well! That is a surprise. My name and fame is on the up. It is not everyone who gets mentioned in An Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times but it is nice to see one’s name published in one of the main opinion pieces in the paper of record in Ireland – especially when it was unexpected.
Last week, Frank McNally, the main writer of An Irishman’s Diary wrote about my home town of Cill Choca (Kilcock). He had participated in a 5km race organised by St. Coca’s Athletic Club.
The Road Less Raced – An Irishman’s Diary about ballads, barbershops, and Teresa Brayton
The Old Bog Road 10k is, I believe, an athletics event waiting to happen. It would start in Kilcock, Co Kildare, then proceed westward towards Enfield before turning north onto the aforementioned thoroughfare, the most celebrated stretch of soft tarmac in the history of Irish ballad-making.
From there, I suppose, it would just turn around again – the OBR is a dead-end according to maps – and go back to where it started.
But until such an event comes to pass, the next best thing is the annual St Coca’s 5k race, which I took part in last weekend.
That too starts and finishes in Kilcock. And although it doesn’t go anywhere near The Old Bog Road, it does centre on a Brayton Avenue, which is surely named for the woman who wrote the famous song.
We’ll return to her shortly.
First the other female to whom the race pays incidental tribute. For it had somehow escaped me until now that, among Ireland’s countless ancient saints, there was one called Coca. Okay, she was probably Cuach in the original Irish. But as anglicised, she sounds more like a fashion designer or an exotic dancer than a nun.
A nun she was, however, and a well-connected one, being a sister to St Kevin of Glendalough.
And not only did she establish a church that gave its name to a town (Cill Choca), she is also now commemorated by an athletic club and, through it, by the annual 5,000-metre race that hundreds of us ran last Friday, a form of penance she could hardly have imagined back in the 6th century.
Speaking of penance, I noticed while visiting Kilcock that the surrounding parishes include one called Painstown.
Our race-route didn’t take us through it, as it happens – it just felt that way, especially in the last mile.
So despite my earlier suggestion, I was glad the 10k hadn’t been invented yet.
The Old Bog Road doesn’t run through Painstown either, apparently.
But there is plenty of torment in the eponymous song, including even a mention of “blisters” (of hands rather than feet).
Mostly it’s about mental anguish, as the writer combines three classic themes of Irish balladry – exile, lost love, and a dead mother – into one tear-jerking epic.
Teresa Brayton (née Boylan) was born in 1868, near the road she immortalised. She also died there, in 1943. But in between, she spent much of her life in New York. And although she’s remembered now, if at all, for that single song, she was very prominent in Irish-American life once, known primarily as a poet and writer.
Before and after 1916, she was one of the voices of nationalism, with Roger Casement being another of her best-known subjects.
Still, a posthumous appreciation in The Irish Times also described some of her lyrics as “racy” – not in the 5k sense – so she must have had a comic side too.
Despite its flat roads and accents, north Kildare has reached some great heights of lyricism over the years, thanks to the likes of Brayton and, more recently, of Christy Moore and Luka Bloom, from just down the road in Prosperous.
But somewhat more desperately, I noticed on Friday that Kilcock’s claims to fame also include having the “world’s tallest barber’s pole”.
At least that’s what the sign says alongside a red-and-white striped mast that ascends to about the same height as the adjacent two-storey houses, maybe 8 metres.
Now even allowing that the competition might not be a crowded field, I wondered if such a modest structure could really be the world’s tallest.
And alas, it seems not to be.
As far as I can establish, the Eiffel Tower of barbershop poles is in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, and rises to an oxygen-thinning “73 feet”, or about triple the height of the Kildare one.
That may not be the only gauntlet the Oregonians are throwing down to Kilcock.
The same Portland suburb, I gather, hosts an annual event called “Ballad Town USA”. In fact, that’s why the pole is there – the contest is dedicated to the category of singing known as the barbershop quartet.
But I’m not sure this is something Kilcock would want to emulate.
Whatever about the town building a bigger pole, the ballads of North Kildare would hardly lend themselves to the barbershop format. I’m imagining The Old Bog Road performed a capella in jaunty harmony by men in fancy dress.
And to be honest, that’s not a road I’d want to go down.
This deserves a letter
I was delighted to see my hometown being written of in the main newspaper in Ireland. I felt though that Mr. McNally could have mentioned some of the other things that Cill Choca is famous for so I took my keyboard and sent a letter to the letters’ editor of the Irish Times.
(I should mention before you read any further, that I mistook Frank McNally for Frank McDonald, the former environment editor of the Irish Times. It seems to be something that happens often.)
It was a pleasure to read of Frank McDonald’s description of Cill Choca and Theresa Brayton. As someone who hails from the area but is no longer resident there may I add a few more items of history? McDonald failed to mention that President de Valera gave the oration at Theresa Brayton’s grave. She was friends with many national leaders.
He noted that saint Coca is not well known but if you visited the town you would quickly see that she left her mark with many buildings etc. named in her honour – St. Coca’s church, Scoil Choca Naofa, Saint Coca’s Scout Hall, St. Coca’s Athletic Club and Café Coca. The people of Kilcock are very fond of saint Coca but unfortunately there is a tendency to pronounce her name like half the name of a certain fizzy drink. It should be pronounced as “cook” in cookie is pronounced. Cook-ah, not coke-ah.
Kilcock has many other famous claims to fame including being the only place in Ireland where a river, a national road, a canal, a railway and a local road all run parallel to each other for over half a kilometre. A cycleway has recently been added alongside the canal so the accolades continue to increase. It is a claim to fame that never ceases to underwhelm people.
More interestingly though, just north of the Kilcock, lies Larchill Arcadian Garden, a ‘ferme ornée’ or ornamental farm, and is the only surviving, near complete, garden of its type in Europe.
Kilcock was the birth-place of many of the races that are now run in Punchestown. Kilcock was famous for centuries as a racing town but the races outgrew their venue, the bánóg, so they had to be moved to Punchestown in the 1930s. Back in 1993, Kilcock had the dubious honour of being the location of the largest IRA bomb factory ever discovered. Many bombs in the north and Britain in the early 1990s might have been prepared in Kilcock. In 1995, Kilcock was the first town in Ireland to ever hold a local referendum and in 1999 it was also the first community in Ireland to successfully resist a proposal to build an incinerator just west of the town.
Unfortunately the Celtic Tiger did not seem to improve the fortunes of Kilcock. As children, we Kilcock people used to boast that we had something special in our midst – a bubblegum factory. Leaf, later Zed Candy, churned out all sorts of sweets including bubblegums and Mister Freezes. As a result, the town used to smell of bubblegum. It was a very sweet, sticky kind of aroma. It is sadly missed. The factory shut in late 2008 and production of these goodies was moved to China. I only hope that a small town there is shrouded by the same aroma and is not choking on pollution from dirty factories.
Oh, one last claim to fame. Kilcock was the venue for the replacement programme for Glenroe. It was called On Homeground. It was nice to look at on television but its shooting caused traffic chaos with very long queues of traffic stuck on the road along the canal with no escape for motorists. It might have been why RTÉ did not continue it. Tis a pity really. The idea was that On Homeground would be a rural soap opera. The reality is that Kilcock is now a far-flung suburb of Dublin. Again, another reason RTÉ may have stopped the show.
Seanán Ó Coistín
(formerly of Cill Choca)
I waited with impatience to see if my letter would be published the next day or the day after. Alas it was not…
Something else, even more special, than my letter was published.
McNally chose to reply to my letter with another mention of Cill Choca in An Irishman’s Diary article – and he mentioned me twice in the article!
Trains, plains, and bicycle wheels – An Irishman’s Diary about the straight lines of Kilcock and the circles of Flann O’Brien
While writing about Kilcock and the Old Bog Road earlier this week, it seems I neglected to mention an even greater infrastructural wonder in that Kildare town.
I have only belatedly noticed it thanks to Seanán Ó Coistín, a former resident now exiled in Germany, where he is clearly still haunted by the smell of bubblegum that long pervaded his native Kilcock, courtesy of the late lamented Leaf factory.
Local children used to boast of this everywhere they went, he recalls.
But bubblegum aside, he also points out that Kilcock “is the only place in Ireland where a river, a national road, a canal, a railway, and local road all run parallel to each other”. Then he adds: “It is a claim to fame that never ceases to underwhelm people.” Despite which, I myself was sufficiently whelmed to look it up on Google maps.
And sure enough, not only do all five of those land and water routes run parallel for about half a kilometre on the east side of Kilcock, so does the Meath-Kildare county boundary, which mediates between the main road and the river until the latter swerves violently, taking the border with it, to avoid the town.
The confluence of routes reminded of Paul Simon’s song about the “Mississippi Delta, shining like a National guitar”.
And of Joni Mitchell, seeing six jet trails in the sky somewhere and thinking: “It was the hexagram of the heavens, it was the strings of my guitar”.
But the trails can hardly have been parallel in Mitchell’s case, or they could not also form a hexagram. And the strings of the Mississippi Delta would be too slack to play a tune on.
Whereas, for this section at least, the map of Kilcock is as tightly strung as the neck of a Fender Stratocaster.
If anything, the area’s unique levels of harmony are increasing, because Seanán tells me that a bike lane has recently been added alongside the canal. So never mind the Old Bog Road, Kilcock might be considered the spiritual home of another famous tarmac ballad, Frank O’Donovan’s anthem to unity of purpose, We’re on the One Road.
Moving from straight lines to circular ones, meanwhile, also in my email this week was the above photograph. It’s of a sign at the rear of Rathmines Post Office in Dublin and its true significance might be lost on casual readers, but not on Flann O’Brien fans. It was certainly not lost on the eagle-eyed correspondent, a certified Flannorak, who sent it to me.
In O’Brien’s metaphysical murder mystery, The Third Policeman, most of the action takes place in a surreal underworld where humans and bicycles are subject to molecular interchange, with disturbing results.
At the effect’s most harmless, humans with a high percentage of bike spend long periods leaning against walls or standing on roadsides with one foot propped up on the kerb.
At its worst, the phenomenon results in such incidents as Michael Gilhaney’s bicycle, an estimated 48 per cent Gilhaney, scandalising the parish by parking itself outside the door of an attractive new female school teacher, in such a way that she will mistake it for her own and jump on.
Postal workers occupy an especially high-risk category, as Sergeant Pluck explains.
He estimates the local postman’s bike quotient at 71 per cent and despairs: “There is very little hope of ever getting his number down below fifty again.”
So the sergeant would be in no way surprised by the sign in Rathmines post office, which is clearly aimed at the bikes themselves, not their owners.
“Did you never see a bicycle leaning against the dresser of a warm kitchen when it is pouring outside,” he asks the novel’s unnamed narrator. “I did.” “Not very far away from the fire?” “Yes”. “Near enough to the family to hear the conversation?” “Yes.” “Not a thousand miles from where they keep the eatables?”
The already astonished narrator becomes further amazed: “I did notice that. You do not mean to say that these bicycles eat food?” Sergeant Pluck replies: “They were never seen doing it […] All I know is that the food disappears.”
This and other depravities condemns him to spend eternity asking: “Is is about a bicycle?” And everything is, of course, although the upcoming International Flann O’Brien Society Conference in Salzburg begs to differ. The event promises a full week of talks on a very wide range of themes.
But of particular note is the opening address on July 17th, which carries the controversial even provocative – title: “This is not about a bicycle”.
On behalf of Sergeant Pluck, I strongly doubt the veracity of that statement.
An unexpected surprise
While I have had many letters published in the Irish Times and other newspapers, this is the first time that I have been mentioned in An Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times. It was unexpected and satisfying.
In case you want to see the parallel river, road, cycle path, canal, railway and local road, look at this map of Cill Choca here.
It is not the first time that the wonder of parallel routes in Cill Choca has been mentioned in the media before. The Leinster Leader and Today FM discussed it.
By the way, I am not exiled in Germany à la Napoleon Bonaparte on Elba. I live in Trier of my own volition as it is cheaper than living in Luxembourg where I work and also it is where my girlfriend is from.
Let’s see how I may be mentioned in the Irish Times in future.
Cill Choca, Coca, Frank McNally, history, Irish Times, Kilcock