Friday, March 11, 2005

On Being a Ballinaman

The Ballinaman is not like any other man, just as the town of Ballina is not like any other town. To have a high opinion of one's own place is not new, of course - the late singer Frank Sinatra had great time for New York, often remarking that if you could make it there, you'd make anywhere. Percy French wrote movingly of Dromcolliher, finding the fact that there's only one house in Dromcolliher, for hardware and bacon and tay, not a bug but a feature, as the computer programmers say.

That's all very well for the Chairman of the Board and Roscommon's Poet Laureate. The Ballinaman indulges them, and his immaculate manners preclude him for pointing out the error. It was bad enough that Fate did not see fit to make Ballinamen out of Mr Sinatra or Mr French - there is no need for actual Ballinamen to add insult to injury by rubbing it in.

The Ballinaman sees the grand scheme. He can take in the big picture. When James Wallace Melvin left his home on Garden St, Ballina, on the last Saturday in August, 1886, on his way to Barney's Boreen and his founding of the very Gaelic football club that will give all Ballinamen and women the chance to grace the capital for a day or two this coming St Patrick's Day, he was asked by a fellow Ballinaman where he was going. "Pat," said JWM, giving the answer that is etched on all Stephenite hearts, "I'm off to set up a club that will shake all Ireland."

Anyone else would have settled for maybe the junior title after a few years and maybe a run in the Intermediate when some of the fellas are a bit older. Not a Ballinaman, who starts where he aims to finish - at the top.

The Ballinaman enjoys that trait that the French identify as élan and Spanish as Duarte. Even in his everyday speech the Ballinaman is an artist - specifically an impressionist. Just as Monet and Renoir identified the art and the beauty in the everyday in nineteenth century painting, and as Ravel did in music, so the Ballinaman elevates even the most basic of human intercourses to the level of Great Art.

Consider the Dubliner's entire conversational gambit which can consist solely of the words "all" and "right": interrogative: "awri'?"; assenting: "awri', yeah"; threatening; "awri'?"; exuberant: "awri, yeah!"; curious: "awri'?", and so on. Consider the Corkman and Kerryman who sometimes hardly speak at all but merely wink and twitch at each other, perhaps selling several cattle or sheep in the process. And compare that the to the glory of conversation in Ballina town, where the heights are aimed for and surpassed.

Take yourself back to your schooldays, when you cowered before a greater schoolboy Power than your own in Scoil Padraig, or, as it was evocatively called, the Boys' School - perhaps because the notion of anything as fragile as a girl passing those gates and surviving rather beggared belief - and remember how you were addressed, the richly beautiful language used to get across the most base of threats, that of physical violence. "I'll hit ya so many thumps you'll be begging me to start kicking ya." "I'll break ya up like a bar of chocolate"; "I'll open ya up like a bag of Tayto"; "I'll make more chips out of your teeth than they see in a week down in Caffola's." Impressionism, that school of art where the natural beauty of everyday life is cherished, reaches its fullest flower in the streets and schoolyards of Ballina.

Or it could be that you were the stripling that was doing the threatening - for they too are Ballinamen. If you were one of those worthies, I greet you too in fraternity in these days of days, the Eve of Ballina Glory. And while I'm it, might I take the opportunity to congratulate you on your being able to read? I would have given long odds on that proposition while quaking in terror inside my duffel coat in the nineteen-seventies.

But it isn't all dialectic, colloquy and fine living - the Ballinaman has had to put his shoulder to the wheel too, and shed tears real and salty. Like any town in the West of Ireland, Ballina has seen hardships. Once you're eaten of Archie's curried chips, now nothing but a golden and spicy memory, it's hard to return to look Nigella in the eye.

She hands you a plate of calamari fritti, you think it's some kind of soap. You give the halloumi to the cat, who's glad to get it. "How about Fetta Gnocchi?" asks the domestic goddess, beginning to despair. "Didn't he play for Juventus a few years ago?" you ask. "You know, when Brady was still in Turin?"

And as Nigella collapses into a weeping heap, you take her by hand, shush her sobbing (because a Ballinaman always knows how to treat a lady) and you tell here that once upon a time there was a chipper in the West of Ireland that made the most perfect curried chips in the world - those perfect, old style chips cut from real potatoes and fried in real grease, smothered lovingly in a biting and impish curried sauce and then - and here was genius! - laced throughout with great big lumps of tomato, onion, mushroom and even on occasion slivers of chicken, all set to go off in a fusillade of post-porter taste sensation.

Persons of delicate digestion, for whom leading doctors had strictly regimented a diet of prunes and shredded wheat in gripe water, would punch granny in the mouth and kick her as she was falling for a punnet of Archie's curried chips. Archie was not a native Ballinaman and his shop is long gone, but when it was there Ballina led the world in early am cuisine. I don't know what happened to him but Archie, if you're reading this and you're in Croker on St Patrick's Day, I hope you have one hell of a time. You made a lot of people very happy for years and years and years.

As I hope all Ballina men and women are happy by five o'clock on St Patrick's Day, from rogues and rascals to princes and potentates. Before Minister Cullen arrived recently to give us four fine miles of new road (if he'd given us four more furlongs we could run the Grand National), it was usual for directions to Ballina to be given in distance from the main road. Not any more - with the grace of God and His saints, especially Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, whose feast day we celebrate when the All-Ireland Club Final is played, that main road will by sundown lead directly into Ballina and run from the Moy to the sea and the broad Atlantic itself. And James Wallace Melvin will finally have his club that will have shaken all Ireland. Go on, the town.