‘The Fjord of Killary’ is one of the stories in the ‘Dark Lies The Island’ collection by Kevin Barry.
Originally published in the New Yorker, read the story online here.
‘So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary.’
A great opening line that draws us right into this story. Caoimhin wants to escape the city and buys a hotel in the west of Ireland, a place with an interesting history, and hopes it will inspire him to write poetry again.
‘All of my friends, every last one of them, said, “The Shining.”
‘But I was thinking, The West of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light (the light of a sad dream) . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from gaps in the drystone walls . . . ‘
But it doesn’t inspire him. Instead he grows to despise his customers in the bar and dreams of escaping elsewhere. This story takes place on the night the ‘gibbering Atlantic’ looks like it’s going to flood the hotel.
Although Caoimhin himself is a bit of a bore, his customers are varied and typical. The conversations of the locals in the pub, from the undertaker to the retired lorry driver, give a realistic insight into the rural psyche in the west of Ireland.
Caoimhin tries to engage in discussions but is magnificently ignored. The staff, all Belorussians, won’t let him forget he’s paying them minimum wage. The disco that follows the rising water is vividly portrayed: We can imagine the old ballroom, the dusty corners and the disco lights as the water rises up the stairs.
Barry’s genius must lie in the authentic dialogue. The voices of his customers make the stories more gritty, more real.
The primary interest of these people’s lives is how far one place is from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads. They make a geography of the country by the naming of pubs:
“Do you know Madigan’s in Maynooth?”“I do, of course.”
“You’d take a left there.”“I have you now.”
Bill worked in haulage as a young man and considers himself expert.
“I don’t know, Bill,” I said.
“Would we say an hour twenty if you weren’t tailbacked out of Newport?”
“I said I really don’t fucking well know, Bill.”
“There are those’ll say you’d do it in an hour.” He sipped, delicately. “But you’d want to be grease fuckin’ lightnin’ coming up from Westport direction, wouldn’t you?”
They like to criticise and discuss their neighbours.
“Fuckers are washin’ diesel up there again,” John Murphy said. “The Hourigans? Of course, they’d a father a diesel-washer before ’em, didn’t they? Cunts to a man.”
“Cunts,” Bill Knott confirmed.
Kevin Barry certainly has a way with language. The west has ‘disgracefully gray skies’ and the ‘gibbering Atlantic.’
‘The last of the evening light was an unreal throb of Kermit green.’
‘Seven sheep in a rowing boat were being bobbed about on the vicious waters of Killary. The sheep appeared strangely calm.’
A dark humour runs throughout the story, fierce honesty amid the tragedy and we can but laugh or we’d cry.
‘It was by now a hysterical downpour, with great sheets of water steaming down from Mweelrea, and the harbor roared in the fattening light. Visibility was reduced to fourteen feet. This all signalled that the West of Ireland holiday season had begun.’
‘This, by the way, was the Monday of the May bank-holiday weekend. Killary was en fête. Local opinion, cheerfully, was that it had been among the wettest bank holidays ever witnessed.’
‘I always tended bar in the evenings. I’d had a deranged notion that this would establish me as a kind of charming-innkeeper figure. This was despite the fact that not one but two ex-girlfriends (both of them, admittedly, sharp-tongued academics) had described my manner as “funereal.”’
Kevin Barry is a bit of an oul’ character himself. I went to see him last year at the Cork Short Story Festival where he presented the Faber anthology which he edited: ‘Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories.’ Remarkably down-to-earth, considering he also won the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel ‘City of Bohane’, he advised us to ‘go home to your tea, now’ to close the event.
A good interview with him on Irish Writers in America, in which he describes Ireland as ‘a wet, tormented little rock,’ can be viewed here.