I find myself stranded in Castleisland. Despite easy going for the first few days of my trip, my ride is lame by Thursday evening and I’m advised to rest here for at least two days. An old widower on the main street puts me up for near nothing, and proves himself an excellent cook to boot. So I am not overly annoyed to be sidetracked for a while. All part of the adventure.
On the first evening after a generous supper I make my way to the local pub whose name was lost at some point in history to a tin of black paint and a few hurried brushstrokes. There is only one pub left on the main street in any case, less than a minute’s walk from my lodgings. The central cluster of occupied buildings represents about thirty percent of the original town centre — everything beyond a certain point is barely walls at this point.
The barman is a friendly sort of fellow and we discuss my trip at length over small cups of strong, bitter cider. “I’m on my way to Dingle,” I explain. “My great grandparents build a house on the peninsula around the turn of the century. I’m curious to see what’s left of it. Perhaps I can reclaim a few heirlooms.”
The barman shrugs. “Rough country down there,” he says. “Barren. Exposed. It’s not as soft as the east. Expect damage, I would say. On the upside, not so many people down there. More chance the place’s been left to the elements.”
“Is the peninsula much inhabited? It’s hard to get reliable information.”
“Difficult to say, even from here.” He shrugs again. “I know there’s a good number in the town itself. There’s a bit of farming land, but mostly they fish of course. Probably not so much growing out on the head, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t people fishing a living for themselves.”
“I’m very excited. The photographs hint at a beautiful landscape.”
“You never visited Kerry before?”
“No, no. Galway a few times. The roads are better. Safer. I’ve been meaning to do this journey for many years. It’s amazing to think of my grandparents making the trip in half a day!”
“it wasn’t just the cars. The roads were still solid back then. Smooth going, door to door. On that note, a word of caution as you head on: take the Conor Pass rather than the Annascaul way into Dingle. Robbers camp the main road waiting for travellers. They ignore the mountain route since it’s impossible for anything with wheels. You should be grand on that horse, though.”
I thank him for his advice and take my drink to the fire. An older man sits against the wall chewing sedately on the end of an unlit pipe. I introduce myself and the man nods amiably, but before he has a chance to open his mouth the barman’s wife introduces him from behind the counter.
“This is Mister Grady, our town scribe.” She gestures with a flourish to an ancient blackboard nailed above the bar. Across the top an elaborate “Menu” is painted in cracked, blue lettering. Within the borders are a series of unintelligible chalkmarks, like the doodlings of a playing child.
“What is that?” I ask.
“Why, this month’s menu, of course,” she laughs. “Can you not read? I thought you could read.” I nod without replying, staring at the board.
The owners retreat to the back room shortly and I turn to Grady. “You are the town scribe?” He nods. “But, you can see then that this blackboard does not say anything at all.”
“Yes it does.” He taps the unlit pipe against the edge of his stool.
“I am sorry, but it doesn’t. It does not even look like writing.”
He shakes his head. “It does, and it is.”
“I assure you sir, that I can read and write. My pack is full of notebooks and novels. I can fetch them for you to see. And I am telling you that the board says nothing.”
He looks unfazed. “I suppose it’s my word against yours, so.”
We sit and drink for a while. I consider leaving it, but my questions gets the better of me, and he doesn’t seem bothered by my probing. “I’m not angry,” I say. “I don’t want to cause you trouble. I’m just curious as to how you can claim to be the town scribe when you obviously can’t read or write. How do you get by?”
He appears to think for a moment, then cranes his head to make sure the door to the back room is still closed. “Nobody else in the town can read either,” he says. “So it’s never really been a problem. The job came up, and I took it. There’s the odd quid in it for me too. Better than farming.”
“Can you not write at all, in any language?”
He looks at the blackboard. “I can write ‘Menu’ and I guess some other words. I don’t know enough letters to make it look real.”
“But what do you do, what services are required?”
“Well, I fill out the menu once a month, as you can see. And sometimes the Mayor asks me to write a letter for him.”
“What do you do then?”
“I write a letter for him. Usually we give it to someone going through and that’s the last we hear of it.”
“You write him a letter without any writing? Scribbles?”
“I guess. Once or twice he asked me to read him one he’d got too. I said it was in a different kind of writing. Or I couldn’t make out the hand. Once I said it wasn’t even real writing.”
“Can no one else in the town read at all?”
“Gráinne, the barman’s wife, says she can read but not write. No one pushes her on it though. She seems happy with my work.”
“I’d appreciate it sir, if you wouldn’t cause a fuss. I have a good thing here, not causing anyone any bother. ‘Cept the Mayor and he’s only sending them letters to feel important in any case.”
I get the man another whiskey and assure him that no one need know. As I leave for my bed I pass the wife at the front door. “Turnip stew tomorrow dear,” she informs me, no doubt suspecting me of lying in my earlier claims to literacy.
“Yes, I know,” I say, pausing to button my coat. “I read it earlier on the menu.” She nods and grins, clearly not believing a word.