It all started for me at the Navan library when I was a young gossun of about seven or eight. The love of books.
All those stories, waiting to be read, inside those paperback and hardback covers, protected by the plastic coverings put on by the library; stacked on shelves by the hundreds in the childrens’ section; inviting me personally on a journey; a journey of discovery of new worlds that continues to this day.
I don’t remember my first visit, or visits, to the Navan library, or who first took me to that important looking building on the far side of the Fair Green heading out towards theTrim Road, but I’m sure my mother was involved. She was a teacher herself in Saint Anne’s and of course believed in the value of introducing one’s children to books at an early age.
I do remember though, once I got my taste for books, becoming a daily visitor to the library. I was obsessed with Enid Blyton’s books. After reading my first Famous Five adventure, which I think was ‘Five Go Off In A Caravan’, I had to get hold of them all, and sure enough they were all to be found in the Navan library.
It was a thrill to lift these books into my hand, and turn open the pages, pages that I knew had been turned by other small pairs of hands before me, pages that would be turned over after I handed the book back in to Mr Daly at the check out desk on my way in to search for more stories.
It’s probably why I still almost prefer today to buy secondhand books, and to browse through secondhand bookshops. That sense perhaps, from looking at and feeling the already touched pages, that you’re on a shared adventure. Someone has been here before. And now it’s my turn.
I love outdoor bookstalls with old classics being sold on them for next to nothing; I will never pass one by if I see one on the street, and I usually, after an hour’s browsing, will pick up a volume or two before going on my way. You see less and less of these outlets today, unfortunately. Like live music in pubs, they are just not as tolerated any more as they once were. At least that’s the case inNew York, where I lived for many years. They continue, but they are harder to find.
It’s a thrill to this day that I still get when I see a bookshop, a bookstall on a street, or even a rack of books in a supermarket. That excited feeling comes over me instantaneously.
I’ve been a musician for the past several years and have been on the road quite a lot, sometimes alone, sometimes with other musicians. When we’d hit a town and had an hour or two to spare before or after playing, the guys in the band would make for the nearest music store to check out gear, usually guitar amps. Me, I’d make for the local Barnes And Noble, or Borders bookstore, and would spend a good while browsing. It was almost a guilty pleasure because I felt I should be looking at amps myself, or guitars, or something musical, and be serious about the trade I had chosen for myself, but sometimes you just can’t help being pulled to where you belong. It was like a homing device, the bookstore, drawing me back to this world of adventure on the typed page. We all have our places that we prefer to be, where we feel most at home.
And instead of reading Enid Blyton I’ll go to the classics shelf and pick out a Dostoyevsky or a Burgess or a Balzac (yes I like the older stuff), but the basic excited feeling is still the same as it was when I was a kid of seven. Alright, I admit it, I still read Enid Blyton.
I got started young. I’m sure it was no bad thing that St Anne’s, my first school, was only across the road from the library. And even at that early age I was impressed that such a large, important looking building could be devoted to books; books that you could take home with you for free, and as often as you wanted.
Our habits are formed early, I suppose.
I remember waking up as a toddler, at dawn, long before school was due to start, and reaching for my book. My mother would come into the bedroom to open the curtains and get us out of bed; my two brothers were still in sleepland but she didn’t have to worry about me: I was awake already and deep into another Secret Seven mystery.
The library was always there with its endless supply to feed my growing book habit.
Entering the teenage years, horror books became my preferred reading. I was big into music at that stage, but books still had a hold over me and I was still a frequent visitor to the library. I was especially big into vampires and decided to do a little research into the possible existence of vampires in Meath. I did not ask the librarians on duty for any books specifically about ‘Vampires in Meath’- they might start wondering about me- but I did ask to be shown to the local history room, with the excuse that I was doing a school project on local ghost stories. That sounded more reasonable.
At that stage I wanted to be a writer of horror stories myself, and what better place to start looking for something original to write about than one’s local library…I ended up writing a few articles on general local history, the story of Newgrange or an account of the general historical landmarks of the Boyne Valley, as inspired by that Meath classic written by Oscar Wilde’s Father, ‘The Beaties Of The Boyne And Blackwater’. These articles of mine were published in the Meath Chronicle, and were my first taste of writing and publishing.
I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I had known for a long time.
Punk music got in the way for several years and I didn’t go to the library as much, nor read as much; but I do remember getting the same thrill above in the St Patrick’s classical school library when I’d pick a book from the shelves- only a book lover can know that feeling, which is actually hard to describe- a sense of mystical adventure, of oncoming mind travel-okay I’m getting carried away. By the time I left St Pats I was into poetry and had a high determination to be the next John Keats (as if there hadn’t been one already!), or the next Gerard Manley Hopkins…
I brought my first poems to Father Rice the English teacher above in Saint Patrick’s classical school. He graciously accepted to have a look at them. I went back to him that summer of 1985, after we had done the Leaving Cert exam. The future was laid out ahead of us like a young girl with flowers in her hair, invitingly. I was fully convinced my teacher was going to be completely won over by these first poems of this future giant of literature. I remember he was sunbathing on a deckchair in his garden immersed in a Brian Moore novel when I cycled up to the priests’ house.
“Well,” I says, approaching him shyly, “did you read my poetry?”
“I did,” he said, in that cheerfully sardonic tone of his.
“Well,” I says, “what did you think of it?”
“It ain’t Shakespeare, Son,” he answered, looking at me from behind his sunglasses, his manner full of the assumption that at least I would be in agreement with that.
“No,” says I, disappointed. “You’re right it’s not Shakespeare.”
“But I like the one about climbing the Twelve Pins inConnemara. That was good.”
I didn’t ask him if he thought I could be the John Keats of Ireland; after being put in a running that was clearly below that of the great bard of Avon, I didn’t want to risk a sardonic remark. His remarks could be biting sometimes.
But he had said one poem was good. That was enough for me to go on with for a while…
And it was enough to send me back to the library looking for more poetry books. I knew I’d find them there.
The library, we had been told, had access to every book published in the English language. I don’t know if that was true, but it sure felt like it, that summer before I started out on my own voyage of literary discovery…