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Christian Tyler, The Last Bookshop in Europe - Slightly Foxed Issue 30

The Last Bookshop in Europe

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The white van was seen one morning to draw up in the little car park overlooking Clogher beach, a stormy inlet of the Dingle peninsula in south-west Ireland. Four men in black suits climbed out, edged down the slippery concrete steps and lined up on the beach. Then, as if responding to an invisible signal, they raised their arms in salute over the ocean, and shouted into the wind in a strange tongue.

With each telling the story changes; but according to the locals, these men were Ukrainians who had, at some distant time in some obscure drinking den in Kharkov, perhaps, or Kiev, Odessa or Lvov, pledged to celebrate the emancipation of their country from Soviet rule by travelling to the furthermost western point in Europe.

The Dingle peninsula is indeed the last stop in Europe. Here, where the rollers come foaming in past the Blasket Islands from the Atlantic, you stand as close to America as it is possible to stand without getting your feet wet.

People who come here have answered the call of the West, the lure which has shaped the history of our hemisphere by wave after wave of migrations and invasions since the agricultural revolution that crept in from Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago. Many are Gaelic speakers, in thrall to the famous Irish myth of a heavenly land across the water –Tir na nOg, the Land of Eternal Youth, or Land of the Happy Dead – whose ramparts, towers and mountains may be glimpsed of an evening in the clouds on the horizon, back-lit by a fiery setting sun.

The peninsula’s population reflects that edge-of-the-world feeling. Many of the local families were forced by poverty to leave decades ago. Their places have been taken by the ‘blow-ins’, immigrants from England and further afield: not only retirees, but young people out of tune with a culture of competition who have settled here to scratch a living as craft-workers, artists, musicians, builders and writers.

Among those settlers are my sister and her h

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The white van was seen one morning to draw up in the little car park overlooking Clogher beach, a stormy inlet of the Dingle peninsula in south-west Ireland. Four men in black suits climbed out, edged down the slippery concrete steps and lined up on the beach. Then, as if responding to an invisible signal, they raised their arms in salute over the ocean, and shouted into the wind in a strange tongue.

With each telling the story changes; but according to the locals, these men were Ukrainians who had, at some distant time in some obscure drinking den in Kharkov, perhaps, or Kiev, Odessa or Lvov, pledged to celebrate the emancipation of their country from Soviet rule by travelling to the furthermost western point in Europe. The Dingle peninsula is indeed the last stop in Europe. Here, where the rollers come foaming in past the Blasket Islands from the Atlantic, you stand as close to America as it is possible to stand without getting your feet wet. People who come here have answered the call of the West, the lure which has shaped the history of our hemisphere by wave after wave of migrations and invasions since the agricultural revolution that crept in from Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago. Many are Gaelic speakers, in thrall to the famous Irish myth of a heavenly land across the water –Tir na nOg, the Land of Eternal Youth, or Land of the Happy Dead – whose ramparts, towers and mountains may be glimpsed of an evening in the clouds on the horizon, back-lit by a fiery setting sun. The peninsula’s population reflects that edge-of-the-world feeling. Many of the local families were forced by poverty to leave decades ago. Their places have been taken by the ‘blow-ins’, immigrants from England and further afield: not only retirees, but young people out of tune with a culture of competition who have settled here to scratch a living as craft-workers, artists, musicians, builders and writers. Among those settlers are my sister and her husband, who first came to Dingle when he was employed to supervise the building of a house for a retired Liverpudlian businessman. (The man never saw his house finished: he was drowned off one of the Blasket Islands.) Having arrived, they could not leave, so they bought a plot of land, built a house for themselves and became immersed in local life – she learning Irish and acting with the local theatre company, he writing plays for it and playing the fiddle in the pub. In 2007 they decided to dig deeper, and bought the bookshop in Dingle town. ‘It was never my dream to own a bookshop, so I never risked having a dream shattered,’ Camilla, my sister, said. ‘When I suggested to Mike we buy it, he told me I must be bonkers. But I thought, “I know all the people who go in there, all the book-readers of Dingle.”’ Camilla had worked part-time behind the counter for the original owners, who started the venture in 1998, and she had always been on the edges of the literary world. Together, she and Mike set out to create the epitome of an independent bookshop. The shelves were rebuilt and chalk boards put above each section so that category names could be changed with the wipe of a cloth. A podium was installed for readings, and Pooka the sheepdog (named after a malevolent, nocturnal Irish fairy) was installed for informality: she likes to lie on the carpet by the counter, upside down with her paws in the air. There are more than 6,500 books on the shelves. Most independent bookshops on the scenic fringe have to cater for two or three markets at once: the local people, the ‘blow-ins’ and the summer tourists. In Dingle the problem of selection is magnified. Not only are many of the local people Irish speakers, but the blow-ins come from various countries, and the summer tourist trade is both large and multinational. This being the west of Ireland, it is no surprise to find a more than usually literate readership. Both the priest and the doctor are published poets; some of the farmers are secret authors. There are book groups in two languages, and the Diseart Institute up the road draws a steady stream of Americans studying Irish language and culture. On my first visit to the shop some years ago I was confronted at the doorway by a red-headed itinerant bard, a sheaf of papers – his epic poem – clutched in one hand, while with the other he drew large circles above his head. He was declaiming in Irish, at the top of his voice. Another day an elderly Irishman was drawn into the shop by its window display of cookery books and potatoes to commemorate the International Year of the Potato. Inside the door he stood looking about him in puzzlement: ‘Is it a bookshop?’ His wife, who was directly behind him, turned to the counter apologetically: ‘He thought you were selling seed potatoes,’ she said. ‘He would never have come in otherwise.’ Of course, books on Celtic life and legend are prominently displayed: Bibeanna by Brenda Ni Shuilleabhain, the life stories of twenty local women; Weather Watch, the daily e-mails of two female migrants, one from Cork, the other from Portland, Oregon; and the biography of Tom Crean, the Antarctic explorer chosen by both Scott and Shackleton, who was born down the road at Annascaul. The Blasket Islands, a step closer still to the fairy land of Tir na nOg, celebrated for their ancient dialect and the hard-scrabble existence of their people, frequented by ethnologists and anthropologists, and abandoned in the 1950s, have generated a literary genre of their own: titles such as The Islandman by Thomas O’Crohan, Peig Sayers’s Autobiography and – best known of all – Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O’Sullivan. Competition is provided by An Café Liteartha, a café-bookshop specializing in Irish books two hundred yards to the east in Dykegate Street. And Dingle has its own publishing house. Its imprint, Brandon Books, is named after the 3,000-foot mountain behind the town whose craggy north face guards the top of the peninsula. One of Brandon’s best-known authors is Gerry Adams. In 2007 the Sinn Fein leader came to the Dingle Bookshop to sign copies of An Irish Eye, a collection of his writings. A large crowd of people gathered, many of them from the nearby town of Tralee, a nationalist stronghold. Adams was hustled through the crowd and into the shop by his publisher, Steve McDonagh, and a man wearing a black shirt and black suit with a purple handkerchief in the breast pocket who looked like a bodyguard but proved to be a wedding guest from the church up the road. Adams was persuaded to read one of his stories – how his dog had been arrested by the British Army and turned into a sniffer-out of IRA explosives – and to recite a couple of poems in Irish, though Irish is not his first language. The mystique of the West draws holidaymakers, too, to the utter limit of the continent. From St Patrick’s Day until October, tour coaches crawl round the promontory along the scenic Slea Head Drive with its views of the Blaskets. They must go clockwise, nose to tail, because the road is not wide enough to allow two buses to pass. Their passengers stop at the Iron Age fort of Dunbeg, the  Celtic museum at Ventry, the pottery at Clogher, the ‘famine cottage’ and beehive huts at Fahan, before returning to Dingle where they hope to catch a glimpse of Fungie, the bottlenose dolphin who lives in the bay and has done more than any other living creature to make the peninsula a place of pilgrimage. If there is time to spare, they go shopping in town and up Green Street to the Dingle Bookshop. The shop’s customers are multi-ethnic. ‘I think we are proudest of having introduced Hyman Kaplan to the Dingle Peninsula,’ Camilla says. Out here on the edge, London literary fashions don’t count for much. The Uncommon Reader, for example, Alan Bennett’s metropolitan bestseller about the Queen and a mobile library, sold not a single copy. The French prefer to buy postcards, and are astonished to find that the owners understand French, whereas the Irish speakers show no surprise when Camilla replies to them in their first language. The English keep their money in very small purses or wallets, and pay in loose change, inspecting every Euro coin before putting it down. The summer Americans come in groups, and are easy and agreeable. The autumn Americans come singly or in pairs, and are a lot more demanding. They want out-of-print books they have found in their B&Bs, and express amazement that their favourite author is not represented. (‘You don’t know Hiram Hirschhorn? But he’s really famous!’) They are provoked by the shop’s Vital Titles section, which displays literary classics such as Animal Farm, The Well of Loneliness, Catch-22, Ulysses, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man and Some Experiences of an Irish RM. ‘Vital’ authors run from Boccaccio through Primo Levi to Vonnegut. An important section, much expanded, is the one marked ‘Young Adult’. Camilla and Mike knew nothing about the teenage market when they started, and have had to learn fast. There are many families in Dingle – and many Irish families still have four or more children – as well as others who visit in the summer. So the American TV teen phenomenon Miley Cyrus can be found alongside the best current children’s authors, and a few favourites from Camilla’s own childhood, such as John Masefield’s Box of Delights and Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories. Children, of course, spell Harry Potter. A few months after taking over the shop, the couple endured the bookseller’s trial by fire – a midnight launch of the latest J. K. Rowling title. They enlisted the aid of Father Godley, the so-aptly-named parish priest who is also a member of the conjurors’ guild, the Magic Circle. Father Godley turned up to perform magic for a wide-eyed audience. A little boy from Northern Ireland who volunteered to act as his assistant was congratulated on his stage presence, and an American teenager in the audience declared afterwards that it was more fun than the Harry Potter launch she’d been to in Chicago. From Chicago and Kiev alike they come, to stand on the edge of the Eurasian landmass. They have been drawn by the legends they have heard of Tir na nOg, the dreamland lying somewhere out there over the sea. And now they can read them, in books they have found in the last bookshop in Europe.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © Christian Tyler 2011


About the contributor

Christian Tyler has just finished a book on Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

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