John James tells us about an event he and Pete Byrne attended in Arney on Wednesday evening:

A Night in Arney

‘Battles, Bridges and Bricks.’ Project

Where the heck is Arney, I thought.  Before I was enlightened.  Thus Pete and I made our way on a Wednesday night down the back lanes to the back of beyond.  He was driving and I navigating, so when I saw a left-turn for Arney, I pointed this out to Pete.

‘Naw.  There’s a quicker route further down the road,’ he assured me.

The journey continued and continued and continued.

‘Pete.  That yon sign said Arney was ¾ of a mile.’

‘Jaysus! Will you give me a break!’

Brake we did and turned it into Creamery Close.  Pete is too vain to spoil his saturnine good looks with a pair of goggles, so he thought it said Cemetery Close. I said it was still a dead end.

He turned the car around but we had gone so far South that we were now wearing sombrero’s and the car had a bull-bar smiling like a desert-mouthed gaucho in a bar.

We paused at every cow-lane, dirt-track and tractor-path and even an entrance to a Care Home before we found that aforementioned turn-off for Arney and we turned in silence and eventually found the Hall via a hurricane-drenched GAA match – just don’t ask me which one.

Pete calmed his nerves with a cigarette before going in and once in we found ourselves punctual and on time for a change – but the event started 15 minutes late – Arney time. The keynote speaker, Henry Glassie, arrived with a fanfare; accompanied by an entourage of straw-suited Mummers, one playing the pipes.

He was interviewed by our own Seamas MacAnnaidh and he spoke with love, reverence and unapologetic nostalgia for the time he spent in the ancient townland of Ballymenone.  He took us back in his time machine on a wonderful journey to meet wonderful people who became his friends, in so doing they became our friends, so vividly were his descriptions of their humanity.

At the end he was asked if it was not true that other places had their times and their people just like Arney.  He replied that was certainly the case, indeed he had spent time in Turkey and found similar places with similar people; however, he just happened to be in Arney at that time and with those people.  It was down to other people to set down the experiences of other places and other times, he was now too old, he said.

Why is it important?  That each place is special to those who are its denizens?  Would it not be easier if every place were the same?  Of course life would be simpler, if we all had the McDonalds-on-the-corner homogeneity throughout the world, but I would argue that it is our very differences that teach us about ourselves.  If we were all the same, we would have no contrast, it would be a place of eternal night with not even a humming-bird’s breath of a day.

We had a break for tea and sandwiches; Pete had to go back for an extra sandwich, shaming us all.  Then we were further entertained by an accordionist and thence two local storytellers, telling tales of humour and sadness, but always remembering and not forgetting. A young boy of a dozen years played the fiddle like a maestro, with jigs and reels that had us tapping our feet – mostly in tune.  Then he played a melancholy air and I was hard-pressed not to keep the tears stinging the backs of my eyes from gushing forth.

We finished the night with an acoustic family group who sang about Hard Times and we all joined in and they sang another ditty about Ellis Island that misted the eye, before finishing with a rocking little tune and the night was over.

We drove back, Pete mulishly accepting my navigation.  At home, I found that I could not sleep, my head was still in Arney, along with my heart that I had carelessly left behind.