Wilhelm Meister & Me

Piet? or Revolution by Night 1923 by Max Ernst 1891-1976
By Barry Sheils.

When I returned to Ireland that summer after my travels around Europe with Michael, I took a train by myself to a small town in Leitrim called Carrick-on-Shannon. This was as far north as the train went, the Ulster Transport Authority having in their wisdom many years before closed the majority of the cross-border lines. I had nearly a whole day to kill until my mother’s nursing shift ended and she could drive to collect me, a journey from Omagh that would take her over an hour. The weather was fair so I managed well enough, snoozing in the park where a circus was setting up, watching passers-by.

I assumed Carrick was a typical small town, though I hadn’t made the connection to the town mentioned in so many of John McGahern’s stories: it turns out that Carrick was not just any provincial backwater, it was paradigmatically provincial, refined by literature to represent everything suffocating and ennobling about living in a particular place. An apt location, in other words, for me to remain vaguely European, sublimely detached from my surroundings, and lie the length of that day in imaginative solidarity with my fellow travellers, the bare-chested itinerants who were just then erecting the scaffold for the big top. I didn’t know it at the time but I was playing the part of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, at the end of his travels, artistic and existential experiments behind him, inducted into the secret society of those who know what experience is. I was basking in the feeling of aesthetic bliss adjoined to economic privilege; and this, despite the fact that I didn’t have a penny to my name.

As the shadows lengthened across the evening, it was the fantasy of destitution that thrilled me most. I was aware of the irony that watching these men labour while my belly grumbled with hunger pleased me more than all the art galleries I had viewed across Europe in the last two months, those endless nights spent drinking with new friends, and any number of exalted conversations. This moment was what all that was for: this ritual of intermittence, of adolescence becoming the aesthetic sensibility itself, the gap of knowing that whatever you venture of yourself an economic identity awaits. My family was not rich—far from it. There was no family business to escape from, or return to. And yet, I had some certainty. I knew I was going to university. I could relax because my life was about to start in earnest. I was going to move to Dublin to become a writer like Kafka.

It was dark when I saw the car. The circus men were laughing now, sitting in a circle, flirting with a couple of local girls. I had been happy to sit observing this scene from a distance, smoking the last of my tobacco. I thought it was strange that my sister was in the car and no one else; she hadn’t long obtained her licence. I noticed that she looked pale, and she was hesitant when I waved at her. I threw my bag in the boot and jumped into the passenger seat, greeting her with a continental-style kiss to the cheek.

‘You haven’t heard,’ she said immediately, putting in check my array of French and Italian greetings. ‘There’s been a bomb at home. There’s a lot of people dead.’


[This is a short extract, the full article is available to read in Issue Four]

Barry Sheils is a writer and academic, currently working in Dublin.