The tour was my idea. When I moved back home after everything happened – well, not so much happened as dissolved, like Arnie at the end of Terminator 2 – it was on the condition that I helped with the family business: Barry’s Buses. So that’s what I did; I took groups on tours around Kerry from our licensed pick-up spot opposite the Brandon Hotel in Tralee. We had two tours at the time, around the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula, and I drove both loops, spouting facts and stories, herding people off and on the bus, sneaking the odd smoke as they complained about the weather and took gigabits of photos. After a season of this, I grew bored – history never interested me that much – and it was starting to come across in my delivery. A couple of tourists mentioned it to my father, another brought it up in a two-star online review. When my father broached it with me, in a cautious, gentle tone, likely afraid of another dissolution, I told him my idea. A tour of all the film locations in Kerry. I might sound more animated, I reasoned, if I spoke about something I actually cared about. He agreed to it, on one condition – the tour had to be called ‘Kerrywood’.
Some of the rival companies already had a Star Wars tour since The Force Awakens filmed on Skellig, but my tour would be more extensive and knowledgeable – a cinephile’s tour. And it did prove a success, so much so that we expanded it into a two-day tour, with most of them booked out during the peak season.
That weekend, I collected the group opposite the Brandon Hotel on the first morning. Near the end of the season, late August, it wasn’t quite booked out. Thirty in a bus with a thirty-eight-person capacity. Most were American, as usual, though there were a half dozen from the UK, some Europeans and an elderly Japanese couple, Mr and Mrs Saito.
The opening day of the tour covered the Iveragh peninsula. The first stop was Killarney, the hometown of Michael Fassbender (and Jessie Buckley, but she was only a rising star at the time – most of them wouldn’t have seen Beast or Wild Rose). Driving through town, I pointed out the restaurant that used to be owned by Fassbender’s parents (they’d since sold it and decamped to California) while giving a brief overview of his personal history, his rise to fame via a Guinness ad, a terrible supernatural drama called Hex, a minor role in Spielberg’s Band of Brothers up to his breakthrough role in Steve McQueen’s directorial debut, Hunger). I gave them an hour to wander around the town, visit any of the countless tourist shops, take photos of the jarveys, the nappy-wearing horses.
The next stop was along the Killarney-to-Kenmare road, well within the boundaries of the national park. I turned onto a country lane, parked where the lane became a hiking trail. All around were moss-covered oak, the woodland floor carpeted with ferns and blue-eyed grass; standing outside, you could hear the running of a nearby stream, bird call – one of the Americans identified it as a wood warbler.
Scenes from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster were filmed here, I explained. An absurd story – like the rest of Lanthimos’ oeuvre – this film tells of a world where newly single people are given forty-five days to find a partner; if they fail, they are turned into an animal of their choosing. Most of the tourists, largely depending on age, were there either for the Star Wars or Ryan’s Daughter parts of the tour, but to my mind The Lobster is the only truly quality movie to be filmed in Kerry. So I fitted more Lobster-related stops into day one of the tour than my father thought necessary. But, as I told him, that was my prerogative.
An American couple, about my age (mid-to-late twenties), asked me to take a photo of them. The woman pulled a dark-green poncho from her backpack, put it on as the man lay on the mossy ground. They were striking a pose from a scene in the film, I realised, where Léa Seydoux’s character, the leader of the escaped singletons hiding out in the woods (named as ‘Loner Leader’ in the credits) forced the film’s protagonist, David, played by an unusually doughy Colin Farrell, to dig his own grave. The American woman – Jessica Lawson, I remembered from the list of names I checked every time they got back on the bus – looked a little like Léa Seydoux, I noticed, as I brought them into focus. She had the same strawberry-blond hair, high cheekbones and a defiant expression, likely put on for the camera, that brought to mind Seydoux’s performance in The Lobster, but also, I felt, in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central. Her partner, Derek, had his hair in a top-knot, wore thick-rimmed glasses and a T-shirt that read ‘Star Love not Wars’.
‘You’re a fan of The Lobster so?’ I asked, handing Jessica her phone.
‘I love all of Lanthimos’ work,’ she said. ‘I mean, I’d probably put Dogtooth as my number one, but The Lobster would be a close second.’
‘I agree,’ I said, delighted to have a Lanthimos-lover on the tour. ‘What about The Favourite?’
‘I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really feel like a proper Lanthimos movie. Probably because it wasn’t an original screenplay of his.’
‘Exactly. And Filippou wasn’t involved with the script either.’
We shared a smile as Derek joined us, brushing dirt and leaves off himself. He thanked me for taking the photo. Mentioned how this was their honeymoon.
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
As I led the group back towards the bus, Jessica asked, ‘Can you recommend a good bar in Tralee for us, actually? Tonight’s our one night in the town and we were hoping to go somewhere a little traditional, but you know, not too traditional.’
I laughed, recommended Sean Óg’s.
‘So are we getting to any Star Wars locations soon?’ Derek asked.
Jessica rolled her eyes. ‘He’s obsessed. He even watches the cartoons.’
‘They’re all canon,’ he countered, frowning.
Soon, I promised.
I was lying on my bed, watching a clip from Blue is the Warmest Colour on my laptop, when someone knocked on the bedroom door. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, shutting the laptop. ‘What is it?’ I asked, once ready.
Fionn strode into the room, grinning. He knew well what had been going on, but to be fair to him he said nothing. Instead he gestured towards my bedside table. ‘Any chance of a quick smoke?’ With a sigh, I opened the drawer, took out what little remained of the weed. I needed to pay Jeremy Hannigan another visit. I’d bought my weed off Jeremy in secondary school and when I returned from London was relieved to discover that he was still dealing. He worked as a pharmacist now, of all things. I picked up hay fever tablets off him, too, every summer.
As I rolled, Fionn sat by my desk, positioned under the window facing the back yard. Preparing a spliff was one of the few things I was more accomplished at than him. Not that either of us had an issue with what the other did better; we’d long since known each other’s places, and since there was no significant overlap – like with the family business: he wanted to run it one day; I did not – we got on well.
Alight, I took a deep drag of the spliff, held it in as long as I could. I walked over to Fionn, handed it to him. Out the window, the three buses were lined up in the back yard by the row of evergreens, Barry’s Buses emblazoned on each in a shamrock green. The lights were still on in the porta-cabin, parents inside, trying to milk the most out of the remainder of the season.
‘You fancy going into town for a pint?’ Fionn asked after a heavy exhale.
‘Not really. Have day two of Kerrywood tomorrow.’
‘Come on, what if I cover the taxi in and out?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Come on, lad. One pint. When was the last time you even went out in town?’
It had been a while. All my friends from my teenage years lived in Dublin or Cork or abroad now. Since my return I’d often wondered if that was why we became friends in school – a subtle but felt gravitation towards others who wanted away.
‘I don’t know, Fionn. What about the football lads?’ He was a midfielder for Firies, just like our father before him. I’d played up to Under-12s and lost interest.
‘They’ve a match in Waterville this evening and are going out on the lash there instead.’
‘Why aren’t you down there so?’
I grimaced in solidarity with his injury. I’d driven through Waterville earlier that day with the tour, pointed out the bronze cast statue of Charlie Chaplin in iconic ‘Tramp’ attire, bowler hat and cane included. I’d often wondered if that meant it was a monument to Chaplin or The Tramp, to actor or character. I explained to the group how he used to summer in the village in his later years, sidestepped mentioning the child bride he brought with him.
‘Come on, lad,’ Fionn pressed. ‘I’ll even let you pick the pub. Once it’s not too shite a pick, like.’
The air between us grew hazy as I exhaled. ‘How about Sean Óg’s?’ I asked.
We set ourselves up at the bar. Already I was aware there was no chance of having only the one pint. I just hoped I’d be under the legal driving limit by the time I collected the Kerrywood group in the morning. The pub was quiet for a Saturday night, though most of the tables and snugs were still occupied. I looked around for the newlyweds, saw no sign. It had seemed the perfect place to suggest to them, with a traditional look that all tourists regardless of age wanted: lots of oak panelling, exposed brick, a turf fire and framed black-and-white photos of Ye Olde Erin. In recent years, the pub had been taken over by a younger crowd, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, and the music piped out – not too loudly – from the speakers tended towards folk or post-rock, your Fleet Foxes, Bon Ivers, your Lisa Hannigans. It was as close as Tralee came to a hipster bar.
Three pints and a whisky in, I noticed the newlyweds enter the pub, sit at a just-vacated table. I saluted; they reciprocated.
‘Who are they?’ Fionn asked.
‘A couple from the tour.’
‘Are they American? They look American.’
‘They are, yeah.’
‘You can always tell.’
Another glance towards them. Something seemed off, the distance they sat from each other, the dark expressions. Were they fighting?
Fionn had been talking about Maura, his on-off-again girlfriend, since the middle of his opening pint. She had moved to Cork the previous year, to do a Masters in something-cology, but whenever she was down in Tralee she made sure to let him know. This, it turned out, was one such night. That explained his eagerness to go out, and his want for a drinking companion, in case she failed to show. I didn’t mind too much as he had bought all the drinks so far.
‘She knows well she has me on a string, too, d’you know?’
‘How about yourself, anyway? Any developments on the lady front?’ he asked, knowing full well the answer.
‘Lad, you need to throw yourself on Tinder or one of the other apps. Even in Tralee, it’s not half-bad. Like, I’ve hardly seen you with anyone since you came back from London, and that’s been what?’
‘Three years? Jesus, that’s too much time altogether.’
‘I’m surviving,’ I said in what I hoped was a gruff tone. A serious relationship meant giving serious consideration to the idea of staying here. I wasn’t able for that yet.
A glance towards the newlyweds. They were arguing. In fact, as I looked over, Derek stood, red-faced, and stormed out the door. Jessica remained behind, a stubbornness in the set of her shoulders, face. A blatant refusal to follow.
Pint in hand, I made my way over. I heard Fionn: ‘Jesus, you work fast.’
‘Hey, Jessica, is everything okay?’
She looked up and I saw the effort in her to compose herself. ‘What, yeah, everything’s fine. Thanks for recommending this place; it’s cool.’
‘Do you mind if I sit down?’
‘You sure everything’s okay?’
She sighed, admitted there had been a fight, that it had dragged out since they returned from the tour. ‘And it’s over something so fucking stupid. We were only talking about what animals we’d pick – you know, like you have to in The Lobster.’ I nodded. ‘And he said he’d pick a wolf. That he liked the idea of living up in the Rockies, hunting, shit like that.’ She looked at me; I nodded again. ‘Anyway, I just said that I couldn’t see him as a wolf, so he asked what I saw him as, and I said that I could see him as a dog, alright, like a Labrador or a collie, something like that. And he didn’t say anything while on the tour, but when we got back to the hotel he lost his shit over it. Like what the fuck?’
I shook my head. ‘That’s mad. Here, do you fancy another drink before you head back to the wolf?’
She grunted. ‘Sure.’
She was Canadian, I discovered, walking her to the hotel. Was born, grew up, went to university and now worked as a graphic designer, all on Vancouver Island. Derek was also from the island; they shared the same hometown: a place called Port Alberni. I had expected him to return to the pub as Jessica and I drank together – stout for me, Coors Light for her – but he had failed to appear by the time we finished so I’d offered to walk her to the Brandan.
‘Shit, sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought you were from the States.’
‘No, when I lived in London, I used to hate it when people asked where in Scotland I was from.’
‘So you haven’t always lived here then?’
‘No, I lived in London for, Jesus, nearly five years. Went to film school.’
‘Ah, well, that explains a lot. What brought you back home?’
I shrugged, looked to deflect. ‘Did you ever think of moving away from Vancouver?’
‘Not really, no. I applied for a few colleges down south, and one in Toronto – the film school, actually; though I doubt my parents ever would have allowed me go there – but, to be honest, UBC was always my first choice.’
Must be nice, I thought, to feel so settled. To not want away.
Nearing the hotel, I slowed my pace, eager to stay talking for longer. I pointed left, at the line of trees beyond an empty car park. ‘That’s the town park over there. You know, it was actually only opened to the public in 1922. Prior to that it had been a private demesne, exclusively accessible to the town’s elite families.’
‘Do you know everything about this place?’
‘God, no; I’ve just learned enough stuff to make it seem like I know what I’m talking about.’
She nodded towards the hotel. ‘I better.’
‘Yeah, of course. Good luck with the wolf.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Gee, thanks.’
After she disappeared inside, I walked towards the centre of town, keeping an eye out for a taxi. I’d have to pay for one, after all, since Fionn had absconded with Maura while I was drinking with Jessica. I shook my head as I walked. The awkwardness with which I’d shoehorned London into the conversation. As if that made me more interesting. As if I’d made a success of my time there and my parents hadn’t been forced to send money so I could tie up all the loose ends of my London life, then transfer a second, smaller amount after I admitted I couldn’t afford my flight. When I landed in Farranfore, my mother greeted me at arrivals. After a hug, she patted my arm and said, ‘Sure maybe Kerry is just calling you home?’ Like there was an unbreakable connection, one you could rally against for a time, but it would always draw you back in the end. I nodded to appease her, well aware ideas like that were used only to console those who had failed in the wider world and retreated to known ground.
I parked outside the Brandon the following morning, head only a little groggy. The newlyweds were last out and it was clear from their demeanour that they had yet to reconcile, both standing apart, glaring at their phones. Derek’s new T-shirt was wordless but had rips that I was fairly sure were manufactured. Jessica smiled weakly at me as she climbed onto the bus.
Day two of the tour covered the Dingle peninsula and our first stop was Inch beach. The sky was a sullen grey but at least it had yet to fall as we walked down to the strand. Many of the beach scenes from Ryan’s Daughter were filmed here. Not all, though; in fact, it’s fun to watch the opening ten minutes of the film as a local with knowledge of the arduous shoot. In this opening sequence, Sarah Miles’ character, Rosy Ryan, walks to the beach to meet Robert Mitchum’s kind-hearted schoolteacher, Charles Shaughnessy, on his return from a trip to Dublin. Though supposedly set on the western tip of the Dingle peninsula, she appears first on the Cliffs of Moher – 130-plus kilometres north, in County Clare – from which she drops her umbrella; next she is standing on Inch, her umbrella since retrieved, but mid-scene the colour of the water changes to a more tropical blue as now she is in South Africa (the director David Lean flew some of the cast and crew there as he was unhappy with the weather and quality of light for some of the beach scenes filmed in Kerry). When she finally meets Robert Mitchum, they are standing on Barrow strand, a few miles outside Tralee but on the other side of the peninsula from Inch. Barrow, Inch, South Africa, Inch, Barrow, South Africa – the shifting geographies of the scene continue until the two characters part ways. I’d always liked the idea of this, sensed that I could take a step and be in another continent. When I told the group about this, it got some chuckles and a big laugh from Jessica.
‘So are we actually in Ireland or Africa right now?’ she asked.
‘The weather gives that one away.’
After my talk I gave them time to explore. Jessica walked to the shoreline, took photos of the long stretch of sand and dune, the far peninsula. Derek rushed to the public toilets. As soon as he disappeared inside, I glanced over at Jessica, imagined her turning towards me, and with a barely perceptible nod, the two of us running onto the bus together. We’d take off somewhere, anywhere – maybe she’d bring me to Vancouver: I pictured an isolated cabin in an endless stretch of forest, like something out of Gaudrealt’s De Père en Flic or Jean Beaudin’s J.A. Marlin Photographe. Or perhaps we’d go to London. Maybe going with someone else would make a difference. Maybe I’d make a success of it this time. It could all start with us running onto the bus together. Right now.
I parked at the lay-by at the bend of the road where Clogher Head juts out into the Atlantic. This was often the most popular stop on the tour. There was the breath-taking panorama: the Blasket Islands and An Fear Mearbh (The Sleeping/Dead Man) out to sea, Dunmore Head and, on a clear day – which it was that afternoon, the earlier gloom having lifted – Smerwick Harbour and Mount Brandon to the north-east. On a cinematic level, the bus stop scenes from Ryan’s Daughter were filmed here, as were the village scenes from the Ron Howard-directed, Tom Cruise-starring Far and Away. You can still see the stone put down for the village’s main street not far from the road. In the distance, too, near Smerwick Harbour, the Three Sisters were visible, sea-side peaks on which scenes from The Last Jedi were filmed, one part of Kerry filling in for another, after shooting on the Skelligs grew contentious. (There’d been no such contention forty years earlier when Werner Herzog filmed the conclusion of his hypnotic oddity, Heart of Glass, on the island.)
I explained all this to the tour, then let them wander out the headland. Jessica stopped nearby, standing on the Far and Away street. Derek hovered near her, taking pictures of the view eastward. I had watched them throughout the day. Though they sat next to each other, and exchanged a few words, it was clear that they had yet to resolve their fight. In Dingle, on the hour-long lunch break I’d given the group, after showing them the hotel where Mitchum had stayed (and grown copious amount of weed) during the filming of Ryan’s Daughter and the gym where Adam Driver worked out during the filming of The Last Jedi, I’d noticed them storm off in separate directions. Now, I walked over to her, offered information I thought she’d appreciate.
‘You know, there was another film shot out around here in 2013 called Run and Jump. It starred Maxine Peake – your one from that killer robot dog episode of Black Mirror – and Will Forte, in what was actually his first dramatic role. Most people think it was in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, but he shot this the year before.’
She smiled. ‘Cool, I enjoyed Nebraska. Bruce Dern was amazing in it.’
Derek appeared next to us. ‘Did I hear you mention Will Forte? God, I loved him in MacGruber. So fucking funny. “How did you know I was wearing a bulletproof vest?”’ he quoted.
Jessica giggled. ‘“You’re wearing a bulletproof vest? Awesome.”’
I was about to provide them with an interesting fact on MacGruber – it was one of only nine SNL sketches to be turned into a movie, the most famous probably being The Blues Brothers (1980) and Wayne’s World (1992) – when Mr Saito appeared beside me.
‘The toilet, please,’ he said, gesturing at the bus.
‘Oh right, sure.’
I led the Saitos to the bus and unlocked the door. When I looked back towards the Far and Away street, Jessica and Derek were walking out the headland. I squinted. Were they? Yes, they were holding hands.
After the Saitos exited the bus, I climbed inside and locked the door. With the sense of something building in my chest, something I recognised from my final days in London, I stared at the expanse before me, studied it. An objectively beautiful view, there was no doubting it. Even if I had never really felt it – not like my brother, my parents, anyway.
I looked at my phone. On occasion, if there was time, I would take the tour to Listowel, the hometown of Maurice Walsh, who wrote the short story that the film The Quiet Man was based on, and John B. Keane, the author of the play The Field, later adapted into the 1990 Oscar-nominated film starring Richard Harris. That evening, though, I knew I had neither the time, nor the desire, to keep going.
Instead I took out my packet of Camel Lights from my jacket pocket and sat there, behind the too-big wheel, smoking cigarette after cigarette, until long after the group had returned to the bus and pooled by the door, waiting – at first patiently, then less so, then much less so – for me to let them in.
Image © Drew Morton