THE SHINY RED HONDA
I was thirteen tall and gangly when I first pulled on long trousers. What a relief that was; I was the longest streak of misery you were ever likely to see in the short ones. It was my last year at the National school in Newtown and the Master used every opportunity to drag me around the classroom shouting “just because you wear long trousers now O’ Brien, don’t think it makes you any smarter”. I wasn’t and it didn’t, but the Master was a law unto himself so I just kept my gob shut. There were discussions about what, if any, further education I was to get. Dungarvan was out I heard my father say; it was too far away and the fares were too expensive. That only left the ‘Tech in Portlaw - and that seemed to totter from one financial crisis to the next.
We were poor I guess; no running water, no toilets, to TV, no car…you name it we didn’t have it. But then, money wasn’t as important as it is nowadays. If you had enough to live on you were doing well. If you didn’t you wouldn’t starve because the countryside was abundant in most of the things needed to survive. Even the poorest cottage had half an acre of land attached, and enough spuds, cabbage and other vegetables could be grown to keep a family from the poorhouse. Hens provided eggs every day, a pig could be fattened and killed; and if you couldn’t afford turf or coal, well, there was plenty of wood scattered about…
My father worked in the Tannery in Portlaw, a Dickensian sprawl that tried to hide itself in the dense woodlands that ringed the town. It was fronted by massive wrought iron gates and had a lodge that was occupied by a gateman called Foskin and his buck-toothed daughters. A large square, bigger than the town itself it seemed, separated it from the streets that ran away from its outer rim. With names likes Georges Street, Brown Street and William Street the English influence was clear, and the only thing that differentiated one house from another was the colour of the doors. But then, it was a company town and they were company houses.
The first time I ever visited the Tannery was in our ass and cart with my father, to collect some empty barrels he had permission to remove. He took me to see the tanning department and showed me the bench where he worked. Here, he trimmed the hides prior to tanning, standing at a wooden table all day with his friend Bobby Haughton, dragging hides from a nearby pile, chopping the bad bits off. The place stank of dead meat and the pile of skins was crawling with maggots. They could have been abattoir workers; gowned up in their long aprons and wellingtons, constantly sharpening their hooked, wooden-handled knives.
Hew was up at six every morning, breakfasted and gone by seven. The six mile journey was negotiated on his high Nellie, which had only one gear and had to be pushed uphill. He always wore bicycle clips and carried a pump and a repair kit in his lunch bag. Occasionally, when snow and ice made the road treacherous, he walked to work. A day off was unthinkable.
Portlaw had a bad reputation, like that of a loose woman. Although he worked there all his life he never socialised or mixed with the locals. He certainly never drank there. And mother would never dream of doing her weekly shopping there. People talked about Portlaw behind its back, yet on reflection it wasn’t any worse than Kilmac. Perhaps it was envy; it had the Tannery, the biggest employer in the region; it was surrounded by the magnificent estate of Curraghmore; it had the patronage of the titled gentry like the Marquis of Waterford. And of course it boasted hurling and football teams that invariably kicked the shit out of the lumbering hopefuls of Newtown, Ballydurn and the outlying areas.. Mostly though it was the ‘townie’ culture that got up the country-folks noses; it was only a few miles from the city and ‘city-ways’ had rubbed off to some extent.
Its reputation never bothered me. I did manage to secure a place at the ‘Tech there and for eighteen months cycled daily, free-wheeling the last few miles from the Five Cross Roads down into the valley that housed it. The ’Tech consisted of a couple of rooms in a large house on the edge of the Square, where Mr Timmons taught us carpentry, ( we made shoe-boxes by the dozen, learned all about dove-tail joints, and made glue from boiled cow-hooves) and a tall, willowy lady taught us the rudiments of book-keeping. Neither pastime subsequently did me much good.
We put our free time to good use, invading the forbidden territory of the Tannery, watching from behind bushes and trees, the activities going on in the distance. One large shed was stacked with bales of various-coloured rubber and was ideal for playing the games of cowboys and Indians that we favoured. This rubber (I subsequently learnt ) was the raw material that was used in the moulding of the shoe-soles that were churned out by the thousand in the rubber department. The Tannery itself produced no shoes, just soles, insoles and rolls of coloured leather.
Sometimes we sat on the banks of the river Clodagh, reading our Kit Carson and Johnny Mack Brown comics, or practised our fast draws in the crouched style favoured by our heroes. My favourite weapon was a long-barrelled Colt 44 with ivory handles and a proper revolving chamber, which I had saved for nearly a year to buy. I took to wearing it to school, tucked inside the waistband of my trousers, until the day Miley Moore took it off me and broke it demonstrating his prowess as an outlaw. Attempting to side-swipe me, he missed and clubbed a rock instead. One half of it landed in the river, never to be seen again.
There were other diversions. Portlaw girls were supposed to be fast, something we discovered to be true, for no matter how hard we chased them we never managed to catch up. Sometimes when the weather was nice the girls from the bakery sat sunning themselves on the opposite bank. We admired their muscular arms and their floury faces, for very little else was visible beneath the long white coats and the elasticised head-coverings.
Our learning curve may not have been very steep but the road home certainly was. The homeward journey was hell; the long climb back to the Five Roads couldn’t have been more tiring if it had been up the face of the Comeragh Mountains themselves. Portlaw wasn’t in a valley I had often heard my father mutter, it was at the bottom of a bloody pit.
There was also the little matter of getting safely past a particular farm. A seventh son of a seventh son lived there and all sorts of peculiar happenings went on inside. Sick animals and sick people traipsed in and out at all hours, ringworm was cured, and one woman who hadn’t said a word for twenty years suddenly started talking so much that her neighbours threatened to take her back and get the cure reversed. It was best to bless oneself and cycle quickly past.
The Five Roads was a kind of staging post, where we all recovered our breaths before going our different ways. A little whitewashed shop stood in the vee of two of the roads, where sweets and lemonade could be had over the half-door. Miley Moore called it a shebeen and said you could get bottles of Porter and poteen there too if you were that way inclined. We tried this once and the old woman who owned the shop chased us out, with her besom swinging. As we all took different routes she didn’t know which of us to follow, so she just stood in the middle of the road shaking her broom at us.
I eventually followed in my father’s footsteps. My name had been down in the Tannery for years and as soon as I was old enough, and a vacancy occurred, I was summoned. I never gave it a second thought. It was expected of me, and I suppose my father had pulled a few strings to get me in.
I guess Ballyhussa was much the same as any other cross-section of countryside out in the middle of nowhere. But to me it didn’t seem like that. It was home and it possessed my young soul and my growing body. I grew up there - and bits of me stayed there. In the hedges and furze bushes; in the groves and ploughed fields; in the streams and ponds. In the mass-path, in Newtown school, and in ‘The Bungalow’, with its patches of stony ground that we raked and raked but never could quite rid of stones.
On some mornings the Comeragh Mountains seemed to be in our back garden, on others they had retreated to another county. A mystery never fathomed by us youngsters. Did all mountains move we wondered? Their nearness signalled rain according to father; the further away they appeared the more settled the weather would be. Like most country-folk he was an expert weather-forecaster - in his own eyes anyhow - and he cast his eyes heavenwards with the same frequency that people nowadays look at their watches. For my own part, I always found the animals more reliable. Cattle, sheep and dogs were no fools when it came to the weather, and could be seen scurrying for cover long before the storm-clouds appeared.
Sometimes the tops of the Comeraghs were capped in a layer of snow so white it hurt your eyes to look at them, a sight that had the Master urging us to describe the view in poetic terms.
The Himalayas never looked so bright
As the Comeraghs do tonight
Their new overcoats bespoke,
Eight miles in the other direction lay the sea. The Atlantic Ocean gnawing away at Ireland’s coastline like a hungry beast, according to the Master, sending currents of bracing air to collide with those sweeping down from the Comeraghs. The result was a fertile plain fit for both man and beast.
Most nights you could see light twinkling in the distance. The bright city lights of Waterford, and, further away, the dimmer glow of Tramore. Here, the Metal Man could be seen, sweeping the Atlantic with a raking beam every ten seconds or so. Further along the coast lay Boatstrand, Bonmahon, Stradbally and Dungarvan, the latter just about discernible on a clear night.
Ballyhussa boreen was long and winding and Newtown village lay a mile and a half distant by road. By the mass-path, however, it was less than half that journey. The mass-path was our regular route to the village and we had used it for going to school and mass for as long as I could remember. It began about a hundred yards from our cottage at the stile (a couple of stepping-stones leading into the field) and was a clearly defined path across the land until it reached the road just outside the village. I suppose that the cows who grazed there, and who quite often followed the path in our wake, helped to preserve it. However, even in later years, when much of the land was tilled, it could still be seen scything its way through shimmering corn. Its origin was never quite clear; it may have been a legacy of the penal times, or it may merely have been a long-established short-cut to the church in Newtown.
Going to school never took more than fifteen minutes, coming home could take hours. The first couple of fields formed part of Michael Cummins’ farm, and this halfway stage was our usual stopping point. This was mainly because it contained a small pond and was surrounded by clumps of bushes. Depending on the season, there would be frogs’ eggs to inspect, birds’ nests to look at, Ice to be tested with belly-slides. Then there were all those games of cowboys and Indians to be played, our bows made from young sallys sprung with binder twine, our arrows carved from ash twigs. Tom Cummins, who was in the same class as me, was usually the one tied to the tree as we danced and whooped around him. Well, it was his tree…
The two other fields that comprised the mass-path were fairly uninteresting, although the last one, which bordered Power’s half-acre, had us stepping lively across it. Pat Power’s plot, with its remains of an old building, was haunted. It was overgrown and dank in there, surrounded by twisted and tangled trees and undergrowth. On windy nights you could hear the banshee wailing from deep within, and on a number of occasions we had witnessed several ghostly figures dancing among the ruins.
These sightings were seen on our return from attending the Lenten Devotions with mother. Despite being fortified with her bout of prayer, she, nevertheless, lengthened her stride as we approached, blessing herself as she dragged us youngsters with her in an undignified scramble down Cummins’ hill. On one occasion a pair of ghosts shot past us on bicycles, their white robes billowing behind them like sail-cloths as they disappeared into the night. I had never seen ghosts on bicycles before, and when mother found one of her best linen sheets shoved in the hedge near Galvin’s pump, relations with our next-door neighbours were cool for a while. Dick Galvin, who sometimes fetched our milk from Cummins, wasn’t seen around our house for some time after that.
The mass-path deposited us at Newtown Cross, a dark tree-lined junction which rarely saw sunlight, and was used as a giant umbrella when it rained. Motor transport, when it appeared, blew long and hard at this intersection - more than ever since the day a wandering ass almost spread-eagled itself across the bonnet of Paddy Nugent’s nearly-new car. His shiny black Morris Minor, which only infrequently broke into anything quicker than a trot, slowed to an almost permanent walking pace after that.
Most of the land around the Newtown Cross belonged to Jamsie Wall, and the farmyard was almost as dark and foreboding as Power’s half acre. It wasn’t haunted, least not by conventional ghosts, but Jamsie’s scowling countenance was enough to ensure we youngsters steered well clear of the place. Wall’s was a ‘grab farm’, its original owners, the O’Callaghans, having being evicted from it before it came into the ownership of the Walls. There was still bad feeling in the neighbourhood about the whole affair, and local farm workers would have nothing to do with the farm. My grandfather, Tom O’Brien, had worked there at one stage, though he could hardly be described as local, having come from Ballyduff some eight miles away. In the ploughing and tilling season Walls hired in men from outside, mainly from the Nire Valley. These men didn’t care too much about the sensibilities of the locals, and could be seen in the early morning marching along the road as a body, banging their shovels and sprongs on the road surface as they went.
There wasn’t much of Newtown; the church, the school, two pubs and Lenihen’s grocery shop. Behind it, in the shadows of the Comeraghs, the land rose to wooded pastures and isolated groves of fir and pine. In front, the fields were barer and sloped down to Dunphy’s Cross and the New Line. It was here that the Master alighted from the Dungarvan bus each morning, before striding across the intervening fields to try and knock some sense into us in classrooms forever smelling of chalk.
‘There are nine Newtowns in Waterford’, he would boom, ‘and eight of them are imposters. Can anybody tell me why?’ We couldn’t, of course. When someone suggested it might be the original site for the city of Waterford he laughed - a rare occurrence.
‘And why, tell me, would the Danes build their city in the middle of the country? How would they get their ships up the Suir?’
On one occasion he took the whole class to the playing field at the back of the school and pointed to the two rows of gnarled ash trees that ran parallel through Walls farm as far as Newtown Cross.
‘This avenue of ash is several hundred years old and was probably planted by a man called William Greatorix. He intended to build a new town here alright, but not to replace Waterford. He intended to replace Kilmac. And that is how we got our name’.
‘Greatorix was, or had been, a wealthy man who travelled Ireland making up potions to cure all sorts of afflictions and ailments. A kind of early medicine-man, one might say. His fame spread to such an extent that he was summoned by the King of England to try and cure his sick son. He wasn’t successful and from then on his fortunes deteriorated, one of the consequences being that ‘ Newtown’ never got built’.
Local history was the Master’s pet subject. On foraging expeditions to the church we searched the graveyard for traces of old ruins. He informed us that there was evidence of some sort of church on the site going back 900 years, and asked John Mullins, the local gravedigger, to keep an eye out for these ruins.
‘Sure isn’t the place full of ould ruins’, John replied, ‘mostly human ones’.
The graveyard’s most famous resident was Donncha Rua MacConnamara, an itinerant Irish poet originally from County Clare. He had travelled as far as Newfoundland and lived in West Waterford before ending his days on the Shanahan farm at Whitestown Cross, a couple of miles away. A woman’s man and a heavy drinker, he was reputed to have frequented Cullinane’s pub, directly across the road from where he now lay buried.
As a young man he was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood, but he never completed his studies, being expelled for drunkenness and other ‘inappropriate behavior’.
After that, he led a wandering life, (this wanderlust remained with him all his life), and he seldom settled long anywhere. ‘Ban Chnoic Eireann O’ (The Fair Hills Of Eire), his classic lyric of exile, was written while in Hamburg.
Take a blessing from my heart to the land of my birth
And the fair hills of Eire O’
And all that yet survive of Eibhear’s tribe on earth…
When he did return to Ireland it was to Waterford he came, and he traveled around the countryside as a teacher, the fate of the ‘spoilt priest’, as his like were known in those days. In 1741 he was appointed assistant master at famous classical school at Seskinane, Tournaneena, Co Waterford, where he remained for several years. Of course Ireland was still in the grip of the Penal Laws in those days, but the Cromwellian diktat that all native Irish had tails, and that no Catholic could own land or be a civil servant or teach or own a horse worth more than five pounds wasn’t pursued as vigorously as previously, so Donncha survived.
As well as the drink, Donncha also liked the women, and in 1743 he had to make a hasty departure from Waterford to escape the wrath of a family whose daughter he had made pregnant. He traveled by fishing boat to Newfoundland, where he lay low until things quietened down.
A subsequent second trip to Newfoundland, where he was said to have written his famous long poem ‘Eachtra Giolla an Amarain’ (The adventures of an unfortunate man) now seems likely to have been a hoax. It appears he got no further than Waterford city, where, instead of boarding his ship he spent his time drinking and womanizing until all his money was gone. Afterwards, in an effort to convince people he really had been there, he wrote the long poem (360 verses) which tells how the emigrant ship was attacked and captured by French pirates, before eventually making it safely to Newfoundland.
Shortly after this he changed his religion and became the church clerk at the Church Of Ireland in Rossmire, just outside Newtown. However, his rakish way of life once again found him out and he was dismissed.
He was a happy-go-lucky individual whose poems and songs were part of the folklore in County Waterford . Unfortunately, a lot of them died with the Irish language
One of Donncha’s last pieces of writing was an inscription in Latin on the headstone of one of his contemporaries, the Irish poet Tadgh Gaeleach O’Sulleabhain, who is buried just a few miles away in Ballylaneen.
Tadgh is put here…
Who will sing the praises of the Irish?
Who the deeds of men?
With Gaelic Tadgh dead the Irish muses are silent….
The same could be written of Donncha Rua. He died in 1810 in Newtown, where he had been a temporary protestant, but is now very much a permanent Catholic in an unmarked grave to the rear of the church.. The inscription on the commemorative headstone (inside front entrance) ends with these lines
‘If whatever sins he committed have been wiped out by penance, give him, oh Lord, eternal rest in the true motherland’.
John Mullins, who also dabbled in local history, liked to create the impression that he was an expert on Donncha Rua. To this extent he claimed that Maggie Bluett, who lived in one of the cottages up our boreen , was a direct descendant of Donncha. This was something Maggie neither confirmed or denied. He also took tourists on guided tours of the graveyard and to the farm in Whitestown, presumably being paid for his trouble. Finally there came his piece-de-resistance, a large stone by the side of the road, no more than a hundred yards from his own cottage, with the initials DM carved on it. These, he claimed, were carved by Donncha’s own hand.
Many years later I learned it was John’s own hand. The best days work he ever done; it kept him in drink for most of his life.
Two components of the village held more fascination for us than all the others put together. One was the village pump, which could be persuaded, after several minutes of wheezing and croaking, to produce a rust-coloured liquid. This eventually turned to water but it never lost its rusty taste. The other was Lenihan’s shop. Inside there was all kind of trove; penny toffees, bulls-eyes, blackjacks, gobstoppers, and gallon sweets of all shapes and sizes. One shelf was devoted exclusively to those clear jars - dozens of them - which never seemed to empty. Some days all we could do was gaze longingly at them and watch enviously as other teeth bit into succulent toffees, other hands dipped lollipops into firmly clutched fizz bags. There were times when I hated Margaret and Tessy Lenihen; they never had to pay for anything and could dip their pudgy little hands into any jar they wished.
Of the pubs Culinane’s was marginally more interesting than Nugents - if only because of the orchard at the rear. Here one could eat one’s fill without too many distractions. And sometimes Bridgie Culinane was willing to pay us a shilling or so for a few hours spent picking the apples.
Nugent’s had little to recommend it - although we were sometimes rewarded with a sighting of old Mrs Nugent by squinting through the side window. Dressed in black from head to foot, her face was often the same colour, for she invariably sat in the hob of the open fireplace. Her main pre-occupation seemed to be going to the church to pray. She had a path worn to it according to John Mullins. Strangely, this devotion hadn’t rubbed off on Paddy, the son who looked after both farm and pub. We concluded he must be a pagan.
There was another son, Edmond, but he was mad. What form this madness took I never found out, but he spent most of his life in the Mental Home in Waterford, occasionally cycling out to the village for a visit, but always returning again before nightfall.
Once inside the school walls we had little choice but to learn.. It was a prison from which there was no escape - not until we had finished sixth book anyhow. And by then a mixture of beating, bullying and cajoling had ensured that even the stupidest of us had learnt something.
There were two classrooms. Mrs Coffey took everyone up to third book and the Master took fourth, fifth, and sixth. Some in the sixth year had been kept back a year or two and John Mullins, who also looked after the school grounds, was often heard to remark; ‘Christ, there’s some hairy youngsters going to school these days. A few more years and they’ll be drawing the pension’.
Both teachers used the cane indiscriminately, the Master bolstering it with a variety of other persuaders. These included grabbing you by the fleshy bit under your chin and raising you up ‘till you were standing on your toes, then dragging you around the classroom and wiping your nose on the blackboard to make his point.
Nothing fazed us though; the pain and humiliation was swept from your mind as soon as break time came round. Bottles of milk and bread-and-jam sandwiches were hurriedly devoured before the serious business of playing could be attended to. Marbles were the currency of the playground - a boy with a pocketful was wealthy indeed. Three would buy a Buck Jones or Roy Roger comic; four conkers equalled one marble, and one with a star at its core could easily be traded for a fizz bag.
The bigger boys, scornful of anything thought unmanly, climbed the trees in Walls fields, sometimes hanging upside down making monkey sounds, or participated in vigorous games of hurling and football in the playing field behind the school. There were occasional inter-school matches, at which our ill-prepared teams usually got hammered. The girls’ lavatory always attracted its share of attention, the gaps between the walls and the corrugated roof acting as a magnet to the boldest of us. The hysterical shrieks of those girls inside, at the thought of some dirty-kneed, runny-nosed boy seeing the colour of their knickers, sometimes brought the teachers out. But by then all the peeping-toms had vanished.
The front playground was left almost exclusively to the girls, and here the chalk outlines of hopscotch and other girly games were on almost permanent display. Skipping, too, was a game almost exclusive to this area, and some of the routines were very elaborate and required a high degree of skill. One of the most popular was a chanted ditty which got progressively faster, until the contestant either completed five rounds or got knocked out. Most of the words pertained to the local priests;
‘Tis going to rain said Father Keane
‘Twill in a minute said Father Sinnott
‘Tis only a shower said Father Power
‘Arra go on! said Mary Dwan
I wonder who Mary Dwan was?
Every year on St Brigids’ eve my mother hung a black tie or a strip of black cloth on the outside of our front door. She said that when St Brigids’ spirit passed over that night some of her healing powers would rub off on the cloth. After that, whenever one of us complained of a headache she got out her ‘Breegie’s Belt’ and tied it tightly round our heads, telling us it would take the pain away. It usually worked too. My father would shake his head and mutter something about ‘pisrogues’, but he himself wasn’t immune to strange behaviour.. Every time we passed a fairy ring for instance, he took off his cap and saluted. ‘The little people’, he insisted, ‘one day you’ll see them yourself, and then the grin will be on the other side of your face.’.
The first day of May saw another ritual enacted. Young nettles were collected from the side of the boreen and boiled in a skillet over our open fire. Each of us then had to eat a plateful - with mother standing over us to make sure we did. This was repeated three times throughout the month, after which we were all pronounced safe from all harm for the next twelve months.
‘There was a healthy mistrust of doctors in our house. ‘Time enough to call them when you’re dying’, father would say. For both of them the old remedies were the best. Boils and blood-poisoned cuts were treated by applying hot bread poultices. Nettle-water was good for stomach ailments. The only medicines used with any frequency were castor oil, cod liver oil and syrup-of-figs. Castor oil was used to treat ear aches, heated and poured into the ear - excruciating enough - but it was cod liver oil that was the bane of our lives. Mother swore by it and poured it down our gullets for all sorts of ailments. The disgusting, oily taste lingered inside you for hours afterwards.
Nettle stings were a frequent occurrence in our short-trousers days, the quickest relief being obtained by rubbing a dock-leaf on the afflicted area. And to remove warts all you needed was a snail, rubbing the sticky substance on the wart. You then speared the snail to a blackthorn tree, and as it shrivelled up so did the wart.
Once, when I dislocated my ankle playing hurling at school, it wasn’t to the doctor or the hospital that mother took me but to the bone-setter in Dungarvan. This man operated from a dingy back room above a shop and I was in agony as I was carried up the stairs. Within minutes the bone-setter was massaging my leg and talking soothingly to me. A few quick movements with his hands and the bone slid back into place. The relief from pain was instantaneous and I walked down the stairs under my own steam. It had cost ten shillings. Not that a fee was ever mentioned, but I had seen the money discreetly change hands and disappear into my saviour’s pocket quicker than he had fixed my ankle.
The arrival of St Brigid’s day saw father come out of hibernation. The month of January had been a time to recharge his batteries, but the first day of February saw him surrounded by an assortment of tools, all laid out on the old pine table in the back shed. There were hammers, saws, pincers, crosscuts and billhooks. He never bought anything if he could make it himself; chairs, window-frames, doors, he hacked away at bits of wood with his selection of implements fashioning functional furniture and fittings. When these tools needed new handles he wouldn’t dream of buying new ones. Weren’t there plenty of trees about? The billhook was his favourite tool; he made an armchair once using mostly this implement, that had pride of place in the kitchen, and that no one else dared sit in except him. It was hard and upright; its only concession to comfort a chaff-filled cushion, but when he sat on it seemed to be part of him.
My grandfather, Tom O’Brien, had once made a horses cart for Sheehan’s, the next-door farmers, using mainly a billhook. It must have been a grand affair altogether for I had often heard it talked about afterwards by people in the neighbourhood. It may also account for father’s attachment to the humble billhook.
We youngsters were delighted when inspection time came round for it meant a trip across the fields for us. There would be river banks and bogs to cross, maybe even ice-covered ponds to negotiate.
Plenty of small groves lay dotted about, mostly pine or spruce, though not so suitable as handle material. What father was after was a reasonably straight branch of ash or beech. Having found something suitable he hacked all the branches off it with his billhook before taking the saw to it. It wasn’t very elegant when it was pared and fitted to the implement but it did the job.
We were more interested in the animal signs we encountered along the way. Burrows were thoroughly investigated; rabbit warrens were fairly easy to recognise as the droppings were a giveaway. We studied the ground for signs of a path, somewhere suitable for a snare, and set our traps for the unsuspecting animals, checking them every morning to see if they bore fruit. Fox dens were rarer sights; those suspected of being so always aroused father’s interest. Hens and pullets disappeared on a regular basis despite his efforts to protect, and any suspected den got ‘the treatment’. Entrances were sealed up, others stuffed with oil-soaked rages and set alight. Either the foxes got used to smoking or they utilised other, secret, escape routes for very few were captured this way.
Badgers were rarer still; shy creatures that only came out at night. Our Jack Russell knew all about their ferocity, having once been encouraged down what we mistakenly thought was a rabbit hole. He came back with a bit of his ear missing.
Ballyhussa boreen was roughly two miles long. Winding and overgrown, it degenerated to little more than a cart track once past our house. Clumps of ash and beech and the remains of several old farmyards were the only evidence that life had once existed beyond us. ‘The last outpost’, was how Dick Galvin referred to our house; and indeed there were days on end when our only companions were the cattle and sheep in the nearby fields.
Like most of our neighbours, father grew all his own vegetables, and when we were big enough we were enlisted to help. About three quarters of our acre was under grass, the remainder being sown with potatoes. Every few years the tilled section was rotated to minimise the risk of disease.
Work started by raking up all the old stalks and burning them. When father was satisfied he would spit on his hands, tilt the peak of his cap heavenwards and begin. He favoured a long-handled fork called a sprong, an implement which seemed to acquire the properties of a mechanical digger in his hands. Biting deep into the soil, he turned over a hefty chunk of it and pulverised it with a mighty whack from his sprong before it had time to settle. Dig, tilt, whack…dig, tilt, whack…this was the way he worked all through the day, except for the occasional pause to spit on his hands or push the cap back on his head. The exposed soil was then left for a few weeks for the elements to break it up some more.
When the acre was finished there were several more plots requiring similar treatment.. Our acre was the only bit of land he owned; the others he paid a few shillings a year for their use. The Bungalow was an overgrown wilderness with a gate that hadn’t opened for years. Once a farmyard, it had been the home of Michael Francis Sheehan, a local poet who had published a book of poetry. Afterwards, it became part of Kelly’s farm, and galvanised bungalow was built for Jimmy Kiersey and his family. Jimmy worked as a farmhand at Kelly’s but had long since moved to a council house in nearby Ballyshunnock. The farmyard was now a warren of ivy-covered walls and stone floors, but there were still some fertile patches among the ruins. It was here that father grew his onions, cabbages and carrots. The bungalow still stood and he used this for rearing his few calves.
Once the digging was finished the preparations for sowing began in earnest. The dunghill at the back of the house was demolished; wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of it trundled across the acre and deposited over the dug area. The dunghill was a strange mixture of animal manure, ashes and household waste. When disturbed it steamed copiously and stank of urine. Father believed passionately in this concoction and never used anything else on his vegetables. There was also a dunghill in The Bungalow and this, too, was demolished. Any surplus was scattered on the acre to promote the grass, or taken to the Bog - father’s other bit of land.
The Bog was too far away to use the wheelbarrow so we used our ass and cart to transport it there. Neddy, our ass, spent most of his time with the sheep in the Bog, except during the coldest winter months when he lived in a shed behind the house. There were, in fact, a row of sheds out back; the cow-house, the hen house, the pig house, all built by father over the years. We called them the tar-barrel houses. At various times father collected empty barrels from the Tannery, cut the bottoms out using a cold-chisel and hammer, then split them down the middle and hammered them into flat sheets. These he used for roofing the wooden-frame sheds, waterproofing them with tar he got from friends who worked for the county council.
Neddys cart occupied a lean-to at the side of the block, where it spent most of its time keeled up, shafts pointing skywards. It had at last been converted to rubber-tyre wheels by Bat Mansfield, the blacksmith who had a forge at Dunphy’s Cross. Its noiseless, easy movement after years of grinding metal-rimmed wheels must have surprised even Neddy because he actually consented to pull it these days. Previously he had to be beaten to do so.
Neddy’s spell of inactivity during the winter months caused his hooves to grow long, consequently they needed paring before he could be tackled up. This could be a tricky operation for Neddy could kick harder than a mule - usually without any warning. Father reduced the risk somewhat by tying his back legs together when he wasn’t working on them. He then hoisted a free leg between his thighs and carved away at the hoof with his curved ‘leather knife’. He owned a selection of these, all honed to such sharpness he reckoned he could shave himself with one. When he had pared enough of the hoof away he smoothed it down with a rasp, before fitting shoes specially made by Bat Mansfield. He hammered the nails home till they came through the side of the hoof, clinching them to keep them in place.
I wondered if Neddy felt any pain as he stood there, stoically chewing on a sop of hay as the nails were hammered in. Where was all the blood? Shouldn’t he be spouting the stuff? There was a picture of the Crucifixion at school, with Our Lord’s hands dripping blood where the nails pinned him to the cross. Maybe animals didn’t bleed like humans. They certainly didn’t bawl like them. When the Master asked Tomjoe Power what the letters INRI on the Cross stood for, and he said ‘Iron Nails Ran In’, you could hearing him roaring two fields away as he was dragged around the classroom by his ear.
Tackling up Neddy was usually my job. Once the winkers was on I fitted the collar and hames, the collar being buckled around his neck and the hames fitted over it. A piece of thin rope secured around the ears of the hames held it in position. The saddle was then slipped on and the belly-band tightened to hold it in place. After that the cart was dragged into position and the chain loops between the shafts attached to the broad groove in the saddle. All that then remained was for the traces to be linked to the hames.
Choosing the seed potatoes was the next chore, and usually occupied a weekend. There were two potato pits; one for the seed potatoes and one for the eaters. These pits always reminded me of miniature thatched cottages; oblong, triangular-shaped mounds covered with straw and rushes to keep out the frost. The bottoms were banked up with earth to keep the rats at bay.
We carried the spuds to a bench in buckets, where father would do the ‘choosing’. They were examined carefully and any bad one discarded. By now they were beginning to sprout; dark ‘eyes’ shooting out from their skins to show they were healthy. The larger ones were sliced in two, the criteria being that each half possessed its own ‘eye’. All were then stored in one of the outhouses to harden out and sprout some more before being sowed.
Father owned a long-handled shovel that he used for opening and closing drills. It was of the kind I had seen council workers lean on by the roadside, so perhaps one of them had had given it to him. He was deadly with it and shifted soil almost as fast as a horse-drawn plough. I remember trying to ape his actions but it still took me a long time to get anywhere near as proficient. He adopted a kind of crouch, knees slightly bent, arms extending and flicking scoops of soil to alternate sides. He moved through the clay as if it was sand, never slackening his pace except for the regular spit on his hands.
We filled the furrows ahead of him with seed potatoes, laying them eyes up on the manure. Each one had to be planted about a foot apart, and we used a wooden rod to space them. No matter how hard we worked he was always right behind us, urging us ever faster. When a drill was closed he tamped it down with the shovel to firm it up and break any lumpy bits of soil. Finally he criss-crossed the area with timber pegs and strung binder twine between them. This was to keep crows and other scavenging birds away. He supplemented this by sticking a scarecrow in the middle; a wooden cross dressed up in an old trousers and jumper stuffed with straw, one of his old caps nailed on as a head.
Occasionally he hung a dead crow on a pole. This, too, had the desired effect. Once, he tried capturing a live one. He had heard of somewhere in Cork
where they caught the live ones and tied coloured streamers to them before releasing them back among their compatriots. It was reckoned to frighten the living daylights out of the rest of them. He never got to prove the truth of it but he had no doubts; ‘those cute Cork hoors are fit for anything’.
By the time St Patricks’ day came round he usually had all his potatoes sown. It was a standing joke in the neighbourhood that if he hadn’t then he mustn’t be well. The rest of the vegetable were sown leisurely over the coming weeks; cabbage plants, carrots, parsnips and onions. Lettuce and spring onions were grown separately by mother in a little plot behind the house. Although she sometimes got her seed packets mixed up - and there might be nasturtiums and wallflowers sprouting among the salads come June.
My father was really a farmer at heart. Nothing meant as much to him as the land did. You could see it in his love for the way he coaxed and nurtured miracles from its often barren soil. Everything he touched grew tall for him; he grew the flouriest spuds, the biggest carrots, the juiciest cabbages. He was always first with the new potatoes, and many a neighbour went home with a bag-full on the handlebars of his bike singing his praises. All the shopkeepers knew of his reputation and frequently urged him to sell to them. He never would. Everything he grew was for his family unless he choose to give it away.
Our whole life centred round the kitchen in the wintertime. There was always a roaring fire in the hearth, kept stoked up with wood from the fire bucket and the occasional nugget of coal. Sometimes a blast from the bellows machine was called for. This contraption consisted of a pulley wheel and handle, which, when turned, operated an underground fan that blew wind along a tunnel to the grate.
In the evenings, when the Paraffin lamp was lit, a soft, hazy glow permeated the kitchen. The corners remained unlit, and the objects in the room caused flickering shadows against the walls. Quite a lot of the light shone directly on to the ceiling, and it was here that the daddy - longlegs and moths changed into monsters, magnified by their own shadows as they scuttles across it. Sometimes father would add a wildlife menagerie - rabbits, geese, giraffes - as he knitted his hands together and manipulated his fingers.
Over the kitchen door hung a silver horseshoe, grown fat over the years by the regular addition of silver paper to it. But pride of place went the wireless, a big dark mahogany box that sat on top of the kitchen cabinet. As big as a present-day TV, it was powered by a combination of a wet battery and a dry battery. The dry battery lasted three months, but the wet one had to be recharged every two weeks. For this purpose we kept a spare one, and Jimmy Carey, who called three times a week in his bread-van, changed it for us at Battyes shop in Kilmac when needed.
Listening to the wireless was more than a pastime; it was a ritual. One at which we youngsters had no say. Mother listened to The Kennedys Of Castleross - and a few other sponsored programmes at lunchtime, but it was then switched off until the Angelus at six in the evening. When those bells rang out the whole country blessed itself and turned to stone for a few brief moments. And no one stopped to wonder why.
In the evening it was father’s turn; the news programmes and weather forecasts, and certain light entertainment shows like ‘Does The Team Think’, The Maureen Potter Show and The School Around The Corner. There was great excitement the day The School Around The Corner came to Kilmac to transmit. We’d all be famous - well those of us who were to appear on it anyway. Then Noel Dee scandalised the whole community by telling Paddy Crosby he wanted to make jackets for gooseberries when he grew up. After that we had to make do with the news. Radio was, apparently, a bad influence on young people.
On Sundays the hurling and football matches were broadcast, and the sound of Michael O’Hehir’s voice filled our kitchen. Mick O’Connell soaring like an eagle and seconds later the ball is over the bar…Christy Ring running the length of the field and the ball is in the back of the net…John Doyle, Ollie Walsh and Nicky Rackard are breaking heads as well as hurleys…the Black And Amber and Tipp are winning all the All-Irelands, when are we going to win one?
Then came 1959 and the bonfires were burning for a week in Newtown and Ballydurn. Phil Grimes, Martin Og Morissey, Tom Cheasty, our own Joe Harney, they had beaten the Kilkenny Cats at last. My father was dancing around the kitchen and shouting so loud that Michael O’Hehir was, for once, drowned out.
The kitchen mantelpiece contained all the photos of the family collected over the years. Silver-framed ones of us as small children, one of father and mother on their wedding day marked Tramore 1945. They looked a handsome couple as they posed on the near-empty seafront, him in his long tweed overcoat, his hat tilted at a carefree angle, his gap-toothed face beaming, her in her two-piece suit holding her bonnet steady in the breeze.
There was also a picture of my grand-uncle in military uniform. He had been in the British Amy and had lost a leg at the Somme. The war to end all wars, he called it. It made him pretty bitter because I had heard him tell my father that if a German shell hadn’t blown his leg off then a British bullet would have blown his head off. ‘They forced us out of the trenches at gunpoint’, he said. ‘Like sheep to the slaughterhouse. Thousands of tons of human fertiliser, that’s what keeps France’s fields so green’.
He died when I was quite young, but the memory of his visits still linger. There were presents for everyone; bags of bulls-eyes for us, a glass of brandy in a lemonade bottle for mother, and several large bottles of stout for father and himself. At various stages during the visit he pulled a plug of tobacco from his pocket and hacked a lump off it with a penknife. This he stuck in his mouth and chewed vigorously. Every now and then a big glob of brown sludge was spat out. Sometimes it would hit the back of the hob or land on an ember, hissing like a snake for several minutes, smelling like a dead dog after a week in the sun.
It was his leg, however, that fascinated me most. Quite often he would take it off and rest it against the wall beside him. It was shiny-smooth and hollow and felt cold to the touch. ‘Tin, boy’, he said to me once. ‘One of these days I’ll melt it down and have a good ould time on the proceeds’. After he had left I would tug at my limbs and wonder why they didn’t come away like his did. When he died I asked father what happened to the leg. Was it buried with him? And if it wasn’t, could I have it? All I got for my troubles was a clout on the ear.
Almost everywhere he went his melodeon went with him. He carried it in a knapsack, slung over one shoulder. It had even survived the war, despite having a lump of shrapnel embedded in its frame next to the buttons. He never removed the shrapnel, calling it his lucky emblem from the Kaiser, and proudly showed how the melodeon had been on his shoulder at the time.
When he was in form he would have the kitchen cleared of furniture, and invite whoever was around to dance. ‘Dance till you drop’, he would urge’, ‘and if you can’t dance then give us an ould song’. When all else failed, he sang himself, usually a lament such as Boulavogue, Noreen Bawn, or his favourite, Danny Boy.
Oh Danny Boy the pipes the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountainside
The summer’s gone and all the leaves are falling
Tis you must go and I must die….
The Londonderry Air, he called it.
I sometimes wondered when he marched off to war in the spring of 1915 did he know what he was fighting for? Or did he care? Was it purely on economic grounds – at least the British Army would feed him and keep him and put a few shillings in his pocket at the end of each week – or did he have an overwhelming desire to kill Germans? But perhaps it never even entered his head that he might end up in the green fields of France, a part of the greatest military slaughtering exercise that ever took place?
He certainly never thought he would lose a leg in it, or that his friend, Jack Neil, would lose his life there. I still don’t know where he enlisted or with what regiment, but I imagine the place was either Waterford city or Clonmel and the regiment either the Royal Munster Fusiliers or the Royal Irish Regiment. I wonder if it was a spur of the moment decision? Did one of them say to the other – ‘come on, let’s join up, there’s nothing to do around this place?’ Was that how it was?
I still remember the story he told about the ‘Big Push’ of 1917 – November I believe it was – when one of his comrades took out a German machine-gun nest with a grenade using the road bowling technique he had perfected bowling the roads in his native Cork. He said he had saved many of them from being slaughtered that day, and that he had subsequently been awarded the Military Cross.
I wonder now if he knew John Condon from Waterford, who is widely acknowledged as the youngest soldier ever to enlist in the British Army? He must have stood out because he was only 12 years of age when he enlisted, and still only 14 years old when he died during a gas attack in 1915. His burial plot in France is now a shrine, and one of the most visited of all the graves. A shrine to what, I wonder? Perhaps the folly of youth?
I also wonder what he thought about the Easter Rising of 1916. And when did he find out about it? I expect he was in one of his ‘fox-holes’ when it all kicked off. Would he have taken up arms against the British had he been around? I think it’s ironic that he was killing Germans for the English at the time that they were pounding the bejaysus out of a few hundred republicans behind the barricades at the GPO and at Bolands Mills in Dublin. And probably with guns similar to the ones he was manning.
Eighteen thousand men and a gunboat up the Liffey to put down what some have since described as a ‘minor disturbance of the peace’? I wonder how did he feel when they lined up Pearce, Connolly and the rest of them against the walls of Kilmainham goal and shot them in cold blood?
And then a few years later, when the civil war started, he must have been asked to take sides again. Who was he for? Collins or De Valera? He must have been in demand, even minus one leg, because he knew about shooting and killing – which is more than many of the others, did. Was he a trained killer? Did the British Army show him how to kill his fellow human beings without mercy, and without any feeling of emotion?
Still, I feel sure he must have felt some emotion when his own countrymen ambushed Michaels Collins at Beal Na Blath
‘Twas on an August morning, all in the morning hours
I went to take the morning air all in the month of flowers
And there I saw a maiden and heard her mournful cry
Oh what will mend my broken heart? I’ve lost my Laughing Boy
That’s a sad song about Michael Collins - and I had heard him sing it many a time.
Maybe it is true what they say about us; that all our wars are merry and all our songs sad.
Sometime before he died, he started to forget things. He forgot how to shave, he forgot how to play the accordion, he forgot how to write, even how to talk. If he went out he forgot to come back. Then he forgot himself. He didn’t recognise the picture of himself in military uniform. For a long time he kept talking of this man who was following him around, but he could never show him to anybody. Then one day he caught sight of himself in a wardrobe mirror and shouted, ‘there he is, there’s the man!’
On either side of the mantelpiece father had built two tall cupboards, all stuffed with clothes and linen. Two birdcages sat on top of these cupboards, occupied at various times by the linnets and finches captured by my brother John. He caught them by smearing bird-lime and dak on the branches of bushes and trees. They seldom sang or looked happy. They showered the kitchen with birdseed, often causing my father to threaten to set them free. Strangely though, he never did.
Reading newspapers was his main hobby. Every paper got read from front cover to back and could take several days to complete. This was probably deliberate; we only got the paper three days a week, when the bread-man called. The rest of the world could have been blown to kingdom come on the other days and we wouldn’t have known about it. Sunday was an exception, with The Sunday Press, The Sunday Independent and The People arriving home with him after Mass. Once dinner was over he rarely moved from his chair by the fire. If he wasn’t reading he was dozing or sucking on his chalk pipe.
He had a box-full of chalk pipes, mostly broken ones. He utilised them by finding two bits that made a whole, then stuck them together using blood pricked from his finger with a darning needle. Before the pipes he had smoked Woodbines, cycling into Waterford once a week to collect them during the time when rationing made them scarce. I got the impression they were bought on the black market.
Thursday night was his shaving night. The wash-stand was set out like an operating table; shaving brush, soap, razor and new Mac’s Smile blade, basin of hot water, and jug of cold water. We watched through the billowing steam as he lathered up his face. When he was finished all that could be seen were two eyeballs peering out at us. Usually he managed to get some soap in his eyes, and then he danced around the room shouting, ‘the towel, where’s the feckin’ towel’.
He didn’t believe in barbers and was in the habit of trimming our hair - the boys that is - with a pair of scissors almost worn away from sharpening. Then he saw an advertisement in the Sunday Press and bought a clipping machine by post from Clerys in Dublin.
His aversions to barbers meant that somebody had to cut his hair. When I was big enough, it became my job. He had several big lumps on his head, benign growths the size of gooseberries, and I had visions of slicing them off with the new machine. Fortunately, I never removed anything except his hair. The clipping done, the machine was cleaned and oiled, then put back in its box and stored away on the ledge above the mantelpiece.
Wednesday was mother’s washing day. The big steel bath was placed on a chair in the front yard, where carbolic soap and Persil were put to good use. When she had large items such as blankets to wash we were roped in to help with the wringing-out. Two tall poles stood in the acre where the washing was line was hung. Given the usual strong breeze, the clothes dried in a few hours. If the weather was bad it was hung in an outhouse, then dried by the fire as it was needed.
The same bath was used to scrub us down on Saturday night. We were expected to appear without a blemish for Mass on Sunday and mother inspected every orifice to ensure it. Ears were the worst offenders; she used a rough piece of cloth to scrape away at their insides. Knees weren’t far behind; sometimes the scrubbing brush was used to restore them to their natural colour. Afterwards she made us polish our shoes, making sure we selected the correct colour from the pile of tins stacked on the shelf in the porch. When the polish was dry she spat on them, and shined them until you could see your reflection in the toecaps.
Our Sunday shoes were expected to last the whole year. If repairs were needed father carried them out himself. Off-cuts of leather were easily obtained in the Tannery, and these he cut and shaped into the required size. I watched him tip-tap his hammer on the last to get the rhythm then feed the tacks held between his teeth to the hammerhead, before driving them home with one clean hit.
If we weren’t quite self-sufficient then we were as near to it as father could get us. Everything we could grow we did. We killed a pig or a sheep occasionally, salting the meat and storing it in barrels. For heating we used firewood gleaned from the surrounding land; our drinking water was drawn from our well; our domestic water needs were served by the two rainwater butts situated under the eaves at the back of the house.
Father could quite easily dispensed with money altogether. He would have been content using a bartering system. A system that still existed, to some extent, in the countryside. For example, when he needed the hay in the acre cutting, a machine from Kelly’s farm would be dispatched to cut it. He then returned the favour by spending a day in the fields when their hay was being saved.
I remember the time mother got fat. I was about ten and I recall the turmoil this caused in my young mind. For years she had been the same comfortable shape, here she was getting bigger and uglier by the week. Then she got sick and took to her bed. Her sister Kathleen came calling to help out with the household chores and keep an eye on us kids. I liked Kathleen; she was as skinny as mother was fat, and she possessed this sharp, acerbic wit that was absent in mother. She lived next door to their mother, Grandma Butler, in Grenan, a few miles away, with her husband Tom and my six cousins, Peggy, Nellie, Minnie, Anice, Brigid and Michael.
On this occasion Grandma Butler came calling. Her visits were few and far between so it must have been serious. She arrived in her ass and trap, sitting in splendid isolation on a bag of straw in the driver’s seat, a rug across her knees. She had her shawl wrapped loosely about her, a black scarf tied tightly under her chin. Queen Victoria couldn’t have looked any grander.
Kathleen was already in attendance, and for the next hour they closeted themselves in mother’s room, the only sounds to be heard the ticking of our mantle-clock and the animated voices behind the closed bedroom door. Father was working so we skulked unhindered in the kitchen, ears to the door attempting to hear what was being said.
Not that we paid too much attention to the conversation; often just watching the faces was enough. When the insurance man called for instance, the sight of his big red nose was enough to send us into raptures. Mother usually banished us to the scullery when he appeared, shushing us to keep quiet. Unable to see him and titter at his appearance, we had to suffer in silence in the dark while he drank a cup of tea and chatted with mother.
Disaster struck the afternoon our ear-to-the-door manoeuvres became scuffles. The door shot open suddenly, depositing all three of us in a heap at their feet. Mother, who had been in the act of sugaring his tea, became flustered and asked him how many sugars he would you like on his nose. After that we were banished to the outhouses whenever he came within sight.
Grandma and Aunt Kathleen eventually emerged from the bedroom and sat in the kitchen drinking tea, tut-tuting and shaking their heads at whatever it was that displeased them. Later on the doctor came, and a few days later mother wasn’t fat anymore.
If father had his vegetable then she had her hens and turkeys. She kept egg-laying pullets - Rhode Island Reds mostly - who tended to lay anywhere except the hen-house. We spent a lot of time following them to see where they were laying, sometimes sticking our fingers up their bums to see if they had already performed the task.
She also reared turkeys for the Christmas market, buying in young chicks, and fattening them up to be sold. We were all in a state of great excitement when the turkey man arrived in his van to buy them. They were sold by weight, and for this purpose he carried with him a set of beautiful brass scales. They were golden in colour and had a face like a barometer, with a hook at the top and the bottom.
He hung it on a bracket at the back of the van then pulled the bottom hook to demonstrate that it worked. Mother inspected it too, tugging at it as if she didn’t entirely believe what she was seeing. The legs of the turkeys were tied together, and they were hung upside down on it and weighed individually. She always kept a few turkeys back, one for ourselves and one each for Aunt Kathleen and her mother.
Some years she hatched her own. There were always a couple of permanent turkeys about the place and they were taken to Mrs Hubbard, who lived in nearby Georgestown, and who owned a turkey-cock. She transported them in shopping bags, one either side of the handlebars of her bicycle, their red heads poking and pecking as she pedalled the few miles to their destination.
Sometimes I was given the job. At Mrs Hubbard’s I couldn’t fathom what it was all about; all the cock did was clamber onto the hens backs, scratch about for a while, them clamber down again. The eggs thus fertilised did produce chicks, those that survived the attentions of the rats and other foragers, but mother nearly always wound up buying in more to make up the numbers.
She had never worked after she married, so the only money she ever saw came from father’s wages packet - and that was easily taken care of by the needs of the family. For her pin-money she depended on her turkeys, her hens, her eggs, her knitting and, in the summer, her blackberry-picking.
For a few short weeks each summer we picked blackberries at every opportunity. Our hands turned purple, our faces turned purple, as, no doubt, did our insides. We ate them until they made us sick, filling our mouths along with the gallons and buckets we collected them in. Sometimes we made special trips with jam-jars and mugs, picking the juiciest ones, taking them home and mashing them on a plate, then sprinkling sugar on them before eating them. The berries we collected were used in some dye-making process, and we filled barrels with them. On the day the blackberry man called, mother increased the weight in the barrels by adding water to them. She got paid so much a stone, and our reward was bags of sweets and lucky-bags when she next did her shopping.
Saturday was her shopping day. This was done in Kilmac and I sometimes accompanied her, pedalling one of father’s ‘high-nellies’ alongside her - under the cross-bar until I grew tall enough to reach the saddle.
Shopping with her was an unhurried affair and could take the best part of the day. There were always half a dozen ports of call, the first one usually Flynn’s, the butchers. Nicky Flynn was as big and red-faced as the bullocks he slaughtered; dispensing banter in equal measure with the lumps of mutton and beef he slapped and hacked about on the huge slab of wood behind the counter.
The shop was always full of gossiping women who never seemed in a hurry to buy anything. Mother was no exception. Nicky would heft a lump of meat in his huge hand, holding it aloft for inspection; ‘there you are Mrs O’Brien, a lovely bit of boiling beef’. She would shake her head and discard it as too fatty or too bony or too something-or-other. More chunks would be examined and discarded until the conversation was exhausted and something had to be bought..
She then visited several grocery shops, spreading her custom around, knowing that at Christmas time she would rewarded with a ‘Christmas box’ from each. Afterwards she visited the haberdashers and purchased the hanks of wool that she made the fair-isle and Aran sweaters from throughout the winter. (A job I always hated was holding those hanks between my outstretched hands as she re-wound them into balls for knitting) Lastly, she called at Lennon’s Drapery Store, where she paid off her bills at so much a week. All our clothes and shoes were bought at Lennons.
Saturday was the day most of the country folk did their shopping, and she met many of her friends that day. One of them was Kathy Whelan, a sad-eyed woman married to Jack Morrissey, a distant relative of hers. Their house, across the road from the post-office, was a palace compared to ours. It had carpets in every room and furniture that smelled of leather and polish. And Nicholas, who was about my age, let me wear his glasses for the loan of one of my comics. I was prepared to swap existence with him any day - even if he had no father at home.
This was something which puzzled me greatly; Jack Morrissey was now living in Manchester with one of the O’Halloran’s - and no one was saying why. When I asked mother, all she said was; ‘that rip, ‘tis walking the road with the tinkers she should be’. Kathy sometimes received letters from Jack but she burnt them all without opening them. I wondered if they had money in them; several people in our boreen had relatives in England and they often received letters with five pounds inside. I once asked Nicholas but he must have told because mother got to hear about it. She walloped me about the house when we got home, telling me never to mention such a thing again.
Shopping done, mother would retire to the snug of Kent’s bar for a glass of port or stout. Maureen Kent, who hovered between the bar and grocery section, personified efficiency. Lean and elegant, her no-nonsense dark suits suited her admirably, while her hair always looked freshly permed. She chatted endlessly as she sliced thin slices of ham on the hand-operated slicing machine, filled cardboard boxes with packets of tea and other household goods, or uncapped bottles of stout and set them firmly on the counter, the froth oozing gently down their long necks. She was helped out occasionally by her brothers, Michael and John, who also assisted in the family’s other occupation of undertakers.
As I got older I was occasionally sent to do the shopping - mother writing down the message-list on a sheet of paper for me. Before too long I found this was an opportunity for me to make some money for myself. Where she had written down ‘seven shillings worth of boiling beef’, I asked for six shillings worth, thus making myself a whole shilling. I stuffed myself with chocolates and sweets, thinking of how easy it had been. When I got home she somehow knew I had short-changed her and beat me around the kitchen ‘till I was black and blue.
Several times a year the council workmen swarmed the boreen, filling up potholes, opening drains and clearing the ditches. The fact that the pothole filler was gravel and got washed away in first heavy rain was neither here nor there; for a little while the boreen was all dressed up in its Sunday best. Looking like it had a shit, shave and a shampoo, as Tommy Galvin was fond of saying
At break times, a fire was lit by the roadside and the billycans came out, As many as half a dozen jostling for space over the open flame. All balanced precariously on a stick held by the kneeling or squatting workmen. When the water was boiled the little twists of tea and sugar came out and were tipped into the cans, which were then stood by the edge of the fire to draw.
All this activity was a Godsend to us youngsters; bored to death by our own company, we swooped on the workmen like vultures. The flashing billhooks or the long-tailed shovels held little interest for us; it was their bicycles that we were after. And some were content to let us ride them.
Most of them had nicknames; Paddy Fat Meat, The Buachall, Grain- A-Meal, Johnny Pigs Eye. I studied the last-named closely to see what resemblance he bore to the pig’s head that we occasionally ate for dinner. This half-head sat on a big plate in the middle of the table. It had only one ear, half a nose, and one eye. And I could hear words running through my head as I stared at it and it stared back at me.
Johnny pigs head, Johnny pigs head
One half live, the other half dead
Johnny pigs ear, Johnny pigs eye
Johnny we’re hungry, Johnny goodbye.
Then mother would carve it up and we would fight like cats and dogs over the ear and the tongue, and the stringy bits behind the eyeball.
Sometimes there was whitewashing to be done, a task that that had us as white as the walls and piers when we were finished. A mixture of lime and water, It burnt the hands and scalded the eyes if you were unfortunate enough to get spattered. Included in the itinerary was the henhouse, the smelliest building we owned. The hens spent a lot of their time roosting in there, spattering everything with shit. It was slippery inside, covered in feathers, and sometimes wayward hens would come fluttering and squawking from a dark corner, with the result it never got much more than a ‘scots lick and a promise’. We finished off by painting the several large stones scattered about in front of the house. Mother often sat on these in the summer time, humming the song ‘The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door’
In the winter the Hunt sometimes came by, the huntsman with his horn appearing first, the other riders following on in their bright red jackets. Then came the hounds, sweeping through the undergrowth in relentless fashion, their excitement high when a fox was scented.
There were always followers, the occasional car, but most came on foot, beating the bushes and ditches with their knobbly sticks, as if, they too, were following the scent. We followed the followers, never straying too far from home, mesmerised by the lepping horses. Nothing stopped their progress; neither brook or fence, not barbed-wire or steel gate. Over they went, tails flashing, nostrils blowing clouds of steam across the bleak, wintry landscape. Occasionally a dog got lost and you could hear the huntsman calling him home with his horn, often late into the night. What happened to the ones never found, I wondered? Did they roam the countryside in packs, hunting the foxes all by themselves?
Father didn’t like too many animals around the house and when the cat and dog population increased a way had to be found of reducing their numbers. If homes couldn’t be found for the kittens and pups then he drowned them in the nearby river. They were put in sacks and taken there, probably a cruel way to depart the world, but if we were squeamish about the operation we kept it to ourselves, and didn’t protest too much. It was the way of the world; we had seen it before, we would see it again. He usually took a shovel with him, so at least they got a decent burial somewhere afterwards.
I took to going out at night watching the night sky. It was easy to distinguish the lights of the various towns and villages on the horizon, but an intermittent blue flash coming from the direction of Kilmac had me puzzled for some time. Eventually, my father told me it was Nawnie, the blacksmith, welding in his forge. How come Bat Mansfield didn’t have blue flashes coming from his forge, I wondered. Maybe it was something to do with Nawnie advertising for a wife in some magazine in America. He had got the wife, and maybe she had brought the blue flashes with her. The Yank Power, who worked in the Tannery, and who had spent some time in New York, had brought a wife back too and she had some funny habits. We had tea at their house once and she had called us all ‘honey’ and given us fried tomatoes on our bread. Who had ever heard of fried tomatoes?
The Master had aroused my curiosity about the stars with his tales of Copernicus, Galileo and Isaac Newton. How far was the moon from earth? I had forgotten, but it wasn’t far. The sun was ninety three million miles away, now that was far, and the nearest star was zillions and zillions of miles away. Light years, in fact. How heavy was a light year? Lighter than an ordinary year, I concluded.
After a while I could pick out the Dog and the Plough, and on a really clear night The Milky Way. The more I thought about it the more I came to the conclusion that if I got on a space-ship I could keep travelling out into space, forever and ever, without ever getting to the end. Was that was what was meant in the catechism when we said ‘world without end amen’?
I became mesmerised by the vastness of space, and sometimes felt myself about to be swallowed up by the blackness out there. It was conceivable I might vanish, never to be seen again, a thousand questions on the tip of my tongue. Why is the world, God? Why are the stars? Why am I? In the beginning you created the Universe, so what did you do before that?
I suppose I was quite intelligent at school. Lessons came fairly easy to me, particularly sums and English composition. But it was my grasp of Irish that pleased the Master most. He liked to converse in our native tongue whenever possible and was pleased when one of his pupils had a feel for it. Occasionally he got carried away; even attempting to teach us English in Irish.
He had only one eye - well, he had two but one of them was glass. This he liked to remove, polish on his sleeve then hold out at arm’s length. As if to see us better. I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, was one of his favourite sayings. He also reckoned he could hear the grass growing, a phenomenon we were prepared to accept, because he heard even the slightest whisper. He could turn unerringly to the source no matter where it came from.
He had his favourites; Master’s pets we called them, and I suppose I was marginally included in this group. Most tended to come from the brighter elements, or the wealthier ones, but they always included a few of the biggest and prettiest girls regardless of their intellectual qualities. These he would have sit close to him as he corrected their work, patting their heads and shoulders when something pleased him. Others currently in favour were given tasks considered perks; cleaning the blackboard, topping up inkwells, giving out books and, in winter, keeping the fire stoked up. Sometimes coal was in short supply, and some of us were sent out to collect firewood from the nearby fields.
I found a regular supply in one of the outhouses behind Nugent’s pub when I fell through its door one morning. Out of bounds to us, my search for wood had nevertheless landed me almost on top of it. Balancing on top of a ditch to try and dislodge some rotten bits from between the branches of a tree, I spied several chunky pieces resting on the roof of the porch. However, when I reached out, I overbalanced. My momentum sent me skittering down the bank, through the porch, and crashing into the door beyond. The door lurched open and I was sent sprawling into the past.
For a moment I thought I had somehow gone back in time. Here was a world of thirty or forty years ago, all cocooned in cobwebs and dustcovers. At first I was petrified; the lumpy, shrouded things in the armchairs and on the tables might easily be mummies or monsters waiting for someone like me to stumble into their lair. I waited for something to happen, a leg or hand to appear from behind the veils, but nothing did.
Everywhere I looked was piled with books and magazines, all stacked higher than me. I pulled a newspaper to me and read the date; 1922. One on another pile said THE WAR IS OVER in huge letters that covered almost the entire page. The date was 1918.
I found a stack of photographs in one of the armchairs, mostly mildewed, with the glass cracked or broken. The sepia prints showed severe-looking men and women framed in oval; the women with their hair in buns mostly, the men smoking short-stemmed pipes or leaning on forks. Some of them looked to be of Paddy Nugent, but I knew that couldn’t be. They were too old-fashioned and his clothes were all wrong.
Another pile was records. I looked at the labels; The Charleston, Count John McCormick, Arthur Tracy. Others were unpronounceable. I had seen records before. Grandma Butler had a gramophone which she sometimes played for us, but God help us if we touched it. His master’s voice, she said, pointing to the dog painted on its side, be like him and sit and listen - and keep your paws to yourselves. I felt the texture of the records now, rubbing them against my cheek. Smooth and cool to the touch. I shoved the John McCormick under my gansy. Surely one wouldn’t be missed?
Then I saw the books; Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope and someone called James Boswell. There were dozens of them and I had never heard of any of them. I vowed to ask the Master, he was bound to know. Though he only ever talked of Padraig Pearse and Sean O’ Casey.
These books had a feel and a smell to them. Of what I didn’t know, but it felt right that I should be here. I raised one to my nose and smelled it. Maybe I could come back again. Nobody ever came here, so nobody need know. I picked up another book and looked at the title. THE STORY OF THE IRISH RACE. That was more like it. Some of the names leapt out at me; The Tuatha De Danann, Cuchullian, Conor MacNessa, Fionn Macool, Red Hugh, Cromwell, Robert Emmet, Daniel O’Connell and many others. I was definitely coming back again. And when I looked in the fireplace I knew I had a reason. Stacked in the hob was a large pile of wood that hadn’t been disturbed in years.
The woodpile outlasted me. I had hardly made any inroads before I was discovered and marched back to the classroom in disgrace. I had by then, however, removed a number of items and hidden them away in Neddy’s shed.
The full nature of the Master’s sadistic nature was now revealed to me. He kept an assortment of canes in the book cupboard behind his desk and I was the one ordered to fetch them to him. When I had complied he stood for a long time flexing and testing a number of them, all the time lecturing the class on the consequences of stealing. When he finally turned to me he ordered me to hold out my hand then held it firmly by the wrist as he slashed down on it. He repeated the dose on the other hand. My humiliation was complete when he made me stand in front of the whole class for the rest of the day. I felt like one of the thieves crucified on the Cross beside Jesus as I stood there, hands under my oxters, pain coursing through my raw limbs. My only consolation was the books still safely hidden.
Despite my bleeding hands mother and father refused to condemn him. I had got what I deserved as far as they were concerned. And maybe they were right. Other parents weren’t as understanding though and there were often rows and arguments over his excesses. Once, Father Sinnott marched into the classroom and removed all the canes. Later, after a heated argument in the corridor, we heard him breaking them all up. The following week a new bundle of canes appeared.
Then came the day of the big fight. It was like something out of our Batman comics as the Master reeled around the classroom while five masked avengers laid into him. It was lunch-break, and a couple of us who had been mooching in the cloakroom were given a grandstand view. The intruders swept into the hallway, their faces concealed by handkerchiefs, bolting the outer door behind them. Then it was into the classroom where the Master was having his lunch, barring that door also. By now I had realised something was afoot and I crept forward to see better what it was. Luckily, the frosted half-panel of glass had a little piece missing in one corner, just big enough to accommodate my eye.
The Master was getting murdered! Slapped around from pillar to post, kicked and punched this way and that. The flapping handkerchiefs weren’t hiding the faces too effectively and I was sure I recognised a couple of them. Wasn’t that Peter Kenny putting the boot in? And Paddy Galvin giving him a taste of his own medicine with the cane. Then Mrs Coffey appeared from her classroom, her face like thunder, rattling the locked door and shouting; ‘what’s going on in there you boys?’
When the Master finally appeared he was bedraggled and bleeding, and the classroom was a mess. Of the intruders there was no sign, but there was an open window. I was queried and questioned but I shook my head. No, I had seen nothing, nor had I recognised anybody. A Garda came out to inspect the damage and to investigate further but nothing ever came of it.
We were given a couple of days off, and for a few weeks the Master was a changed man. But, as John Mullins used to say, you can’t teach an old Master new tricks, and within a short time he was back to his old ways. He beat the education into us, it could be said.
It was the school’s responsibility to supply altar boys to serve Mass at Newtown church. Newtown was the seat of the parish and Father Sinnott lived in a big house across the road from the chapel. It had a large driveway with apple trees lining both sides of it; trees heavy each autumn with apples much bigger and sweeter than those to be found in Cullinan’s orchard. The difficulty was getting at them, for they were in full view of the house. And the housekeeper had eyes like a hawk. In fact she looked a bit like a hawk, with her hooked nose and straight black hair cut evenly across her shoulders. Becoming an altar boy gave me a reason to be in the grounds of the house; there were always items to be collected and delivered, and I made sure I always collected my fair share of apples on these visits.
The Master had the responsibility for the selection and training of altar boys. Training included regular visits to the chapel to rehearse the duties we had to perform during the Mass. These were many and varied; bell-ringing, assisting at the Offertory and Communion, taking charge of the collection boxes after they had been passed round. There were also the responses to the priest’s oration. The Mass was in Latin and we had to grapple with this difficult language until the Master was satisfied. Curiously, though we learned our responses off to perfection, we never bothered with the English translation.
Being an altar boy carried with it a certain status. It conferred an air of respectability on the family, and I could see mother purring with pride as she laid out my surplice on Saturday nights. God’s little helper, she called me. It made the family more saintly in her eyes. There were now plenty of reasons to get us all on our knees in the kitchen, saying a decade of the Rosary before the now-prominent picture of Mary which previously hung in obscurity in the back room. For me the rewards were more tangible; participating at the occasional wedding or funeral where, at some stage in the proceedings, a couple of half-crowns or a ten-shilling note would be pressed into my palm.
I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to become a priest. There was something heroic about their deeds in darkest Africa and other heathen places. Converting the pagans and saving all the Black babies, now there was something worth doing. A missionary,that was what I would become.
Of course priests had it much easier here in Ireland - and it seemed such a pleasant way of life. Visiting schools and asking questions about the Catechism during the week, saying the Mass on Sunday. Then there were all those collections at Easter and Christmas which yielded up hundreds of pounds. Plus, of course, the car. Father Sinnott was one of few in the neighbourhood to own one, a sure sign of wealth in my estimation. Paddy Nugent was another. Although Martin Galvin had recently acquired one - and they didn’t have two sods of turf to put on the fire as far as anyone could see. It was a hackney-car according to father, a phrase which went over my head at the time.
The proceeds of the church collections were read out at Mass a few weeks later. They read like rolls of honour and were hierarchical in the extreme, those at the top of the list being the wealthiest farmers, those at the bottom labourers. David Kiersey, Ballyshunnock, five pounds…James Kelly, Ballyshunnock, two pounds…Patrick O’Brien, Ballyhussa, five shillings…
Those who paid nothing were never read out, but everyone knew who they were just the same. We were always near the bottom of the list, something which annoyed me because it showed everyone how poor we were. I never understood what the collections were for. The ones at school for black babies yes, they were starving and had no clothes and I could identify with that. But there were no hungry or naked priests as far as I could see. And when I asked my father he merely grunted that it was ‘to keep their lordships arses in comfort for the next year’.
One of the books I had hidden away was the Bible and I now took to reading it, hoping it might help with my entry into the priesthood. It was confusing though, a lot of the words didn’t make sense, so I decided to approach John Mullins about it one afternoon. If anyone would know he would, if he wasn’t digging a grave he was stretched out against a tombstone reading something.
John was in the graveyard, clearing away bushes and weeds from an old section. ‘There’s too many people dyin’, boy. We’ll soon be buryin’ them standing up’.
‘Begat?’ his eyebrows arched as I asked my question.
‘Aye. There’s lots of begats. I just wondered…’
He began to laugh. ‘Oh yes, you’re right. Begor and there’s lots of begating in the Bible. Sometimes I think it’s all they feckin’ did’. He paused to get his pipe going again, taking several heavy sucks on it before speaking. ‘What do yerself think it means?’
‘Begor now, that’s a good way of putting it. I couldn’t put it better meself’. He then went on to explain and I went away satisfied. My father begat me…Tommy Galvin begat Dick…Jack Power begat Tomjoe…
Then I came across another phrase. ‘And Sarai Abram went into Hagar’…now what did that mean?
Religion was taken seriously in those days. Every season brought is own festivities and duties. March, for example, usually signified the beginning of Lent and weeks of fasting and devotion. Each of us owned our own prayer books and rosary beads, mother’s missal was stuffed to bursting with relics and Holy pictures. Blessed Martin himself had never been kissed as many times as had that faded picture of him she carried around with her. She had great faith in his powers as a healer. Whenever one of us was sick she kissed his picture and placed it on the afflicted part of our body. Holy water, Lourdes water, water from the healing well in Mothel lurked in every corner of the house and was dished out like tonic. As soon as sickness appeared she reached for one of her bottles and administered three sips to us. Never mind that it tasted like bog water, it still had to be swallowed.
The coming of Lent heralded a change of attitude in the lives of almost everyone in the community. From the priests whose sermons became more vociferous to the women who beat a path to the altar daily now, their eyes downcast, their heads shrouded in black veils.
We children denied ourselves too, no sweets or chocolates, no sugar in our tea. When the Master asked Tomjoe Power what he had given up he said smoking, and got walloped for his cheek. It was true though; a lot of the bigger boys could be found in sheltered spots during the breaks dragging on butts they had somehow got hold of.
This was also the time when the evangelists appeared; the Redemptorists, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits. And all breathing fire and brimstone at the retreats now held up and down the country. Billy Graham was in Ireland too, filling Croke Park fuller than the Waterford hurling team ever did. Several local women went. Farmers’ wives, who walked around for weeks afterwards as if they had corks up their arses. ‘You’d think butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths’, remarked John Mullins. ‘And sure maybe it wouldn’t. Frosty is as frosty does’.
We travelled occasionally to Dungarvan for a retreat, usually by train, or hiring Martin Galvin’s hackney car if one wasn’t available. Apart from the chest-beating and the wailing as some Jesuit or Redemptorist tore moral strips off the multitude the memory that lingers most is of that slow old steam train chugging out from Carroll’s Cross, colouring the air with thick billowing smoke, and filled to the brim with pilgrims, the driver blowing his horn at every level crossing, the engine snorting and whooshing as she picked up speed, the wheels pounding out their message
We’re on our way to heaven
We’re on our way to heaven
We’re on our way to heaven
We shall not be moved.
One year one of my cousins had to go and be ‘churched’. For some reason that nobody would talk about she had given up going to Mass and the Sacraments and had, to all to extents, been kicked out of the church. Excommunicated - the shame of it. ‘That strap’, my mother vented her anger, ‘she’ll have her mother in an early grave’.
That her mother was Aunt Kathleen made matters even worse; any slur on her family was a slur on us. You couldn’t have the neighbours talking behind your back. How could you hold your head up knowing that was going on? It was alright to talk about them of course, but not the other way round.
The errant cousin was coaxed back into the fold by getting her to go along to one of the retreats. ‘A good talking to be one of them Jesuits is what she needs’, I heard grandma say. ‘They’d put the wind up the divil himself’. The upshot was that she had to creep back into the church one Sunday after Mass. I always thought that being ‘churched’ was the result of some serious transgression and for many years I wondered what she had done. It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a purification ceremony that the church carried out on women who had given birth. This is what I read. ‘The woman who has just had a child must first stand outside the church door and only when she has been solemnly purified by sprinkling with holy water and the prayers of the priest is she led back into the church’. Apparently it goes back to the middle ages when the church decided that women who had given birth were unclean and therefore had to be ‘cleansed’. I had often seen women before, dressed solemnly in black, kneeling in the vestibule at the back of the church after Mass, waiting for the priest to come and attend to them, but it never occurred to me that the church was punishing them for having children.
I had to follow the priest about with the vessel of Holy water, while he placed a lighted candle in M’s hand, and recited the Gloria Patria and the Kyrie as well as the Our Father before sprinkling her with Holy Water and inviting her into the chapel with the words, ‘Enter into the temple of God, that though may have eternal life’. However, he made sure she was veiled before letting her pass, and I have since read that women who refused to cover their heads were often ex-communicated.
The ceremony ended with a blessing for us all and the priest telling us there was more rejoicing in Heaven when one lost soul returned to the fold than if a thousand righteous ones gained entry. Six months later, when she ran off with a married, man he was humming a different tune.
I never stopped to wonder at the time why there were no Altar girls. I suppose it was to do with the Church’s attitude to women even then, as exemplified in the ‘churching’. Thank God things have changed a bit since my youth.
On Ash Wednesday the whole school lined up in spindly ranks and marched the hundred yards to the church, where we heard Mass. Afterwards, we formed an orderly queue to the altar. Here the priest made the sign of the cross over our heads and put the imprint of a cross on our foreheads with a thumb dipped in damp ashes. We looked like a nation of aliens when he had finished, those black crosses prominent between our eyes. ‘Ye have the mark of Zorro on ye now’, John Mullins teased, leaning on his shovel as we marched past. It didn’t seem too bad later though when we saw many of the grown-ups displaying the same marks.
‘Power. Where is Thomas Power?’, bellowed the Master after we had returned from one such trip. ‘I did not see him in church. Has nobody seen him?’
Nobody had. Tomjoe was lazy and insolent, bullied us smaller boys mercilessly, and mooched off whenever he could get away with it. The trip to the church was ideal; he was probably asleep in the coal shed, his favourite hiding place.
‘Go outside and find him’. Jim Kiersey was despatched to do the necessary. ‘I will not have shirkers in my class’.
Jim had barely got outside before Tomjoe came hurrying in, looking as if he had been sleeping in a ditch.
‘Where have you been?’ roared the Master.
‘At the church sir’, stammered Tomjoe. ‘I got shortaken on the way back’.
By now the whole class was tittering.
‘Silence’, came the roar. He moved quickly to Tomjoe, grabbed him by the ears and dragged him into the centre of the room. ‘What is that…’ He jabbed at Tomjoe’s forehead with his free hand… ‘ there?’
‘Ashes sir. Holy ashes’.
‘Is it now? And what does it say?
‘I don’t know sir. I can’t see’.
‘And who put it there?
‘Father Sinnott, sir’.
‘Did he now? Did he indeed?’ By now he had dragged the helpless Tomjoe to the front of his desk and was searching his drawers. Within moments he had produced a hand mirror and held it to his victim’s face. ‘Now tell me what you see’.
Tomjoe could now see what had the rest of us tittering. The letters FUCK written large across his forehead.
‘It’s a swear word sir’.
‘And our parish priest put it there?
‘Then who did?
‘I don’t know sir’.
‘Why not, Power?’
‘I was asleep sir’
‘You were asleep! You glangeen, you amadan, do you think this school is run to suit your slothful habits?’ By now the canes were in his free hand. ‘Get down on your knees and say an act of contrition’. And while Tomjoe snivelled his way through the prayer he reddened his hand with a dozen mighty slashes. ‘Now go and see Father Sinnott. And leave that…’ he pointed to the offending word…’there’.
When Tomjoe had gone he turned to the rest of us. ‘Now’, he said, ‘I want the boy or boys - it couldn’t be a girl - who wrote that disgusting word to come forward’.
Nobody Did. There were a lot of whispered conversations but nobody seemed to know who did it. Or if they did they weren’t saying. Eventually he lost patience. ‘Okay’, he said, ‘nobody leaves this classroom until we find the culprit. We shall stay here all evening if necessary’. Neither did this threat work. Besides, we knew it wasn’t going to happen. His bus left at half-past four and unless he was planning to walk home he would have to be on it. Shortly before that time he conceded defeat. Nobody ever owned up to writing FUCK on Tomjoe’s forehead. Maybe he wrote it himself. Everyone said he was stupid enough. One thing though; he never slept in the coal shed again.
For forty days there was no escaping the season of penance. Mass every morning; Devotions two evenings a week, the congregation following in the priests footsteps around the church as he stopped at each Station of the Cross and said a decade of the rosary, us altar boys leading the responses. Confession, usually heard on a Saturday night, was extended to several nights. The priests prowled the public houses and the dance halls with a vigour that bordered on the hysterical. Very few dances were held during Lent, and those that took place were usually in defiance of the religious - so much so that you nearly had to go in disguise for fear of repercussions! It was as if the collective sins of the whole community were being gathered in and squeezed out of us in those few weeks
Holy Week saw the religious fervour intensify. It began with the celebration of Palm Sunday, proclaiming Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. To celebrate it a mound of palm leaves lay heaped behind the altar rails. They were blessed during Mass and given out to the congregation afterwards.
And so it went on. Right through to Holy Thursday and Good Friday; men and women now openly prostrating themselves before the altar, begging forgiveness.
On Good Friday time seemed to stand still. Nothing moved; no cars, no people. Nothing opened; no shops, no pubs. The only sound was that of the solitary church bell counting down the death of Christ. We fasted all day, breaking our fast only when midnight had passed.
Easter Sunday was a celebration. Christ was risen; all his pain and suffering was over. And all our starving too. The first thing that mother did was reach for her box of Woodbines, which had been gathering dust on top of the dresser. All our sins had been forgiven us, we were now free to let our hair down again for the coming year.
After Mass we gorged ourselves on Easter eggs and got ready for the procession later in the day. Every building in the village had been dolled up for the procession. Streamers and bunting criss-crossing from telegraph-pole to telegraph-pole, Holy pictures in every window along the route. Even the parish pump had been decorated.
At the appointed time the band struck up and the long snake of people set off. Headed by the priests and altar boys then the school choir and the schoolchildren. We stopped for prayers and benediction at various points, slowly making our way from the priest’s house to Newtown Cross, and then back to the school. Here, an open-air altar had been erected, and more prayers and hymn-singing were conducted, culminating in the whole congregation singing ‘Faith Of Our Fathers.
Part of our duties as altar boys included taking the filled collection boxes into the sacristy nearing the end of Mass and putting the money into a bag for the priest to take away. After I had been doing it for a while I found it easy to palm the odd shilling or two and slip it into my pocket under my surplice. I don’t remember if I ever stopped to consider my actions, or if I felt a pang of guilt as I subsequently devoured packets of Rollo’s and crisps, but I know I didn’t confess the sin at me regular confession. Here was a ready-made sin but I was still dreaming ones up to impress that impassive face on the other side of the confession box.
‘Bless me father for I have sinned. It is two weeks since my last confession. I cursed three times last week…I had bad thoughts about Shiela Kiersey...I pulled Frances’s Power’s hair in class…’
‘These bad thoughts my child, do they involve any…ah… physical activities?’
‘Good my child. When these impure thought come into your head you must say an act of contrition straight away. And offer the bad thoughts up. Now for your penance say five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys’.
When I asked Tomjoe what the priest meant about ‘physical activities’ he said he meant was I pulling my wire. Then he grabbed hold of me and said I hadn’t any wire worth pulling anyhow.
In due course Thomas Kirwan and myself discovered the pleasure of a little wine-drinking. We usually served together, and were responsible for filling the jugs with the water and wine to be used during the mass. When Father Sinnott officiated very little water but nearly all the wine would be used. However, with Father Power it was the other way round and we were able to transfer some of the wine to a spare vessel we kept concealed in a recess, topping up the priest’s jug with water. We returned later in the day, retrieved the wine then sat amid the gravestones drinking it. Sometimes it made your head spin, and when you added the occasional illicit Woodbine everything started to revolve. Trees, poles, even the gravestones; whirling around so fast you had to hang on tightly to something for fear of taking off.
I was eventually kicked out of the altar boys, though it wasn’t for stealing. One evening, before Devotions, I hid behind the sacristy door, one of the long-handled collection boxes raised above my head. I had intended to give Thomas Kirwan a fright as he came through the door - only it was Father Sinnott who walked through first. In my terror I crowned him with the box. Needless to say that was the end of me. Luckily for me the Master was off sick at the time. When he eventually returned I had finished my Primary exams, never to return.
The summer months seemed to go on forever. Long languid days stretching into warm, drowsy nights. In the long evenings after school we rambled the boreen looking for birds’ nests, caught bees in jam-jars and chased butterflies with nets made from scraps of muslin.
The smaller birds like the robin, thrush, yellowhammer and skylark built their nests in the crevices between rocks. We spent hours looking for them. Sometimes we watched a bird building its nest and checked every day to see if the eggs had yet been laid. Naturally, the bird flew away as we approached, so we were free to search the moss-covered nest. When our hand emerged clutching a couple of tiny eggs we were overjoyed. These perfectly-formed little marbles, gloriously speckled in blues and browns, were tiny lives. And we held them in our palms! In a few weeks tiny helpless creatures would emerge, squealing and squeaking, mouths opening and closing endlessly. When they got bigger we fed them worms, which they devoured ravenously.
The bigger birds built their nests higher up; the blackbirds in the trees; the swallows in the eaves under thatched roofs; the jackdaws in chimneys, whilst the corncrake nested in the fields.
We listened out for the cuckoo around the first of May and were seldom disappointed. Early one morning the cry would be heard; Cuck-oo, cuck-oo - a cry which we mimicked endlessly for days afterwards.
By now the flowers were beginning to flourish. The snowdrops had already flowered and gone to wherever snowdrops go, but the primroses were in full bloom, little clusters of them clinging to the soil between the rocks in the ditches, their pale faces drooping slightly at the tip of the stem.
The whole countryside was undergoing a transformation. Gone was the bleak winter landscape; everywhere was a profusion of colour. The blackthorn and whitethorn trees sprouting buds of delicate whites and pinks; the furze bushes showing buds of deep orange and the ferns and tall grasses showing signs of new life. Everywhere you looked there was a tapestry of varying shades of green; grass, bushes, trees and shrubs all bringing their own subtle tints. If you added all the colours together there wouldn’t be a rainbow wide enough to accommodate them.
In the fields the daisies and buttercups were poking their dainty heads above the grass, and one or two meadows were more white than green. To look out on a field of daisies brought its own reward, but we didn’t stop there. We picked bunches of them and displayed them around the house, in jam jars filled with water. Sometimes we added buttercups and bluebells, adding fern fronds to give it a bit of greenery.
As the summer wore on, we shed more and more clothes. Usually we went about barefoot, so there were regulars trips back to the house for sympathy when we trod on something sharp or got pricked by a thorn. We did possess sandals; elegant, leather-strapped affairs that buckled around the ankles, but God help us if we were caught wearing them. Sandals and ankle-socks were for Sunday wear only.
At the bottom of Kelly’s field was a pond. It was surrounded by a few scraggy trees. In the winter, it was either frozen or a swamp, and seemed to be a staging-post for the wild ducks and other migratory birds that passed by. Josie Morrissey, who owned a shotgun, often took pot-shots at them, with the result that we occasionally sat down to a dinner of roast duck - Josie invariably shooting more than required for his own needs. Josie also hunted rabbits and pheasants. The rabbits I didn’t mind; the countryside was over-run by them, but to hunt down and kill the beautiful pheasant didn’t seem right to me. Father was of the same opinion; Davy Crockett he called him, and one time he had a faded cutting tacked up over his workbench in the back shed. It was taken from the Irish Press.
As you may be aware, we are now nearing the end of the pheasant-shooting season. Isn’t it time some consideration was given to this much-maligned bird? Particularly the male of the species; hounded and driven from its habitat, fired upon daily by every Davy Crockett in the country. And all for what? So that some wellington-shod clod-hopper can boast about it to his friends.
Oh yes, I know about these pheasant-pluckers - and pleasant f---kers they are not. Sport is it they call it? Don’t make me laugh! A blind lion tamer would have more chance. Perhaps it serves society in some beneficial or useful way? If you consider Hitler was beneficial then it is.
And now I must fly. My friends and relations have all gone to that great pheasant sanctuary in the sky. There are only four of us left on this patch of ill-maintained wilderness - and the other three are females. If Davy Crockett doesn’t get me they surely will. Adieu. Peter Pheasant.
I never found out who wrote it. Perhaps it was himself.
In the summertime the pond was filled with tadpoles and frogs. Our jam-jars were put to good use once again, this time transferring the tadpoles to new waterways we constructed. Frogs were very good for having races with; you pressed a finger on their behinds and they leapt forward with great zest. Sometimes one got shoved down the back of your neck or the front of your trousers, and then there was hell to pay.
As we got older, we ventured further afield. Our well and the stream that flowed behind it. The well itself didn’t interest us too much - we had to visit it daily anyhow to draw the water for the house - but the stream did. Here the land was boggy and full of clumps of rushes and tall ferns. Lots of games could be dreamed up. Where it crossed the boreen, it did so through a large-diameter concrete pipe. We spent lots of time inside it, damming it to raise the water levels high enough to swim. In the winter it was a different matter; it became a raging torrent, bursting its banks and making the boreen impassable at times. We were ordered to stay well away from it then.
Ballyhussa was the centre of our universe. We looked out across the fields and saw Croughaun Hill and the Comeragh Mountains in the distance, sometimes hazy in the summer, often snow-capped but crystal clean in the winter. In the other direction the land stretched out to touch the horizon. That way, we knew, lay the sea. Beyond that was beyond our imaginations.
We viewed the world in a series of ever-increasing circles. The inner circle comprising of places like The Five Roads, Carroll’s Cross, Newtown and Kilmac; then widening to takes in Portlaw, Dunhill Kill and Bonmahon, and finally Waterford, Tramore, Dungarvan and Carrick. Beyond this we were content not to stray; partly because our young minds hadn’t yet reached the curious stage, but mainly because in those days of bicycles and pony-and-traps a trip of more than five miles was a trip to a foreign land.
A scratching stone stood like a totem in the middle of one of Nugent’s fields. Polished smooth by the hundreds of animals who had used it over the years, it was ideal for the games of cowboys and Indians we indulged in. Some hapless “cowboy” would find himself tied to it with binder twine - staked out in the baking sun we liked to think - as we danced around him chanting nonsense, beating our almost non-existent chests, and slapping our hands at our mouths and emitting ferocious war cries. “Geronimo” was the most feared of our Indian leaders and there were always a few minor skirmishes before his selection.
Beyond this field lay the grove, where gnarled evergreens twisted their way skywards, their lower branches deformed - and in many cases broken away completely. From these we collected firewood, and stoned the higher branches to dislodge the tory-tops we could see but couldn’t reach. We prized these tory-tops and fought like cat and dog for the ones dislodged.
In another field a big chestnut tree spread itself like a tent. This we could climb; it had low boughs and masses of foliage. We made a swing from an old tyre and suspended it from one of the boughs, standing upright on it as we arced across the landscape. It also produced conkers; shiny brown nuggets that grew inside the spiky green balls that appeared every spring. We hardened them by sticking them up the chimney, then bored holes in them and threaded them with lengths of string. A good conker was worth plenty; it could supply a steady stream of sweets and marbles for as long as it lasted.
In time we outgrew all this. We erected goalposts in Nugent’s field and arranged games of football and hurling during the summer evenings. All the local boys took part and we held four or five-a-side matches, depending on the numbers present. Everybody had a nickname; I was Tom Tuts, Jim Kiersey was Slago, Oliver Power was Lastic, and the other Powers, Tomjoe, Vince , Christy and Sonny were the Grain-A-Meals.
Because the goalposts were ours, my brother John and myself picked the teams. If I won the toss I never picked Tomjoe, choosing instead players who I knew weren’t afraid of him. The real pleasure in the game was trying to cripple Tomjoe, because he was a bully whom nobody liked. Our revenge was to gang up on him whenever the chance arose. He was pretty thick though and always kept coming back for more.
In the winter we read our comics and Annuals; the Dandy and Beano and pictorial western books, and, in my case, any Zane Gray or Nat Gould books I could get my hands on. I read by candlelight after everyone had gone to bed, often to the annoyance of my parents who would holler up from their bedroom “put that bloody candle out and go to bed”.
TV made its presence felt around this time, but it was of academic interest in our house as we still had no electricity. One or two houses already had it installed and the neighbours called round in the evenings to watch it. Power’s was the nearest to us with this “magic box”, and we trooped off there several evenings a week for this new entertainment. Their cottage was similar to ours, and as well as Tomjoe and his brothers there were several sisters too, so it could get quite cramped inside. Fortunately for me I began going to the pictures soon afterwards so I never really became addicted to it.
We had a menagerie of animals and fowl. Father kept sheep, calves and pigs. The there were mother’s hens and pullets high-stepping it across the yard, the odd waddling duck and, in the months before Christmas, gabbling turkeys.
Our sow produced a litter of banbhs every year, squealing and snorting bundles of energy who shrieked at full volume whenever we picked them up to stroke them. They never wanted to lie still, gnawing and fighting for their mother’s teats as she lay there unconcerned. When they were a few weeks old father castrated all the males in the litter using an old Macs Smile razor blade. Holding the piglet on its back, he cut an incision, then squeezed the little balls out. There was never much blood but they squealed louder than ever for some time afterwards.
Sheep-shearing was another task I was expected to help with. We usually kept about ten of these animals and the clipping took place in the evenings after work or on Saturdays. The sheep was rolled onto its back, my father holding its head between his thighs, while I held onto its back legs. He then stooped over it and began the shearing, commencing at the belly and working the fleece away from the skin, alternating from one side to the other. In this manner the fleece was slowly peeled away from the sheep’s body, winding up in a heap behind its back. In some places it hadn’t even been necessary to clip it; a good tug and away it came from the skin.
When he was finished the skin had many nicks in it where the machine had dug in, and the poor sheep itself looked a completely different species. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for it as it staggered away, bewildered. When the shearing was complete all the fleeces were washed, then bundled together to await collection by the local buyer.
Occasionally father decided to fatten a pig and kill it, keeping back one of the banbhs for this purpose when he was selling the litter. For the last few weeks of its life it was kept permanently locked up and fed large meals of maize and barley, together with much of the household slops.
The first time I recall one being killed he asked an old man from Ballydurn to come and do the deed. I don’t think he was too sure how to go about it himself and this man was supposed to be an expert, having worked at Clover Meats or somewhere like that. He was certainly an expert at drinking large bottles; he downed several before he started. He brought with him his own knife, a vicious-looking affair that he solemnly informed me was a Ghurkha knife. His teeth were either black or yellow and the stubs of his forefingers a mouldy brown.
We had set up an old pine table in the yard with a basin underneath to catch the blood - mother intending to make black puddings from it. After a struggle we managed to get the pig up on the table, then onto its back, striving to hold it there as the old man attempted to cut its throat. After several abortive attempts - in which I thought at one stage he had chopped off his own hand - the pig went limp and he told us we could relax. However, when we let go, the pig leaped off the table. With its neck pumping blood, it ran out the gate, cleared the ditch and disappeared into Kelly’s field. As we pursued it, it galloped into the pond at the bottom of the field and disappeared from view. It took almost an hour to get it out, and another to clean it up. Father said it was the only time he had ever seen a pig commit suicide. Needless to say he did his own killing after that.
When the carcass was ready for salting he got a local butcher to come and cut it up. We packed it into a wooden barrel, layering it with salt until it was filled to the brim then stored it in one of the outhouses. Sometimes mother wrapped a joint in greaseproof paper and stuck it on a ledge up the chimney. This gave it a smoky flavour when cooked.
If food was sometimes scarce there was plenty of variety. Young turnips were delicious raw and we ate them regularly on our way home from school…stooping among the drills to select a juicy-looking one, peeling the skin back with our teeth, then devouring it. Kale too, although cattle food, possessed tender hearts which we pulled out and ate, leaving the hardier outside leaves for the animals. In the summer the countryside abounded in wild fruit; hurts, sloes, crab-apples, blackberries, wild strawberries. And of course, mushrooms.
For a few weeks in early August we picked and ate mushrooms every day. Early in the morning, with the dew still on the ground, we roamed the fields searching for them. We had a good idea in which fields they could be found so it wasn’t as much of a lottery as it seemed. They grew in the strangest of places; between rows of beet and turnips, beside (and sometimes under) cowpats, and in patches of lush grass. Fields where horses spent some time were particularly good.
When we found a cluster we threaded them through blades of grass, returning home when we had several “strings” filled. We roasted them on the open fire, popping them on to the hot coals, sprinkling them with salt, then waiting for the juices to bubble up before devouring them. We toasted thick cuts of bread over the same open fire, then washed the lot down with mugs of hot tea.
In those years all the tilling and harvesting was done using horses. We watched from the sidelines as Kelly’s fields changed colour every spring; flocks of birds - big and small - screeching and squabbling over food as the sods were turned over by teams of horses pulling spindly-looking ploughs. PIERCE OF WEXFORD was the name on most of them, a name I also knew to be synonymous with the making of pikes and other farming tools. I wondered if it was the same company that had made the pikes used during the rising of 1798.
“And our pikes shall meet together at the rising of the moon…”
Or by the followers of Fr John Murphy AT Oulart Hill and Vinegar Hill who, when seeing his chapel and his home - like so many others in the parish - on fire, and in several of them the inhabitants consumed in flames, said…”we must, when night comes, get armed with pitchforks and other weapons and attack the Camolin Yeoman Cavalry when they return to pass the night after satisfying their savage rage on defenceless country people…”
Then Fr Murphy from Old Kilcormack
Rode up the rocks with a warning cry
Arm, arm he cried, for I’ve come to lead you
For Ireland’s freedom we fight or die.
The Master blamed the French, and Napoleon in particular, for the failure of the United Irishmen. “Wolf Tone spent three or four years in France, kissing the backsides of the great French Generals, and what did it get him? They came to Bantry Bay and ran away again without a shot being fired in anger. And when they finally turned up in Lough Swilly it was all over bar the shouting. Too little too late.”
The ploughs never looked quite right with their combination of one big wheel and one little wheel carrying them bumpily along. It was some time before I realised that one wheel rolled in the furrow left by the turned-over sod, therefore had to be larger than the other one, which travelled on the top of the unploughed section.
Sometimes two teams worked the same field, “colouring in” sections until the whole field was ploughed. Afterwards it looked a rich chocolate colour, the ridges laying evenly against each other like slices of bacon in a butcher’s window. When it had been left for a while for the elements to break it up it was disc-harrowed, chain-harrowed and rolled until it was the consistency of flour.
The sowing machine was a long coffin-shaped box on wheels, a number of tubes running from its belly to the ground. When the box was filled with seed, they filtered through these tubes and were deposited into the soil. When the sowing was finished scarecrows were erected to keep the birds away.
When the meadows were ready for cutting the headlands were cleared first using scythes, and any rocks or other obstacles removed. Much of the horse-drawn machinery had seats attached, allowing the operator to sit down, and the sowing machine was no exception. It had a deep bucket seat which elevated the driver above the wheels, allowing him to rest his legs on the axle. And more importantly, allowed him to keep an eye out for obstructions - as cutting blades were expensive and time-consuming to replace.
After a few days the hay was turned over using a pike, and fluffed up to assist with the drying. It was then gathered into larger heaps, ready to be made into cocks. This was done using a rake called a TUMBLING PADDY, a large double-sided steel “comb”, equipped with two long wooden handles. It was pulled behind the horse, and when enough hay had been gathered the rake was flicked over using the two handles, leaving the pile of hay behind.
As we got bigger we helped out with saving the hay, piking it into cocks and helping to wind out the sugan ropes. These were looped over the cock and secured at both ends, helping to prevent it from blowing away when it got windy.
On the day, the men from the neighbouring farms and cottages could be seen making their way across the fields to the haymaking, pikes and pitchforks on their shoulders. Much the way, it occurred to me that Fr Murphy’s men must have rallied to his call. The work continued until it had either all been done or it grew too dark. In the afternoon the women from the farms brought out baskets filled with bottles of tea and ham sandwiches - the tea kept warm by being wrapped in woollen socks.
On a certain day all the hay was drawn into the haggard and stored in the barn or built into ricks. Horses were usually used to slide the cocks in, by means of long ropes tied to the harness. This was the day I loved best; sitting on the hay, the sun beating down, hayseeds everywhere, urging the horse forward as he carried both cock and me towards the haggard. In the haggard the men sweated buckets as they piked the hay higher and higher into the barn. The hay was bone dry and the hayseeds got everywhere; in your eyes and ears, in your hair, even up your arse. Vast amounts of tea and water were consumed, and in the evening large bottles of Guinness for the adults and lemonade for us youngsters.
A similar cycle was repeated at the harvest; the fields of wheat, barley and oats being cut by the reaper and binder. Unlike the hay, which lay where it fell, the corn was gathered up and tied in bundles by the same machine that cut it. It was then stooked by the men following behind, five bundles to a stook, and let stand in the stubble until it was ready to be drawn in. Here again, horses and open-sided carts were used, tall poles sticking up from the sides of the cart to keep the bundles in place. It too was drawn into the haggard and built into a rick to await the coming of the threshing machine.
The threshing was always a big occasion in the neighbourhood. It could take a week or more and would take place on any farm that had corn to thresh.
We knew the day the thresher was due and waited for it at the end of the boreen, all of us wanting to be the first to get the initial glimpse of it coming over the brow of the hill. You could hear it coming miles away, and it seemed to take hours. This was possibly because it ran the gantlet of several pubs en-route. John Mullins had no doubt; “begor, that lot would drink it out of wellingtons if they had nothing else”.
When we finally spotted it we would whoop for joy and run into Kelly’s yard shouting; “it’s coming, the thresher is coming!” Kelly’s boreen wasn’t wide enough to accommodate it so a gap was opened in a field and it was towed into the yard, the big Nuffield tractor churning up soil as it went. When it was eventually manoeuvred into position it was linked up to the diesel generator that powered it, pulleys and belts linking it up to the power-supply. Then the threshing was in progress, the machine shuddering and shaking so much it seemed only a matter of time before the whole thing fell apart.
Men and boys swarmed around the thresher like ants on an ant- hill. Some fed the stooks from the rick to those on the ground, where they were placed onto the conveyor that fed the machine, the twine that secured them severed with a quick slash from their hooked knives. Other scattered about the body of the machine ensured that the corn flowed smoothly through the various stages, before it emerged as grain at the other end. Here, more men filled the grain into sacks, while others piked the threshed straw into a new rick. The sacks of grain were stacked for transport to Flahavans Mills in Kilmac, where they would be processed into porridge oats or animal feedstuffs.
Almost everybody was shirtless, and many wore handkerchiefs tied at the back of their heads to keep the dust off. Others wore their peaked caps back to front. And Matty Morrissey wore a tiny brown hat with a feather sticking up, perched so precariously on his head that it must have been glued on to stay put. A titfer, he answered, when I asked what it was, emptying hayseeds from its rim for the umpteenth time. Almost everyone choked in the fine dust that circulated, and pints of water were ladled down dry throats from the buckets that were kept topped up behind the haggard wall.
At dinner time everyone crowded into the big kitchen for dinner. Bacon, cabbage and spuds; the spuds piled in mounds at intervals down the long table. In the afternoon there was tea and sandwiches, taken in the haggard, and in the evening Guinness and lemonade, depending on your status.
Women and girls were rarely seen in the vicinity of the threshing, but Anne Galvin was an exception. She could drive a tractor, plough with horses and slide hay with the best of the men. A tomboy from head to toe ,according to my mother. She also scorned lemonade, preferring to swig from a bottle of surreptitiously-obtained Guinness. She also liked chasing us bigger boys through the hay and straw when work was done. Several years older than me, her breasts were big and hard - as I had discovered on the numerous occasions she had grappled and wrestled with me. Her hands always seemed intent on getting inside my trousers. “Grab her by the diddies”, was the advice other boys gave me, “that’s bound to stop her”. So I did grab her by the diddies on evening in the hay barn after threshing, but far from quietening her down it made her go haywire altogether.
In the ensuing wrestling match she completely subdued me, kneeling astride me as I lay in the straw, exhausted. Before I knew it she had my flies undone, and my penis popped out, unaided. She grabbed hold of it, shouting; “choke the chicken, choke the chicken”, squeezing and caressing it. I was mortified in case anybody should come along. After a few moments I knew something was going to happen, then I was shooting out all this sticky stuff and I felt myself go weak at the knees. Ann’s laughter turned to disgust, she was wiping her hand on my jumper and cursing me; “Oh that’s wicked Tom Brien. That’s a sin, a mortal sin. I’ll tell your mother”. Then she was gone, leaving me lying there amid the straw and the stickiness. She never did tell my mother of course, and I never told anyone else about it, but it did stop her chasing me - for a while anyway!
Some years father grew a little barley himself; it was good for feeding to the pigs and it was cheaper than buying regular pig-feed. One of Kelly’s farm-hands ploughed the acre for him for the price of a few large bottles, and he sowed the seed by hand himself. This he did using a flour bag tied apron-style around his waist, the loose end gathered up in one hand so that it swung hammock-like in front of him, his free hand spreading the seeds ahead of him. I followed along behind leading Neddy, a home-made contraption attached raking the seeds into the soil.
When it was harvest time he cut it all using a scythe. We watched the corn fall down as he swung his hands from side to side, and from the distance it looked as if his hands held no implement at all. He swung his hands and the corn fell down. A miracle. It was like the parting of the Dead Sea or the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Every now and then he stopped to sharpen the scythe with the long-handled edging stone he kept nearby. A couple of spits on the stone then he edged the blade like it was an old-fashioned razor, testing it against his thumb until he was satisfied.
When it was all cut we gathered it together and made bundles of it. These bundles were then stooked and left to dry. Afterwards, it was carted off to The Bungalow and flailed against a pile of rocks placed in the middle of the stone floor. It was primitive and back-breaking, but it was how he wished to do it.
Once, he used the barley to try and make hooch. Using an old tin bath, he steeped some of it in the back room, adding yeast after a while and letting it ferment. Sugar was added too, and after a few days a heady smell hit you every time you opened the door. There was lots of tasting but I don’t think he ever quite mastered the art, because the contents eventually wound up in the pig swill. I remember watching to see if any of the pigs ever staggered after eating it, but if they did I never noticed.
After the threshing came the turnip and beet-pulling. Teams worked side by side in the drills pulling turnips or beet, flicking them over so that the root was held in the hand, then chopping the tops off with a machete. Both were gathered and stored in heaps; the beet awaiting collection for transport to the sugar factory in Thurles, the turnips left in the field to be fed to the cattle when the winter got severe.
The turnip-tops were piked onto carts and fed to the cattle over the coming weeks. This signalled the winding-down of the farming activities for the coming months. For when the winter weather really arrived the only noticeable activity was that of the horse and cart travelling the fields, bundles of hay and turnips tossed out to the cattle following patiently along behind.
In later years everything changed. Tractors appeared in every farmyard; there were new cutting and baling machines, sowing machines and ploughs. But the most radical change of all was the Combine Harvester. In a short time the threshing machine was history. The combine harvester and a handful of men did in a couple of days what it took the thresher and a dozen men a week to do. The mechanical revolution had finally caught up with us and the landscape would never be the same again.
Martin Galvin was once again to the forefront; he purchased one of the first combine harvesters in the area and was soon reaping the rewards (and the corn) that this revolutionary machine so handsomely promised.
By the time I was eleven I had perfected the art of getting into old buildings. I had been back to Nugent’s several times, taking more books and various small ornaments. Keeping them in our shed was too dangerous though, so I wrapped them in waterproof bags and buried them in the grove in Nugent’s field. After school I sometimes made my way there and sat among the pine trees dreaming and reading about days long-gone.
The Newtown silver mines (I read) were once considered a distinct possibility, and lots of boreholes and abandoned shafts abound in the area. At Ballyvadden Cross a mineshaft was discovered by ESB men erecting poles. One of the men fell in and had to be rescued by firemen…
Copper and silver-mining was carried out in the Bonmahon and Stradbally area, possibly as far back as the bronze-age. Methods were open-cast, involving heating the copper-bearing rock to a high temperature then cooling it rapidly so that it fractured, allowing the copper to be extracted. The silver was extracted using similar techniques…
Perhaps there was copper in the rocks that made up Nugent’s knock? I had chipped away with a hammer at some of them and they had shiny brown streaks running through the middle. I piled dry furze around the base and heaped lots of twigs and rotten branches on top, then set fire to the lot. If the rocks got hot enough I would hit them with my hammer - and perhaps some copper would fall out. The rocks never melted, but the knock caught fire. For a good part of the day thick black smoke covered most of Ballyhussa - while everyone in the neighbourhood ran around like lunatics filling buckets from the nearby stream. The Sergeant came out from Kilmac, muttering darkly about what he would do to the vandals who had set the county alight. I kept well away, thinking that perhaps this mining lark wasn’t so easy after all…
By now I had found another lair, Cullinane’s farm, the furthest-in house in the boreen. It was much more convenient for me, being only a few fields away. And, more importantly, it was isolated. Surrounded by trees and bushes, it had been abandoned years ago, its only visitor Paddy Nugent, when he came to count his cattle in the adjoining fields.
Here too I could go back in time. It was if the last occupants had just walked away one day. Everything inside was intact; beds, furniture, ornaments, and rows of books and magazines. It was a treasure trove of unimaginable variety; there seemed to be information about anything and everything in the world.
Fire without smoke
Earth without bog
Water without mud
Air without fog.
This was a description by somebody about the county of Kilkenny. The Black-and-Amber, our arch-enemy. The Kilkenny cats my mother used to call us when we argued and fought. “Ye fight like a pair of Kilkenny cats”. And here on the page was the origin of the phrase; ‘when the Cromwellian army was rampaging through Kilkenny, the soldiers idea of sport was to tie two cats together by their tails and let them fight to the death’. Some sport I thought. But then, Cromwell was, according to the Master, “the devil incarnate himself”. ‘To hell or to Connaught’ was his advice to all the native Irish left alive after his reign of terror. And so began the plantation of Ulster : with the Irish people banished to the wastes of the West, and the English parliament proclaiming that, ‘under pain of death, no Irishman, woman or child was to let himself, herself or itself be found west of the Shannon after May 1st 1664’.
When the Master talked about this “plantation” I couldn’t get out of my head this vision of the whole country covered in rows of tall palm trees. “You amadan”, he shouted at me, dragging me to the front of the class by my ear,” it’s the people who were planted, not trees”.
Every evening somebody had to fetch our daily gallon of milk from Cummins’ farm, a few fields away. The quickest way was by the mass-path, across on e field, and through the bit of a boreen that reached out from the rear of the farm. The cows liked to shelter here when the weather was bad, and it was nearly always mucky and smelly. The cows seemed to know when milking time was near because there was a general move from the pastures at the same time each day. Any stragglers I found along the route I chased on ahead of me.
The farm was arranged around a square, stony yard. It sloped away to a straight, tree-lined boreen in front, from which the Newtown road was just about visible. The highest slope of the yard contained the dwelling-house, a long, low, thatched building with an entrance in the centre which was permanently on the half door. To one side was the dairy and other outbuildings; on the other side stood a row of stone cow-houses with galvanised roofs and arched openings, but no doors. Every building in the yard was whitewashed, inside as well as out.
The cows had their own stalls, each one seeming to know which one was theirs. Woe betide any of them that absent-mindedly entered the wrong one! Inside the stall was a manger, filled with hay for them to feed on as they were milked. These were fitted with bars that could be locked in position, thus preventing the cow from leaving until the milking was finished.
All the milking was done by hand; the milkman sitting on his three-legged stool, his head resting against the cow’s belly, a galvanised bucket clamped between his thighs. When the milk hit the bucket it sounded like rain dancing on the roof overhead. The men usually did the milking, while the women ferried the filled buckets to the dairy across the yard. In the warm weather horseflies abounded, causing the cows to swish their tails constantly, often catching the milkman on the back of the head. This usually provoked curses, and sometimes a fist would sink into the offending cow’s belly. Michael Cummins reckoned he could hit one of those horseflies at five paces with a squirt from the cow’s teat. He sometimes practised on me.
In the dairy itself, the milk was strained through white muslin placed over the mouth of the churns. It was then ladled, still hot, into the gallon can I carried with me. Quite often the ladle was filled for me to drink from too. In one corner stood the butter churn where Mrs Cummins made farmers butter. Everybody seemed to love this butter, and we always kept a slab of it at home. I couldn’t stand the stuff.
Nugent’s knock was father’s main source of firewood for the winter. The knock was a mixture of furze, blackthorn and sally trees, and dense undergrowth all tangled up with them. Cutting through it was like cutting through the jungle; and my febrile imagination was often aroused as a nesting bird was disturbed and took off like a bat out of hell. What if there were tigers in there? Or lions? Hungry predators looking for a meal...how would I defend myself and the rest of the wagon-train? They didn’t have wagon-trains in the jungle I knew,, but as I couldn’t for the life of me think what they did have it would have to do. Father’s billhook became my trusty scimitar, his fork my spear as I pranced around the clearing, fending off attacks from every corner, until the sharp rasp of his voice brought me back to reality; “tackle up the ass and cart - and don’t forget the creels”.
When I returned, he would have a clearing made, and lengths of wood cut and ready for loading. When we had a full load we headed back home, unloaded, had some food then returned for another load. Later, John and myself built it into wigwams to help it season quickly. In this manner a stack was built up that would last through the winter months. Most of this timber was light and could be chopped into firewood using the billhook. For the chunkier bits there was the crosscut. This caused endless arguments between John and myself: he was always pulling when he should be pushing.
The knock tapered off down to the river, and here lay the reed beds that father harvested for use in thatching. He also cut all the young sally shoots and cut them into lengths to be used as scallops, tapering one end to a sharp point with his leather knife. Although not a recognised Thatcher, he was nevertheless competent at the work and repaired many a roof in the neighbourhood. Some of the roof contained straw instead of reeds - the poor man’s thatch as he called it - and it was these that needed attention most, the straw rotting away much more quickly than the reeds.
The rotted sections were first cut out, then the bundles of reeds slotted into place, using a tool that resembled a cricket bat. With this he prodded and patted the reeds into uniformity before fixing them in place with the scallops. These were pushed like spears into the surrounding thatch, then looped over the new bundles to secure them. When finished, everything was laced securely together, impervious to both wind and rain.
Coal was a precious commodity and had to used sparingly; a few nuggets at the time. And then only when there was cooking to be done! We burnt turf occasionally but father reckoned it was money wasted, as in his opinion it didn’t give out enough heat.
One summer he came to the conclusion that our bog might be turf-producing, so he borrowed a slean from somebody and opened up some trenches. When he was satisfied he had hit turf-rich lode he forked cakes of oozing sub-soil onto the bank and left them there to dry. All through the summer they lay there, but they never hardened enough for us to consider burning them in the fire. When the winter rains had washed all traces of them away he laughed and said, “I think we were a few thousand years too early”.
He was close enough to the famine to be affected by it. After all, the great blight, which had caused a million to die and another two million to emigrate, had taken place not much more than a hundred years previously.
His own grandfather, although not born till after the famine, was a young married man when famine struck again in the late eighteen-seventies, and had filled his head with tales of the horrors he had seen. Then, over a quarter of the potato crop had failed and, but for massive intervention by the authorities, a similar disaster would probably have occurred.
He had lots of stories about the effects of the famine in the area, many handed down, others gleaned from books. Of meetings of the Young Irelanders drawing crowds of fifty and a hundred thousand at Sleivenemon and Carrick-on-Suir when the famine was at its peak. He marvelled that people could think of politics at all when thousands were falling daily by the roadside, the green-grass spittle oozing from their lips. Of others evicted from their homes, the roofs and walls sent crashing down almost before they had time to get out their doors. Of marches on Portlaw from Carrick; the making of pikes by local blacksmiths; the barricading of Curraghmore, and finally, the attack on the barracks. Of the killings; of the inevitable pursuit; of the hiding out in the Comeragh Mountains. And of the subsequent skirmishing; advance, retreat…advance, retreat…
Of Power O’Shee who owned the Gardenmorris estate in Kill. He also owned part of the land on which the Bonmahon copper mines stood, but would not allow the mining company to build houses on his land. Many people were starving and there were numerous of tenant-farmers who had been evicted returning to their newly-harvested fields in the middle of the night and reclaiming their crops…
Of Francis Wyse, a self-righteous landlord who had such a crop removed at Castlecraddock, despite the presence of several policemen and his land-agent. The house was attacked by a large group of men, one of whom shouted, “your corn or your life”. After a battle, many sacks of barley and wheat were liberated. As a result it was decided that Castlecraddock had now become such a lawless district that it needed its own barracks. Since Bonmahon was deemed too far away, a new barracks was set up in Kill…
Of Arthur Kielly Ussher, whose estate near Lismore was the scene of such brutal evictions that many years later when the estate had been broken up, people referred joyously to the division as “the fall of the house of Ussher”…
Of the evictions that went on, unabated, around Kilmac. At Graigueshoneen, where, in a couple of weeks, forty-six houses were razed to the ground and each family given £2 to leave. At Glenafoca, where another twenty families were given similar treatment…
And of the mass meeting that took place outside Newtown, called for by 91 priests and 600 gentlemen, many of them liberal landlords, and which drew a crowd of almost thirty thousand. It was a historic event, being one of the first meetings in the country in which tenants gathered to demand recognition of their rights. Not the only event however; it had been preceded by a meeting to make arrangements for a Female Tenant League. Its aim was to compile facts and grievances relating to the plight of the tenant farmer, and to petition Queen Victoria. “The men won’t do the work, it remains for us women to accomplish it”. That it never seems to have got off the ground was neither here nor there as far as father was concerned: “they were your first suffragettes, not them women chaining to themselves to railings in London. And it all started in Kilmac”…
He maintained that if the blight spray had been invented before the famine then Irish society would have been much different. For a start, the English would have been long gone. “there would have been enough of us around to beat the feckers back across the sea”. The worst sarcasm he saved for Queen Victoria: “it was very generous of her to donate a whole £5 to the famine relief fund. Let them eat cake, wasn’t that what she said? What she meant was let them eat grass”. Trevelyan, too, got him going: “that man could have saved Ireland, instead he starved a whole nation”.
No doubt this was why he was so diligent when it came to spraying the spuds. As soon as the blossoms appeared on the stalks out came the sprayer - a tank that strapped onto his back like a knapsack. The spray itself, a vile-smelling green powder, was mixed with water in the chamber, then pressurised by the attached pumping unit. He looked like the Cisco Kid as he weaved through the thigh-high stalks, his mouth and nose covered with a large handkerchief, laying a fine mist on the leaves from the nozzle weaving about in front of him. The operation repeated a few weeks later - and the dreaded blight kept at bay.
“What’s this?” asked father, thumbing through the small book he had picked up. It had fallen from my pocket as I climbed the stile ahead of him. I knew what it was alright, an old account book I had come across in Cullinane’s.
“I found it”, I answered lamely.
He began to read from it: “Jimmy Kelly one and a penny. Whiskey sixpence, Guinness seven pence. Michael Cummins one and a penny. Whiskey sixpence, Guinness seven pence. Jimmy Kelly, one bottle of whiskey, six-and-eight. Christmas…” He flicked over the pages. “When was this?…”
“Nineteen-twenty two”, I replied, unthinkingly.
“What were you doing in Cullinane’s pub?” The book slammed shut.
I couldn’t tell him it wasn’t in the pub I had found it but in the old farmhouse. What it was doing there I couldn’t figure out, other than that perhaps they had owned the farm before the pub. But I didn’t think so, not from what I had pieced together, so it was a real mystery. But then there were many mysteries that I was having to grapple with these days. Books were supposed to enlighten, weren’t they? All they were doing was supplying more questions.
Take time for example: What was it? A device invented by man to measure the distance between two events. And not a very accurate one at that, for we gain a whole day every four years. Six hours a year, a half hour every month, one minute every day. So a day wasn’t really twenty four hours, but twenty four hours and one minute. And even that wasn’t accurate; six hours was three hundred and sixty minutes, a year three hundred and sixty five days. So what happened to the extra five minutes?
Or how could Nero have fiddle d while Rome burned, when I read somewhere that the violin hadn’t been invented until the seventeenth century? Or that the registered number of the Titanic - E909 ON - was NO POPE spelled backwards. Was that a reference to the fact that she had not received a blessing from the Catholic Church before she sailed? Or Black Holes. What were Black Holes?…
“I’ll ask you again, where did you get it? I’m sure Jimmy Kelly doesn’t want the whole world knowing that he ran up an account at Bridgie’s and settled up at the end of the year”…
I did the one thing I was good at. I lied. I was so good at lying that I could lie for Ireland. I was the world champion liar,
“I swapped it for a comic. Some of the lads were picking apples for her and the found it in an outhouse. It was thrun away”.
“I’ll give you thrun away! If I ever again catch you going around with things belonged to other people, I’ll hit you so hard I’ll send you into next week, so I will”
Phew! Close shave.
“Will you look at their little faces! Ah, God love them, aren’t they little doties?”. Mother and Aunt Kathleen nearly wetting themselves with excitement as the First Holy Communicants made their way back from the altar, trying their hardest not to chew the Host. Eyes almost closed, rosary beads and first-holy-communion book clasped tightly in their joined hands, the girls in dresses the boys in suits of grey or blue, they came towards us like clockwork toys. Well-rehearsed clockwork toys. Put through their paces by Mrs Coffey until they could do it with their eyes closed. Which they were - almost. My little brother, Brendan, was in there somewhere amongst them. God, the embarrassment of it. All the old women clucking and cooing over you like hens. Had it been like that for me when I had made mine seven years previously? I recalled nearly choking waiting for the host to melt on my tongue before I dared swallow it, Mrs Coffey’s advice still writ large in my mind, “decent boys do not chew the Body of Christ, they swallow it smoothly", but the rest was a blur; The photos, the peacock-strutting, the head-patting, the money-giving and the high tea in Dungarvan, all a vague memory. But it had happened; to me and John and Meamie. The evidence was there on our mantelpiece for everyone to see; white-veiled and grey-suited, our faces and knees shining, our prayer-books clasped to our chests like badges of honour.
“Ah Statia, isn’t he the little angel”. Mrs Cummins patted Brendan’s head and pressed half-a-crown into his palm. Moments later Maggie Bluett did the same. And so it went on, until eventually the pocket of his coat began to sag with the weight of the coins inside.
“I’ll mind some of them for you, Brendan. They’re too heavy for you”. Trusting, blue-suited, newly-sanctified Brendan believed me. He handed over his collection. Before they were in my pocket I had already divided them up… one for me…one for you. We all went to Waterford for the afternoon, where Brendan stuffed himself with cakes and sweets, and I -among other things - bought myself a bundle of True Crime magazines at Jackson’s in the Apple-market.
The New Line, the Newtown Road, The Bonmahon Road and the Bog Road made up Carroll’s Cross. Or the Cross, as we called it. The Cross consisted of the pub, the creamery, the level -crossing, with its long gates that had to be opened and shut whenever a train passed, and The New Line, the main road between Waterford and Cork. Queally’s Hill served as a backdrop to this huddle of houses and roads and provided shelter from the worst of the elements.
The pub had always been known as Carroll’s Cross, and was owned by Dennis and Kathleen Cummins. At the rear were a farmyard and some land, they also being farmers. A low-roofed, thatched building, the pub was nearly always dark inside, the oak-panelled walls having been varnished so often they were almost black in colour. A tiny counter, almost all of it a flap that had to be raised to get inside the counter, fronted the small room which contained all the stock. In here, among the Guinness and bottles of Paddy and Jameson, were stacked loves of Portlaw bread, sliced pans, pounds of Kilmeaden butter, newspapers and jars of sweets and penny toffees.
The smell of Guinness was always strong inside; the short, fat bottles variously called bottles of porter, bottles of stout, and - more often than not - large bottles having to be opened like cork-stoppered wine bottles. The dark brown frothy liquid gushed from the long necks of the bottles before being tipped expertly into tall glasses by Kathleen or Dennis with very little loss of contents.
A stone floor, shiny from wear, covered the entire area, a large open hob and fireplace taking up one wall. In here sat the regulars, pipe-smoking or spitting lumps of chewed tobacco into the grate. Empty large bottles stood in regimented lines on both sides of the fire. Occasionally, an unopened full bottle placed too close to the heat fired its cork up the chimney with the velocity of a rifle. To the side of the bar a rickety stairs was pinned to the wall. It was almost perpendicular and led to living quarters overhead. Under the stairs hung a ring-board, a shield-shaped board with hooks attached. A set of rings hung on the hooks, each hook representing a number. A player scored according to the number of ring hung when thrown.
The techniques employed varied enormously; overhead, underhand, across the chest, from between the legs, and Johnny Sullivan, who was tall and lanky, leaned forward so far he covered more than half the throwing distance. Needless to say he won a lot of games!
Music was played at weekends by Matty Morrissey and other local box players, their payment being bottles of Guinness or half -ones. There was dancing too, sets, half-sets and jigs and reels. This was the only entertainment available to many, and Sunday night saw as many women as men in the bar - a domain generally the preserve of the men. Mother and Aunt Kathleen often took us children along, making us sit in the porch, where we were given bottles of lemonade and told to keep quiet.
Our favourite pastime was watching the adults arriving. Some came by bicycle, there was the occasional car, but most walked. May Galvin could be picked out a long way away, striding up the New Line, her headscarf tied firmly under her chin, a pair of wellingtons on her feet, her dancing shoes in a brown paper bag under her arm. Johnny Gaisley usually arrived late, leaping off his bicycle and throwing it against the privet hedge, resplendent in his pale pinstripe suit, his colourful tie sticking out from under his chin like a lasso, his turned-down wellingtons shining. Johnny was always hurrying somewhere, running lopsidedly beside his bike, as if to kick-start it, before leaping aboard. Sunday mornings usually found him on the Newtown road, coat flapping as he crouched over the handlebars, pedalling furiously to reach Newtown church in time to ring the mass bell.
Johnny loved dancing, and he and May Galvin did it so well together people often stood back and let them have the floor. “As well they might”, observed Kathleen once, drily, “they’ve been going out so long together now that they’ll be celebrating their twenty-fifth before they get round to slipping the rings on”.
In the summertime the community provided their own dancing. An open-air stage was erected in Katie Coffey’s field, up the Bog Road, just across from the pub. Every Sunday afternoon and evening the air rang to the sound of well-shod feet dancing out the finish to a Siege of Ennis or a half-set.
The box player sat on a chair in one corner of the stage, beating out the time with the heel of his shoe as he played, emptying large bottles as fast as they were placed in front of him. If playing was thirsty work then dancing was even thirstier, and there was a constant stream of revellers shunting between stage and pub. We youngsters often climbed Queally’s hill and sat there listening to the pounding of leather on timber and the whoops of joy ripping through the warm summer air.
In the autumn the travelling shows came and set up their tents in Cummins’ field across the road from the pub. McFaddens amusements and funfair came every year, their brightly-coloured caravans and tents livening up our lives for a few nights. The swing-boats and the bumpers were like magnets to us youngsters, those of us who couldn’t afford the rides watching enviously as those who could shrieked and screamed the night away.
For the grown-ups there were the shooting galleries, the dart range - where you had to stick three darts in a playing card to win a prize - and the wheel of fortune. Here, several pretty girls sold raffle tickets, while a man in a brightly-coloured waistcoat and a bowler hat encouraged the audience to part with their money. The prizes were generally something practical; tea-sets, lines, clocks, and, at the end of the night, the star prize of a watch or a radio. For each raffle the giant wheel was spun, the pointer clicking along the pins that stuck out from the wheel before coming to rest on a number. “Green ticket number forty-nine”…”And we have a winner”…”Pick your prize now madam”…
The North family also set up their tents and performed their plays and variety shows in the same field. Although our theatre was a draughty tent filled with an assortment of stools and chairs, to us it was like being in the Abbey, and we clapped delightedly as magic was performed, songs were sung and plays were enacted.
Is the priest at home and may he be seen
This evening speaking with Fr Green
The Croppy Boy was loudly applauded whenever it was put on, but I only wanted to cry at the scene where the fake priest reveals himself and the hero gets shot. There was a sense of unreality about it, in that the loud bang that followed the shooting scene came, I knew, from behind the stage and not from the gun pointing at the body on the floor, but it looked so real that one part of my young mind almost believed it. Perhaps, even wanted to believe it. Even as I got older and understood better what it was to live in the Penal Times - when no Catholic could own land or vote, couldn’t even own a horse worth more than five pounds, when he was forbidden to practise his religion, and when priests were hunted down with bloodhounds and took to the hills and hedges in order to say the Mass and keep the faith alive - even when I knew all that, the impact of the play never lessened.
There was also a singing competition; heats were held every night, with a grand final on the last night. It was usually won by Martin Galvin, singing songs such as The Old Bog Road, Noreen Bawn, and Danny Boy. “Ah musha”, you could hear the ould wans saying as they wiped a tear from the corner of an eye, “wouldn’t he put the heart crossways in you, listening to him”.
Every summer the Pattern was held in Newcastle, up the narrow road behind Haughton’s pub, a mile or so along the New Line. Haughton’s was said to be one of the smallest pubs in Ireland; “you had to go in backwards to be facing the right way for the counter”, according to John Mullins. And indeed the area behind the counter was so small that only two of the three Haughton brothers were ever behind it at the same time. The main entrance had two half doors, the top one almost permanently open, one of the brothers almost equally framed in it, watching the world go by.
Pattern day was one of the big social events of the summer and drew large crowds to the venue, a field lent for the day by a local farmer. It began with a celebration of open-air Mass, then a parade and display by local schools. This was followed by an afternoon of sport. For the children there were running and jumping competitions, three-legged races and egg-and-spoon races, whilst the adults engaged in such diversions as tug-o-war and tossing the weight. Music and dancing also took place, with competitions held on a stage in one corner of the field. At the end of the day there was a prize-giving ceremony, where medals were presented to all the winners.
In the spring a sheep-dipping station was set up in Cummins’ field to which all the local sheep-owners took their flock. We were no exception; herding them along the boreen, then along the Newtown road. We didn’t own a sheepdog and it always seemed to take ages to get them there. Here, they were corralled awaiting their turn, then filtered through a series of pens and tanks, the men standing on either side poking and prodding with sticks as they passed through. Some seemed reluctant to begin the procedure, digging their heels in at the start of the ramp. Those of that disposition were grabbed by a couple of muscular men and flung bodily into the foul-smelling mixture. The emerged at the other end, dripping and looking thoroughly fed up.
Sometimes we youngsters earned a few bob by helping other owners to herd and dip their flock. At the end of the day the exhausted dippers adjourned to Cummins’ for some well-earned refreshments.
About half a mile up the Bog Road lay Grenan boreen, where my grandmother lived. She had lived on her own since my grand-uncle died and my mother visited her regularly. She kept nearly all her possessions in one room. This was a mysterious place where none of us children were allowed to venture. In here she kept loaves of bread, tea and sugar, her best cups and china, and the packets Kimberley and fig-rolls that we all loved. She called it her parlour.
One item never kept there was her goats’ milk. She kept this fresh in a bucket of water outside the front door. Her nanny-goat sometimes poked her head over the half door looking for food. She liked slices of bread and jam, but was also partial to the sleeve of your jumper if you held your hand too close. Every spring she gave birth to a kid goat that always seemed to be hungry, and followed her everywhere. We sometimes fed it milk from a bottle, an old teat slipped on its end. This she attacked ravenously, sucking our fingers afterwards, which was always the best part.
Black was my granny’s colour. From her black shoes and apron to the black headscarf tied under her chin. When she was cold she wore a black shawl around her shoulders.
When we visited her we were made to sit on the long wooden bench in the kitchen, facing the picture of Jesus with his heart dripping blood all over him. The Sacred Heart of Jesus, her favourite picture, and every Sunday night we knelt on the hard floor and said a decade of the rosary to it. Underneath it was a tiny lamp with a bluish flame which she never let die. The eternal flame, she called it.
Her kitchen floor was stone, cold to the touch, even when the turf fire was dancing shadows across it. Furniture was scarce; a pine table gone white from scrubbing, a dresser containing china and ornaments, and a washstand under which stood a white enamel bucket. This last she kept topped up with water from her well in the acre behind the house. She never burned anything but turf in the fire, so that a wonderful turf smell permeated her kitchen. She kept two long toasting forks by the fire, which we put to good use when tea time was imminent. The light from the fire was the only light used until it was nearly dark, with the result it was nearly always twilight in there; frightening enough when we knew that there were leprechauns and banshees up to no good outside in the dark. By the time she lit up the big old paraffin lamp that hung on the wall we were fit to be tied.
If the pub was the focal point then the creamery was the hub of the community. Here, every morning, farmers arrived in their droves. The wealthier ones in their tractors and trailers, half a dozen churns bouncing on the deck; others in horses and carts, two or more churns behind them; others still in ass and carts, maybe one solitary churn on board.
They queued up along the roadside, waiting their turn for the milk to be sucked up from the churns by the big suction pumps to the rear of the creamery. Most were filled up again with buttermilk, then loaded up with feedstuffs and their creamery butter - often returning more laden than they came.
It was at the creamery that Ben Beatty, the postman, disposed of most of the contents of his bag. Hail, rain or snow Ben would be there giving out the letters. In many instances those farmers passing houses for which he letters would deliver them for him.
The pace of life was leisurely; many would hang around the creamery afterwards, putting the world to rights. Others would gather outside the pub, buying groceries or reading the papers, perhaps even enjoying a large bottle or two before making their way homewards.
Bonmahon was about six miles from the Cross, and I first visited it when I was about ten years old. It was a Sunday afternoon and mother had hired Martin Galvin to take us there in his hackney car. It cost thirty shillings, money she had saved from collecting blackberries, to take us on what she called ‘the outing’.
Coming down Saleen hillI had my first view; the vast expanse of clear blue water laid out before me like a sheet, shimmering beneath the cloudless sky, the distant sand dunes looking like squiggles on the water. It was like driving into a foreign land. I had never seen the sea before - or cliffs so sheer and shiny rising out of the sea with such dignity. I believe it was love at first sight.
I didn’t know this then of course; my own concern was getting to the beach and wallowing in the sand. Neither my mother or father could swim, their only concession to the Atlantic being to take off their shoes and stand gingerly by the water’s edge for a few minutes. Ritual accomplished, they returned to the safety of the dunes, to their newspapers, their flask and their ham sandwiches, leaving us youngsters to amuse ourselves building sandcastles and collecting shells.
Before we returned home that evening there was a call to be made to a house on top of the cliffs, near to where the Mahon river flowed into the sea. Bun-Mahon…the end of the Mahon - as I now knew from my Irish lessons. This house sat precariously close to the edge of the cliffs, and the only means of access appeared to be the series of steep steps that zigzagged up to it. Mother undertook to climb up there on her own, and when she returned she carried a parcel wrapped in old newspaper. It was my first acquaintance with dilisk - and I was never to forget that taste.
As the years passed my love affair with Bonmahon grew. When I was older I cycled there on summer Sundays, usually with friends, whiling away the afternoon playing football on the beach or exploring the surrounding cliffs. We clambered over slippery rocks filling paper bags with periwinkles, explored caves at low tide - scampering back to dry land ahead of the incoming one - and wandered the cliff paths.
At the end of one path lay the back strand, its tiny beach accessible only by a winding path down the surrounding cliffs. A tall spindly stone - looking for, all the world, like a totem pole - stood in the centre of the strand, the dirty high-tide mark never quite reaching its base. How had it got there? It couldn’t have been erosion; the soil around it couldn’t have been eaten away leaving it standing there all on its own, could it? And if someone had put it there - for what reason? Perhaps it was aliens. Some of the magazines I had found in Cullinane’s had said that Stonehenge, in England, had been built by aliens, as had the Pyramids in Egypt and something in China. One even said Jesus Christ was an alien.
Once on the beach nothing moved; the air was still, the seclusion almost total, the only sound that of the sea rippling through the narrow opening and lapping against the shingle.
In the other direction lay the disused copper mines, where, once, more than a thousand people were employed. All that was left now was a number of holes dotting the cliff-tops; the mines, the people long gone. These openings were fenced off with barbed wire and skull-and-crossbones placards telling of the dangers within, where the openings were criss-crossed with planks of wood and sheets of rusting metal. Time and the salt-air had corroded the coverings, leaving gaping holes in some of the framework. How deep were they? Chucking a stone down and counting was one way of finding out. Ten feet a second it was supposed to be. We counted to twenty and gave up. Maybe they went all the way to Australia.
The other question that intrigued us was; in which one was The Missing Postman? That he was at the bottom of one of them we didn’t doubt; hadn’t it been the scandal of the decade…oh, years ago? And hadn’t the News of The World or The People offered a reward for whoever came up with the real truth…
I had heard the story many times. One of the Griffin’s of the garage, situated on the New Line, just outside Kilmac, had disappeared one Christmas Eve, whilst working in his capacity as a postman, and was never seen again. He had been drinking it was said, gotten into a fight, and the Gardai had been called. He was then taken back to the barracks in Kilmac, where he was beaten up by the Gardai. Beaten up so bad that he had died, it was said. The Gardai, in a panic to hide what happened, did the only thing they could think of - they took him to Bonmahon and threw him down one of the mine shafts. That was the theory, anyway.
That he got drunk and got into a fight and got himself arrested wasn’t in dispute; it was what happened afterwards that had everyone speculating. The Gardai, for their part, always insisted that he had been kept at the barracks only long enough to sober up, and that he had been released late that Christmas Eve. But where could he have got to? Where could anyone go in the freezing cold in the middle of the country? Someone would surely have seen something! He couldn’t just vanish into thin air. Besides, his bike was still outside the barracks, but there was no trace of his postbag.
There were several people willing to swear they had seen him getting a good hiding from the Gardai in Stradbally - where he had been arrested - before ever he was taken to the barracks. Who was to say what happened once he got there? Only the Gardai themselves! And they said nothing. All the Gardai at Stradbally Station were dismissed, there were questions asked in Parliament, and the mines and local graves were searched, but the mystery was never solved because no trace was ever found of the Missing Postman.
Discovering the mines made me realise what a thriving town Bonmahon must have been once. I had seen photos once, taken from somewhere on the cliffs, showing columns of smoke-plumed chimneys running the entire length of the lanky main street. Now all that remained was a cluster of buildings at either end; the area in between a wasteland of sand dunes and decaying foundations. All that was left of the houses were their facades, chopped off at eye-level, the openings bricked up in an assortment of colours. It had become a ghost town; the people, the mines long gone, nothing left behind except some holes in the ground.
It was in Bonmahon that I learned to swim. Not in the sea itself but the river. Where it flowed to the sea the Mahon was shallow, and for some reason was warmer than the sea itself. It was said that this particular strip was warmed by currents from the Gulf Stream, so maybe that was the reason. Painstakingly, I learned to float, do the dogs paddle and a kind of breast-stroke - all of which served me sufficiently when I transferred my activities to the sea.
When we tired of playing football or exploring, we plastered our bodies with sun-tan oil and lay on the grass-banks overlooking the strand, listening to Alan Freeman and Pick Of The Pops on our transistors. The girls were attracted by the music and would insinuate themselves among our lounging male bodies, their faces almost obscured by cheap sun-glasses. Eventually we paired off, boys drifting casually towards some sheltered outcrop, girls following after a suitable time-lapse. The languid Sunday afternoons ebbed away to the sound of Brian Hyland and Jeannie Come Lately or Helen Shapiro and Walking Back To Happiness while we grappled and groped behind some grassy knoll with our breathless partners.
There were other beaches and other coves; Kilmurrin and Annestown in one direction, Stradbally in the other, but none ever held the same fascination as Bonmahon. Perhaps it was that sense of desolation, the feeling that it belonged to another era that appealed. Maybe I felt I belonged to another era too. Whatever the reason, as I stood on those dunes looking out to sea, I always felt at home.
Tramore was our French Riviera. As we got older there were regular excursions each summer. Sometimes it might be after somebody’s Confirmation, and it afforded us the chance to spend the money we had been given after the ceremony. Spending our pennies in the slot machines, our sixpences and shillings on ice-cream cones and rides on the funfair wasn’t an everyday occurrence, and we made the most of it. We were like wild things let loose; dashing from booth to booth, pouring pennies in this machine, buying toffee-apples over there, trying our hand in the shooting gallery.
The beach itself never held much interest till the day the Donkey Derby came to town. This was on the 15th August. The 15th was special; everyone in the county seemed crammed in somehow. Farmers, road-sweepers, priest and politicians, nurses and nuns, hermits down from the hills, countrywomen on their annual pilgrimage to paddle in the Atlantic, children with sticky faces, elegant ladies with their hands raised to their heads to keep their hats in place, they all came. Merely being itself was a thrill.
Buried in the throng were the amusements; the fortune-tellers, the ice-cream vans, the fish-and-chips sellers. And the Wall of Death. Inside this barrel-shaped wooden contraption, two motorcyclists rode their machines horizontally up the walls. They spiralled higher and higher, faster and faster, till they reached the top, then they worked their way back down again. The paying customers stood on a rickety platform around the outside, peering down into the arena, ooh-ing and aah-ing as the momentum generated by the performers made the whole structure rattle and sway alarmingly.
The Donkey Derby was the main attraction for us. The course was arranged along a five-hundred yard stretch of the beach, the donkeys hemmed in on one side by a rope running rail, on the other by the Atlantic Ocean.
A large crowd milled round at the start, where the animals were coaxed and prodded into line. What a racket was going on; shouting spectators, bellowing bookmakers, braying donkeys. One or two of the jockeys looked rather large, prompting the wags in the crowd to suggest that they should be carrying the donkeys, not the other way round. Most, however, were pint-sized and in their bare feet. One or two had no visible means of support apart from a tight grip on their partner’s manes.
The starting procedure was simplicity itself. A handler held each donkey by the ears, and when the starter waved his hanky, each gave his charge a few encouraging whacks to propel it on its way. Being of a stubborn nature, some of the donkeys took exception to this and quickly dislodged their misfortunate pilots. Others felled the handlers with acrobatic back-kicks, while some actually consented to race. The owners usually ran alongside outside the running rail, shouting encouragement and abuse. “Get up you useless article!” “Kick him in the belly” “Jimmy, Jimmy, you’re going the wrong way!”
During one race several dogs got involved, snapping at the donkeys heels, diverting some of them towards the sea. Not fancying a swim, they turned tail and galloped back the way they had come. Only one donkey finished the course, but as there was prize-money for finishing placed several others were dragged – almost carried – over the winning line.
Father entered our donkey, Neddy, one year and John and myself spent weeks arguing who was going to ride it. In the end neither of us did. Father gave the job to Vince Cummins, who could actually ride, and who had winning form in the race the previous year. All the hassle hardly seemed worth it. Neddy ran like the wind for a couple of hundred yards, then dug his feet in and fired Vince into orbit. He then sat down and refused to budge. Somebody eventually removed him by rubbing mustard on his arse. This tactic may have had something to do with the winning of the race, because I later learned that the owner of the tube of mustard was also the owner of the winning donkey.
A few weeks later Neddy disappeared from our haggard, stolen by the Tinkers according to Father. We never saw him again.
Waterford, PortLairge, The Deise, the place where the Chieftan Aengus settled when he helped the King of Munster wrest the territory from Leinster. The county where Mochuda found sanctuary when he had to flee his great Monastery in Rathain. And where he had, with the blessing of the King of the Deisii, built another great monastery in Lismore. The place where Strongbow married Eva in Reginalds Tower. The place where Waterford Glass and Denny’s sausages are made...
Mother travelled to Waterford a few times a year, usually on the Dungarvan bus. At Christmas she returned laden with mysterious parcels and bags, which she hid in the wardrobe in her bedroom. Being naturally curious I often wondered what was in them. And one day, whilst alone in the house, under strict orders not to let the fire out or the chickens in, I remembered the wardrobe.
Heart pounding in case she came back and caught me, I opened the bags and packages. I saw Christmas stockings, sets of building blocks, a humming top, a doll’s house, a cowboy outfit, and when I saw the same toys in our stockings on Christmas Day, I realised there was no Santa Claus. I was eleven, and my sense of betrayal lasted a long time.
When I started working, I made the same journey myself, eager to spend the money I had been saving up. On every street corner somebody was selling something; Christmas trees, holly, balloons, cards, boxes of sweets, turkeys live and dead. If you wished you could walk your turkey to a nearby side street and have it killed and plucked while you waited.
I felt I was in Aladdin’s Cave as I wandered, light-headed, through the Apple-market, listened to records in Cantwell’s Music Shop, or feasted on fish and chips and played the jukebox in Delicato’s Chipper.
On the quay you could take a breather on the seats by the Clocktower, and look across the river at Ferrybank and the Paper-Mills, knowing that the Kilkenny Cats and the Wexford Yellowbellies were looking back at you. Here, ships were constantly loading and unloading; coal, timber and all the other goods that constitute a busy port. In olden days the merchant ships who plied their trade loaded up with Waterford Glass and sold it in the Mediterranean and other ports they returned to, thus making it famous all over the globe.
Along the Quay, ranged the city’s big stores, The London & Newcastle, Coadys and Hearns. Inside these you watched your money whizzing along a network of overhead wires, winging its way to the concealed cashier’s office. Your change returned via the same route, tinkling musical sounds signifying its arrival.
One Christmas I ran out of money but hadn’t managed to buy all the presents I wanted. Woolworth’s was crowded and it seemed a simple matter to slip the items I needed into my coat pocket and leave unnoticed.
Not so simple after all; as soon as I was outside the entrance a hand clamped itself on my shoulder and a severe-looking woman accused me of shop-lifting. Fear was the spur that galvanised me. Fear of my father and what he would do. Jesus, he would kill me! If ever I broke a world record that was the day it happened. I didn’t stop running until I was on the outskirts of the city, and I made my way home cross-country in case a search-party was after me. I didn’t see the inside of Woolworths for a long time after.
Kilmac was our Mecca in those days. Ever since I had been deemed old enough to do mother’s shopping on a Saturday I had formed an attachment to the place.
From the brow of the convent hill you could see the railways tracks snaking through the trees, and a little further on the railway station itself. In the square itself the tracks were carried high over the street by a steel bridge, where they soon disappeared behind the Bank of Ireland building. They emerged again further along, this time on top of the imposing multi-arched bridged that spanned the river Mahon, before finally disappearing from view as the passed Flahavan’s Mills.
A number of shops clustered around the square, among them Hill’s Grocery Store. Hill’s also owned a bakery, situated on the hill behind the square, and a heady smell of baking nearly always lingered in the air. In the morning both premises were a hive of activity, the bread-men loading up their distinctive red and white vans with bread and groceries before setting off on their deliveries to the houses and farm in the outlying areas.
Across the street stood Morrissey’s Pub, its half-door nearly always invitingly open, but whose dark interior held, as yet, little interest. Further along, snug against the railway arches, stood a wooden hut. This was the shoemaker’s shop and was owned by Paddy Barron. Inside lay a clutter of old shoes, leather strips, lasts and other tools, while the window was usually adorned with a poster of the latest film showing in the Rainbow Hall – a premises recently acquired by his son Michael.
Continuing down the street took you past Rita’ Canty’s sweet shop and Dick Casey’s corner shop. Here, we made ourselves sick on sweets, and played handball against the long gable-end wall of Casey’s. Crossing the river, you began to climb again, where, among others, lay Lennon’s Drapery Store, Kent’s Grocery and Bar, Battye’s Electrical Shop, Nick Flynn, the butchers, and, near the top, Kirwans Bar and Grocery and Reilly’s butchers. At the very top was the blacksmiths forge and Brown’s Post Office.
The main attraction for us was the Rainbow Hall. There it stood, in splendid isolation at the edge of the green, looming like a citadel before our stage-struck eyes. This was the era of the Serial; when The Lone Ranger or Tom Mix fell to their apparent death countless times; toppling into bottomless ravines or being crushed under the wheels of madly-careering stagecoaches, onlt to return to life the following week when some integral part of the action, conveniently omitted in the previous episode, resurrected them.
When Randolph Scott, Rory Calhoun or Audie Murphy rode the range we rode with them, feeling every punch that staggered them across the Saloon Bars of the Old West, writhing with every tumble they took from horses galloping wildly across windswept prairies, wincing at every bullet or arrow lodged in an arm or leg, gritting our teeth as the side-kick heated his hunting knife over the campfire and dug out the offending bullet or arrow-head. Audie Murphy was said to be the most decorated American soldier in WW2; I for one wasn’t surprised, he sure killed a lot of Indians.
We took to speaking out of the sides of our mouths, aping Randolph Scott, who had reduced conversation to a series of grunts; “Stick ‘em up”, “Howdy pardner”, “The only good injun is a dead injun”.
Going to the picture however cost money and this had to be begged, borrowed or earned somehow. My mother occasionally came across with the odd shilling or two, but in the main if I wanted watch my heroes on screen, I had to finance it myself.
One source was weeding drills of turnips and beet for local farmers. A price was negotiated, varying from a shilling to half-a-crown, depending on the length of the drill, and we worked on them in our free time. Saturday evening was usually reckoning up time; the farmed would come and count the number of drill completed, and pay out if he was satisfied with the work.
It was back-breaking work, kneeling down and crawling along the furrows, tearing away handfuls of weeds and grass, exposing the young plants and thinning them. In this manner you made your away along the drill, wearing leggings to protect your knees and trousers. These legging were usually grain bags, wrapped around your calf and thigh and secured in place with lengths of binder twine. It was usually damp, so the soils clung to the bags and built up to such and extent that lifting your legs became nigh impossible.
Then something happened that was to change my life radically. I got a job at Flahavan’s Mills. I had just turned fifteen, and although I had my name down for almost a year, it was still a big surprise.
My first job – and the pay was three pounds ten shillings a week! I could afford to watch Gary Cooper and company every night of the week now, and eat Rollos till they came out of my ears. The Tech in Portlaw, which I was now attending, would have to struggle on without me, but when I told Mr. Timmons, the Principal, he seemed genuinely disappointed. He said I had the makings of a good scholar, but understood the economic necessities that brought about the situation. As for myself, I didn’t care about – didn’t see the need for – further education. I was now a member of the working classes.
To my unseasoned eyes the mill seemed enormous. Looming above the trees that tried to hide its existence, it sprawled alongside the roadside at Kilnagrange, by the banks of the river Mahon. Originally, water-driven turbines had powered the complex, and if you looked over the bridge you could still see the big wheel in existence.
The main building, a massive matchbox-shaped affair was four or five stories high, each level supported by concrete columns running throughout the building. Each was as large as a football pitch, and the upper floors were filled with grain going through the various processes – drying, crushing etc. When empty, we played football in them, choking in the fine dust that was ever-present.
Mickey Downey, Dougie Flynn, Noel Dee, Tony Casey and the Kiersey brothers were among those who worked in the packing department, where I found myself, ant was from this group and it was from this group the friendships and camaraderie would emerge. At one end of the packing department stood two long wooden tables, behind each a machine that dispensed pre-measured amounts of porridge oatlets. One floor above stood the hoppers that fed the machines.
One of us sat on a stool beside his machine, filling the bags and placing them on the table next to him. Others stood at each side of the table sealing the bags. The bags themselves, glossy in appearance, were a combination of red, green and white bands with the words Flahavan’s Porridges Oatlets overprinted on them.
When sealed, they were pushed to the far end of the table where other team members packed them into cardboard boxes and sealed the boxes with glue. This glue was boiled up in a shed outside and contained, among other ingredients, cows’ hooves. The result was a gelatine substance that adhered to fingers and hands with some tenacity, and whose smell lingered long after the mess had been wiped off.
‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ was among the words of wisdom imparted to me that first morning as I was presented with my white coat and cap. The cap had a deep crease running front to back and reminded me of the headgear worn by American soldiers in the films.
The work itself was spasmodic; busy times and slack times, all dictated by the volume of orders coming in. John Keane, the department manager, sat in his glass-fronted office at the far end of the room, keeping a wary eye on our antics. When things were quiet we built a wall between Mr Keane and ourselves. We used empty cardboard boxes, stacking them up to nearly ceiling height at the end of the table. He had the habit of standing up at his desk every so often and peering over his glasses through his window. Eventually, getting fed up of staring at our cardboard wall, he could stand it no longer. He moon-shaped head would start to oscillate, his neck go red like a turkey’s, and he would storm out and head in our direction. We were usually well- prepared, having left a small window in our wall, so that when he arrived we would be engaged in cleaning or sweeping or some other activity that he couldn’t object to.
When we were busy – this was usually in the afternoon when the following day’s deliveries had been finalised – we worked flat out for several hours, ensuring that all the orders were made up before we finished at six o clock.
The loading bay was directly beneath us, and was accessed by a hatch in the floor. The filled cartons were despatched down the hatch and stacked to await loading later that night. Mind you it wasn’t always cartons that went down the long slide!
One morning during a lull, I was seated on the table when several hands grabbed me and pulled me back across it. Before I knew it I was spread-eagled, with my trousers down around my ankles. I realised what was happening of course - the dreaded initiation ceremony. Everyone who worked in the packing department had to go through it. That was scant consolation though as someone plastered my privates wit glue, then, to general cheering, sprinkled a packet of porridge on top. I spent the next few day walking funny and picking bits of glue from my balls and thighs.
The packing room had a kind of dormitory feel to it. We were all in the fifteen to eighteen age group and it sometimes felt as if we were a bunch of schoolboy having a good time between lessons. There was a sense of unreality too; as if it was a pageant or play I participating in. And sometimes not even participating – just part of an audience watching it all unfold. Maybe it was all happening on TV.
Packing department. Long, timber-floored room. Tables, packing machines, glass-fronted office far end. Cardboard boxes stacked high. A number of youths working at tables. TC is standing slightly apart, combing his hair, watching himself in a bit of grimy mirror. He sports an Elvis quiff. Everybody except him wears white jackets and caps.
Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone
I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low
And you can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go
CHRISTY – Here, take over a minute will ya TC? I’m burstin’
TC (continues combing) – And I’m busy
CHRISTY – Some people think this is a holiday camp. All they’re missin’ is a pair of sunglasses.
TC takes a pair of sunglasses from his pocket and puts them on.
CHRISTY – Ah Jaysus TC, I was only joken.
TC pushes Christ backwards until he falls across the table. He grabs the brush from the glue-pot and waves it under his nose. Good-natured bickering from the others; ‘go on, let him have it...’ ‘stick his eyebrows together...’ etc.
TC (speaking like a character from a Synge play)
Isn’t it yerself Christy, with your hundred acres of rich Munster farmland, that do be doin’ a power of talking? And your cows walking the fields, their bellies so full they do be touchin’ the ground. And you working here from dawn till dusk, and you such a fine handsome fella with such a noble brow, that I do sometimes be wonderin’...’ (he jabs the brush a Christy’s face)
why you do be here at all, instead of walking your wide acres of rich Munster land...’
VOICE – That’s it TC, stick it in his gob, the money grabbing bastard
Office. Mr Kane peering through the windows. He shakes his head then ushers out the youth he has been talking to. He follows, then stops, returns, picks up a white coat and cap and hands them to the youth. They both head for the table, where Christy has been released and TC is pulling on his white coat. Everybody else is giving the impression of working.
MR KANE – What’s been going on here (looks at Christy) You, Kelly, you’re supposed to show an example. You look like something the cat’s dragged in. Something is going on here and I won’t have it. Two things I won’t have in my department, one is sloppiness, the other is black-guarding. Be warned, the next one I catch I shall make an example of him. (he turns to the new youth) This is Mr Best. I’ll leave the more senior of you to show him the ropes. (to Best) You may think at first that you have landed amongst a pack of savages. Well don’t despair, after a few weeks you learn that you were right. (he pats the jacket) Now, put that on. And remember, in here cleanliness is more important than Godliness. (he spots TC who is trying to make himself invisible behind the hopper machine) Ah TC. The late TC. The very late TC. Do Join us. Step into the open where everyone can see what a fine specimen of manhood you are. (TC hesitates) You’re not shy, are you? The lad who dazzles the whole county with his performances on the stage? And off it too, no doubt. (pause) Where’s your cap?
TC – I mislaid it Mr Kane.
MR KANE – I mislaid it Mr Kane! Well, lay it again, lad, lay it again. Get out of my sight and don’t come back until that...(he indicates TC’s oil-plastered hair)...oil-slick is covered up.
Kane marches back to his office as somebody hands TC a spare cap.
TC – Bloody bastard. I’ll give him oil slick
CHRISTY – How would you like oily hairs in your porridge?
TC – How would you like my size nine boot up your arse? (he takes a cigarette butt from his pocket, drops it into a full packet, spits into it, then seals the packet. (He sees best looking lost)
Squeeze in here. You’ll soon pick it up. (he folds and seals a packet expertly. Best tries his hand and spills half the contents over the table top. TC scoops the contents back as the others snigger) Don’t mind that lot. If they had mirrors they’d all be looking at the monkeys. What’s your name?
BEST – George Michael Best.
TC – That’s a mouthful. Haven’t you anything handier?
BEST – Mickey Joe.
TC – That’s no good. I know, we’ll call you Georgie. Hey lads, meet Georgie Best.
There are shouts of ‘Good old Georgie”, ‘how’s she cuttin’?’, etc. Hopper McGrath does a shuffle along the floor with an imaginary ball.
HOPPER – Come on Georgie, let’s see your dribble...
EXT. YARD. DAY
Concrete yard. A game of football is in progress. Christy is refereeing but nobody is taking notice. Hopper dribbles past several opponents and scores a goal. He comes off and joins Georgie, who hasn’t yet taken part.
GEORGIE – Who’s Georgie Best?
HOPPER – I thought you were.
GEORGIE – You know what I mean.
HOPPER – You don’t know? You mean you never heard of him?
GEORGIE – No.
HOPPER – (to TC) He’s never heard of Georgie Best.
TC – Get away! The fella who’s only goin’ to be the greatest. Matt Busby? The Busby Babes? Man United? Soccer?
GEORGIE – I don’t play soccer.
TC – Ah g’wan! What do you play? Pocket- billiards?
GEORGIE – Hurling
TC – Ah jaysus! Only bog-men and farmers play that. Fellas like Christy. (he shoves Georgie forward) Get out there and show ‘em what you can do.
GEORGIE – I can’t. The vigilantes might b e watching.
TC – I saw that fillum last week. John Wayne was in it.
GEORGIE – The vigilantes. They do be goin’ round, spying at the soccer matches. See who do be playin’ the soccer...
TC – Oh they do, do they? Well, you’re safe enough amongst us heathens. (he shoves Georgie again) Get out and play.
Georgie clearly hasn’t got a clue about the rules. He fouls several opponents and goes on a dribble. Christy follows, blowing his whistle, but Georgie ignores him and scores a goal.
TC – There’s something there...
HOPPER – Yeah. Brute force and ignorance. He’s like Hogan’s bull.
TC – Still, he might be just what the doctor ordered against Johnville next Sunday...
HOPPER – Yeah, them townie bastards need takin’ down a few pegs...
Most of us in the packing room at Flahavan’s played soccer, and every lunchtime we participated in full-blooded games in a nearby field. The packing room made up the bulk of the Kilmac minor team, and because I displayed some skill in the kick-a-bouts I was soon in contention for a place. For days leading up to a game all the speculation concerned the likely make-up of the team. Teams were picked, lists were written out and taped to the walls – all futile exercises because the team proper was never picked until the morning of the game, and was mostly dependant on who turned up.
At the top of Currabaha hill stood our pitch, Alaska Park, which the team shared with a herd of cattle. Our first task on arrival was to clear the cowshit from the pitch. After the shit had been cleared away, the pitch had to be lined, and the goalposts and nets put up. The lining was done by spreading lime by hand from a bucket, a task rendered hazardous by the icy winds that invariably blew in from the Comeragh Mountains in the background.
For my first game I had been picked to play on the left wing, and I wasn’t doing very well. The Johnville defender was kicking lumps off me every time I tried to go past him, and in an effort to escape his attentions I moved into the centre. Nearing the end of the game, with the score level, I found myself unmarked in the six yard box when a high cross from John Kiersey came towards me. Heading was not one of my strong points so I just stood there hopefully. The ball landed on my head and shot into the roof of the net.. I was a hero for days afterwards; we had beaten Johnville, one of the top teams in town.
That was as good as it got. In and out of the team, I was tried in various positions – even goal-keeping – but I never managed to secure a permanent place. Marginalised by my talent – or lack of it – I minimised my chances even more the day my dog ran on to the field of play and scored a goal for the opposition. The ball struck him and was deflected into our goal. It wasn’t the humiliation of being beaten by a goal scored by a dog that my team-mates found hard to take, but the fact that the dog was owned by their own sub!
Football at Alaska Park was warfare, not sport. Before ever a ball was kicked the bleakness of the place demoralised opponents. Then there were the cattle, guaranteed to put in an appearance at some point during the game, their arses working overtime. This was the cue for the shovel brigade to dash onto the pitch. Naturally, the occasional green pile was overlooked, and if an opposing player went into a sliding tackle and came up looking a sickly shade of green...well, it was just too bad. He should have familiarised himself with the terrain before making the tackle. These townies just shook their head in disbelief; they had never before played at a place where the cows outnumbered the spectators.
If this didn’t demoralise them then the spectators themselves did. Partisan to a man, they were vociferous in their support. Every decision against the team was greeted with hoots of derision and torrents of abuse. It was so bad that some referees refused to officiate there. One supporter in particular – on of the team selectors – stalked the touchline throughout the game, a hurley or blackthorn stick clenched in his hand, berating the official continuously.
On Sundays that we didn’t have a game we went to Kilcohan Park to watch Waterford play in a League of Ireland game. It wasn’t unusual to hear the same supporters screaming the same abuse from the depths of the stand.
It wasn’t all sport of course. Lots of us had girlfriends now- or were trying our hardest to get one. Our discussions generally concerned the merits, or otherwise, of the girls in the neighbourhood. Girls were assessed on how they responded to our advances. Kissing and snogging were par for the course. A feel was something to boast about; “she had a pair of headlamps like a Morris Minor”, or “she had nothing at all, like two eggs in handkerchief”.
Feels came in two categories; above the belt and below the belt. Most were in the first category; fellas lucky enough to get a below-the-belt feel walked round for days afterwards with their hand unwashed, sticking their fingers under your nose saying “smell that, boy”.
Getting your hole was the ultimate prize. The usual cry on a Monday morning after a dance was, “well, did you get your hole last night?” The assertions of yes were immediately greeted with hoots of derision; “the only way you’d get your hole is by putting your finger back, boy!” And in the main this was true. There were, however, a few girls who were known to be good for more than a feel, and who ‘shifted’ them at the dance was always of interest. Strangely though, none of our group would be seen dancing with those girls, and if they did go with them they went to great lengths to conceal the fact.
We were a vain bunch in the packing department; our looks were most important to us and we were constantly inspecting ourselves in the bits of mirrors stuck on the packing room walls. Tony Casey was forever preening himself, combing his hair. This was the era of the crew cut and most of us had shaved our heads in this fashion. In order to accustom our hair to this straight-up style we were forced to brush it constantly, and for this reason we carried oval or circular plastic brushes everywhere with us. These had short, fairly stiff, bristles and a ring for one finger on the back. We inserted our fingers in this ring then brushed our hair vigorously, form the forehead back.
Dandruff corner Mickey Carey used to call the packing room. Mickey looked after the hoppers above our heads, and when he came across several of us brushing away he would shout “keep it up lads, there will soon be more dandruff than porridge in those bags”. We used all sorts of other aids too; Brylcreem, Brilliantine, even axle grease when nothing else was available.
Tony Casey was one of the few who didn’t favour a crew-cut, sporting instead an Elvis quiff. A lot of his day was spent nurturing his quiff, and whistling and singing Elvis and Jim Reeves songs.
“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone...”
Coming up to a weekend when there was a dance at the Rainbow Hall, the activity increased noticeably. Rusty or unknown dance steps were practised over and over, often with a sweeping brush as one’s partner. To watch Mickey Downey trying to learn an old-time waltz with his sweeping brush dance partner or Dougie Flynn trying to master the intricacies of the foxtrot, caused great hilarity. But, as they said themselves, it was better to be laughed at on the packing-room floor than look like right eejits on the dance-hall floor.
For my first six months at Flahavan’s going to the pictures continued to be my main pastime. It wasn’t all westerns that I liked now though; and although films such as The Alamo, The Hanging Tree, Three Ten to Yuma still exerted their influence, I gradually developed broader tastes. I enjoyed films such as The Ten Commandments, East Of Eden, Calcutta, The Quiet Man and a film called Rooney – in which John Gregson played a hurler with the worst Dublin accent I had ever heard.
There was also Dracula, which most of us watched from beneath our overcoats. Christopher Lee baring his fangs before sinking them into the neck of his next victim; Peter Cushing hammering the stake into his heart; and those of us not screaming outwardly doing so inwardly, knowing that afterwards we had to cycle home through the dark night, passing graveyards, fairy rings and other haunted places. My particular bogeyman was resident in Pat Power’s half acre, an overgrown derelict plot of land with the remains of an old house still visible within. What or who this bogeyman was I didn’t know, only that it was there. I half expected it to leap out at me every night I passed by. It was a stupid superstition I know – like mother’s habit of turning all the mirrors in the house to the wall whenever lightening appeared – but it was no use, my legs seemed to acquire a life of their own whenever I approached that spot. I usually blessed myself and put on a spurt.
I was a regular at the cinema by now, and along with Jim Kiersey, Bernie Power and Bobby Hovenden had made the second pew from the front our own. Bernie claimed a kinship with the Hollywood actor Tyrone Power, and indeed sometime later I did read that the superstar did have roots in the area so perhaps it was true. Bobby, for his part went round with a copy of Susan Maughan’s ‘I Want To Be Bobby’s Girl’ in his saddlebag, trying to pluck up the courage to give it to Cora Murphy.
The local girls came and sat in the front row, displaying their obvious interest, and before long we were hopping seats and pairing off. Nothing much went on except hand-holding and the occasional surreptitious feel.
Paddy Barron, the Shoemaker, acted as both ticket collector and bouncer. Sometimes our seat-hopping antics annoyed those in posh seats at the back and there would be shouts to sit down. As those seats were usually occupied by couples, who indulged in more kissing and feeling than we ever managed, we couldn’t see what the fuss was all about so we generally ignored them. All this had the effect of bringing Paddy into action. He prowled the aisles, whacking the head of those judged guilty of trouble-making.
There was never too much trouble till the night ‘The Blackboard Jungle’ was showing. The cinema was creaking at the sides; even before the show began they were stomping in the aisles as ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound-dog’ blared out over the loudspeakers. Paddy had given up trying to restore order and was blowing smoke from his pipe like a Massey Ferguson o n fire, all the time keeping a beady eye on a group of strangers who were behind us.
The trouble started almost as soon as the picture began. No sooner was Bill Hailey rocking-around-the-clock-than the cheering began. “Shhh”, shouted the crowd in the posh two-and sixpence seats. ‘”Bah”, growled the one-and-ninepence seats back at them. Whack! went Paddy’s torch. By the time Glen Ford dumped the school bully through the library window they were jeering, and when he was beaten up in the alleyway they were baying for his blood.
‘Oi!’ shouted somebody as Paddy’s spotlight hit his eyes.
‘Cut out the noise or I’ll throw you out’, hissed Paddy. His face trapped in the light from the projector, became a monster on the screen, where Sidney Poitier was trading insults with Glenn Ford.
‘Get off the screen you fool,’ shouted someone .
‘Put that torch out or I’ll shove it up your arse,’ shouted someone else.
The disembodied circle of light continued to probe, searching faces, seeking culprits. In the shadows, the girls buttoned their blouses, and we sat up straight.
‘Who’s that lot behind,’ somebody asked.
I had already noticed them. All winkle-pickers and hair-oil. Out from Town, I guessed.
It erupted when Glenn Ford faced the knife-wielding thug in the classroom.
‘Go on, stick it in him,’ one of the Townies shouted. Then one of the girls screamed. I could see a greasy head on her neck and two hands down her blouse. I shoved hard at the face and the pew behind toppled over. After that it became chaotic; bodies everywhere and boots and fists flying. Someone opened the emergency door and the fighting spilled on to the gravel outside.
It was soon apparent that it was four strangers against us locals. The blow-ins ringed the motorcycles – a couple of Nortons – and swung their bicycles chains like hammer throwers. They shone like panthers in the moonlight, their teeth bared in defiance. Someone lobbed a fire extinguisher in their midst and skittled a couple of them. Several chairs appeared and they were herded into a corner, snarling like wild dogs. One of them pulled a flick- knife from his pocket, but he was smashed across the wrist before he could flick it open.
By the time the Sergeant arrived we had scattered and the Townies had vanished. ‘Back to Town with their tails between their legs,’ we gloated.
Going home after the pictures was all part of the ritual. There might be up to ten of us, all hell-bent on getting to Newtown Cross first. Despite the fact that it was uphill most of the way, we pedalled as hard as we could, those of us having low gears possessing quite an advantage. It wasn’t all about gears however; it was also about lung power and leg power- and Mick Dee had plenty of both. Mick was invariably the hare, the rest of us the greyhounds trying to catch him. We seldom did.
There were other diversions. Sometimes a Garda would emerge from behind a tree, waving his flashlight and attempting to wave us down. This merely spurred us to greater efforts, and most of us just charged past him. Those unlucky enough not to make it found themselves at the courthouse a few weeks later having to fork out five shilling for having no light on their bicycle.
My friendship with the Kierseys meant that I was spending more and more of my time with them. Many winter evenings were spent dazzling rabbits, others playing cards, Sundays playing soccer at Alaska Park. Their house was adjacent to the pitch, and after a game we usually adjourned there, where I would spend the rest of the afternoon. We played cards, usually forty-five or a hundred-and ten until it was time to go to the pictures or a dance. Geoffrey, who was a projectionist at the Rainbow, had to be there well before opening time to sort the reels of film. Most features consisted of several reels, and, as they had come direct from showing at another cinema, needed rewinding.
Sometimes there were breakdowns during the showing, the celluloid strip jamming and snapping part-way through a reel. This had then to be spliced and glued together before being rewound and shown again. The action at the spliced section jumped forward a few frames, which was okay if it was something unimportant like a love scene, but very annoying when it was in the middle of a shoot-out at the OK Corral.
When the time came to make my debut on the dance floor I was well prepared. I had been practising with my broom for weeks; quicksteps, foxtrots, waltzes, I could do them standing on my head. But just in case I couldn’t I had invoked Blessed Martin, was wearing my miraculous medal, and had prayed to the Blessed Virgin not to let me fall on my backside in the middle of the crowded floor.
Our crew-cuts slicked back with lashings of Brilcreem, Jim Kiersey and myself paid over our three and sixpences, and received our admission cards from Michael Barron. For the pictures tickets were dispensed from a roll, but for the dances it was usually a printed card with the band’s name an d admission price printed on it. The band on this occasion was the Riverside Jazz band.
We had arrived early. The band was still setting up their gear, the only other customers a couple of girls chatting with band members. It was the first time I had seen the Rainbow transformed into a dancehall, and it looked enormous. The back section, with its tip-up seats had been curtained off; all the pews and the screen had been removed from the front, leaving a cavernous, empty rectangle in their wake. Paddy Barron was sprinkling crystals on the floor, something to do with helping the dancing. There was a cloakroom and tearoom to one side. We deposited our overcoats then stood around drinking bottles of Fanta as we watched the hall fill up.
I had never seen so many girls, or such a diversity of colours and styles. Bright floral dressed, tow piece suits, cardigans draped over bare shoulders, legs of all shapes and sizes encased in sheer nylon stockings, high-heeled shoes of various hues. A few girls wore the more formal dress, stiff, with wide skirts that had been starched for the occasion. The wearers of these dresses were to be seen on the floor very early, when they were sure to be noticed. I suppose they were the best dancers; I’m sure they thought they were. Only some girls wore make-up, mostly bright red lipsticks, but all of them sported new perms and hair-dos for the occasion.
The men were much more conservatively dressed; suits or sports jackets, or fair-isle jumpers and trousers. Everyone wore the obligatory collar and tie.
I had been kitted out at Lennon’s drapery; brown cavalry twill trousers, brown brogues that hadn’t yet stopped squeaking, and a tweed jacket that was several sizes too big. I had seen auld Lennon in the mirror, holding a fistful of it behind my back, telling me it was a perfect fit, but I didn’t like to contradict him.
As the hall filled up a strange ritual unfolded. The men lined up along one side of the hall, the women along the other side. The space between became a sort of no-man’s-land, where few ventured in the lull between dances. When the music commenced it became a buffalo stampede, the men charging across the hall to grab the partner they had selected in their mind’s eye. Sometimes a sharp change of direction was necessary, to grab a second – or even third – choice.
Ages had passed and I still hadn’t plucked up the courage. When I finally steeled myself, the girl I had singled out shook her head and said she was waiting for her friend. “I’m waitin’ for me friend,” I subsequently learned, was the stock-in-trade of Irish girls from Tralee to Timbuktu when they didn’t want to dance with you. Not very nice; but then, not much worse than the opening line of the Irish male when trying to engage his partner in conversation, “Do you come here often?”
Dejected, I sat down on one of the pews. The next dance was Siege of Ennis, a dance that was as alien to me as the samba. Nevertheless, I found myself taking part. A girl dragged me onto the floor and before I knew it I was pitched into the maelstrom. My sweeping brush wasn’t much good to me now. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. When it was over I asked my partner if she would have another dance with me and she agreed. However, it turned out to be a slow waltz, another dance my broom hadn’t prepared me for.
God know how many times I trod on her feet, but it didn’t put her off because she stuck to me like a clam all through the number. It was my first ever contact with a pair of well-formed breasts. I could feel their hardness as they poked me in the chest. My palms got sweaty as she pulled me into her and placed one of my hands on her lower back, very near the ridge of her bum. My flies, too, developed a life of their own, but if it bothered her she didn’t show it, merely pulling me closer. When the number finished she patted me on the cheek like a big sister.
‘Jesus Tutts,’ someone remarked to me afterwards, ‘do you know who that was? Only the biggest ride in the county!’ The next morning in the packing room, the usual crass remarks were flying about. ‘Ah well, at least someone got their hole last night,’ ‘he wouldn’t know where to put it,’ ‘She’d suck you in and blow you out in bubbles, boy.’
As the months went by, my dance steps improved, and my awkwardness with girls disappeared. Now I was on e of the boys; always to the forefront of the cavalry-charge for partners, seeking out, and usually getting, the best-looking, and most forward, girls in the throng. It was a game really; you had to have a bit of form, both as a dancer and a chancer. The girls in question wouldn’t entertain someone who didn’t live up to their expectations. Most of them didn’t mind you holding them close, didn’t mind you getting a cheap thrill. I assumed they got one too. You soon got to know the ones who kept you at arm’s length; they danced with their knees so close together that we reckoned they had corks up their arses. They were avoided until we were desperate.
The prettiest ones weren’t always the best ones for a good feel, and I developed a system whereby I danced with the lookers for most of the night, and concentrated my efforts in the latter stages on taking one of the lesser lights home. That way I had the best of both worlds.
There were many liaisons after a dance, all geared towards one goal – getting your hole. Well, maybe that wasn’t strictly true, but it was all we talked about. A heavy kissing and petting session was generally the extent of our success, and we cycled home in the early hours with a hard-on that lasted for hours.
So near and yet so far away was the story of my efforts so far. Most girls would let you feel their breasts, some would even let you take them out, a diminishing number wouldn’t object to your hand on their thigh; the question was how far would they let it travel? Half-way wasn’t bad, within a couple of inches of the target was a major breakthrough, but to actually get it on their knickers and feel the crinkly bush behind was something else. The question being – what to do next?
Feeling in the packing room was divided. Some favoured the direct approach; get the lad out and press him home before she had time to object. Others weren’t so sure; Paul Downey had read something about foreplay in a magazine one of his relatives had brought home from England. Most of us thought foreplay was a game of golf. The magazine also talked about the delights of oral sex, but the notion of some girl astride me with my prick in her mouth, and me with my head between her legs and my tongue up her hole, didn’t strike me as quite right. Did the girl actually swallow your stuff? Rather her than me! The truth was we knew practically nothing about girls or what made them tick. We just blundered and fumbled our way towards that ultimate goal.
A glimmer of enlightenment came to me as I grappled with a girl in a field of corn one hot July night. We had twisted the night away in the company of The Cossacks Showband, and now we lay in the barley field in the shadows of the Poorhouse, a large Victorian edifice on the outskirts of the village. The Poorhouse was now used for storage by Flahavan’s, and as we caressed I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the inmates had lain here in similar circumstances. That they had done so I didn’t doubt; some of the old books I read described the hardship of those forced to reside in the Poorhouses around the time of the Famine. And the ways you could be expelled from them. One of those was getting yourself pregnant – a not unusual occurrence according to the books. That those starving, dying wretches could even think about sex, let alone perform it, said something about its power.
And here I was in the same field wondering what to do next. I had progressed through all the stages and my hand was now resting on the downy mound that had been my goal all night. While I pondered the problem, my partner solved it by squeezing her legs together. My fingers disappeared of their own accord, and foe the next few minutes she writhed and squealed to a tune only she knew the air to. Red-headed women buck like goats, I had read somewhere. Well so did black-haired ones!
Afterwards she bawled her eyes out and said I had taken advantage of her.. Later still, she agreed to meet again the following Sunday. There were many subsequent frustrating evenings spent in that cornfield – then the corn was cut and we lost interest in each other.
When I finally found out what all the fuss was about it happened unexpectedly. Since my encounter with the alleged county bike, I had generally steered clear of her, and apart from the occasional dance, we had hardly spoken. Cowardice on my part, I freely admit. But I was also attracted to her, despite my protestations to others that I wouldn’t be seen dead with her. I knew she fancied me, her body language when we danced told me that, so one night when she suggested I walk her home, I agreed. She worked in one of the big houses outside the village, a walk of no more than a few hundred yards, so I reckoned the chances of our being seen together were fairly small. Even so, after agreeing to meet her outside, I waited a good ten minutes before following her out.
Hand in hand, we walked down the deserted street, then she steered me down an alleyway towards the river bank. Flahavan’s owned a store here that stored animal feed-stuffs, with a big loading bay out front. The doors were unlocked. Once inside, she wasted no time with preliminaries; her hands were inside my trousers before I could move. We arranged some empty bags on the floor then she lay down, waiting. It was dark in there, but the streetlamps cast enough light for me to see her; big thighs like twin towers looking straight up at me, stocking-tops still attached to the suspender belt hanging from her waist, dark middle invitingly open. She pulled me down on top of her, then pulled me into her. She was surprisingly soft and warm. It was all over in a few minutes, and when I was finished she shouted, “Well, what are you stopping for?” I was stopping because I thought that was it. Well, at that moment it was. She never asked me to walk her home again, and I came to the conclusion that this sex lark wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
In the summer evenings we swam in the river Mahon, our favourite spot being Poll Garbh, close to the mill. It was rocky there, and had a number of deep pools that were ideal for the diving and larking about we indulged in. Little piles of clothes dotted the rocks as groups frolicked – boys and girls – our shrieks and screams clearly audible in the village several hundred yards away.
Later we paired off for kissing and petting sessions in the now familiar haunts. This sometimes entailed walking a circular route round the village that we had christened The Stations of the Cross. ‘Doing The Stations’, as we called it, meant stopping at some particular spot along the way. It could be an overhanging tree, or a field gate, and it was understood if the girl stopped then some kissing and cuddling was in order. Sometimes friends would cycle past, whistling and cat-calling as they went by. When serious petting was contemplated we went under cover, the old piggery on the green, empty mill houses along the river bank, and the derelict creamery situated between Flahavan’s and the village itself.
This latter had once been the venue for a butter market run, by Kiersey’s, the bakers. Here, they bought farmers butter and exported it to England. During WW1it was sent in crates marked “Machine Parts”, in case anybody found out it was being sold to help feed British soldiers. Imagine...Irish farmers’ butter being eaten in the trenches at The Somme – maybe even by my grand-uncle Mikey!
In the wintertime we played cards in Power’s shop at McGraths Cross, a few miles from the village, usually on Saturday nights. Those of us so inclined could sample a bottle of Guinness, even a glass of poitin, before staggering into the frost night to grab a few hours sleep before Mass in the morning. Where the poitin came from we didn’t know – Kilmac not being renowned as a poiteen-making area – but this didn’t stop us from trying to find out where auld Power kept it hidden. When we eventually found four bottle of it buried in a haystack out back we replaced it with bottles of Mahon water, then waited to see the reaction.
Fuelled by some of it ourselves, a couple of us decided to do a bit of house-smoking and haunting. It had been done a few years back – John Mullins, the gravedigger, had been one of the victims – and we felt it was due a revival. Rumour had it that the Galvins, Peter Kenny and a few more of the local tearaways had been the culprits, but nobody had ever been caught. The smoking-out had been done by climbing onto the roof and tying a bag over the chimney. Those inside had no alternative but to come out, where they were met by several wailing banshees.
We had chosen Cullinane’s pub, and I was the one elected to place the bag over the chimney. Doing it in daylight would have been hazardous enough, but doing it in the dark, when I was light-headed from the poitin, made it almost impossible. I was attempting to get the bag over the chimney when I dislodged the pot, and it went clattering down into the room below. Worse still, I discovered I hadn’t a great head for heights. I was hanging on for dear life when the street door burst open. Several customers, drinks still in their hands, stood silhouetted in the light. Were they weaving or was I?
‘Bloody jackdaws,’ I heard somebody say.
‘Bloody big jackdaws,’ someone else replied. ‘Look up there.’ I could see a hand waving in my direction. ‘Bring out the shotgun, Jack.’
It was time to go. Fear of heights or no fear of heights, I wasn’t hanging around for some Wild Bill Hickock to take pot-shots at me. I lay down on my belly and let myself go. Over the side I went, straight into the rainwater barrel at the back of the house. I got out as fast as I could and was halfway through the orchard when I heard the gun go off. I didn’t see my co-conspirator until the next day. He had been spotted in the graveyard across the road and chased. Discarding his robe, he had run off, but had fallen into a freshly-dug grave. He was forced to stay there until his pursuers had disappeared. The following morning, on my way to work, I glanced up at the chimney. Half of it was missing.
During the winter we also went dazzling. The Kierseys owned a retriever dog, and had rigged up a spotlight so powerful it could stop a rabbit in its tracks. It comprised a car battery, motorcycle headlamp and some leads. The battery was carried on your back in a satchel, the hand-held lamp connected to it by the leads.
The operator stood in the corner of a field and swept it with the beam. If the light picked out a rabbit full-face it was usually paralysed, and would stand motionless while the dog circled round and picked it up in its mouth. If the rabbit was only partially caught in the light then it took off. The trick then was to keep the light on it while the rest of us gave chase. On good night the rabbit won.
Windy, moonless nights were the best. And we always travelled upwind, so as to catch the rabbits unaware. When the dog brought its capture back it was usually still alive and had to be killed. This we done by giving it a rabbit-chop – a swift blow to the back of its neck. This accomplished, a slit was made in one of its back legs. The other back leg was threaded through and it was then hung on a hurley or blackthorn stick for convenient carrying on your shoulder.
We usually caught a dozen or more rabbits each time we went out. At the end of the night we took them back to Kierseys, where we gutted them – the dogs getting the choice bits – then hung them in an outhouse for selling to Dick Casey, Dick paid us seven or eight shilling a pair for them, and they eventually wound up as part of the fur bootees so popular with many women at the time.
Occasionally we hunted on Sundays, but this was more for sport than profit. There would be several dogs chasing some hare or rabbit, usually without success. Sometimes we came across a badger or fox, and would spend several fruitless trying to dig them out.
The local coursing club occasionally held a meet, and we joined in the hunt for hares, acting as beaters, driving them towards the gaps and paths that had been rigged with nets. By the time the coursing took place several dozen hares would have been caught, and when it was over at least half would be dead – if not from the savagery of the dogs, then from fright.
If this relentless pursuit of the rabbit and the hare seemed cruel, we never gave it a second thought. We there, they were there...it seemed natural that we should hunt them.
Our spotlight could also be used in the pursuit of salmon. No normally a sport we favoured – sitting by the banks of the river waiting for a fish that might or might not impale itself on your hook wasn’t much more exciting than watching corn dry – it nevertheless became very attractive when approached from a totally illegal perspective. Poaching had a certain ...panache to it, particularly when it was late at night and you were wading upriver after a ten-pounder, the spotlight following its every twist and turn, and one of you trying to spear it with a long-handled gaffe.
We had made several runs that had one large ell but no salmon when disaster almost struck. It was my turn in the water, when I suddenly felt myself sink. I disappeared below the water-line, and when I tried to surface I found that my waders were trapped and were holding me under. I panicked and threshed around for what seemed ages before I remembered to push my head above the water using the gaffe. Even then I couldn’t free the waders and had to slip the braces off to escape. I never went salmon fishing again.
Music assumed more and more importance as time went by. I bought my first record player at Battye’s, a battery-operated affair, and with it an Elvis LP. Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes got so many plays that first week that the grooves were almost worn away, and father was so fed up he banished me from the house altogether. I took to playing it in the outhouses, or, when the weather was fine, in the pine grove behind the house. Whether the cattle in the fields nearby were Elvis fans I don’t know, but they congregated by the fence, their dribbling mouths poking over it, listening to the music.
Later on, I found a Brenda Lee record at Cantwell’s Record Shop in Town, Rocking Around The Christmas Tree, which I liked. And at Jackson’s Junk Shop in the Apple-market I found an old seventy-eight by Hank Thompson and The Brazos Valley Boys, called Blackboard of my Heart.
When I was young I went to school, they taught me how to write
To take the chalk and make a mark and hope it turns out right
Well that’s the way it is with love, ‘cos now we’re far apart
My tears have washed I love you from the blackboard of my heart
The Ceomhaltas Ceoltoiri held music nights at the Temperance Hall in the village, where those interested could learn to play traditional Irish music on a variety of instruments. I started going there and was soon being urged to take part. Couldn’t I play the tin whistle or flute, or something? I couldn’t.
I knew I wanted to be involved in music in some capacity, so I bought myself a second-hand guitar at Cantwell’s, and Seamie Brien, who I had befriended at the Temperance Hall, showed me some basic chords. Seamie was an accomplished guitarist and went out of his way to help me. I worked away at the few chords every night until my fingers bled. Eventually the skin hardened – and I could play a few chords.
Around this time the idea of forming a band occurred to Seamie. He already had a drummer, PJ Kirwan, and I was the latest recruit. Soon, the three of us were practising several nights a week in a spare room in the house of PJ’s brother, Jim. Around this time I also got a job in the Tannery in Portlaw. It wasn’t really a surprise; my name had been down for a long time, and they were hiring again after a long period in the doldrums.
It was a complete reversal of a few years previously, when everyone at the Tannery had been on short time. Father had even thought of emigrating at one point so precarious was the situation. I remembered listening to the animated conversations coming from the bedroom late at night; what were they going to do? Where was the money coming from to feed and clothe us? This was mother’s voice; then father suggested he might go to England on his own for while, get some money together, and send for the rest of us. Go, go, I would be thinking, send some money back and we can all go and live in London. Then I would hear mother crying that the family would be broken up, that things would never be the same again.
Things drifted for a while. Then one of his old work-mates, who had emigrated to Manchester years before, had been killed in an accident at work there. His body was flown home for burial, but he didn’t even have enough savings for a decent funeral. They held a collection for him in the tannery. ‘All he had was the clothes he stood up in’, somebody said. Or in this case fell down in. He was buried alive when the trench he was digging caved in on top of him.
‘Work, work, work, that’s all the subby wants – and pays you nothing at the end of the day,’ said the work-mate who accompanied the body. ‘There’s only one way out, and that’s in a box’. After that father’s talk of emigration petered out, even though it was months before things at the Tannery improved.
I had no qualms about leaving Flahavan’s. In a way we were only playing at work there. The Tannery was a real factory, it would make a man of me – and the wages were several pounds a week more.
I would also need a better form of transport than my five-speed Raleigh bicycle. Cycling the seven miles to the tannery everyday didn’t appeal to me, and although father had spent more than twenty years doing it, it was more necessity than choice. He could now afford something easier on his legs and had bought himself an NSU Quickly – a moped. So when I told him I had decided to buy a Honda scooter, he might have muttered a little, but he couldn’t very well complain too much.
I loved it from the first moment I sat on it. Its shiny red and white body made it distinctive from any other machine on the market. Although it was only 50cc, it could reach speeds of sixty miles an hour, making it faster than many bigger bikes. I had been dreaming of owning a Honda for several years, ever since the first ones began appearing in the area, and now that I had one there was a swagger about me; pulling into the garage to fill up, checking the oil, feeling an absurd sense of well-being as one of my friends cycled by. Look what I’ve got! I wanted to shout.
It cost me eighty six pounds, and Battye’s were once again the suppliers. I paid five pounds down and received a payment card confirming that I would pay off the balance at one pound per week.
Marlon Brando was my newest hero; I wanted a jacket like I had seen him wear in On The Waterfront. I enquired in Town, but had been told it might take months to get one. Not appreciating that Marlon’s jacket and my Honda weren’t exactly compatible, I seriously contemplated ordering one at the USA Bargain Stores – until I learned the price.
Seamie owned a big bike, a Triumph that fairly chewed up the roads. I had occasionally ridden pillion, my hair sometimes almost touching the bushes as we rounded some bend at an almost impossible angle. But his riding was as confident as his guitar playing. Then PJ got in on the act, acquiring a second-hand Honda from one of his brother’s when he progressed to a Morris Minor.
I found my perceived vision of the Tannery somewhat over-optimistic. A bleak, soulless place at the best of times, in the winter it was thoroughly miserable. The wind whistled through the wide corridors and open sheds, the rain slanted in doorways, and over partially constructed walls, and the smell of tanning and dead meat permeated clothes and skin. A little bit of useless information came to mind; that the tanning industry was one of the oldest occupations. Artefacts had been discovered six thousand years old somewhere in Turkey, and apparently the tanning industry itself had hardly changed in hundreds of years. Where had I learned that? Probably in some old book.
For the first few weeks I was more or less left to my own devices. A little sweeping here, some hosing down there; I resorted to counting how many maggots I could flush down the drain with one sweep of my hose. When I got bored I helped unload the maggoty hides from the lorries.
Then I was put to work in the leather-board department, and it was like moving to a new job. It was warm and clean inside, there was a pleasant hum from the machinery. The leather-board was manufactured from compressed paper, wood shavings and other ingredients, and one surface had a skin of synthetic leather glued to it. It emerged from the rollers, was cut into the appropriate lengths and stacked on pallets. It was then moved to the spraying booths and sprayed whatever colour required.
Dick Keating, a chubby man with short legs who walked twice as fast as anybody else but never seemed o outdistance them, was the department supervisor. He scurried about, checking colour charts, mixing colours, and bawling out everyone when the orders got behind. I scurried after him, learning how to mix colours, wheeling drums of paint from the stores, doling out measures, and whisking up mixes like I was making scrambled eggs.
After a while, I learnt how to spray; covering the sheets in a fine mist of speckled greys and browns. As I wove delicate patterns with my spray gun I sometimes imagined I was Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
All the time our music practice continued. We learned all the songs sung by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem off by heart; Brennan On The Moor, The Irish Rover, I’ll Tell Me Ma.
I’ll tell me ma when I go home the boy won’t leave the girls alone
They knock on the door, ring on the bell
Saying oh my true love are you well
She is handsome, she is pretty,
She is the belle of Belfast city.
She is courting one, two, three
Please won’t you tell me who is she.
Fine girl you are!
We copied the words of Hank Locklin, Jim Reeves and other popular singers from our radios and record players. On St. Stephen’s Day we dressed up as mummers – gathering the wren, we called it – and toured all the pubs in the area. By now we were four in number, Tony Regan, who sang in the church choir, having joined us. We covered many miles on our trusty motorbikes and visited pubs in all the outlying areas; Bonmahon, Ballylaneen, Killrossany, Clonea, Mothel and many more, before concluding, late that night, that we might just have the makings of a band. They had loved us wherever we went; the amount of money we had collected was evidence of that. In theory, the money collected was for charity; we contemplated the most deserving charity we knew...then divided the money into four equal piles.
From then on we devoured the music scene. Elvis, Cliff Richards, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, all were aped, their music scrutinised. Adam Faith, Clarence Frogman Henry, Helen Shapiro and many others were listened to avidly. Bill Hailey was getting us to shake, rattle and roll, we were twisting the night away with Chubby Checker, doing the huckle-buck with Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband. Only we weren’t doing it so much in the Rainbow Hall any longer. The world was our oyster now that we had transport. The Olympia in Waterford beckoned, The Silver Slipper and The Atlantic ballrooms in Tramore, The Ormond in Carrick, and the marquees in the summer in places as far away as Dunhill and Ballymacarberry.
I bought myself a pair of winkle-pickers and drainpipe trousers in Town, and learned to play ‘Forty Miles Of Bad Road’ on the guitar. Eat your heart out Duane Eddy, I thought as I stomped about during practice, my guitar threatening to take off. The shoes were so pointy you could climb Everest with them, the trousers so tight I was afraid to cough.
The bands, their instruments were closely observed. What tunes did they play? How did he do that? What chord was that? Where did they get those jackets?
We fooled around at Delicato’s Chipper in Town, eating greasy chips, playing Chuck Berry and Trini Lopez on the jukebox, waiting for the Olympia to open its doors. Sometimes you wouldn’t get in because Brendan Bowyer, The Clipper Carlton or Dickie Rock were playing. The Capitol, The Plattermen, The Dixies and Joe Dolan also filled the halls to bursting whenever they appeared.
Music wasn’t the be-all and end-all, however. There was a real possibility that the world might end at any moment; Kruschev was sending missiles to Cuba and the Russian navy was going along for the ride, making sure they got there safely. And the US navy was going to be there to greet them, making sure that they didn’t. It seemed only a matter of time before everyone was blown to smithereens.
Cuba was a long way off...where, exactly, was it anyway? An old encyclopaedia informed it was in the Caribbean, that Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot there, and that its economy was based on the sugar plantations worked by slaves. Were there still slaves there? I wondered. The pictures I’d seen in the papers showed tall black men in military uniforms, and naked black children playing in the streets. The sort of pictures, it occurred to me, you would see on the collection boxes in the church for the Foreign Missions. Couldn’t the church do something? Apart from praying? Why should the world end because of some insignificant little island at the other end of the planet.
It all seemed so unreal. The world might end at any minute, yet our main pre-occupation had very little global dimension to it. Who was going to play the bass guitar we had bought from another band for twenty pounds? Where could we learn the chords for Frank Locklin’s ‘Gonna Go Fishing Next Saturday Night’? Who knew the words to ‘Jumbalaya’? And, more worryingly, what were we going to call the band?
Every wireless in the country was tuned to the World Service, counting down the end of civilization. Every church in the land was ablaze with light as men and women everywhere lit candles and prayed. We practiced on regardless.
Maybe the prayers were answered, because, just before impending doom, the Russian fleet turned back. The world hand found a new hero. JF Kennedy had saved the world. “Sure, he’s a great man,” I heard people say. Great for what, I wondered, wasn’t it Khrushchev who had saved us by turning back?
Then came the news that he was to visit Ireland. The whole country was in a fervour; every Kennedy in the land claiming some sort of kinship with him. And he, for his part, claiming to be more Irish than ourselves.
‘Aye,’ proclaimed John Mullins, ‘shure if some of them fellas rubbed off someone wearing a green tie in the Paddy’s Day Parade in New York, they’d walk away convinced their ancestors were Irish.’ Nevertheless, we pointed our Hondas in the direction of New Ross on the day he was due there. It wasn’t every day we would get too see the man who had saved the world!
We never got within an asses roar of him. Every road, every lane, every field was jam-packed with pilgrims come to get a glimpse of him. I was disappointed not to see him, not least because I had this picture of him in my mind as some kind of great Shakespearian actor;
Friends, Romans and fellow Americans, lend me your ears. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country...
A few months later he was dead, gunned down in the broad streets of Dallas like some cowboy in a cheap movie. The earth stood still for a few days; the clocks seemed to stop ticking, the birds to stop singing. The man who had saved the world was mortal after all.
But his dying had immortalised others who would otherwise have remained nameless. Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby to be sure; their deaths, too, like another scene in a cheap movie, this time with a gangster setting. I, for one, became convinced that life – and death – in America was played out on one giant Hollywood-style set.
For my eighteenth birthday I got a union card, a crash helmet and the news that I was to start shift work in the rubber department in the Tannery. The rubber department was as different from the leather-board shop as a milking parlour from a bakery. Rows of machines lined the floor, looking, for all the world, like something out of a Marvel comic, their short, squat bodies festooned with pulleys and handles.
In here, shoe-soles of all shapes and sizes were turned out in their thousands. Bales of rubber were brought in, cut into thin slabs then delivered in bins to the machine operators. The slabs were then placed in the moulds and the machines set in motion. When the moulding process was complete, the moulds were emptied, and the filled bins carted away for despatch to some English shoe manufacturer.
The union card was compulsory on reaching the age of eighteen. For the payment of a shilling a week you got the privilege of voting in the shop-steward election once a year, and going on strike with no union pay when a dispute had to be settled.
The crash helmet wasn’t compulsory, but mother said I should wear it all the same. I did so when I remembered.
On the music front, a new era had begun. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones had broken new ground, were changing all the rules, and we wanted to be part of it. Gone were the staid and strait-laced days of the foxtrot and the waltz; new dances were springing up all over the world; fashion was becoming outlandish and outrageous; Mods and Rockers were fighting over girls in Brighton and Clacton, Beatle-mania was sweeping the world. We wanted to be part of the revolution.
There was no apartheid in the rubber department; girls as well as boys operated the machines, and it was clear that they, too, wanted to break the mould. Bee-hive hair-dos’ appeared, skirts began to creep upward, and it slowly dawned on us that girls did have legs above their knees.
It was no secret that we were trying to put a band together. And when Paul Gorman confessed that he, too, was trying to do the same, the germ of an idea was born. Why didn’t we join forces? Kilmac and Portlaw come together in some venture? It couldn’t work, would it? The only time they came together was on the sports field – when they usually kicked the shite out of each other.
Our first meetings were exploratory, but they turned out more productive than we expected; We all wanted a band with a brass section, and when we found that Paul played the saxophone and David Hallissey the trumpet...well, that was the brass section taken care of. The next problem was the drummer; they had Brendan O’Shea and we had PJ. Then we saw Brendan perform on the drums and that was the drummer problem solved. That meant me becoming the bass guitarist and PJ the rhythm guitarist. Neither of us minded too much; I had been experimenting with the bass already and PJ was already an accomplished guitar player. That only left Tony Regan. What could he play? After some discussion we decided we would buy a trombone and he could learn to play it.
Seamie solved the problem of where to rehearse with our now-expanded group. Michael Baron, the owner of the Rainbow Hall, also owned a joinery firm and Seamie worked for him. When he heard of our predicament, he offered us the use of the Rainbow on the nights it wasn’t in use, usually Tuesday and Thursday nights.
The name was less easy. Many were thought up and discarded. The Young Ones, The Young Devils. However, when the parish priest heard this last name being mentioned he came to see us and told us to find something more fitting. The Young Shadows was one we all liked but there was a group in Dublin already called that. The name ‘Royal’ was very popular with bands, and when someone came up with the word ‘Duke’, we thought it had a certain ring to it. We became The Royal Dukes.
Practice was hard work – especially for those not too acquainted with their instruments. I didn’t have much of an ear for music- tone deaf would be putting it mildly – so my bass notes depended on what chords Seamie was playing at any given time. This meant keeping one eye on his fingers, and one on my own playing - a practice from which anybody watching would conclude that I was cross-eyed. Then we discovered a sheet-music shop in Dungarvan. Buying the sheets at least stopped me from developing a squint, for, although I couldn’t read music, the guitar chords were clearly indicated.
We also needed microphones and amplifiers, and here Pat Barron, Michael’s brother, helped out. Pat was lead guitarist with the Pat Irwin band and he passed us on some amplification they no longer used.
Listening to ourselves in those early days was painful. We recorded some of our efforts and then played them back. One of the first was’ Send Me The Pillow That You Dreamed On’, a song made popular by Johnny Tillotson. We murdered it; off note, off key, out of tune, out of time, you name it, we did it. We played it back a second time; it sounded even worse. Seamie was tearing his hair out; never mind the same key, boys, could we all try and play the same tune!
Gradually we got better. Slowly, the realisation dawned that we were beginning to sound like a coherent unit. A band that now needed an audience, for a band that merely played behind closed doors was as useful as a car without wheels.
Michael Barron proved to be our saviour once again. He booked us as relief band at a forthcoming dance at The Rainbow. The date was a couple of months off so we had plenty of time for preperation. Or so we thought. We weren’t half ready. We never would be. We had to get jackets made, learn a dance routine, get ourselves better equipment. And Tony must learn to play his trombone. He couldn’t blow a note yet.
Slowly but surely the problems sorted themselves out. We went to a tailor in Dungarvan and he measured us up for our new jackets. We choose a broad blue-and-grey striped material, and picked a design similar to that worn by the Beatle. We worked on the dance routine, and found a supplier of hired amplification equipment in Town.
That only left Tony and his trombone. By now it was abundantly clear that he would never play the trombone. His best efforts so far had resembled a couple of jackasses bawling in unison. In the end we decided he should mime playing his instrument. This he did, moving with the rest of us in the dance routines, blowing silent notes on the trombone. It worked a treat; who was going to know what a trombone sounded anyhow with a saxophone and a trumpet blasting away?
The big night drew ever nearer. Posters had gone up all over the locality; RAINBOW HALL, SUNDAY. Music by the DAVITT BROTHERS. Supported by new local sensations THE ROYAL DUKES. This was heady stuff, and every time I passed a poster I stopped to read it – just to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming.
There was still no sign of our jackets. All sort of excuses were trotted out; the material had to come from England, the machinist had flu, the buttons hadn’t yet arrived. We intensified our practicing. As soon as a new song appeared we rushed out to get the sheet music. ‘It’s Been A Hard Day’s Night’ was rehearsed over and over, trying to capture some of the essence of the Beatles sound. But it was’ I Can Get No Satisfaction’ that was our trump card. Tum-tum –ta-ta –da-da-da –da –tum-tum...I practiced the bass notes incessantly. ‘I can get no – sat-is-fac-tion,’ sang Seamie in reply.
The song was causing much rage throughout the establishment. Radio Eireann was refusing to play it; the parish priest condemned it from the pulpit, but the youngsters were glued to their transistors, listening to it on Radio Luxemburg. Fr. Sinnott came to our rehearsals and heard us play it. The devil’s music, he called it, and said it was a mortal sin.
What...like adultery or murder? My soul could be forever damned for singing a song? I doubted it, somehow. By now my relationship with the church was changing. Gone were my altar-boy fancies for the priesthood, gone my implicit belief in the all-embracing goodness of the Catholic Church. I had now read up on historical events like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition – where people were imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake, all in the name of religion. It didn’t seem like a particularly religious activity to me. Oh, I still went to Mass on a Sunday, but that was only because it was expected and not because I wanted to. What sort of hypocrisy was that? I had begun to question our fundamental beliefs; The Holy Trinity, The Virgin Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, even the story of Adam and Eve. If the latter was true then Cain must have committed incest, mustn’t he?
I felt anger about the priest’s visit to our rehearsals; what right had he to tell us what music we could play. Later that night I wrote some verse about it.
Son, the priest said, put that guitar away
And get your hair cut, right
And don’t play I Can Get No Satisfaction
It’s a sin to call yourselves
The Red Devils, he said
And in the distance
I could see mother nodding her head
So we became The Royal Dukes
And played Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown instead
Saturday came and no jackets. We resigned to appearing jacket-less. White shirts and dark pants would have to do.
Shortly after six on Sunday we all met up in the Rainbow to set up our equipment before the Davitt Brothers arrived. Seamie came direct from Town, having picked up the amplifiers and other bits and pieces. He also brought seven jackets. The tailor had brought them round to his house earlier that day.
Christ, they were beautiful, those jackets. You could die happy in them. There was an old full-length mirror backstage and we strutted about in front of this for ages, admiring ourselves from every angle. Eventually, we reluctantly took them off and got on with setting up our gear.
The Rainbow was bursting at the seams that night. Curiosity, I suppose. The Davitt Brothers seemed bemused by it all. They were a competent outfit who had been playing the country venues for a number of years, and were used to sedate Macra Na Feirme and Muintir Na Tire supporters; nothing like the high excitement that was in evidence here. As the dance began and we listened to them play, we realised how much better than us they sounded.
It didn’t seem to matter. As they took their break and we replaced them. The crowd went wild. You would think we were The Beatles; they solidified into one heaving mass, packing the dance area. It was obvious there would be no dancing; they only wanted to listen and watch.
Looking out into the sea of faces I could see many I recognised; Jim Kiersey, his black hair slicked back, a crease on one side that would split timber; Vince Power, giving me the thumbs up; Shirley Mulcahy, on shoes so high she must have used a step-ladder; Tony Casey, Elvis quiff dripping oil. I closed my eyes briefly and said a prayer.
I needn’t have worried. We could have banged tin cans together and they would have cheered. ‘I Can Get No Satisfaction’ was our opening number and it nearly brought the house down. After that it was plain sailing; a few Beatles numbers, Jim Reeves, Jumbalaya, You Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Hound-Dog. Paul did a bit of Yakety –Sax, Seamie did ‘Apache’. We closed with Tony singing ‘Take These Chains From My Heart.’
Or thought we did. They wouldn’t let us finish. We had to run through several of the songs again. It was almost an hour before the Davitts came back on stage again. The Royal Dukes were in business!
Nothing ever quite matched that first night. We practiced with more determination now; building up our repertoire, determined to improve, but we had learned an important lesson that first night; looking good was at least as important as being good musicians. We looked the part on stage; good musicianship would either come with practice or not at all.
Bookings began to come in; more and more as we became known. We were usually playing somewhere every week, sometimes twice a week, rushing home in the early hours to snatch a few hours sleep before dashing out to work again. New Ross, Kilmore Quay, Dunhill, Tallow, Cahir, we played them all. When we played the Ormond Hall in Carrick I found myself making eyes at a dark-haired girl who had parked herself near the front of the bandstand. During the interval we got chatting, and she agreed that I could walk her home afterwards. I knew the others would wait, there being a tacit agreement to do so if anyone ‘shifted’. Getting your hole was of paramount importance.
‘Where does she live?’ One of the others asked.
‘Tracy Park,’ I replied.
He laughed. ‘Rather you than me, then. They eat their young there.’
I should have listened. I hadn’t even got round to a feel before they jumped me. The girl was sent packing, and I was thumped, kicked and propelled in the direction I had come from. I got back to the van minus my wallet, but otherwise relatively unscathed.
We were booked for the sheep-breeders annual dance at the Rainbow. This was usually a wild occasion, attended by many mountain farmers, many who probably hadn’t seen a woman for months. Some were on the look-out for a wife, others for a woman – any woman – and some of the antics made for hilarious watching. It never got as bad as the Ram Dance though; a yearly dance held at Clonea Strand, where a live ram was dragged on stage and crowned king of something-or –other. It was supposed to have its origins in some pagan fertility rite but as far as I could see the only thing that was fertile was the ram’s arse, shitting and pissing on stage as it stared, wild-eyed, at the throng.
Our finest hour came when we played at Barry’s Hotel in Dublin, on the same bill as Brian Rock and the Boys. Barry’s was the ‘culchie’ Mecca in Dublin, and Brian was in a different league to us. Nobody seemed to notice, however – not even when Tony took it upon himself to let rip with his trombone during our playing of the National Anthem. Trombone raised heavenwards, he blew a series of notes that sounded like a bull bawling with a wellington stuck down its throat. Which goes to show that you can fool all of the people all of the time...even Jackeens!
Holiday time came round and Tony Regan and myself headed off in the direction of Cork – Tony also had A Honda by now – a vague notion in our heads of doing the Ring of Kerry. Tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils strapped to our Hondas, we ventured into the unknown, having never spent a night away from home before, or cooked anything more complicated than an egg.
We made it as far as Cork city the first day, arriving there late in the afternoon. It was like New York compared to Waterford; wide streets, big stores, massive granite public buildings. I could see the spires of two cathedrals, one of each persuasion. Did Waterford have a Protestant cathedral? I couldn’t remember. The name St Finbarr was prominent everywhere we went. Was he their patron saint?
The clothes people wore, the people themselves, the general air of sophistication, made me feel out of place. As if I had come down from the mountains. Which, in a way, I suppose I had.
We wandered round the city centre for hours, drinking in the atmosphere, and when we set up the tent later on, I was already a changed person. Big cities, where the pace of life was fast, that’s where I wanted to be. I had been among the dead men long enough. In the cities there was a vibrancy, a hum that you could feel, almost touch. It felt as if a heavy fog had lifted there and then. I knew that what was missing in my life would stay missing forever if I stayed around Ballyhussa.
The following day we struggled over the Derrynasaggart mountains and descended gingerly into Kerry – on a road no bigger than a goat track. We reached Kenmare and set up camp in a field that advertised washing facilities. This turned out to be a cold water tap attached to the outside of what appeared to be a cowshed. The door to this building was padlocked, and remained and remained so throughout the night. Being very tired, we slept all night, but awoke in the morning floating in several inches of water. There had, apparently, been a downpour, and we had pitched the tent in a hollow. Still, the sun was shining brightly now, and by mid-day our clothes were steaming nicely. There had also been spasmodic noises coming from the padlocked shed, which worried us a bit. We decided to investigate, but before we got very far, the door came off its hinges and a jennet came out backwards. It demolished our tent then set about eating our clothes.
We eventually escaped more or less in one piece, and headed across Kerry. We had no set direction in mind but when we found ourselves in Glengarrif we decided to pay a visit to Garnish Island. Tony had heard it was filled with tropical plants as big as trees.
The man who hired us the boat looked at us suspiciously. Could we use an outboard? Of course we could! Weren’t we deep-sea fishermen in real life. We paid our money and set off, two eejits who had never sat in a boat before. It didn’t want to go in the direction we pointed it; about halfway to the island it got entangled in a bed of seaweed. Deeper and deeper we buried ourselves in this slimy green stuff, till, eventually, smack in the middle of an area the size of Croke Park, the engine packed up. All our efforts to re-start it were in vain; we sat there for about an hour until the proprietor appeared in another boat, threw us a rope and towed us back to the mainland. We were about to ask for our money back till we saw his face.
The holiday wasn’t going very well, and it didn’t get any better. The following day, at Kate Carney’s cottage, we decided that a bit of mountain climbing would be fun. Wasn’t I practically an expert? I had climbed Croughaun back home – all 1287 feet of it. And on my own. The Purple Mountain didn’t look that tough; we could scale it easily, descend the other side, walk back through The Gap Of Dunloe, and be back in time for tea.
We set off eagerly enough, climbing steadily, following the path of a stream that appeared to rise near the very top. When we reached the source of the stream there was another level behind. Ah well, that wouldn’t take long. Once we were over that it would be all downhill. It wasn’t. There was another level behind that. And another behind that.
By now we were feeling knackered. And hungry. We had brought nothing with us except a couple of bags of Tayto crisps. Sure, wouldn’t the climb give us an appetite for dinner!
Then without warning a mist swept in and we couldn’t see five yards ahead of us. We were scared now, and became disorientated. We lost all sense of direction and hadn’t a clue which way was back down. Eventually the mist began descending, the bit of the mountain we were lost on poking through the fog like a giant cone. The sun shone brightly up here; it felt as if we were floating high above the earth; all that was visible below us s vast, swirling cloud. I kept thinking that it must be like this on a plane.
We decided to descend ourselves, not knowing where we were going, but working on the assumption that we must eventually reach ground level. The fog moved slowly down the mountainside and we moved slowly behind it. Eventually, we saw a telegraph and, a few minutes later, a road. By now the fog had started to rise again; soon the mountain – tops were covered again, and we were left with the choice of which direction to head off in.
After half an hour of walking, without sight of either man or beast, we came across a road sign. It simply said GAP OF DUNLOE. Great – but which way was civilisation? We carried on walking and after a few more miles stopped an oncoming car, and were informed that we were heading in the right direction, albeit about five miles distant. This car was the only sign of life we encountered before reaching Kate Carney’s cottage again. Despite our condition, and the lateness of the day, we struggled into Killarney and set up camp, vowing to steer well clear of mountains of any colour in the future.
In Killarney, we spent most of the following day recuperating. We thought our luck might be changing when we picked up two girl hitch-hikers after an early evening ride into the surrounding hills. They were both English; June came from London, Holly from Manchester. June painted vivid pictures for me of life in the English capital. She spoke of Leicester Square and Piccadilly – going up West was how she put it – and of the great life enjoyed there. She had seen The Beatles live at the Hammersmith Palais and showed me a cigarette pack with their autographs scribbled inside.
Later, after a few drinks, we paired off. Tony won the toss as to who had the use of the tent; June and I settled for a clump of rhododendron bushes. I was beginning to think the holiday wasn’t turning out too bad when she remembered an important phone call she had to make. Would I mind waiting ten minutes, then we could resume where we had left off? I wouldn’t mind at all. If it meant getting my hand up there again, I could wait all night!
Twenty minutes later I had to conclude she wasn’t coming back. I also discovered my wallet had gone. When I returned to the tent I discovered that Tony had had an almost similar experience.
We made our sheepish way home the next day, scraping enough money together for petrol from the loose change left in our pockets. On our arrival back, we found trouble of a different nature. The band was being audition for ‘Ready, Steady, Go’, and had been going frantic at our absence.
The audition itself proved to be a big anti-climax. I was expecting a big TV producer, chewing on a big cigar, camera men and technicians, and a secretary fluttering her eyelashes at everyone. What we actually got was one middle-aged woman in a grotty looking Morris Minor. Hers was, she explained, only a preliminary visit. We had to impress her first before anybody else got the chance to be impressed.
We donned our jackets and played a couple of our best numbers for her. All of us gave it everything we got, even Tony, who blew his silent trombone with a swagger that had to be seen to be believed.
She was impressed, she said. It was possible we would be hearing further. There was only one proviso; we would have to get rid of the bass player – he didn’t fit in at all.
That bitch. We never saw or heard from her again. But she had instilled a complete lack of belief in me that completely undermined my playing. And in the others too; a sense of confusion and uncertainty as to what they should do. Much later we learnt that she had duped other bands too. She had no contacts with any TV studio; the whole thing had been one big ego trip on her part.
Practice nights were now attended by a few interested onlookers. They were mostly girls form the village; groupies, I suppose you could call them. Not that we minded having them there; they were good for our morale; they gave us a certain credibility.
Our love live were pretty full. There were plenty of girls who hung around after gigs, more than willing to walk down a back alley with us. – all because we were in a band. You could go with one girl, spend fifteen minutes with her, come back and get another. If you had the stamina, that is.
The village girls weren’t that easy. Nor did we want them to be. Part of the enjoyment lay in the pursuit. By now I was dating on a regular basis. Dee was her name and she was a convent girl, a year younger than me, shy and introverted except when we were alone. On Sundays we went riding on my Honda – she loved that bike almost as much as I did – to places like Bonmahon and Mahon Falls, where we fooled around and talked about our dreams and aspirations. Dee wanted to be a teacher; I had no idea what I wanted to be, but I was coming to the conclusion that I wouldn’t find at the Tannery, whose initial attraction had began to pall.
Mahon Falls, in the foothills of the Comeraghs, drew us because of a strange phenomena reportedly taking place there. Cars were apparently defying gravity, rolling uphill instead of down on a certain stretch of road adjacent to the falls. There had been stories in the papers about it, consequently, when we got there several cars were already putting the theory to the test.
We watched, and sure enough the rolled uphill. Up the slope, away from the waterfall, as if unseen hands were pulling. Everybody stood around scratching their heads, and we went home none the wiser.
John Mullins had the answer. “Natural phenomena, boy. The juxtaposition of the hills and the linear delineation of the surrounding terrain creates an optical illusion. That’s all it is, boy, an optical illusion...” No doubt he was right, he usually was. Still, he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes....
On another occasion we rode to Stradbally, intending to visit a cave on a hill-farm that was said to be miraculous. There was an old fountain at its entrance which was said to have the power to cure warts. However, it had to be filled with fresh water every time it was used, otherwise bathers placing their hands in the old water became covered in warts.
The story had it, that in the past, the incumbent parish priest had called it mumbo-jumbo, and had the fountain removed, placing it instead in a field near the church. Although the fountain wasn’t large, it took four men to lift it to the cart taking it away. Within days, the cows in the field became sick and began dying off. As the cows were the priest’s, he hurriedly ordered it to be returned to its original site, and was amazed to discover that one man was able to load it on the cart for the return journey. Shortly afterwards the sick cows recovered.
I was hoping it would remove several warts on my hand. All that got removed was me – by the farmers whose land it was on. “I don’t do miracles. If you want miracles, go to Lourdes like the rest of them. Oh yes, ye’ll pay hundreds of pounds to go there, but ye won’t even cross my palm with a bit of silver. Miracles how are ya...go on, clear off,”
One Sunday we climbed to Crotty’s Eye, a needle-like projection on top of the Comeraghs. It overlooked the pass where, in olden days, merchants and traders traversed, and was said to be where Crotty, the highwayman, lurked before moving down to rob them. Oh, to be a highwayman, I thought. Then I remembered he had been hung in Waterford city for his crimes and I thought maybe not.
Later, we tracked across to Coumshingaun, a lake so deep and silent that I felt nothing could live there. As we cast pebbles in and watched the ripples expand, we talked about love. I was certainly in love with her. She said she loved me but that it couldn’t work, we were too young, and anyway, her father wouldn’t approve.
On the way back down we looked at Lackandaragh’s cave. It wasn’t really a cave at all, merely some wood and galvanised sheets laid across stone abutments, all held in place by rocks and earth heaped on top. Some blankets covered the front entrance. We looked inside but the old hermit wasn’t home.
His real name was Jim Fitzgerald and he had lived up here for as long as anyone could remember. It was said that he suffered from shell-shock in WWI and that was his reason for living here. It could just as easily have been a disappointment in love, I thought.
Late night began to take their toll mo me and I sometimes felt myself nodding off to sleep as I rushed to work in the morning. I did get some respite from the shift-work hours, but my luck finally ran out the morning I crashed into a telegraph pole, in sight of the Tannery.
Naturally, I wasn’t wearing my crash helmet.
I woke up in Ardkeen hospital over a week later. The first impression I had was of the anti-septic whiteness everywhere; the walls, the furnishings, the staff, the patients, they all looked so white. I remember thinking, perhaps I am dead, and this is where you go when you are dead. I couldn’t recall anything about the accident, couldn’t figure out what had caused this state of affairs. Then my mother came in and I slowly pieced together what had happened – not the accident itself, I never remembered that – but how I had been lying on the roadside beside my Honda, and how it had been touch and go whether I would survive,. I had even been anointed.
Nearly dead and I remembered nothing! How could that be? Surely there should be some memory of the event, some memory of what nearly being dead was like? But there wasn’t. My mind was a blank. It had never happened as far as my consciousness was concerned.
I recalled an earlier occasions at Flahavan’s had collapsed and died. It had been my only other close contact with death I could see him now, his pale body laid out in the loading bay, the rest of the workforce gathered round, praying. What had he felt? Nothing? Was that all life amounted to in the end – a big nothing?
I spent a number of weeks in Ardkeen, gradually recovering, and when I was allowed home it was to recuperate further, not to return to work. I still suffered blinding headaches, and had difficulty in co-ordinating my facial muscles.
I had lots of time on my hands now, time to reflect on where I was heading. Something had changed inside of me; I just didn’t feel the same about life any longer. Perhaps it was the bang on the head; perhaps it was the dawning realisation that there was life out there beyond my closed world. Big, teeming, brawling life; life lived to the full and not just eked out. Life over the hill, over the horizon, over the water, far-away life, but surely better-than-this life. What was the American dream? Life, liberty, freedom for all, wasn’t that it. Well here was it Irish cousin; Work, drudgery and sweet fuck all.
Mine was such an insignificant life; surely there was more than this? Getting up in the morning, rushing to clock, selling my soul for the privilege of standing beside a hot and noisy machine all day, then rushing to clock off - was that it? In twenty years would I still be at it? Hammered into submission by those infernal machines? The Tannery smell seeped, not only into my clothes, but into the very marrow of my bones. In short, just like my father.
I shift sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Oh Lord don’t you call me ‘cos I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
Well, fuck that. I knew then that I didn’t want to be a company man, didn’t want to turn out like my father, didn’t want to work in that fucking Tannery one more day. I told father and we had a blazing row. Jobs didn’t grow on trees... don’t expect your mother and I to keep you... After all I did to get you in there...
In the end we stopped speaking altogether.
I gradually got better. And when I was strong enough I climbed Cruaghaun again. One would have thought I had enough of climbing mountains after the fiasco in Kerry, but no, I wanted, needed, to go up there. It wasn’t a difficult climb, and when I got to the top I rested against the small monument that was the dominant feature of the plateau. A monument to whom, I wondered. There was no inscription, just a mound of rocks inside a stone circle. I wondered if somebody was buried there.
I looked across at the Comeraghs, so close I could almost touch them. In the distance I could see Slievenamon , the Mountain of the Women. It was said that in the time of Fion Macool that the eligible women of the locality held an annual race to the top and back again, the winner becoming the wife of the great warrior. The man must have been a glutton for punishment!
I felt timeless. Time had no jurisdiction up here; somebody sitting here in a thousand years time would see the same age-scarred rocks, the same barren landscape.
Perhaps it was the effects of the climb, perhaps it was due to my injuries, but I began to hallucinate. Reality was becoming blurred, so that the thoughts rushing through my mind were becoming mixed with what I was seeing – as if past and the present were merging. Sometimes I could pick out landmarks; Kilmac, Curraghmore House, Clonea; then I was seeing mother doing her ironing, poking at the red hot lump of metal in the fire, inserting it into the iron with a thongs, testing the heat of the iron on her palm, then spitting on it before she commenced her work. Doing it the way she had done all her life, and would probably continue to do so. Then I saw Cromwell addressing his soldiers, telling them how to recognise Irish Catholics; “They have six inch tails”. Then it was Auntie Margaret paying us a visit, laden down with suitcases full of clothes, all stinking of camphor. (in real life she promised to visit us every summer, but never had in almost twenty years; sending us, instead, parcels of used clothes that mother took one look at then threw away)
Then I was sitting on Queally’s Hill and a conversation was running through my mind; The day after his father was buried, Michael and his mother took a bullock by train to Dungarvan market and sold it for thirty four pounds. They then got the bus back to Kilmac and paid Kent’s funeral bill of twenty eight pounds. When they had paid the priest, and taken care of other expenses, they had just two pounds left. Michael was fourteen...
Michael who? Now where had that conversation come from?
Then I was soaring high over the countryside and words and names were rushing into my mind
Erimon and Fion Macool
De Danann and No Home Rule
Clonmacnois and The Dail
Men Of Eireann, Fianna Fail
Aonach, Feis, Connemara
Irelands Own and Hill Of Tara
Ollam, Brehon, Seannachie
Pauper, Piper, Beann A Ti
Oisin, Cormac, Tigernach
Cashel, Cratlo, and Armagh
It all became too confusing. I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
During my recuperation, the Royal Dukes had carried on playing, PJ taking over on the bass guitar – and doing a far better job than I had ever done. I attended some of the rehearsals and found that dissention was tearing the group apart. This was because the Portlaw boys felt that the Portlaw connection wasn’t being emphasised enough. They didn’t like it that the band was portrayed as being from Kilmac, whereas in reality it was half and half. Kilmac versus Portlaw; that had a familiar ring to it. I let them get on with it.
I was asked if I was planning to return, but my heart wasn’t in it any more. The put-down at the audition still hurt very much. So much so, that I didn’t care if I never played again.
Matters came to a head one morning when Sergeant Cahill stopped me in the street and ‘invited’ me into the barracks for a chat. The first question he asked me was what I thought I was doing, breaking into empty houses and stealing from them.
Oh Christ! I was for it now. My secret life had been discovered. Ever since the day I had broken into Nugent’s outhouse, I had been fascinated by empty houses. The tingle, the excitement, the sheer pleasure derived from clambering through a window, over cobwebs and rotting furniture, of the feeling of crawling into the past...how could I explain that? And I never took much; just a book or magazine, and maybe the odd ornament. What harm was it doing to anybody? All the houses were derelict or abandoned, their owners long gone or long dead; in a few years time they would fall down anyway, and everything inside would be gone with them.
‘It wasn’t me, Sergeant,’ was all I could think of by way of reply.
‘Oh, wasn’t it? I have enough circumstantial evidence to convince me otherwise. Let’s see now, a red Honda was seen in the vicinity of every break-in; lots of descriptions fit you to a tee. And nobody else I know had the time on their hand to be around when these break-ins took place. It was you alright.’
It was true; since my recovery I had been driving into the foothills, seeking out likely targets. I suppose it was inevitable that someone would see me and report it.
I shrugged. How could I explain it? That breaking into those disused houses was a form of time-travel for me. A journey back in time. He would think I was mad.
‘You have a good job in the Tannery, which you don’t seem to care about. You could be playing music with your friends, which you don’t seem to want. What do you want, Tom – is it to break your mother’s heart?’
I shook my head. I had finally decided. London was calling. I wanted out.
‘I’m going to London.’
He nodded. ‘Good. It’s for the best. We can do without your kind round here.’
My kind? What was my kind, I wondered as I left the barracks. Cromwell’s kind, with six inch tails? Fuck it, I was well out of it.
The biggest heartbreak was selling my beloved Honda. I didn’t realise how much I loved it until I made the decision to sell it, but I had to raise funds for the trip. I spent a last few days riding it to all my favourite places then sold it to PJ, whose own bike had been damaged after his brother accidently reversed over it one dark night in his driveway.
A few days later I booked my passage then told my mother. She said it was for the best. My father said nothing at all. Before I left, mother gave me a bottle of Lourdes water and a picture of Saint Anthony. As I waited at the railway station, Dee came to say goodbye. The previous evening we had ‘done the stations’ and vowed to wait for each other. She was crying as the train pulled out. I never saw her again.