Feature by: Frank O’Shea
Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me“
Sean O’Faolain put it splendidly. On a visit to his mother’s place in Limerick, he wrote ‘My thoughts are like things found in the corner of an old pocket: dust and crumbs and a seed.’ When I sit down to write about my own place, there is a temptation to mention only the superficial or the gaudy, the things which a tourist sees. The things that are significant to me are difficult to reproduce in words, and if I attempt to do so anyway, they may appear trivial or banal or maudlin or a mixture of all those.
How do I describe that little copse where with other boys, we discovered things about our bodies that could then only be read about in Latin treatises on moral theology but are today the subject of gratuitous advice on talkback radio and in glossy magazines?
How do I convey my feelings as I stand again in that thin strip of peat bog, the fuel for twenty winters under my feet, and recall a time when, not yet a teenager, I stood on the same spot with aching back and sunburnt legs looking wistfully to a road, snaking in the distance around the beginnings of the Kerry Reeks? ‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. (Longfellow)
Cars would travel that road in those long ago summer evenings – to a football game in Tralee or the pictures in Killarney or to a pretty girl preening herself in some kitchen, watched by a proud father and a fussy mother and tittering sisters. More likely the car was on some quite mundane journey from A to B. But to me, it was on the road to adventure and I would one day take it myself to Dublin and New York, Sydney and Canberra and Melbourne. ‘Come on, young fellow. This is no time for dreaming. We must finish footing this turf before we’re eaten alive by the midges.’
Or if I take you up to that building at the top of the town, which is now a heritage centre but was the boys’ school where I stayed until the end of seventh class and learned Irish, English, arithmetic, algebra and geometry, catechism and geography and selective Irish history. It wasn’t the kind of instruction which would delight today’s educationalists, but I will tell you this: in that little two-teacher school I learned algebra and geometry of a standard which today’s Year 12 students would find testing. That is not mere nostalgia; it is a judgment I have the lived experience to make.
I remember that school too for something less cerebral than the mathematics which subsequently enabled me to earn my living. At the back was a rough stone wall, slime encrusted and green from the streams aimed at it in a pre-pubescent contest where short-lived glory might depend on the length and intensity of the steaming jet from the standing ten- or twelve-year-olds.
When I was in fourth class, the undisputed champion was a boy two years older who was able to make some adjustment to his equipment, which I hope I may be allowed to hide from our more sensitive and hygiene-conscious generation. That boy subsequently became a priest and spent a fruitful life ministering to a mainly Maori congregation in New Zealand, until his untimely death about 15 years ago.
And how do I describe the streets, now carefully cleaned and the pubs with their teak-panelled kitsch and the supermarket where once three shops stood? ‘A pennyworth of the black ones and a gobstopper please.’ The two big pennies with a harp on one side and a hen on the other would buy you sweets to last the weekend.
Wednesday was market day and there was a fair day once a month, and the 15th of August was the big fair of the year. It was always raining or had just rained or was about to rain for the 15th of August. Hundreds of cattle and the streets running with brown-green plop which would be carried home on shoes which had to be dried before the fire and polished over for the following Sunday.
By five o’clock most of the buying and selling was done and the pubs filled to bursting. There would be a song here and there and the occasional resurrecting of some old grievance, imagined or real. The Guards were kept busy, but it was as nothing compared to the fights that would start about eight o’clock when the travelling folk had drunk all their money – we’re not allowed to call them tinkers any more.
With Connors and Cartys, McDonaghs and Wards, O’Briens and Coffeys, there was always bound to be some permutation of two clans with a score to settle and ample daylight in which to do it. I recall them now because they frightened the daylights out of us at the time and would be spoken of in the first weeks of September when we went back to school, with no blow unrecorded and quite a few additions which the last two weeks of the long summer holidays had added to the record. There is another thing I recall about those fights. One of the combatant groups was usually from some other county – Limerick or Galway or even as far away as Mayo. This added an element of parochialism, like a championship football game, because the outsiders were always represented as the aggressors, and in the absence of some spectacular hospitalisation, the losers.
I often think of these fights when I hear of trouble in some Australian town where indigenous grievances, long submerged, are fanned into alcohol-induced destruction. Perhaps in forty years from now, some youngster today living in the outback will write in the same near-nostalgic way of the fights of his childhood.
Dust and crumbs and a seed.