Thursday, August 13, 2015

Back in the Day

I don’t think I was consulted. I don’t think the matter was discussed. I had just turned thirteen. It was 1979. It was still the 70’s and children were not generally consulted – they were told.

Had I been consulted I would have been told that the family holiday was to occur as usual – in August. We were ‘going home’ for 2 weeks, but I was to remain away for the entire 6 week holiday.

‘Going home’ meant that we were going to the family farm in a tiny, hidden corner of County Galway:  Cloonagh. The place was mythical to me and remains so in my imagination. From my current location, Google tells me that Cloonagh is 9 hours and 48 minutes away – with the warning that ‘This route crosses a country border’. Visiting Cloonagh has always meant crossing borders: cultural, temporal and spiritual.

I first went to Cloonagh at the age of 5. That visit was to celebrate the wedding of my Auntie Bridie. My mother sang at the wedding and enjoyed doing so. As she left the stage, my grandmother took her to one side and said in a whisper of concern:

‘Kathleen, I didn’t know you drank.’

As a child, I lived in a red brick house on a dual carriageway in urban Manchester for the majority of the year. The cars outside would crawl through the two daily rush hours – or be a blur of speed the rest of the time. Tired commuters would fail to apply their brakes during the rush hours and rear-end each other’s cars. I would sometimes hear the crash sounds over the noise of the television and go and have a look at the damage. Harried drivers would exchange their insurance details and point angry fingers at each other. I would get the bus along the dual carriageway to school during the week and on a Saturday I would cross the road and get the bus in the opposite direction to meet friends in Moss Side, or stay on the bus until it terminated in the bustle of Piccadilly Gardens in the city centre.

For two weeks every year, though, I lived in a farmhouse on a farm which was horse-powered by an old workhorse called Charlie and a donkey simply referred to as ‘the ass’.  I watched my uncle plough fields with a Charlie-drawn plough. My own father greatly preferred the lane in Cloonagh to the dual carriageway beside which he spent most of the year. In his more maudlin moments (usually when the pubs had closed on a Sunday afternoon) he would turn to me and ask:

‘Remember Charlie John?’ 

My grandmother baked bread on an open fire, made her own butter, played a mean hand of cards and went to church on a horse and cart. All of my cousins would gather there and we would squeeze into beds in incredibly small bedrooms – one for boys, one for girls.

I watch many TV shows in which urban couples search for some stress-free, off-grid existence in a corner of the countryside they have driven through, but don’t know about or really understand. Cloonagh in the seventies would have made them salivate. Drinking water was pumped from a spring. Water for other uses was harvested from the roof in a water butt. When this butt failed, water was drawn from the river. I recall rattling down the hill on a horse and cart. The cart had a barrel strapped to the back of it. My Uncle lowered a bucket on a long rope into the river. He did this as many times as it took to fill the barrel. It was like a very rustic version of ‘It’s a Knockout’. On a recent visit to Galway I was informed that my great grandfather – who shows up on the census as an Irish speaker with a much younger wife – was a Fenian Commander. He was renowned for blowing up the very bridge that Tommy and I had stood on. He did this twice. He did it to thwart the English and stop them crossing the wonderfully named ‘Sinking River’ to climb the hill to the village of Cloonagh. I think he did it for grander reasons than to preserve Cloonagh for my summer holidays.

I was told, then, that the rest of the family would head home at the end of the fortnight. My tears on leaving Cloonagh were the source of many jokes within the family. I still cry on leaving Cloonagh to this day. My tears in 1979 were to wait until September. My mother was coming back to Ireland with the Irish football team she helped to organise and it was decided that she would collect me from the train in Dublin. I can remember being put on the train at Ballyhaunis, but I recall nothing of the journey to Dublin. I probably couldn’t see a thing through the tears.

My Uncle Tommy always lacked the sentimentality of his nephews and nieces for the farm at Cloonagh. For him, it was simply a place of work.

Tommy’s driving was memorable and very exciting – when viewed as a small boy with no seatbelt on. Tommy had one speed: ‘breakneck’. The roads were pretty clear back then and he knew them well. On my first visit he had a sky-blue Ford Cortina Mark 1. It was a classic design with a lot of chrome and a hint of American glamour in its grill and fins. When that car began to fail he bought a Mark 2 Cortina – it was boxier and some shade of grey. The previous car, though, was not traded in. Instead it was parked in the field beside the house and took on a new role – that of ‘hen house’. The hens climbed in and out of the windows and the nests were set on the seats. I don’t think that the hens ever drove it – that would have taken ‘free range’ into a whole new dimension. Some years later, Tommy was having foundations laid for a new hay barn. He asked the man who was digging the foundations to make them extra deep. The Mark 1 Cortina met its final retirement like an out of favour Mafiosi – in a concrete suit. I’m sure the hens got out first.

I stood in the farmyard recently with Cousin Dermot. Dermot remembered Charlie. Like me, he had fallen off the horse a few times – or fallen off the haycart being pulled by Charlie.

‘Tommy flattened the cart-shed and the byre.’

I looked, and sure enough all that remained was a standing tap and the steps up to the old kitchen garden.

‘You do know, don’t you,’ said Dermot,’ that the Thomas you saw at the top of the family gravestone – our Great Grandfather - was a Fenian Commander back in the day?’

Dermot enjoyed my look of astonishment at this news.

‘…and when he retired, he buried a load of guns in that field there.’

He pointed at the field I had known as the kitchen garden – where we had dug potatoes and carrots as children.

‘Not in the middle,’ he clarified,’ round the edge somewhere.’    

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