The wheels of the bus crunched to a halt outside a stark two story house set back from the main Galway Clifden road that goes through the small town of Inverin, Connemara. It was here that I was to spend the next three months in "The Gaeltacht". The purpose of my stay was to learn Irish, the Gaelic language.
It was some time previous that I, and fellow alumni from St Patrick's National school Castlebar, County Mayo, sat in the Erris hotel on Castle St, and took a test given by the "Gael Linn" society to gain a scholarship to the Gaeltacht. Having passed this perfunctory exam the way was clear to "The Hills of Connemara" and the "Gold Fáinne". It was the beginning of April 1960 and my life was about to make an abrupt change. I unloaded my bicycle and my one suitcase, and stood watching the bus for a moment as it pulled away, to head deeper into Connemara with my friends, Michael Gavin, and Hugh O’Malley waving goodbye out the back window.
Setting the bicycle down by the ditch I walked down an uneven grass, gravelled, cart way, past a sad stack of turf, and felt the skins of my sheltered upbringing slipping away. Everything I had taken for granted, running water, toilet paper, soap, lavatory, heat, coca cola, chocolate cake, would be things of the past. My previous life of comfort and cushions would pale compared to the monastic life I would endure for the next three months to come. For, a cairde, I was the "spoilt one", Mammy's boy, though I was blissfully unaware of this state of affairs. I don't recall protesting, but do recall taking advantage on more than one occasion of a decent Mam and feigning sickness to avoid going to school on those mornings, when the warmth of the down was preferable to the cold of the up. I was the pet!
Interdependency evolved, for when I was fourteen years into my life it was revealed to me by my Mother that I had a sister once. . . she died three days after she was born. . . . she was baptized. . . She was a little person. . . . . . she had three days, mal. . . now she has joy for eternity:
"For great is the holy One in the midst of Thee,
Oh Beautiful is Zion,
Oh Beautiful is Zion,
Beautiful is Zion,
The Lord of The Earth."
It was my favorite song from the Castlebar boys choir it was a difficult song with staggered entrances from the "Seconds" "Thirds" "Firsts" and "Basses" each group arriving on the same line at delayed intervals requiring lots of rehearsals. And one Sunday morning at last Mass after Christmas we got it right.
Everyone was attendant. Always in the bass section, the anchors! Jimmy O'Reilly and Tom McGreal, Thomas Murphy, and Seamas Chambers, leading the firsts, on the other side Michael Murphy, with all the Gavins, on the pipe organ Mr O’Connell and to his left, conducting Fr. Shannon. He glowed with our harmonious unison as we "CRIED OUT AND SHOUTED NOW IN HAPPINESS OF ZION IN THE MIDST OF THEE."
So if you would all please now turn to Revelations II -45th & 5th - Midtown, Manhattan, New York City some ten years forward, around noon, lunch time! After I had slithered off the floor of University College Dublin I had made my way via London to America and had just started working as a janitor doing maintenance in a public school in Manhattan opposite the Trans World Airline building downtown. I had not brought any lunch to work, so I came out on to the busy streets, and was looking around for a place to eat, as I was not familiar with the area, and saw a small delicatessen on the other side of the street. Crossing with the crowds at the light, made my way over to the ‘Far Side' and was waiting in line for the counter when I heard my name in a conversation just in front of me! Rooted to the floor I listened as a woman was telling another woman "Yea Butch!, that's his name, he was spoiled, put him through an expensive college, and sent him sent him to University where he fell flat on his ass". My mind reeling, I turned around and stumbled back out onto the street, more excited than put out, by the incredible coincidence.
For if the truth be known, behind the hallowed walls of Rockwell lay a barren and austere existence. The bed I slept on for the first three months resembled more of a rigid steel hammock as the springs bulged two feet below the frame. The mattress was so thin you could roll it up and smoke it. The ancient system of pipe radiators did little to allay the chilling cold of an Irish winter. We joined the FCA just to get our hands on a "Greatcoat", rugs of every colour were wrapped around your shoulders, a collection of Confederates and Cherokees surviving on the Russian steppes as one lone building /dormitory was aptly named "Siberia". . . . .
However, before I would be sent to the Russian front I was to earn my wings in boot camp. Connemara would shatter the fragile glass of my confined dome! A swinging half door, faced the ocean, hidden, three miles away. Inside, a cold, cement floor lay in stark contrast to a huge open hearth fireplace that housed dangling hooks and big black pots, two chairs on either side. A large wooden table sat in the middle of the floor. Up against the wall, opposite the hearth at the other end of the kitchen, leant the "Irish Dresser" a familiar piece of furniture in every Irish house that contained the good delph for special occasions. Its typical glass-doored cabinet rising almost to the ceiling on top of a larger drawered dresser where fine linens and table clothes were kept. As the years go by the dressers become Bluejay nests of mementoes, keepsakes, scraps of important papers, bills, and receipts, peeking out from behind blue-willowed dinner plates, and cups hanging. Against the back wall, a stairs climbed up to the second storey, linoleum covered the upstairs landing and four bedrooms housed the occupants. A lone light bulb hung from a fixture in the ceilings. At the bottom of the stairs to your right were two more rooms, a scullery with a small table and chairs, and an adjoining back room with the door closed. A radio with laced doily and vase on top, sat on a small table by the front window, a spare bedroom with a sewing machine was separated from the kitchen by a closed door that faced the dresser wall.
I was shown to my room by "Bean an Tí" and contemplated the onset of my new life. My room contained a small chest of drawers, table and chair, sloping ceiling, one window overlooked the road. Underneath the bed was a chipped potty! I stared at it for a while wondering why it was there, it had a handle on it and looked pretty large, maybe for when you were sick I thought and couldn't make it to the bathroom. The "Bathroom " I was introduced to later, turned out to be a narrow wooden hut at the back-side of the house, the interior of which consisted of a seat with a round hole that looked down into a bucket of muck.
After unpacking my suitcase, I was introduced to the rest of the family "Fear an Tí, Padraig the youngest, Proincais, Micheal agus Maureen, who were about my age, I was to be Seamas!
I explored the free afternoon on my bicycle, riding down to Spideal some five miles away to see the small resort town where I had spent two lazy weeks the previous year during the summer at an "Irish College". Turning the bicycle around I looked back at the road that I had just freewheeled down - for five miles! With dismay I realised I had given no thought to the return journey. A sloping hill that curved all the way back to Inverin. I felt alone, "no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone", pedalling uphill against a cold April wind that blew across an unfamiliar countryside of myriad stone walls and harsh green grass stretching up the hills and down to the sea somewhere. Dark blue grey clouds now covered the sky and preceded rain that fell steadily on my face all the way back to my new house where I was received for the second time that day.
Raised eyebrows gazed at the wet sack that graced their doorway. "A bit queer this ‘new one’ they sent us this time" - they could be heard saying in silence. A supper to bed for to-morrow I go to school in Connemara. I had laid my clothes out on the table the night before, trouble was, there were two choices:
- White shirt, tie, short trousers! socks and shiny black shoes, my confirmation best!
- Plaid shirt, long brown corduroy trousers, and wellingtons.
Having chosen Plan B I set off walking to school with my new reluctant brothers Michael and Francis. After school was over, I watched my counterpart from Dublin being pummelled by the local reception committee who were waiting outside the school yard. His bright shiny new bike was stomped and jumped on and of course the air let out of his tires. Their attention turned to moi as I quickly walked past the beasts, wary with suspicion, their eyes furtively glancing at my corduroy britches and my ‘Rubber Wellies' I strode on by, protected by the auspices of plan B, grateful for some divinely inspired genetic sense of survival that was to protect me from Connaught to Colorado from twelve to fiftytwelve. Unfortunately our "Wee chappy from Rathgar" had chosen plan A!.
They say that people have difficulty urinating on command in strange places as if the mind refuses to obey an order like peeing into a little cup for the Doctor. Or remember those stainless steel big top, wide bodied, pancake, bottled shaped bed pans that the nurse will slip you under the sheets in the Castlebar Hospital, now, try telling Mr. Brain to tell Mr Willy it's ok to go. Mr. Freeze! As for #2 " if the circumstances are not right, forghedhaboidit!. My estranged wife will testify that last week having returned from a company seminar held at the "Gran Ole Oprey in Nashville Tennessee" still had not gone to the bathroom after four days ! Oh Suffragette. I had now been just a week in my new digs, and had achieved a partial nervous familiarity with my new wards. Bean an Tí, was a robust woman some six months pregnant with her fifth child, and ruled her household with an iron hand. Every time I passed through the kitchen I could feel her steely rays on my back. Her maternal instinct privy to all Mothers! Unmasking the "Corduroy Imposter from Mayo".
The clan watched my every move. Unfortunately the movement I was concerned about was not happening. I was frozen from fear. My tentative trysts to "The Outhouse" were discovered by the ‘clan' who would lay in wait behind the shaky shack and peer through the cracks, laughing as I tried to blow ballast! So I resorted to the unthinkable. I used my bed potty for # 2! I gazed with consternation as the steamy liquid rose to a dangerous level and so thus the unthinkable happened, it overflowed flowing down through the cracks in the floor down onto the kitchen table below where Bean an Tí was rolling her dough for the "daily Bread"!
"SÉAMAS! SÉAMAS! SÉAMAS!"
I was startled out of my reverie on the bed by the screaming, and could hear her come pounding up the stairs, she burst into my room hurling Gaelic invectives of every kind at me. Hindsight would not reveal any secrets. Not then, not now.
My role in the family order abruptly changed, every morning and evening before breakfast and dinner, I would carry two buckets of gruel two miles to feed the calves who were housed in a pasture about a mile from the sea. Francis took me the first time so I wouldn't get lost. The way there was between narrow paths of head high stone walls that littered the countryside in a maze of puzzling order. The month of April had just begun and the still frosty mornings were a bracing shock for a warm body emerging from beneath a cosy blanket. The hoary breath of the calves gave testimony to a winter that still lingered. And so I settled into my routine. After a breakfast of porridge with water, two thick slices of doughy home baked bread with country buther a mug of dark brown tea, no sugar!
We would leave for school running underneath the wall so we could steal a sod of turf from the now diminishing stack to barter a cup of cocoa at lunch time, the turf fuelled the fire which boiled the water in a big tub, Where the cocoa was mixed with a big stick. More doughy bread and buther and cocoa to wash it down.
The door was open to the back room past the scullery and you could plainly see the large pig hanging from a hook. The bacon we had six days a week was so salty it took me three months not to get used to it. The cabbage was boiled and put on your plate, the potatoes were boiled and put on your plate, the buther was for bread only, the milk for tea only, you washed your dinner down with water and it wasn't tea time, and the menu never wavered for six days. On the Sabbath day we got a reprieve, a hen was duly dispatched to the heavens by foul means upon the executioners block, a ritual I could not stomach to watch. Duly plucked, washed, and popped into the pot for boiling, and served whole upon the dinner table in the middle of a Sunday and thus was the hen devoured whole, all the hen, the whole hen, nothing but the hen, so help me then.
And for supper the highlight of any Sunday, "Bean an Tea" excelled herself baking sweet biscuits with butter. Every day of the week she baked bread in a black pot using the iron pot like a dutch oven. Iron bars of differing lengths swung on hinges set into the concrete on either side of the fireplace. From these then hung hooks of differing lengths, thus allowing herself to manipulate temperature as desired.
Of all the pots she used, one pot in particular sticks out! A large round bulbous pot that had three legs to sit on, with circular grooves going all the way around it, a place for a lid at the top, and a two fisted handle. Durable, long lasting, and guaranteed for centuries, or your land back. For this is the pot of Ireland blackened from a thousand fires. When our potatoes turned into black muck we boiled nettles. The famished peoples fled to feed fortunes. "Is Mise Roisin Dubh an Pota".
Electricity usage could only be described as frugal. Light switches were turned on, only to illuminate your passage up the stairs. And turned off before you went to bed. I had brought an ample supply of "Blyton, Biggles, and Bunter, and looked forward to my escape beneath the blankets. Only to have my plans revealed by ‘the clan' and quashed by a holler from down the hallway:
"SÉAMAS! CUR AMAC AN SOLAS!"
The radio was the only other device consuming electrical power. It was turned on every night at ten, to hear the news, and was promptly turned off fifteen minutes later. On Saturday night the radio remained on after the news for the weekly "Céildhe" and ‘fear an Tí' would drum his fingers on the table and tap the floor with his boots and pull on his woodbine. A weatherbeaten, craggy faced, rugged individual of few words. My father tried to engage him in conversation one Sunday visit, using his city Gaelic but to no avail. This taciturn farmer from Connemara was not to be drawn into social discourse. The old man in desperation to elicit some response tried flattery,
"Ta Fhiacla maith agat"
pointing to his own teeth for fear of misinterpretation, and the granite features relaxed as he grinned from ear to ear displaying a magnificent set of teeth more suitable for a horse than a man.
And the days went on slowly, as winter lost its hold on spring and the calves were getting ready to move on up the bovine ladder. The trumpets that heralded the seasonal change however fell on deaf ears to the young gasur from Wesht Mayo. For he was but a townie, a city slicker. For him that warm gusty breeze meant perhaps a different sweater to wear, or a new shirt, no need for gloves, swimming at the point with Skipper, a days outing at Old Head. Ahead lay "Halcyon Days" of fun and laughter amidst the Summer breezes so heeding the clarion call he went about the countryside blissfully unaware that his two mile treks every day with a bucket of slop would pale to the labour he was to endure.
"Sure!" He exclaims loudly, beating his breast "I brought in the hay with the men on my Grandmothers farm, that was fun! And Granny would bring out tea in a bottle with bread, and we would load the cocks of hay onto the cart and climb on top and Jack the horse pulled the load into the barn. "Sure and didn’t I help unload the lorry's full of turf with the Cawleys, and the McGoughs?" "What!? Where did they get the turf?"
-"From the bog of course ya ejit!"
-"Well they bought it of course!"
-"From the Bogman!, Yep,"
"And the coal? What about the coal? Where does coal come from?"
-"From Mulloy's of course they make it there in the coal factory!"
"And the garden?"
-"Well that’s for extras I suppose, a hobby like,"
"And where do we get food!?" everybody knows that answer,
-"from HOBANS of course!"
-"Well the green beans,"
I was told to weed the green beens, how was I to know, green weeds, green beans, beengreenweedgreen, I guess it was a lonely plot when he saw it, a mite upset he was, chased me round the house he did, "Mammy saved me she did".
I was walking on the road towards Galway on a long free Sunday afternoon. Kicking stones and walloping the heads off thistles with my stick. I looked up to see two smiling familiar faces in a strange new car. My Father and my brother in a brand new, grey Ford Anglia.
It was the first major design that the Ford Motor Company had introduced in over a decade. Sloping towards headlights in the front, with its audacious inverted gull shape in the rear. Josie Bourke had featured it proudly in his showroom floor on a slowly rotating turntable. Its fluorescent bright yellow canary colour, illuminating our lives as we gazed by. We motored on from Ellison Street, to Spencer Street, to Henry Downe’s garage. Outside, Mr Downes Sr. is at the pumps. Red and white petrol pumps having a glass barbered cylinder connected at the top of the hose so you could watch the gurgling gasoline as it swirled into your petrol tank. Inside, amidst the grease, car parts, tools, oily rags, Henry was holding court for his followers. Apparently there had been an accident the night before and Henry was re-calling the incident, nothing like an eyewitness account to garnish attention! As Henry told the story of the hapless driver who demised the night before in a fiery automobile wreck. His audience paused for Henry to sum up, "He ran out of road !" declared Henry somberly. This, then, was why they were there. Attracted by his acerbic wit, his impish smile, his infectious laughter. Master of the punch line. Henry coming out from underneath a car that had been brought in that morning, wore a wistful smile,
"If only he had brought it into me before he bought it, I could of told him about the crack in the chassis!"
On hearing about Michael J. Heverin’s latest purchase from Bourke’s Garage, that of a yellow Ford Anglia, Henry went on to describe Michael J's, penchant for buying a new car every year "Or whenever the ash tray was full."
When they pulled over to the side of the road, the nu car was already a candidate for Downes garage, the smell of rubber was everywhere as they had driven the whole way with the handbrake on! We motored on to take a look at tourist Connemara and found ourselves overlooking a mystic set of fog shrouded hills, covered in moss covered grass. The wind was blowing fiercely outside, no sooner did he open the door when the wind took it away and slammed it against the front panel causing a huge gash in the new body. Unlike the Titanic it was not enough to sink us so we rolled with the blow and motored on back to Inverin and change.
I was seated on the back of a donkey between two creel baskets headed for the hills. I was on my way to the family peat farm. That sarcophagus of Ireland "The Bog". Its wonderful unique properties preserving for all time the relics of our past. Like a tapestry unfolding, remnants of a time gone by, break free from the suction of the primordial ooze, and sink slowly towards the surface. From these black brown depths have arisen the most fantastic souvenirs. Found in a Tipperary bog: a piece of cheese still edible after five thousand years! Like the panicked peoples of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Etna their bodies preserved for thousands of years under a layer of sulphuric volcanic ash, ancient Irish corpses arise from their sluggish graves to greet cynics and begrudgers alike. The oldest known "tartan" from the 16th century found in an Antrim bog from the "Clan Cathain".
If you are ever driving around the city of San Antonio Texas go visit "the Buckhorn Museum" where you will find a collection of the rarest animals. Quite marbh of course, from around the globe, none more rare amongst all these than a set of horns from a great Irish Elk that has been extinct for over three thousand years, the skull of which was found in an Irish bog. The horns weigh over a hundred pounds and stretch out on either side for a total wing span of some forty five feet! Try wearing that hat on yourn head o'a Easter Sunday!
Young Padraig was leading the donkey by the bit, and I was given a free ride, for now. We were heading up a very long slow winding boreen towards the hills which would eventually flatten out to a glacier plateau holding the bog. The journey takes over an hour and I am glad for the ride. Here on this windswept oasis I would learn an ancient trade "Cuttin’ the Turf". I would learn how to section out a waterlogged, two foot, twenty pound, sod of turf, and manipulate it up onto a bank to lay down for the first step in the drying process, then like bottles of champagne being rotated for flavour, turning the sods over so the sun would get on every side. Then building a Stonehenge of sods to stand up to the sun for drying strength and finally stacking the turf on the side of the bog for transport home.
The days had become longer and we were to take advantage of every possible minute of daylight, leaving after school to head for the hills, every day, all day Saturday. Fear an Tí had to cut the turf below a certain depth, for if the sod of turf fell off the special spade (for want of the correct term: ‘sleán’), it would break up, due to the weight of its sodden mass. For the drying process it didn’t take brains or mass, therefore I was delegated to travel to the bog on my own. My solo effort took place on a Saturday morning. By now I was able to saddle the ass on my own, straddling its back with leather protection, and buckling underneath with straps, then hitching the basket creels properly so they would not fall off. I climbed up on to its back said "giddiup", the ass paid no heed and turned his head around with an annoyed look as if to ask "Cá bfhuil Padraig? Agus ceap an bfhuil tusa ag dul?"
I slapped his rump and he took off at a brisk pace a little faster than normal I thought. His normal gait up the hills was a slow monotonous snail like crawl. This was not normal, a little anxious now as we cantered towards the turnoff. The road to the bog was about five hundred yards from the house on the right side of the road. The road, or boreen if you will, that led directly to the sea was on the other side. The ass picked up speed, the turn loomed directly ahead, he suddenly veered left, straight across the road down to the sea. I held on frantically as the laconic animal I once knew had turned into a stampeding stallion gone berserk heading pell mell at full speed for the sea! Some subcellular cranial force driving him back to whence we came, that, or he enjoyed a bit of craic. I'm afraid my equestrian skills leave a lot to be desired the theory being that ones derriere should rise in synch with the gait of the animal, in this case as my ass's arse arose my own arse came down with painful results. First the baskets came off one by one as the animal careened down the road then the saddle came loose and slipped off, and I was left holding on to a scruff of his mane. But he was determined to unleash all his earthly trappings and just threw me right off, to bite the dust, and he was gone. They found him later that afternoon down by the ocean munching happily on a blancmange of carrageen and dilch.
The arable soil in Connemara is unforgiving. I was now on the side of a sloping field trying to turn the soil over for planting. For every dig of the spade with your foot there was a rock waiting for you. No satisfying squelch as the spade sunk into soft soil, but another rock to dig out or dig around. The sun came up, my back hurt and my frustrations grew as I tried to follow the furrow.
The days grew. I followed after "Fear an Tí" with a bucket of pesticide as he dipped into the blue liquid with a bundle of leaves tied together to douse the potato crop.
Spring opened her window to let summer in. "Bean an Tí" had been confined to bed on the ground floor, as she was getting ready to have her fifth child. My own bags were packed, it was to be my last day in the land of the two name people, "Charley Mike, John Thomas", . . . . . . . . . .
The doctor had been called to give her a check up and the "good delph" was duly taken down from the dresser for the occasion. A loaf of bread was purchased at the local store. I arrived in the kitchen to find the clan helping themselves to a slice of bread, so I did likewise, having wolfed down a slice of home, I picked up the bread knife and proceeded to cut myself another slice of heaven and Micheal yelled out:
"A MAMMY TÁ SÉAMAS AG TÓGADH PÍOSA ARÁN EILE"