Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tales from the Bog

Four years ago, when we had only been living on this boggy hillside outside Galway city for 6 months, one day in April, I got a phone call from the Gardai (Irish police).
'Aaah, Hallo, is that Brian Nolan?'
'Yes, this is he. Who's this?'.
'This is the Guards!'
Instant stocktake occurred in my brain. My son 8, was safe in school. My 2 daughters, the more likely suspects, were also both safe in School. My wife, was at work. My criminal past came rushing back to me, a veritable train-wreck of petty crime. How could they possibly know about my unpaid parking ticket in Tullamore in 1992? Or the time I set fire to the 'banned' bonefire at the Stoney Brennan festival in Loughrea in 1975? Maybe it was the time I borrowed Jack Martin's 20 year old Mini for a thristic joy-ride in 1981? Hmm, what could possibly be wrong?
'How can I help you Guard?' I replied, trying to sound confident, but really full of trepidation, as anyone who receives a phone call from the 'authorities' is, by whom one is considered guilty until let off the hook.
'Do you live at Paddys Cross, Barna?'
'Yes I do?' Shoot. He knows where I live and that I have a car parked round back that isn't taxed.
'Is there anyone in the house now?' Blast, he is there now at the house, going to tow the car and serve a search warrant for the 2 bottles of Poteen under me bed.
'No Guard, there's no one in the house, and I'm at work in Galway' Hah, nothing they can do if  there's no one home. I could sleep in my mother-in-laws house for a week or so, y'know, 'til the heat is off.
'Why?' I ask sheepishly. Just a hint, thats all I need. Jeez, thats it, the feckin' dog isn't licenced! Blast it, the last of the free rangers on Barna bog, caught at last. Poor Puff, probably have her in the dog-catchers van now, and the Paddy wagon is there, waiting for me. Probably spotted the dog on Satelite feed from NASA. The Guards are gone all high-tech now, wouldn't put it past them. Why don't they licence cats? The bog is feckin' alive with feral cats, escapees from mollycuddlin' matrons in Knocknacarra and Rahoon. Note to self, call local TD and try to get Cat Licences on the national agenda. €10 a year for each cat in the country would pull us out of recession.
'Your xxxx aaa aaaa on fire' the guard replied
'Sorry Guard, what was that you said?' I was distracted by a cat crossing the road in front of my car, missed him, dammit.
'Your House is on Fire!!!'
'What? How? Who? How bad is it? Is the dog ok?'
'Well the house isn't exactly on fire...'
'Oh thank God!'
'The whole mountain is...., like, on fire that is!'
'The whole place is ablaze. You'd best get out here, fast as you can.'
And so began my first Bog Fire experience.

When I got home, driving through a thick and choking fog of smoke, the whole mountain was indeed on fire, or rather, the whole bog was. 'Seems some idiot farmer in an effort to clear some furze and heather on his holding, set a controlled fire to clear the nuisance weeds and improve his land. Though illegal to do so, it is not uncommon. However our idiot hadn't reckoned on the sudden change in weather and a gusting gale had came out of nowhere, as it often does on this western atlantic coast and it fanned the small brush fire, like a blacksmith with a bellows, within minutes it had become a roaring freight-train inferno, which rose up on the horizon and set off across the mile or so of soggy, boggy hillside, straight towards us. In a matter of fifteen minutes it had blazed a track a 1/4 mile wide, straight to our little hamlet of houses on the hillside at Aille.

A bog-fire is a force to be reckoned with. Terrifyingly fast, it burned everything in its path, trees, bushes, garden sheds, bicycles, fences, hedges, lawns, birds nests, rabbits warrens and the the extension on our neighbors house. My house was thankfully ok, but the fire had come within 10 feet of the house and thankfully stopped just 5 feet from the recently filled oil-tank for our home heat. All the lovely 30 foot tall scots pine trees and rampant rhodedondron bushes around the houses were gone, in a flash and a burst of blazing fire, gone in seconds in front of us, exploding 20, 30 feet into the air, gone in a flash. There was nothing anyone could do, poof! Gone! Left behind the still-travelling fire was a blackened smouldering expanse of devastation, worthy of a description in McCarthy's 'The Road'.

I rushed next door, where my neighbors were distraught. The fire had run up an ornamental shrub beside their house, set fire to their garden shed, caught hold in the plastic soffit of the eaves of the main building and was now burning merrily away under the roof. As I arrived, the abiding memory of the fire met me. Rill and Tina were holding each other, crying, clutching a few treasures, a laptop, hand-bags, a TV. Bill was nowhere to be seen 'Wheres Bill?' I shouted. Suddenly, Bill emerged from the house, coughing and choking, dragging their terrified dog behind him, pulling the terrified, old dog along by the belt he'd taken from around his waist, and as a consequence, Bills pants were down around his ankles! Quite a scene! Easily the most memorable sight of the whole fire, frightening then, but amusing now, in retrospect.

Worryingly, the fire in their eave was now smoking out through the roof tiles. There was no water pressure. Not a drop in the taps. The garden hose dripped when it should have showered. I ran back and forth with buckets of water from a small tank at the back of my house and we tried to hold the fire back but to no avail. By the time the fire engine arrived (having had to come across the city at rush-hour, and secure several other houses in danger) the whole back of the house, a new extension, was badly damaged. They quickly got it under control and slowly moved along the road, securing the remnants of other several fires near houses on our side of the road, while also ensuring the now sated fire didn't jump the road to grow again and devastate another village.

Fires sprang up all over the mountain, intermittently blazing up before being doused by the now-blackfaced firemen, as the night dragged on and the wind grew and lulled. The firemen worked tirelessly at the heavy work of beating the flames and mouldering embers all across the bog. I remember in one surreal moment seeing a cluster of them at the back of one of the fire tenders, in the dark, talking among themselves as they took a water-break, their blackened faces invisible in the night, with just the glowing ends of their fags floating in mid-air to show where the men stood.

By 3am the next moring, some 12 hours after the fire started, the Fire Chief finally declared the fire out and the fleet of tenders went home, leaving us to wonder and breathe relief in the midst of a blackened, dead, foul-smelling landscape that defied description. The mountain smoked and smouldered for a full week afterwards as the turf under the surface embered away, slowly being quenched by the dampness of the underlying bog.

Mary and I were so disapointed. Our house and our lifestyle had been in jeapordy. We never thought for one minute that something so inherently wet as a bog could burn at all. For weeks, nothing moved in the dead bog. No birds, no foxes, hares or rabbits, not even the feral cats. The bog was stunned into quietude.

Later as we came to understand and appreciate our narrow escape, we learned that clearing the top 'dead' vegetation comprising heathers, sedges and grasses as well as furze and gorse by fire is common everywhere bogs are grazed. Seasonally, Spring and Summer, the bog is quite verdant and farmers get good grazing for cattle, particularly the rough breeds favoured here in the west of Ireland. After each 5 or 6 years of grazing the bog develops a dead brown under growth, an impenetrable cover which chokes the lights access to the smaller grasses below the top cover. Burning this 'dross' off is the only practicable way to clear it and renew the healthy grasses below. And despite the Green Party's attempts to curtail it, bog-burning is still an annual event, though usually on a smaller scale.

Amazingly within 2 months of our bog fire, the bright green shoots of new grass grew into the blackened bogscape. By August the entire hillside behind us was ablaze not with fire, but with green grass, flowers, and yes, birds, frogs, newtss and insects. Within 2 years you couldn't have guessed it had happened at all, save for the blackened skeletons of the Scots pine that march along the horizon where the sky touches the bog.

I have wandered the boggy hillside often since then, marvelling at the bogs powers of renewal and regeneration. The birdlife is amazingly diverse, pheasants, rooks, magpies, ravens, cuckoos, hawks, snipe and many smaller birds are all back rearing their young. Hares, rabbits and foxes leave trails that point towards healthy populations. The bog cotton this past June, or Ceann Amhain as the locals call them, whitened the whole hillside in a riot of waving white. The heather was in abundant flower all August. The cows and their calves graze the hillside, back and forth, obviously savouring the delicious bog grass. This autumn the blackberries, sloes and hawes were so bountiful that the birds are well catered for no matter what the winter brings.

It got me thinking, what else could be sustained from such a bog and from such a life-cycle?

Tourism is an obvious industry that could thrive in the bog. tourism of a special sort, walkers, dreamers, folks with an hour or a day to kill and a willingness to get out on the land and close to nature. I had visited the rather fascinating wind-farm at Inverin (see photo) where 7,000 homes derive their electricity from 5 beautifuly elegant turbines in the bog. The turbines make a sound, as they turn, but it was not loud, unless you stoop to listen under the softly whooshing vanes and frankly, the bog itself is full of strange noises. If anything, the slender white towers lend the whole place a Quixotic feel.

I also have been to see Cnoc Suain, the bog interpretative centre in Spiddal where one can see first-hand the flora and fauna and tradition of a bog community. The 16th century clochan village has been lovingly restored and now provides employment and education, with very little impact on the environment.

Turf Reeks on the bog roads are rapidly being depleted by farmers bringing in the now dried sods of turf, some for their own use and others for sale to folks who still use turf as their main fuel, for heat and for cooking.

The practice of bringing a sod of turf to school was almost universal in country areas, as the only heat in most 2-and 3-room rural national schools was an open fire, fed by donations of a pupil-brought sod of turf each month. (My dads school, Duniry in Galway, was heated this way until 1970).

In Waterford some schools had cast iron stoves as co-incidentally Stanley stoves is a Waterford brand and though it was 'the poor man's AGA', it served the kitchens of Ireland well for over a century, cooking other icons like Brown Bread, Soda Bread, Griddle Cakes, Champ, Boxty, Irish Breakfasts, Lamb Stew and freshly caught Mackeral with aplomb! Stanley amazingly is still made in Waterford (see Their 'range' of ranges and stoves is still popular and with the rise in oil, gas and electricity prices, their future is...ahem.. 'glowing'!

As for the lowly 'sod of turf', the bogs of Ireland are now ecologically protected as areas of Special Scientific Interest. Like the Amazon basin not enough is know about our bogs. Bog oak Carvings dating from 5,000 BC now grace art galleries and homes worldwide (see ).

And for those suffering from Acne, Psoriasis and other skin diseases another iconic Irish brand 'ÓG', have just launched a range of Turf-based Body Masks, (see ).

So, from the ashes of a turf-fire, or from a raging bog-fire, much like the Phoenix, so much good can come!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Climbing Maumeen, Sunday September 19, 2010


It was a Sunday, like any other Sunday, but without the Sun. The merry band of fearless climbers included Peter, Brian, Peter, David (my 11 year old son) and my (sometimes) good self, all with a combined age of two hundred and something. Despite the portentiously pregnant cloud cover and spritz-spatter on BMW's best wiper-blades, we drove at pace through Connemara's wetlands, back past Maam, to the old school-house at Maumeen and after girding our loins with garish goretex, we made the climb through mist and sweat which oft obscured the stunning scenery as it emerged in our wake from the clearing cloud-covered vista, on and on, to the tip of Maumeen, and having passed alongside turbine-strength torrents of turbulent waters gushing arterially from every crevace and gorge of the beautiful landscape, we came to the mysterious reflective corrie lake just under the misty summit, whereupon to our surprise there was a coffee vendor and a roasted chestnut stand! Hmmm...well not quite, more like we discovered in Livingston-style, that there were folks already there before us. Two trolls emerged dripping from the languid lake, newborn in their guise as sylph and nymph, while far above on the rocky ridge, a band of brothers and sisters made their way, mountain-goating their way off the precipitous peak, as they hummed the tune from that classic film, snow-white and the seven horny toads. Not to be caught with my pants down, I leaped headlong into the dark waters and lo, a moment later, the sworded arm I had raised, froze mid-stroke and then, yes, shrinkage, there was shrinkage, while all the while, my comrades ate egg sandwiches, banannas and mars bars. Ahhh lads, you had to be there.

Then on the way back home we listened to the last spurts of Michael O'Muireaheartaigh as Cork beat the Red Hand Brigade and took the Sam Maguire to Collins-ville and we naturally had to toast the victors in a wee pub in Oughterard with a stunning American girl from San Diego, over to shoot a Range-Rover advert...even Peter took notice! Aaaah yes, another walk spoiled, by beauty!

Truth was, we had a horrible start to the day...rain and wind...low, low mountain, no view, nothing only damp, dense mist...we persevered tho' through the showers to the bottom of the mountain, when miraculously, the rain stopped, and it began to clear....slowly, so as we walked up the hill it cleared in front of us, a magical smorgasbord of layer-unveiling Connemara vistas and rugged, damp-weathered rugged nature, rock, and moss, a single marauding crow, several frogs and many red-arsed scrawny sheep, dying-off ferns, withered heather, long-abandoned famine-era lazy-beds, a possible passage grave...and a half-dozen heart-stopping cascades of white water...surprisingly random, delta-ing the bog below, and thus we were accompanied to the heights of the valleys by the constant traffic roar of joyous torrents... really amazing..a delight, spume and foam and power, awesome forced-downward fountains of cascading white horses, while the sky blued above us for a full hour of mackeral cirrus against an azure firmanent.

Brian and  Peter had found a dripping gorge on the previous trip.....well a chasm really, a chimney, soaring 40 feet above us and who knows how deep below us into the bowels of the rock, though today, the whole sluggah was struck vertically through with a smoking column of falling water...stunning...a white angry gash against the black rock, awesome, the raw energy of natures throbbing veins.

So after David found a horned sheeps bleached skull (that Brian refused to put in his rucksack), and after some poor choices of route, we made it to the top of, or more like the shoulder of Maumeen...not as high as The Reek, but high enough to render me speechless and red...beetroot shades, as we crested the last rise, only to be confronted by a totally unexpected corrie lake, maybe 300 metres diameter, reflecting the dark sky and the crags above, so when I saw the 2 other climbers dressing, as if after a swim, (one does not ask these questions), I togged the buff and dove was like diving into a champagne ice bucket...but what a feeling, cool, exhillirating, raw, enough for an echoing shriek after surfacing in the black pool...then it was I saw the other 8 walkers, male and female, coming across the opposite shore, having traversed from the top, 500 feet above us at a determined industrious pace....a mixed group, not old, ...none of whom had the sense of humour to stop and be amused at the 'shrinkage' as I dried myself with a single sheet of Downie from Davids pack. The climb down was not as tiring as the ascent, but we were facing the sea, albeit 14 miles away, and a stunning Twelve Pins view towards Carna and Cashel.

We did then adjourn to the car, change out of our very damp gear, while enjoying a beer and a hip-flask brandy-swig each, listening to the exciting tail-end of a pendulous all-Ireland football final, then off to the pub in Oughterard ...where indeed we did meet a gorgeous San Diagan, a long-limbed lass and her Irish beau...but that's another story, as is the wedding invitation we got for next year, but on that I'm sworn to secrecy, and so, 7 hours later, tired and sated, we arrived home, another walk 'ruined' by beauty.

Remembering Birdie Sheridan

If I ever did a chore for her, or helped her out in the house, she'd say, 'Brian, you're as handy as a pocket in a shirt!'

Brigid 'Birdie' Sheridan, came from Loughrea, Co. Galway, but like so many others emigrated and worked in England during WW2 and came back to Ireland in the mid-50's, just when I was born, (I was #5 out of 7 kids and my mother ran a ladies fashion shop and needed extra help at home), so Birdie became our 'House-keeper' in 1956 and really, she half-reared us all, bandaged our knees and fed us fabulous food, hugged us and plied us with words of comfort and wisdom. She never raised her voice, not even when I knocked her laundry off the line or refused to eat her 'Bubble and Squeak'.

A great woman for the Grand National, she taught me how to surgically pick a winner with a sewing needle while wearing a blind-fold! Really! And droll, Birdie had a great way with words! When she would be having her morning cuppa, she'd open up the 'death notices' page in the Irish Independent newspaper and sigh, 'Right Brian, let's see who's just given up smoking'! Or, if something was really tasty or enjoyable, she'd say, 'Now that was the goat's toe' or 'that was the cat's pajamas'. If dad was coming in her signature warning was 'Whisth', I suppose from the gaelic 'Eist' for 'Listen up'.

Her father, a local man, (last name Kiernan, cannot remember ever hearing his first name), fought with the British Army, serving in the Connaught Rangers in the Boer war in S. Africa and after all that, he returned to Loughrea as a Peeler, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. He must have had a hard time in Loughrea, a town where the 'Black and Tans' ran rough-shod over the people after the 1916 Rising and  after they'd left the town in ruins in their Crossley tenders, no one was left to defend the Crown, 'cept the RIC, all Irish men, yet tainted by their uniform, not British themselves, worse, they were working for the British. No Poppy Day parades for those brave men then, just suspicion and prejudice. No wonder Birdie left Ireland as soon as she was a teenager, heading to England, where she found that she was not accepted there either, because in England she was Irish, not British in their eyes.

She married Paddy Sheridan after she returned from England and they lived in a lovely cottage in Cosmona, surrounded by neighbors who appreciated them for their character and their charm and wit. Paddy managed the town's sewage plant! Well someone had to. He'd tell me of tomatoes as big as oranges that grew there, though I never saw one in his house. He always reminded me of Norton in 'The Honeymooners', playing opposite Birdie, a male version of Jackie Gleason. 'To the Moon Birdie, to the moon'!

Paddy Sheridan was a dapper man, stylish and soft spoken, he wore his hat at a rakish angle and each evening after tea, he fished for little trout in the Dunkellin river below the mill, upstream from the sewage works and many's a lovely fish supper we had at her house, with their dog under the table, waiting for scraps. Each Stephens Day we would walk to Cosmona to bring Birdie a present from Mum and as if by accident, each year, share their Goose dinner with them, (we had Turkey, but I loved her Stanley range slow-cooked Goose), I can still taste it. I would bring a 'sciathan' home afterwards, a goose wing, feathers attached, to sweep our hearth just like Birdie did, the closest a goose got to Main street!

Birdie loved Bingo, and when Tommy Kilduff, or Tommy Bingo as he was known universally, would pull out the ball for 88, he would look down at Birdie and her mate from Cosmona and announce 'Two Fat Ladies, eighty eight' and the whole hall would cackle, and nod to Birdie, always festooned with wisps of cigarette smoke from her beloved Sweet Aftons. The Sheridans didn't have a car, so Birdie rode a Raleigh Bike, a huge black machine on which I learned to cycle. On Sundays you would see her pedal to mass in the Abbey, decked out in a lovely coat she'd gotten in my Mums shop and always a turban hat, the whole outfit fit for a Queen.

She'd tell me tales of the posh Boarding school in England, where she was 'Cook' in. She worked in England in the forties and fifties and she remembered the Toffs with their Oxford accents and their big feet (yep, that's what she said) and yet they were only little boys really, locked in a Harry Potter school, ghosts and draughts and rules, crying at night for their mums and their families at home, and only Birdie to mother them and make them 'goody'. I often wondered whether any of them ever remembered the wonderfully warm lady from Loughrea, who no doubt was crying inside for her family back in Loughrea. Her 'Bread Pudding and Custard' was legendary in our house, a dish she mastered cooking for hundreds of Eton Boys, but which she perfected on our AGA.

Birdie died in Merlin Hospital on the 13th of April, 1974, of pneumonia, no doubt spurred on by her Afton habit. I saw her the day before, struggling to smile at me from under her oxygen mask in her hospital bed. I was a first year student in University then, all sophisticated, but not a clue really and I was not able to appreciate her love and her loss, as I do now. She was young at heart, always with a ready smile and an apron hug, I miss her. Though she had no children herself, she left an indelible mother's mark on all of us Nolan kids and on many others besides.

Every time I think of her now, I conjure up that most unique of taste-smells, which I thought only I knew of, but Brian Friel outed me in  his wonderful play 'Dancing at Lughnasa', when his narrator, as a young boy described the taste of a bulls-eye sweet his sister had given him, which she'd had stashed for days in her apron pocket, with a half-dozen, half-smoked Afton butts. Aaargh, now there's a flavour you will never forget!

Birdie taught me my first real poem, from off of the front of her yellow cigarette pack, I still remember it. Sweet Afton, by Robert Burns.
'Flow gently sweet Afton among they green braes.
Flow gently I'll sing thee a song in thy praise'.

Life was never dull around Birdie...she enriched my life, and cherished my smile. Maybe she can add a smile to your life today too! Here is my song of praise for Birdie. Air dheis De go raibh a h-Anam dilis!

* A footnote; I showed this story to Christina Baker Kline in August 2011 when she visited Ireland researching her new book. She loved Birdie's character and 'gave her a role' in her book, 'Orphan Train' which was published in 1913 and has been on the 'Best-seller' lists in the USA since then. She also credits Birdie and I in the notes to the book and for that I am truly grateful. Birdie would have gotten a great laugh out of being remembered in such a manner.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bloomsday - throws a verb

Ajoyce; Verb (newly minted) [A-jois]; To strut about Dublin's oldest pubs with cane, specs, boater-hat and Guinness pint on any Bloomsday, displaying an effected air of superior intellect and a dubious knowlege of Ulysses, possibly gleaned from having imbibed several pre-6pm pints.

'We ajoyced all afternoon with our fellow travellers, several Leopold Blooms, countless James Joyces, a half-dozen Stephen Dedalus's and a token Blazes Boylan, but I was forced to retire early on account of being barnacled at the hip by an amorous, bambosomed Molly Bloom, and my heart was going like mad and ''yes I said yes I will Yes"!'

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Grace O'Malleys Pub, Stroudsburg, PA

Welcome to Grace O'Malley's Pub, Stroudsburg, PA.
A Tradition of Irish Hospitality – for over four hundred years!

What’s in a name?

It all began one evening at a pub, not unlike this one, in County Mayo, Ireland, when we were over in the old country on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. We were sipping creamy-topped pints of Guinness as we watched the sun setting on Clew Bay, with Clare Island silhouetted in the background. Someone suggested a game, to help us pass the time, by matching famous Irish women to a particular trait or talent. We were all animated by the challenge and the effects of the nectared Guinness. The suggestions flew around our table as we warmed to our task.

Film-star – Maureen O’Hara, Grace Kelly?

Musician – Enya, Sinead O’Connor?

Author – Maeve Binchy, Mary Higgins Clark?

Activist – Mary Robinson, Molly Maguire?

Couragious – Annie Moore, Rose Kennedy?

We tried a few more! Dancer? Lover? Politician? Artist?

At that point our waiter, a red haired lad called O’Malley, interjected – ‘Pirate’

‘An Irish woman Pirate, no way!’ we said. But he insisted and so, over the next hour, he told us the story of a 16th century Irish Pirate Queen. Her name was Grace O'Malley, although she was better known by her nickname Granuaile. (Granuaile is pronounced Gron-ya-wail, an Irish term of endearment meaning ‘Grainne of the bald head’!) She earned that name after she cropped her red hair to pass herself off as a man, so she could go ‘raiding’ on her father’s trading ship. She saved her father’s life fighting off Moorish pirates near Spain and from that day on she commanded her own ship, exacting ‘taxes’ from all passing ships on the west coast of Ireland.

Grace O’Malley was born in Rockfleet Castle near Achill Island in 1530 and over the next 73 years her adventures, love affairs and general audacity were so legendary that she has inspired a Broadway Musical, several books, a movie and many stories, songs and poems.

She fought and won many battles against the Tudor English, was imprisoned in Dublin Castle, lost a husband and a lover. both murdered, divorced another husband, by locking him out of his castle and gained, lost and regained great wealth, land and power. At one stage she had 15 ships and a string of castles along the Connemara coast, from Clare Island to Galway, earning her the title, The Pirate Queen of Connemara.

Two of her sons were kidnapped by the English in 1573 and imprisoned in the Tower of London, to be executed for treason. Brazenly, Grace sailed her galleon up the Thames to Greenwich and appealed to Queen Elizabeth for clemency. In the process Grace managed to both insult and impress Elizabeth by refusing to courtesy to her, as in Grace’s opinion, both were Queens in their own right and were thus, ‘equals’. Speaking fluently in Latin to Queen Elizabeth, (Grace also spoke Irish, French, and Spanish, but no English), they established a bond of friendship and before she left, Grace was forgiven her Piracy, her lands and title were restored and her children were pardoned.

Another round of Guinness followed. Later on that evening, in the pub on Clew Bay, we looked for our waiter (O’Malley) to thank him. The Barman gave us a knowing look. ‘O’Malley is it? Sure we have no O’Malley working for us here, at all, at all. But y’know, this pub is reputed to be haunted. I’m told it’s built on the site of an ancient castle where t’is said that the Pirate Queen herself, Grace O’Malley, used entertain her lovers.’

Sure, what else could we call our Pub?

Grace O'Malley's - Where the sun is always just below the yard-arm

Notes for the menu for Barry Lynch and Sean James new Irish Pub, Grace O'Malleys in Stroudsburg, PA

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bells and Whistles

I was awoken today at a very early hour by Connemara's dawn chorus, a tuneful cacophony of sparrows, robins, crows and magpies practicing their wild songs across the bog here at Barna, alerting me to the new day's dawn. This morning's wake-up call also reminded me of my childhood, growing up in the middle of Loughrea, a small town on a beautiful lake in the eastern part of County Galway, where the dawn's arrival was heralded not by the birds, but by the sound of a train whistle from the railway station and the ringing of the church-bell on St. Brendan's Cathedral.

The Loughrea Railway was unusual in that it had a steam engine for much longer than most lines, until well into the sixties in fact, before finally being serviced by a diesel engine. Our railway line was a branch line, the last of its kind in Ireland and the UK and the line went from Loughrea to Attymon, a mere 12 mile spin really, across rolling countryside, past castles and cottages, bogs and tidy, stone-walled fields, to connect our sleepy market town to the bustling thoroughfare that was the main Dublin to Galway rail line.

The train left Loughrea each morning at half-seven on one of several round-trips to the little station-hamlet of Attymon, picking up passengers, school-children and parcels along the way, tooting at every level-crossing, startling the grazing sheep and cattle in the fields alongside the rail line. Each time as the train was about to depart, the driver would sound the 'hurry up and board' warning to the late-coming passengers, by giving several short blasts on the steam engine's whistle, to announce the train's imminent departure. This unique sound, not so loud, more joyful than urgent, echoed across the 'Walks', over the river and the walls beyond the old town moat, across the vegetable gardens, up around the massive chimney stacks atop the tall slate roofs of the shops and woke me from my slumber in my bedroom facing north across the widest part of Main Street and towards the railway station. I had little need of an alarm clock back then.

People nowadays forget how quiet Ireland was in those days. There were few cars on the road, no commuter traffic to Galway and almost no activity in the towns until te shops opened at 9.30am. Barring daily mass-goers and a very small cadre of other folks, like the railway station staff and the altar boys and Priest at the church, no one else was awake, or up out of bed, let alone dressed and ready for work before 8.30am. And I mean nobody. There were no shops open. The daily newspapers were usually delivered from Dublin on the train at 9am and as for coffee, forget about drank coffee!

By the time I was nine years old, I like many other boys, became an altar boy, serving first as an candle-holding acolyte for the interminable evening Rosary and Benediction services, before being promoted in due course to serve the packed Masses in Latin on Sunday mornings, with our backs to the fasting congregation, the priest too, before the welcome changes of Vatican II turned him around to interact with his flock. The mass in Latin was, as you can imagine, a very different experience for a ten-year old boy whose grasp of foreign languages stopped at his struggle to remember the lines of Anach Cuain. The cadences and rythm of the Latin mass were reverential and even soothing, prompting one Kerry friend of mine, Nick Murphy, to remark once to me over a pint in New York in his broad Tralee accent, 'Yknow Brian, when the mass was in Latin, we used to be praying like hoors!'

There were maybe forty altar boys serving in the cathedral. The Carmelite Abbey had its own altar boy regiment and the rivalry was always there between the two sets. The altar boys were divided into four sections, A, B, C and D. I was in Section B, low man on the totem pole at the start, but making your way with experience up to section head-boy, which carried with it the allocation of duties. There might be six or eight altar boys at any mass or rosary, even more at 'big events' like Christmas or Easter or a Popes requiem and everyone had a job to do.

We wore black soutanes, and a starched white surplice on the altar. Those clothes and the mandatory black sand-shoes, which were never to be used for playing soccer, were kept at each boys home in a tiny little suitcase, our very own holy kit-bag. On big church occasions, especially 'High Mass', perhaps at Easter, or for 'Adoration', we wore the crimson-red sutanes which were kept in the huge closet in the sacristy, making us feel as important as the priests.

The servers duties all had names and included cruets, napkin, paten, thoorable, incence, bells, gong, crucifix, epistle, torch, taper, snuffer.and if the Bishop was saying mass, train. Every altar boy had his role before, during and after the service and there was practice for the boys in the Cathedral every now and then, where we practiced the responses in Latin and later in English for the various ceremonies, marching in order, genuflecting in unison, bowing graciously, striking the gong, ringing the bells, lighting the incense, the secret rite of the action of the thoorable, which we all called 'the trouble' and more. Being a boy, like all boys, lighting and snuffing out candles were my favourite jobs. The thoorable was one I have to practice for.

The thoorable is that ornate, brass incense-burning container that the priest blesses a congregation or even a coffin with, by waving it in several sets of three motions, causing billowing clouds of sweet-smelling insence smoke to engulf the altar. The beautifully cast brass burner hangs at the end of four long strands of golden chains, into which the lighted charcoal and fragrant incense were put, the top locked down and then the chains folded in such a way as to clink against the vessel when used in a blessing, clinking and smoking and generally fumigating the entire church, and the congregation. I often wondered if it was simply a fragrant blessing or the clergy's polite way to disguise the church-goer's odours which must have been pretty overpowering in the pre-deodrant sixties. Either way I am transported back to those days every time I smell a joss-stick or light the barbecue coals.

Serving mass had a few benefits. We got to go on the 'Server's Tour' each summer, usually to somewhere exotic like Achll, or Shannon, or Salthill. Chocolates and fizzy drinks were the main fare on those trips, and maybe a few illicit cigarettes. If you were lucky enough to serve at a wedding mass you might receive a gratuity, perhaps as much as a shilling or a half-crown. Some requiem masses also brought a gratuity. Once I got a crisp orange ten bob note for serving a Latin mass for a visiting American priest, three years after Latin masses had ceased. I suppose I was amongst the last of the Latin Mass servers and therefore had cornered a commodity...hmm, that's another skillset for my resume, I must remember to update it.

At Easter and Christmas a few of us would also be asked to serve mass in the Mercy Convent or in St. Brendan's Nursing Home, or 'The County Home' as it was then known as. Both venues were vied for as after the mass, the servers were always treated to a slap-up feed of boiled eggs and cakes. Heaven!

The Cathedral's four Altar Boys or Server's 'Sections', A, B, C and D, rotated the daily duties, morning, evening and Sundays amongst them. Every four weeks it would be my section's week to serve  the daily 8 o'clock morning mass. Because we lived so close to the church, once the train whistle blew, I'd be up out of bed, quickly pull on my clothes, hardly stopping to wash my face, before heading off down to St. Brendan's for my favourite altar boy chore, to ring the 'ten-to' bell for the eight o'clock mass.

During the winter, the darkness of the morning, the dusting of frost on the footpaths, or maybe the wisps of fog drifting in off the lake, often set an eerie scene as I walked alone, my boots echoing in the empty streets, whistling to myself  for company, for bravado, past the Church of Ireland chapel and graveyard, past the Cinema, down to Barrack Street and the darkened and locked Cathedral.

The cathedral's Sacristan usually had the mornings off, so you would have to get the key of the church from the priest, or whomever answered the door of the Presbytery and then you headed on over by yourself with the huge front-door key, to open up 'God's house', on your own! You, a ten year old boy, who definitely believed in ghosts, monsters and the divil himself. Sometimes there would be a coffin in the church, left there overnight in the sanctuary. Once you were inside the church you had to make your way in the pre-dawn darkness to the ladies side chapel where the light switches were. Your footsteps echoed in the vast space and every sound was amplified, matched only by the thumping of your heart. Only once did I get really spooked by a noise high up on the darkened pulpit, but remembering back, I can still feel the hairs standing on the back of my neck. It was always a relief to find the light switches and turn on the aisle lights, banishing the goblins in my head!

Next up, you and whomever else of the altar boys was early, had to ring the ten-to bell for mass. The bell was high up in the steeple. The steeple on St. Brendan's was so tall that the fourteen foot tall cross on top of it looked smaller than a man when viewed from the ground. The ornate iron cross could be seen from miles away, as indeed could the sound of the bell be heard, when it was rung. An old friend of my father's, Michael 'Big Spit' Ryan, told him that when the cross was hauled up to the top of the steeple in 1901, that Lord Clanrickarde himself arranged for a team of twenty huge shire horses to pull the cable onto which the massive iron cross was attached. the cable went through a pulley on scaffolding at the top of  the spire. He told my father that the lead horse was almost all the way down at the boys school on Piggott lane before the cross was at the top of the steeple on Barrack Street.

That had to have been some sight. I often wondered who the brave men were atop the scaffolding that day, man-handling the base of the cross into the huge spud-stone on the top of the soaring steeple. Perhaps they were the same breed of men who were famously photographed sitting nonchalantly on the girder suspended in mid-air, high above the Rockefeller Building in New York in 1930. Two of those brave iron-workers were from Shanaglish, near Gort in county Galway, so I suppose it is possible?

High inside the spire hangs a huge, cast-bronze bell. I don't know it's provenance, but it has a beautiful peal when rung properly. Tolling the bell was one of those 'secret rituals' that only the altar boys were initiated to and guarded greatly. The bell which one had to toll, was invisible to the ringer, being housed high up in the very tall steeple of St. Brendan’s. To ring it, one had to pull on a massively thick rope, that dangled down to within a few inches of the tiled floor of the foyer below the steeple, and high above you, maybe fifteen feet up, the rope disappeared through a circular hole in the wooden ceiling, from where it went up another 40 or 50 feet to the canti-levered axle on which the great bell squng. I only ever saw the bell once, it was huge, or so it seemed to be so to me. I suppose I weighed only 5 stone back then, and the bell probably many, many  times that. It was a Samson and Goliath task for a small boy to ring that bell.

For the ten-to bell, you rang the bell twenty-one times. In order to get the bell to ring properly, you had to get it to swing hard, to and fro on its curved axle, to hit the static clapper. I would start this process with some small tugs on the rope, and as the bell began to sway, the movement of the bell would lower and raise the rope, higher and higher in successive motions on its curved axle, until you, holding on tight to the rope, found yourself being lifted high up towards the ceiling and back down again on the rope, hanging on for dear life as you struggled to stay in touch with the bell's peals, counting to 21, hoping for no double rings, or false rings, and then at 21, dropping to the floor and slowing the bells progress by double pulling on the rope to interfere with the swing.

Usually it took two or three of the smaller lads to get the momentum up for the bell to ring. They would be whooshed up to the ceiling, their soutanes flapping and unceremoniously dropped down again for each peal. And on the last pull, you had to be aware of the joke we always played on any new-comers, where you alone may be left holding onto the rope, while the others broke their sides laughing at you, having left go of the rope, hooting as you shot up and hit the ceiling with a thump on the return swing.

Inevitably, on one of my first mornings, I had to toll the bell on my own, being the only server to turn up for that morning's mass. I was only 10 and was so small, I had the nickname 'Mouse'. I had no helper and I was so afraid of the bell and so nervous, that I failed entirely to make it ring at all despite my best efforts. I had to be rescued from my embarrassment by a kindly adult, Tom Scully, a regular early mass-goer who with one tug got the bell in motion.

After that I vowed to get the 'swing of it' and in time, I did. It took a few rather jarring efforts for me to develop my own style and confidence, but eventually I became quite a competent bell-toller. It gave me such a feeling of power, controlling this huge alarm-clock and waking up everyone in the town. It was a responsible job and we took it seriously, mostly. I remember one unfortunate boy getting his times wrong and ringing the ten-to bell an hour early, at ten to seven, much to the confusion of the regular early mass-goers, and the chagrin of the apparently late priest!

Later as I got better at the ringing, I would be allowed to ring the Angelus at noon and at six. That took more concentration, ringing the 3, 3, 3, 9 sequences just right. The sound of the bell ringing was so loud that you often lost count as your own ears started ringing in time with the church bell. Woe betides you if you forgot what you were ringing and went to 19, 20, 21 or more bongs. There is no room for artistic licence in the Angelus!

Ringing the 'Death Knell' for someone’s requiem mass was the plum job. This entailed ringing the bell once, then a pause for maybe ten seconds, then another peal, continuing this for maybe five or six minutes, longer if the dear departed was someone important or a relative slipped you a tanner (old six-pence) to keep it up a bit longer and really let everyone in town know it was Johnny's or Mary's last mass.

My father, like many of the men in Loughrea back in the sixties, was mad into Greyhounds. We often had three or four dogs in training for racing or coursing, and a brood-bitch or two with a litter of seven or eight pups in the back-yard, all at the same time. We were not alone in this, as the Scullys and the Kellys also had greyhounds nearby.  The Sweeneys next door to us, now the AIB bank, had a huge Alsatian dog called Rajah. Brogans on the corner had a terrier called Bosco and every second house had another mutt. The McInerney's donkey, that lived in a stable in the laneway at the back of their shop, completed the Main Street menagerie. As soon as the church-bell would start to ring these competing choirs of dogs and donkey would start to howl and bray until the bells ceased. You wouldn't hear the like from hungry wolves in the Klondyke. The 101 Dalmations movie always reminds me of them, but their chorus was easily the least tuneful performance I have ever heard. Whatever chance you had of sleeping through the train whistle and the church bells, you had none at all when the 'choir' chimed in.

Nowadays, when I stay over in Loughrea I am awoken not by the bells and whistles of my youth, but by the sounds of the early-to-work commuter traffic. The last train pulled out of Loughrea in the late 1970's, the once proud station and the manicured platform lie abandoned. The rail line was taken up and the permanent way is now the new road to the motorway. Sometime in the 1990's the great bell on St. Brendan’s was silenced forever, for health and safety reasons I expect, given the craic we boys used to have ringing it. It was replaced by a pre-recorded peal paen of an inferior kind. Somewhere in the sacristy, there is an electronic timer that sets the carillon off at appropriate times and at such a low decibel that most mass-goers and yes, even the dogs sleep through it. The donkey is long gone, and so is McInerneys on Main Street. I cannot imagine Extra-Vision having a donkey and cart for DVD deliveries and pick-ups, though it might just be the tonic to improve their business.

Progress is in the beholder's eyes, or ears in this case. I miss those bells and whistles that filled my young head with dreams. I wonder how my own ten year old boy would enjoy the stuff I loved back when I was his age?

Pocket Memories

I delve their pockets after they are gone, picking amongst the memories, connecting, collecting, brooding magpies - departing flights of encounters, sorrows, joys, secrets, girls and boys, picking only at the gleaming silver and gold bits, not too subtly, ignoring sensibilities, after all, their souls have passed on, no need any more for worldly goods, irresponsible, unfettered by their possessions, perhaps for the first time, free of our lives, the necessary cars, and houses, shoes and shirts, free at last, unashamed, unshod, sliding down the slope, laughing, exuberant laughing, gaire gan naire, ahhhhhh , such life among the dead, and we the living, half-dead, weary, tied, anchored, backward-looking, blinkered, treading, unthreading, the way they went, we with them …and them, shuffling in their useless shirts and shoes, polaroids of their fading existence, Zimmer-frame moments in the minutia of time, not in context, accordioned with cacophonous neaaaah!!, unlike the sweet sounds of their melodies, picked from the concerto of their lives, staccato, notes to remember, sneaky tears, salty, unbidden, savour the repeating chorus, we in harmony with them, duets, solos, whole choirs, occasionally, the tune, one of their’s, bittersweet, a requiem, celebrated, tearfully, my hand’s eyes delving the pockets of their times, the flavours of their sense, scents, fidget, rifle in their surprises, odd moments, uncular, aternal, fingering the worry beads, hankies, keys, bulls-eyes, pennies, half-pennies, half-crowns, cinema ticket, cigarette butts, whistle, matches, watch, pieces of twine, binding my memories inexorably in the allergic ravel of life’s bale, stacked with the others now in the big barn, some sprouting now, signs of re-awakening, phoenixed from the ashes, renewal in our lives, the odd look, the smile, a mannerism, wave of hand, a laugh, a phrase, disconnected, from another source, yours, theirs’ who knows, a hint though, however fleeting, a memory, of them, for yes, that is them, silently rattling the change in their pockets, keeping their promise, always, a wrapped toffee, a suckie sweet, kept only for you, by them, for later, for love.

In Memoriam - Michael Bourke, Kilkee

Brian Nolan - February 4th 2007

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Olympic Fever melts Irish Hopes

Maybe we Irish should try our hand at a new Olympic sport and become the world's best, first! No I'm not talking about Hurling, or Camogie, or Cork-Bouling. No, we will have to be far more inventive than that to grab Olympic Gold. The Russians have their Gymnasts, the Chinese their Ping-pong players, the Greeks their wrestlers and the Americans their Pole-vaulters. I think we need to invent a new sport that could have a world-wide appeal, but at which we are the masters! Hmm! what about Mountain-Snow-boarding-on-Wheels! Now thats one sport we just might excel at! Just kidding, but with the Travellers threatening to enter their own country Pavee in the next Olympics, our guarranteed Boxing medals are now no longer a banker! At the rate we are going we will be lucky to be allowed to send anyone to London in 2012.

Olympic fever ...and controversy has gripped the Irish nation yet again. No, Sonya and Eamonn have not come out of retirement, nor has Michelle handed back her illicit trove of Gold medals. No, it is an entirely new story for us Island dwellers.  It seems that the Irish Ladies have qualified for the up-coming Winter Olymics in a rather un-Irish sport. The Bob-Sled! (why Bob, maybe our new sport could be called Paddy-sled, just a thought)

Anyway, I digress. I mean, in a country that has no snow, let alone a decent sized mountain, qualifying for the Bob-Sled finals must have taken some leap of faith, not to mention improvisation and a fair amount of imagination. ('Go on, push harder Bridget, just pretend its snow, not slurry, ok!')

But qualify they did and they were all fired-up, doing interviews, signing endorsement contracts, getting their skin-tight outfits tailored and their bob-sled waxed or whatever they do with Bob-sleds, when they were 'Thierry Henry'd' at the last minute by New Zealand, who it seems have taken them to the Olympic Courts (who knew?) and have filed a suit (no, not the skin-tight ones) against the Irish on the basis that in the Olympic constitution (who knew?) it states that all continents must be represented in each sporting discipline, or in the event of un-qualified continents, their best, though they may not make the qualifying cut (for Bob-Sledding its 20 countries in the Olympic finals, each of whom have done a specific qualifying time).

The Irish actually genuinely achieved the Olympic qualifying time and are ranked #20 in the sport world-wide (who knew?). However, the muscle-bound Kiwis didn't make the time, and are ranked like 23rd in the world. But by pulling this legal stunt, they may yet get in as the 20th Bob-sled team, ousting the Irish, on the basis that there are other teams already in from Europe, and none from wherever the feck Kiwis come under some rock someplace.

Anyway, speaking of the Irish in Olympic sports, I recently read an unusual tale, untrue, but funny nonetheless, about an Irish Olympic wrestler!

'A Russian and an Irish wrestler were set to square off for the Olympic gold medal. Before the final match, the Irish wrestler's trainer came to him and said 'Now, don't forget all the research we've done on this Russian. He's never lost a match because of this 'pretzel' hold he has. Whatever you do, do not let him get you in that hold! If he does, you're finished.'The Irishman nodded in acknowledgment.

As the match started, the Irishman and the Russian circled each other several times, looking for an opening. All of a sudden, the Russian lunged forward, grabbing the Irishman and wrapping him up in the dreaded pretzel hold. A sigh of disappointment arose from the crowd and the trainer buried his face in his hands, for he knew all was lost. He couldn't watch the inevitable happen.

Suddenly, there was a Long, High Pitched Scream, then a cheer from the crowd and the trainer raised his eyes just in time to watch the Russian go flying up in the air. His back hit the mat with a thud and the Irishman collapsed on top of him, making the pin and winning the match.

The trainer was astounded. When he finally got his wrestler alone, he asked 'How did you ever get out of that hold? No one has ever done it before!' The wrestler answered 'Well, I was ready to give up when he got me in that hold but at the last moment, I opened my eyes and saw this pair of testicles right in front of my face. I had nothing to lose so with my last ounce of strength, I stretched out my neck and bit those babies just as hard as I could.' The trainer exclaimed 'That's what finished him off?

'Not really. But you'd be amazed how strong you get when you bite your own nuts. '

Well, ...nice story eh?! But we 'Oirish' lay no claim to such impossible anatomically-tortuous contortionist feats! Horizontal jogging is our favoured sport here in the 'Auld Sod', oh, and Olympic Bob-sledding.... Jamaicans - fear not!
No, this is an old Billy Connolly joke that I last heard when I saw Billy 'live' in a sold-out Carnegie Hall in 1989, I know this because my wife was 81/2 months pregnant with our first child at the time and I was certain she was going to deliver right there in Carnegie with every story he told. Not that I could have helped her in any way, being bent over double the entire night with paroxysms of laughter of the type that would move a triple-rated vindaloo curry from a constipated elephant. It was possibly the only time I ever wished a live entertainer would finish up early so I could draw breath! Exhausting, but un-forgettable.

What a performance Billy gave that night...and he didn't look like he ever 'practiced' ...he just made it up as he went along, or so it seemed. (the same night he did a monologue on the pre-flight safety demo on an airplane, ...' and there ye are, in the middle of the freezin' Atlantic, a thousand miles from the nearest shore, bobbin'up and down amongst the 350-foot waves in the pitch-dark, blowing like mad on this little plastic toy whistle while trying to remember the dots and dashes of Morse code as you punch out SOS's or SOB's on this teensey-weensey flash-light that the battery seems to be dieing on and no-one could see at ten foot range anyhow....sadistic torture...thats what it is, a fiendish plot by the cabin crew to make you feel safe while they rush back up to join the captain in the cockpit for a final cocktail before take-off..')

Anyway, back to the wrestling match. Billy told this tale in the haggis-thick, Pictish accent of an inner-city Glaswegian...unintelligible to most Americans I would imagine as it sounded like a cross between a Brave-Heart war-cry and a Chainsaw on full-throttle! I can still see Billy's maniacal facial expressiona, the eye-popping, vein-throbbing, facial-gnurling grimaces, accompanied by a spastic lip-curl and rabid chin-drool, all lending complete credence to the deathly effect the Pretzel-Nelson hold was having on the unfortunate street challenger, while the huge, sweaty, bearded Cossack, smelling of ten-day-old eau-de-ursus prepared to deliver the final back-snapping squeeze...and then afterwards he answers his trainer's question..and in full voice, Billy joyously evokes the punchline...which in his version goes somewhat like...

 '...Och, hoots mon, 'tis amazin' the strength ye get when ye bites yer ain Willie'!

Then you knew for sure it wasn't an Irish story....Sure no-one in Ireland is hung like a Scotsman!

Aaah...happy memories... you had to be there!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Some of the people some of the time

Economist and Author David McWilliams gathered the best minds of the Irish Diaspora to Farmleigh from September 19-20 for an Irish Economic Crisis Conference.

‘‘a national effort to reach out to the most successful and influential members of Ireland’s diaspora to facilitate their work and contribution to economic recovery’’. 

'And what was the result of this wonderful meeting', you ask?

I  cannot re-seal a vacuum, nor not keep a shared secret...y'see, at Farmeligh, when all the land's intelligentsia had been gathered together from the three corners of the globe, by Royal Summons no less, the talks began and the hot air rose and rose and soon, even the building swelled with their importance and Farmleigh got bigger and bigger and was fit to bust with all the ideas and brainwaves bandying about, pushing at out the doors and windows, suffocating for the lack of air, and all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't get out of the way fast enough when King Cowan took the microphone, for they knew it was going to blow, or so they thought, but alack, all he did was glare at them, for having sucked them dry of ideas and soaked up their limelight with one fell yawn, he knew, right there and then, that he could fool all of them all of the time, while standing on one leg, and so he said nought (of importance), burped a little, and smiled that knowing, wry little smile, and the whole house settled back down on their hinds and after they were foddered, they all left for the other, bigger house to speak in tongues and relate all they had seen and heard, but they were put under a spell by the wicked witch with the whip and they all forgot the wondrous ideas they'd been told and they fell asleep for forty days, and not long later a handsome prince came among them and kissed Queen Harney on both cheeks, breaking the spell and they awoke, stretched (the truth and our patience), and went off on their holidays for Christmas and they all lived happlily ever after!

The end.....!

Or somewhat loike that I guess! (unless you heard different)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Men at Work at Christmas

A lot has been said in the past year about our public servants and their easy terms of employment. Some of the criticism is no doubt warranted, but I would like to publicly thank the 4 men from Galway County Council's Water Department (Spiddal/Moycullen area) who today, the 31st of December at 3pm, arrived out to my house and identified and fixed a burst water main under the frozen road at Paddys Cross, Barna.

Our house was a disaster over Christmas. We had had no water pressure since the 23rd of December and put it down to either frozen pipes inside my house, or more likely a drop in mains pressure owing to the common practice of home and business-owners opening their taps up during a cold-snap in order to prevent their water pipes from freezing. Thats all very well, but multiply that by every house and business and farm in the west of Ireland and you soon realise that water, while plentiful in Galway this year, what with the floods and all in October and November, will pretty soon become a scarce commodity if everyone is letting our potable water run off into the drains, just to stop it freezing!

My wife worked over Christmas in the hospital and had nowhere to shower or wash, or clean uniforms etc. My two teenage daughters fled the roost shortly after Christmas day, declaring our house 'The Pits' and my son and I, well we had stuiff to do, like hefting 35 x 5 liter bottles of water each day up to the attic and filling our water tank. At least we worked up an appetite for the left-over Turkey!

As it turned out many areas around Galway have had similar water problems all over Christmas and the New Year and no doubt many more will suffer similarly, after the thaw, when leaks and burst pipes will re-open and many families like ours, will have had to shower and otherwise cope with pails of water drawn from relatives or neighbors houses. It re-affirms my belief that water is the next big commodity in the world and investment in infrastructure, particularly in water systems is of paramount importance for Ireland as quality and renewable supplies of potable water becomes a more and more scarce resource.

I didn't see any county engineers or managers in their expensed cars running around making sure essential services were maintained over the holiday period. Similarly, no one made announcements on Galway Bay FM or in the local papers. No special notices were posted on the Galway county and city councils websites or answering machines! And I know they were not manning their department desks because I had called every number I could get my hands on from 26th December to the 30th, seeking some re-assurance on my water supply's restoration. I even phoned the police and fire service, wondering if they had numbers that might lead to someone on duty over Christmas, all to no avail.

In the end, I phoned the County Council Water Dept on the 30th, when they re-opened after the holidays and the lady who answered helpfully told me that her family in Moycullen also had no water since Stephen's day! Misery indeed does love company! Anyway, she promised to let the Spiddal work crew know and sure enough on the evening of the 31st, a very busy, Mickey Faherty showed up with his rather intrigueing 'listening device'. In fairness to him, in no time at all he had verified that it was a mains problem (not frozen pipes in my house, which I would have believed) and he called his work crew, who were finishing off another leak in the locality. They arrived and within one hour had fixed the problem and restored water to us.

I took this photo of them repairing the broken mains pipe at 4.30pm on New Year's Eve, of the men, their digger being ably supervised by my son, our dog Puff and the two snowmen we had made the night before as a complete co-incidence. All they were missing were two shovels to lean on!

So, spare a thought for these 4 men from Galway County Council, and indeed the many other teams from the fire departments and the city and county councils have been working non-stop, in terribly cold conditions over the past week, to ensure a happy Christmas for those of us suffering from a water shortage this winter.  They are the €10 per hour workers keeping the front line services open. These are the same workers who just had their wages cut twice last year by the government Budgets.

Thanks again guys and I hope you all enjoyed a Happy New Year, at home with your families.

Christmas Letter

December 2009

Hard to believe that a whole year has whooshed by again, but time and tide (and Christmas shopping) wait for no man and inevitably, the first Christmas card dropped into our letter-box around the 20th of November. Too early one might say for good manners, yet late enough not to be confused with a delayed Halloween card. This year’s first card was special though, as the card was over-sized, under-stamped and out of date! Naturally we wondered who might have sent it. A favourite aunt, a neighbour from the past, a former classmate? Our first card is usually from someone we are unrelated to, have never met, never heard of and never did business with. One year it even came from our local politician, the one we didn’t vote for!

No, this time it was from none of the above, because, surprise, surprise, it came from me!

Yes, it was a card I had belatedly sent on last Christmas eve, to friends I had forgotten, overlooked in the Christmas rush and hadn’t sent a card to, but they hadn’t forgotten us and so mine was one of those cards that one hurriedly pens at the 11th hour, embarrassed at ones tardiness and forgetfulness. This one was particularly nice, a charity card, from last year’s Parkinson’s batch, with a scene that wasn’t quite appropriate, but I liked, for its quirkiness.

Anyway, suffice it to say, the sentiment was long-winded, the glue was over-licked, the stamp upside-down and the address, yes, the most important piece, was incomplete and faded to a blue smudge, unlike my return address, a day-glow sticker, still attached to the upper left hand corner. Don’t ask me? It could have been the heavy rain last December, or that impromptu session at Donnelly’s Pub on Christmas Eve, but either way, it just never stood a chance of being delivered anywhere, even by the most enthusiastic Poirrot-like Postie.

And so it came to pass that my mis-directed missive came to rest in a fold at the bottom of an old, damp post-bag somewhere in Barna’s little post-office, where it lay forgotten all Spring, and Summer, and Halloween, until last week, when the first of the seasonal staff was told to get the bags down from storage and start delivering the Holiday mail! No doubt even the postman was surprised to see this letter from the past in his bag this morning, but true to the motto on his badge, the heavy rains and floods of this November did not stop him bringing it back to the sender! So Merry Christmas you, our friend, you know who you are, and thanks for your early card this year! We will be sure to include you in our first tranche this year!

By the time you receive this note, the girls will have finished their Christmas exams in Galway University, (3rd Commerce and 2nd Psychology resp). David will have put away his trumpet after playing with the carollers in Shop Street for his School’s adopted charity, ‘To Russia (with love)’, that send toys and clothing to orphanages in the former Soviet satellite states, and we will be stuffing the Turkey for Christmas dinner with the grand- parents at our house in Barna. So, another Christmas, another year coming to a close, and another chance for us to say thanks for all we have, thanks to all our friends and may you all have a lovely Christmas holiday, happy, safe and healthy.

Merry Christmas Everybody

Winter 1962/63 v's 2009/2010 - Walking on thin Ice - Priceless

An old schoolmate of mine reminded me of the wonderland that was Loughrea when the lake froze over in 1963, him having heard a cautionary interview on Radio the day before about walking on thin ice.

Though just a kid I remember being part of a group walking across the lake from Long Point to Cooreen, via Island McHugo and the Bishop's. I was just talking to my sister about it yesterday, recounting Norman Morgan's attempt to prove that Volkswagen Beetles were capable of floating...well of Ice-Roadin' at least, before the car went through the ice at the Grove at the County Home. She told me about the parties the teenagers had on the smaller Islands beyond the barracks and the few Tynagh Mine-brats' who actually had real Ice-Skates. One couple had brought real snow Skis from Canada with them! What were they thinking when they emigrated to the west of Ireland?

Dad built us a toboggan, a wooden sled on which he dragged a bunch of us across the frozen lake pulling the rope with one hand, while holding four rather bemused looking greyhounds on leashes with the other. I remember being simultaneously terrified of drowning in an icy hole in the middle of the lake, while wishing this magical dream would never end!

My memories are those of a child, no doubt exaggerated and inaccurate, but I remember what seemed like the whole town being out on the ice that time. I still have memories of skimming stones at Flaggy Meadow, the stones bouncing and skidding for hundreds of yards across the frozen lake waters. The bigger boys competing, 'can you make the island with the next stone' and 'mine went a half-a-mile, way past yours'. The eerie echo of the ice cracking and the stones zing-ing, ricocheting and thunking across the unexpected artic plain, and the silence only punctuated by the nervous excited cries of children with their mouths agog at the impossibility of walking on water.

Later on I remember the ice thawing and our parents being more cautious about letting us wander near the lake. Nonetheless I remember an older boy crashing through the ice at Flaggy Meadow, opposite O'Briens and watching in horror as he struggled, knowing for sure, he was going to drown, watching helplessly as a child does, recording his inevitable demise, only to see him rise like a phoenix, as he successively clambered up on, and broke through plate after plate of ice, until he reached a shallow enough point to finally get back up on the ice. Funny thing I remember going through the ice myself at the back of the Temperance hall, sliding along the frozen slides and suddenly being neck deep in very cold water. The thing is, I don't remember going home to change, we just continued playing on our new winter playground. No wonder I had asthma as a kid!

But no-one died, nor even had a bad fall it seemed, only great gobs of innocent fun! No X-Box back then!
I recall visiting the islands in our boat years later and seeing the remains of the bonfires the older teenagers lit to enjoy their illicit beers and late-night sing-songs and surreptitious snogs on a heretofore inaccessible part of their town. The scandal of what went on at those parties seems to have been more the talk of the town than the absolute lifetime event of being able to Jesus-walk across the lake to see the Bishops Palace!

Yes indeed, looking back now, we really did have an impoverished and dull childhood in Loughrea in the sixties. Nothing exciting ever happened back then! Duh!

And so, yesterday, and admiddedly, initially with great trepidation, I walked and kicked a soccer ball from Long Point to Fair Green, with my 10-year old son David, his buddy Breffni, and my friends, Brian and Paddy, on the frozen lake at Loughrea. This is the first time since 1963 that the whole lake has frozen so completely over, though it did freeze pretty hard too in 1982 as the younger Paddy and Brian reminded me, the old man.

Dull, sleeting and very cold...but the lake was a magical playground. Frozen completely, up to 4 inches thick where we checked one ice-hole off Long Point where someone tried ice-fishing in...though not all of the lake is walkable especially near Island McHugo, where a fiercely audible ice-crack sent us scampering like frightened lemmings back towards the relative safety of the Point.

Hundreds of people were wandering on the ice all day (indeed all week apparently)...we saw 2 teenage girls with ice skates, that were capably navigating the biggest ice-rink in Ireland. One guy with snow skis, (he's from Tynagh, brought them back from San Francisco 3 years ago...what was he thinking when he remigrated back here?) and a carefree geezer on a push-bike, buzzed us twice, meandering happily all over the lake, beaming in his hi-viz jacket!

Poles, Brazillians and Latvians mixed with equally bemused's become quite the tourist attraction...even the guardai were chilling...not interfering. No sign of anyone taking a car out on the ice yet, though I suspect it would bear it. Baffle were preparing for a hot-wine and poetry reading sessiun on the little crannog island behind the Barracks at 4.30pm.....I wish we could've waited!

Perhaps little David will catch it next time round, maybe with his son! There are some things money just can't buy! Walking on thin ice with your son...Priceless!