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.