THE SHINY RED HONDA
I was thirteen tall and gangly when I first pulled on long trousers. What a relief that was; I was the longest streak of misery you were ever likely to see in the short ones. It was my last year at the National school in Newtown and the Master used every opportunity to drag me around the classroom shouting “just because you wear long trousers now O’ Brien, don’t think it makes you any smarter”. I wasn’t and it didn’t, but the Master was a law unto himself so I just kept my gob shut. There were discussions about what, if any, further education I was to get. Dungarvan was out I heard my father say; it was too far away and the fares were too expensive. That only left the ‘Tech in Portlaw – and that seemed to totter from one financial crisis to the next.
We were poor I guess; no running water, no toilets, to TV, no car…you name it we didn’t have it. But then, money wasn’t as important as it is nowadays. If you had enough to live on you were doing well. If you didn’t you wouldn’t starve because the countryside was abundant in most of the things needed to survive. Even the poorest cottage had half an acre of land attached, and enough spuds, cabbage and other vegetables could be grown to keep a family from the poorhouse. Hens provided eggs every day, a pig could be fattened and killed; and if you couldn’t afford turf or coal, well, there was plenty of wood scattered about…
My father worked in the Tannery in Portlaw, a Dickensian sprawl that tried to hide itself in the dense woodlands that ringed the town. It was fronted by massive wrought iron gates and had a lodge that was occupied by a gateman called Foskin and his buck-toothed daughters. A large square, bigger than the town itself it seemed, separated it from the streets that ran away from its outer rim. With names likes Georges Street, Brown Street and William Street the English influence was clear, and the only thing that differentiated one house from another was the colour of the doors. But then, it was a company town and they were company houses.
The first time I ever visited the Tannery was in our ass and cart with my father, to collect some empty barrels he had permission to remove. He took me to see the tanning department and showed me the bench where he worked. Here, he trimmed the hides prior to tanning, standing at a wooden table all day with his friend Bobby Haughton, dragging hides from a nearby pile, chopping the bad bits off. The place stank of dead meat and the pile of skins was crawling with maggots. They could have been abattoir workers; gowned up in their long aprons and wellingtons, constantly sharpening their hooked, wooden-handled knives.
Hew was up at six every morning, breakfasted and gone by seven. The six mile journey was negotiated on his high Nellie, which had only one gear and had to be pushed uphill. He always wore bicycle clips and carried a pump and a repair kit in his lunch bag. Occasionally, when snow and ice made the road treacherous, he walked to work. A day off was unthinkable.
Portlaw had a bad reputation, like that of a loose woman. Although he worked there all his life he never socialised or mixed with the locals. He certainly never drank there. And mother would never dream of doing her weekly shopping there. People talked about Portlaw behind its back, yet on reflection it wasn’t any worse than Kilmac. Perhaps it was envy; it had the Tannery, the biggest employer in the region; it was surrounded by the magnificent estate of Curraghmore; it had the patronage of the titled gentry like the Marquis of Waterford. And of course it boasted hurling and football teams that invariably kicked the shit out of the lumbering hopefuls of Newtown, Ballydurn and the outlying areas.. Mostly though it was the ‘townie’ culture that got up the country-folks noses; it was only a few miles from the city and ‘city-ways’ had rubbed off to some extent.
Its reputation never bothered me. I did manage to secure a place at the ‘Tech there and for eighteen months cycled daily, free-wheeling the last few miles from the Five Cross Roads down into the valley that housed it. The ’Tech consisted of a couple of rooms in a large house on the edge of the Square, where Mr Timmons taught us carpentry, ( we made shoe-boxes by the dozen, learned all about dove-tail joints, and made glue from boiled cow-hooves) and a tall, willowy lady taught us the rudiments of book-keeping. Neither pastime subsequently did me much good.
We put our free time to good use, invading the forbidden territory of the Tannery, watching from behind bushes and trees, the activities going on in the distance. One large shed was stacked with bales of various-coloured rubber and was ideal for playing the games of cowboys and Indians that we favoured. This rubber (I subsequently learnt ) was the raw material that was used in the moulding of the shoe-soles that were churned out by the thousand in the rubber department. The Tannery itself produced no shoes, just soles, insoles and rolls of coloured leather.
Sometimes we sat on the banks of the river Clodagh, reading our Kit Carson and Johnny Mack Brown comics, or practised our fast draws in the crouched style favoured by our heroes. My favourite weapon was a long-barrelled Colt 44 with ivory handles and a proper revolving chamber, which I had saved for nearly a year to buy. I took to wearing it to school, tucked inside the waistband of my trousers, until the day Miley Moore took it off me and broke it demonstrating his prowess as an outlaw. Attempting to side-swipe me, he missed and clubbed a rock instead. One half of it landed in the river, never to be seen again.
There were other diversions. Portlaw girls were supposed to be fast, something we discovered to be true, for no matter how hard we chased them we never managed to catch up. Sometimes when the weather was nice the girls from the bakery sat sunning themselves on the opposite bank. We admired their muscular arms and their floury faces, for very little else was visible beneath the long white coats and the elasticised head-coverings.
Our learning curve may not have been very steep but the road home certainly was. The homeward journey was hell; the long climb back to the Five Roads couldn’t have been more tiring if it had been up the face of the Comeragh Mountains themselves. Portlaw wasn’t in a valley I had often heard my father mutter, it was at the bottom of a bloody pit.
There was also the little matter of getting safely past a particular farm. A seventh son of a seventh son lived there and all sorts of peculiar happenings went on inside. Sick animals and sick people traipsed in and out at all hours, ringworm was cured, and one woman who hadn’t said a word for twenty years suddenly started talking so much that her neighbours threatened to take her back and get the cure reversed. It was best to bless oneself and cycle quickly past.
The Five Roads was a kind of staging post, where we all recovered our breaths before going our different ways. A little whitewashed shop stood in the vee of two of the roads, where sweets and lemonade could be had over the half-door. Miley Moore called it a shebeen and said you could get bottles of Porter and poteen there too if you were that way inclined. We tried this once and the old woman who owned the shop chased us out, with her besom swinging. As we all took different routes she didn’t know which of us to follow, so she just stood in the middle of the road shaking her broom at us.
I eventually followed in my father’s footsteps. My name had been down in the Tannery for years and as soon as I was old enough, and a vacancy occurred, I was summoned. I never gave it a second thought. It was expected of me, and I suppose my father had pulled a few strings to get me in.
I guess Ballyhussa was much the same as any other cross-section of countryside out in the middle of nowhere. But to me it didn’t seem like that. It was home and it possessed my young soul and my growing body. I grew up there – and bits of me stayed there. In the hedges and furze bushes; in the groves and ploughed fields; in the streams and ponds. In the mass-path, in Newtown school, and in ‘The Bungalow’, with its patches of stony ground that we raked and raked but never could quite rid of stones.
On some mornings the Comeragh Mountains seemed to be in our back garden, on others they had retreated to another county. A mystery never fathomed by us youngsters. Did all mountains move we wondered? Their nearness signalled rain according to father; the further away they appeared the more settled the weather would be. Like most country-folk he was an expert weather-forecaster – in his own eyes anyhow – and he cast his eyes heavenwards with the same frequency that people nowadays look at their watches. For my own part, I always found the animals more reliable. Cattle, sheep and dogs were no fools when it came to the weather, and could be seen scurrying for cover long before the storm-clouds appeared.
Sometimes the tops of the Comeraghs were capped in a layer of snow so white it hurt your eyes to look at them, a sight that had the Master urging us to describe the view in poetic terms.
The Himalayas never looked so bright
As the Comeraghs do tonight
Their new overcoats bespoke,
Eight miles in the other direction lay the sea. The Atlantic Ocean gnawing away at Ireland’s coastline like a hungry beast, according to the Master, sending currents of bracing air to collide with those sweeping down from the Comeraghs. The result was a fertile plain fit for both man and beast.
Most nights you could see light twinkling in the distance. The bright city lights of Waterford, and, further away, the dimmer glow of Tramore. Here, the Metal Man could be seen, sweeping the Atlantic with a raking beam every ten seconds or so. Further along the coast lay Boatstrand, Bonmahon, Stradbally and Dungarvan, the latter just about discernible on a clear night.
Ballyhussa boreen was long and winding and Newtown village lay a mile and a half distant by road. By the mass-path, however, it was less than half that journey. The mass-path was our regular route to the village and we had used it for going to school and mass for as long as I could remember. It began about a hundred yards from our cottage at the stile (a couple of stepping-stones leading into the field) and was a clearly defined path across the land until it reached the road just outside the village. I suppose that the cows who grazed there, and who quite often followed the path in our wake, helped to preserve it. However, even in later years, when much of the land was tilled, it could still be seen scything its way through shimmering corn. Its origin was never quite clear; it may have been a legacy of the penal times, or it may merely have been a long-established short-cut to the church in Newtown.
Going to school never took more than fifteen minutes, coming home could take hours. The first couple of fields formed part of Michael Cummins’ farm, and this halfway stage was our usual stopping point. This was mainly because it contained a small pond and was surrounded by clumps of bushes. Depending on the season, there would be frogs’ eggs to inspect, birds’ nests to look at, Ice to be tested with belly-slides. Then there were all those games of cowboys and Indians to be played, our bows made from young sallys sprung with binder twine, our arrows carved from ash twigs. Tom Cummins, who was in the same class as me, was usually the one tied to the tree as we danced and whooped around him. Well, it was his tree…
The two other fields that comprised the mass-path were fairly uninteresting, although the last one, which bordered Power’s half-acre, had us stepping lively across it. Pat Power’s plot, with its remains of an old building, was haunted. It was overgrown and dank in there, surrounded by twisted and tangled trees and undergrowth. On windy nights you could hear the banshee wailing from deep within, and on a number of occasions we had witnessed several ghostly figures dancing among the ruins.
These sightings were seen on our return from attending the Lenten Devotions with mother. Despite being fortified with her bout of prayer, she, nevertheless, lengthened her stride as we approached, blessing herself as she dragged us youngsters with her in an undignified scramble down Cummins’ hill. On one occasion a pair of ghosts shot past us on bicycles, their white robes billowing behind them like sail-cloths as they disappeared into the night. I had never seen ghosts on bicycles before, and when mother found one of her best linen sheets shoved in the hedge near Galvin’s pump, relations with our next-door neighbours were cool for a while. Dick Galvin, who sometimes fetched our milk from Cummins, wasn’t seen around our house for some time after that.
The mass-path deposited us at Newtown Cross, a dark tree-lined junction which rarely saw sunlight, and was used as a giant umbrella when it rained. Motor transport, when it appeared, blew long and hard at this intersection – more than ever since the day a wandering ass almost spread-eagled itself across the bonnet of Paddy Nugent’s nearly-new car. His shiny black Morris Minor, which only infrequently broke into anything quicker than a trot, slowed to an almost permanent walking pace after that.
Most of the land around the Newtown Cross belonged to Jamsie Wall, and the farmyard was almost as dark and foreboding as Power’s half acre. It wasn’t haunted, least not by conventional ghosts, but Jamsie’s scowling countenance was enough to ensure we youngsters steered well clear of the place. Wall’s was a ‘grab farm’, its original owners, the O’Callaghans, having being evicted from it before it came into the ownership of the Walls. There was still bad feeling in the neighbourhood about the whole affair, and local farm workers would have nothing to do with the farm. My grandfather, Tom O’Brien, had worked there at one stage, though he could hardly be described as local, having come from Ballyduff some eight miles away. In the ploughing and tilling season Walls hired in men from outside, mainly from the Nire Valley. These men didn’t care too much about the sensibilities of the locals, and could be seen in the early morning marching along the road as a body, banging their shovels and sprongs on the road surface as they went.
There wasn’t much of Newtown; the church, the school, two pubs and Lenihen’s grocery shop. Behind it, in the shadows of the Comeraghs, the land rose to wooded pastures and isolated groves of fir and pine. In front, the fields were barer and sloped down to Dunphy’s Cross and the New Line. It was here that the Master alighted from the Dungarvan bus each morning, before striding across the intervening fields to try and knock some sense into us in classrooms forever smelling of chalk.
‘There are nine Newtowns in Waterford’, he would boom, ‘and eight of them are imposters. Can anybody tell me why?’ We couldn’t, of course. When someone suggested it might be the original site for the city of Waterford he laughed – a rare occurrence.
‘And why, tell me, would the Danes build their city in the middle of the country? How would they get their ships up the Suir?’
On one occasion he took the whole class to the playing field at the back of the school and pointed to the two rows of gnarled ash trees that ran parallel through Walls farm as far as Newtown Cross.
‘This avenue of ash is several hundred years old and was probably planted by a man called William Greatorix. He intended to build a new town here alright, but not to replace Waterford. He intended to replace Kilmac. And that is how we got our name’.
‘Greatorix was, or had been, a wealthy man who travelled Ireland making up potions to cure all sorts of afflictions and ailments. A kind of early medicine-man, one might say. His fame spread to such an extent that he was summoned by the King of England to try and cure his sick son. He wasn’t successful and from then on his fortunes deteriorated, one of the consequences being that ‘ Newtown’ never got built’.
Local history was the Master’s pet subject. On foraging expeditions to the church we searched the graveyard for traces of old ruins. He informed us that there was evidence of some sort of church on the site going back 900 years, and asked John Mullins, the local gravedigger, to keep an eye out for these ruins.
‘Sure isn’t the place full of ould ruins’, John replied, ‘mostly human ones’.
The graveyard’s most famous resident was Donncha Rua MacConnamara, an itinerant Irish poet originally from County Clare. He had travelled as far as Newfoundland and lived in West Waterford before ending his days on the Shanahan farm at Whitestown Cross, a couple of miles away. A woman’s man and a heavy drinker, he was reputed to have frequented Cullinane’s pub, directly across the road from where he now lay buried.
As a young man he was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood, but he never completed his studies, being expelled for drunkenness and other ‘inappropriate behavior’.
After that, he led a wandering life, (this wanderlust remained with him all his life), and he seldom settled long anywhere. ‘Ban Chnoic Eireann O’ (The Fair Hills Of Eire), his classic lyric of exile, was written while in Hamburg.
Take a blessing from my heart to the land of my birth
And the fair hills of Eire O’
And all that yet survive of Eibhear’s tribe on earth…
When he did return to Ireland it was to Waterford he came, and he traveled around the countryside as a teacher, the fate of the ‘spoilt priest’, as his like were known in those days. In 1741 he was appointed assistant master at famous classical school at Seskinane, Tournaneena, Co Waterford, where he remained for several years. Of course Ireland was still in the grip of the Penal Laws in those days, but the Cromwellian diktat that all native Irish had tails, and that no Catholic could own land or be a civil servant or teach or own a horse worth more than five pounds wasn’t pursued as vigorously as previously, so Donncha survived.
As well as the drink, Donncha also liked the women, and in 1743 he had to make a hasty departure from Waterford to escape the wrath of a family whose daughter he had made pregnant. He traveled by fishing boat to Newfoundland, where he lay low until things quietened down.
A subsequent second trip to Newfoundland, where he was said to have written his famous long poem ‘Eachtra Giolla an Amarain’ (The adventures of an unfortunate man) now seems likely to have been a hoax. It appears he got no further than Waterford city, where, instead of boarding his ship he spent his time drinking and womanizing until all his money was gone. Afterwards, in an effort to convince people he really had been there, he wrote the long poem (360 verses) which tells how the emigrant ship was attacked and captured by French pirates, before eventually making it safely to Newfoundland.
Shortly after this he changed his religion and became the church clerk at the Church Of Ireland in Rossmire, just outside Newtown. However, his rakish way of life once again found him out and he was dismissed.
He was a happy-go-lucky individual whose poems and songs were part of the folklore in County Waterford . Unfortunately, a lot of them died with the Irish language
One of Donncha’s last pieces of writing was an inscription in Latin on the headstone of one of his contemporaries, the Irish poet Tadgh Gaeleach O’Sulleabhain, who is buried just a few miles away in Ballylaneen.
Tadgh is put here…
Who will sing the praises of the Irish?
Who the deeds of men?
With Gaelic Tadgh dead the Irish muses are silent….
The same could be written of Donncha Rua. He died in 1810 in Newtown, where he had been a temporary protestant, but is now very much a permanent Catholic in an unmarked grave to the rear of the church.. The inscription on the commemorative headstone (inside front entrance) ends with these lines
‘If whatever sins he committed have been wiped out by penance, give him, oh Lord, eternal rest in the true motherland’.
John Mullins, who also dabbled in local history, liked to create the impression that he was an expert on Donncha Rua. To this extent he claimed that Maggie Bluett, who lived in one of the cottages up our boreen , was a direct descendant of Donncha. This was something Maggie neither confirmed or denied. He also took tourists on guided tours of the graveyard and to the farm in Whitestown, presumably being paid for his trouble. Finally there came his piece-de-resistance, a large stone by the side of the road, no more than a hundred yards from his own cottage, with the initials DM carved on it. These, he claimed, were carved by Donncha’s own hand.
Many years later I learned it was John’s own hand. The best days work he ever done; it kept him in drink for most of his life.
Two components of the village held more fascination for us than all the others put together. One was the village pump, which could be persuaded, after several minutes of wheezing and croaking, to produce a rust-coloured liquid. This eventually turned to water but it never lost its rusty taste. The other was Lenihan’s shop. Inside there was all kind of trove; penny toffees, bulls-eyes, blackjacks, gobstoppers, and gallon sweets of all shapes and sizes. One shelf was devoted exclusively to those clear jars – dozens of them – which never seemed to empty. Some days all we could do was gaze longingly at them and watch enviously as other teeth bit into succulent toffees, other hands dipped lollipops into firmly clutched fizz bags. There were times when I hated Margaret and Tessy Lenihen; they never had to pay for anything and could dip their pudgy little hands into any jar they wished.
Of the pubs Culinane’s was marginally more interesting than Nugents – if only because of the orchard at the rear. Here one could eat one’s fill without too many distractions. And sometimes Bridgie Culinane was willing to pay us a shilling or so for a few hours spent picking the apples.
Nugent’s had little to recommend it – although we were sometimes rewarded with a sighting of old Mrs Nugent by squinting through the side window. Dressed in black from head to foot, her face was often the same colour, for she invariably sat in the hob of the open fireplace. Her main pre-occupation seemed to be going to the church to pray. She had a path worn to it according to John Mullins. Strangely, this devotion hadn’t rubbed off on Paddy, the son who looked after both farm and pub. We concluded he must be a pagan.
There was another son, Edmond, but he was mad. What form this madness took I never found out, but he spent most of his life in the Mental Home in Waterford, occasionally cycling out to the village for a visit, but always returning again before nightfall.
Once inside the school walls we had little choice but to learn.. It was a prison from which there was no escape – not until we had finished sixth book anyhow. And by then a mixture of beating, bullying and cajoling had ensured that even the stupidest of us had learnt something.
There were two classrooms. Mrs Coffey took everyone up to third book and the Master took fourth, fifth, and sixth. Some in the sixth year had been kept back a year or two and John Mullins, who also looked after the school grounds, was often heard to remark; ‘Christ, there’s some hairy youngsters going to school these days. A few more years and they’ll be drawing the pension’.
Both teachers used the cane indiscriminately, the Master bolstering it with a variety of other persuaders. These included grabbing you by the fleshy bit under your chin and raising you up ‘till you were standing on your toes, then dragging you around the classroom and wiping your nose on the blackboard to make his point.
Nothing fazed us though; the pain and humiliation was swept from your mind as soon as break time came round. Bottles of milk and bread-and-jam sandwiches were hurriedly devoured before the serious business of playing could be attended to. Marbles were the currency of the playground – a boy with a pocketful was wealthy indeed. Three would buy a Buck Jones or Roy Roger comic; four conkers equalled one marble, and one with a star at its core could easily be traded for a fizz bag.
The bigger boys, scornful of anything thought unmanly, climbed the trees in Walls fields, sometimes hanging upside down making monkey sounds, or participated in vigorous games of hurling and football in the playing field behind the school. There were occasional inter-school matches, at which our ill-prepared teams usually got hammered. The girls’ lavatory always attracted its share of attention, the gaps between the walls and the corrugated roof acting as a magnet to the boldest of us. The hysterical shrieks of those girls inside, at the thought of some dirty-kneed, runny-nosed boy seeing the colour of their knickers, sometimes brought the teachers out. But by then all the peeping-toms had vanished.
The front playground was left almost exclusively to the girls, and here the chalk outlines of hopscotch and other girly games were on almost permanent display. Skipping, too, was a game almost exclusive to this area, and some of the routines were very elaborate and required a high degree of skill. One of the most popular was a chanted ditty which got progressively faster, until the contestant either completed five rounds or got knocked out. Most of the words pertained to the local priests;
‘Tis going to rain said Father Keane
‘Twill in a minute said Father Sinnott
‘Tis only a shower said Father Power
‘Arra go on! said Mary Dwan
I wonder who Mary Dwan was?