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We’ll be down later

Driving out from Springwell Gardens you have to stop at the junction with the road to town. Cars come down the hill to your left, from the Wetlands across the road and from town to your right. The traffic from the Wetlands slows and stops, but cars from the left and right have the right of way. You get quite a few speedsters heading home from the shops, school runs, and a day at the office on the town side. All fine and part of anyone’s life in an Irish town. The problem lies with a hornbeam growing on the verge to the right just where the footpath curves into Springwell Gardens. It’s not the tree, I like hornbeams, but the low-lying branches that bunch at the base of the trunk. The full-leaf branches are like a curtain, blocking the view, especially when sitting in a low-set car. I’ve nearly become a cropper a few times, only seeing a car as it passes the tree and needing to reverse quickly from trying to peer around the leafy trunk.

The line of trees along the road from town is taking a mature shape, and the council trims every one except this hornbeam.  Why they stop at the last hornbeam, I’m not sure. Maybe they think it belongs to the private estate, or is the growth now so thick that they think it looks better that way? It doesn’t bother me in the autumn and winter when the leaves fall but come spring and summer, the green curtain is pulled again. Like so many things in life, I only think about the growth when I can’t see around it, and my ‘I must do something about that tree’ is quickly forgotten once I’m out on the open road. If I had the tools, I’d cut the branches and be done with the problem, but happily, I don’t have a garden shed for mowers and clippers or anything bigger than a trowel.  I see the council maintenance crews around, but I’m always a bit uncomfortable asking people to do things for me, which is probably one of the many reasons I would have made a poor army officer.

During early September, I was walking home with Daisy from our early morning circuit around Tralee Town Park. Coming up to where the hornbeam grew, I saw a councilman on his mower trimming the grass. A grey-haired man was standing by one of the small trucks they drive these days, pulling on his heavy weather, high-viz work clothes and leaning onto the back for support. I walked up and said hello, and he turned with a big smile and said something about the weather, which I answered.

“Would you be able to cut back the low branches on that tree?” I asked after a couple of minutes of chat.

“Which one?”

“That one there,” I said, pointing to the only tree near us, “it’s just the branches are so low they block the view of cars coming from town. If I had the tools, I’d do it myself.”

The man looked concerned and walked up along the footpath.

“Oh, I see what you mean,” he said as we got near the hornbeam, “I wonder why we didn’t do it before?”

The man went on to tell me he reckoned he’d planted nearly every tree along the road, not long after starting with the council and now, as he was coming up for retirement, the trees were thriving. There was no tree planting ceremony in those days, just himself and a couple of other men with an auger for digging holes and a truck full of saplings. They would mark out where each one would go, dig the hole and drop in the tree.

“I must have planted half the young trees in town during my time,” he said, “I suppose it gets that way when you’ve been around long enough. I can’t see any of the young fellows today doing the same time as me if even the council would take on anyone.”

We chatted more about this and that until the man on the mower came down to empty the cuttings. I was told that this was the man allowed to operate cutting equipment, and we’d have to get him to do the work. He got off the mower and, after a brief inspection of the hornbeam, said he would take care of the branches. The problem was he didn’t have a saw with him and would have to ‘raise a ticket’ back at the depot to take one out for a job.

“There’s no hurry,” I said, “thank you for taking care of it.”

I went off, and later on in the morning, I was in my bedroom when I heard a small chainsaw in action up the road. I looked out to see the second man from earlier going around the tree and was delighted that they had come back so quickly. Council employees get a lot of stick and are the easy, go-to stereotypes of men looking into a hole leaning on a shovel, but in my experience, the maintenance people are hard-working and have a lot of pride in their jobs. I was a bit surprised, though, to see the tree was only partially trimmed when heading out to collect Fred after lunch. The next morning when coming back from my walk, I saw the whole job was a bit of a mess.

Two days later, on Friday morning, I’m walking through the park around eight in the morning. Coming in past the Rose Garden, a man in high viz, all-weather, workwear comes through the hedges to my left, carrying a rubbish picker and a refuse bag.

“We’ll get down to fix that later,” he shouts over at me.

I stop and see it is the older of the two men, and I head over to meet him.

“Paddy went back down later with the saw from the yard,” he says, walking towards me, “but it broke down as he was cutting.”

“I saw it wasn’t finished all right,” I said smiling, “thank you for getting down so quickly.”

“He went back up and got another one, but it wouldn’t start for him when he got to your tree. We’ll get back today, I’d say.”

The hornbeam is now my tree and is creating a bit of an issue for the two men. I’m touched they took the time and saw it as a mission to get the work done.

“Well, I can see up the road now anyway”, I say, “thank you.”

We chatted about the weather and how he was due for retirement in April but stayed on for the summer as the weather was good and he liked working outdoors.

“When a fellow gets to my age, there is no heavy work, and I like doing the tidying up around the place,” he explained, “they have nobody coming up, so I might go on a three-day week for a few years.”

The man explained how he had a small farm at home, and it kept him busy but not enough that he couldn’t do three days a week in town. He spoke with pride of his home townland and the work of the locals in keeping it alive.

“It gets dark in the winter, though, and the job here keeps me going,” he said, the unspoken words of dealing with dark days being understood.

“The winter can be long,” I agreed.

“I had a man take a third cut from the fields last night,” he went on, and I remarked how a third cut of silage was good, “you know the man cutting the fields was 81 the day before? Sitting up on the tractor and he did all the work himself, didn’t want me at all.”

We said our goodbyes, and I headed home. For the next couple of weeks, my tree went untrimmed. Whenever I saw the man around town, he’d wave, and we’d stop for a chat. I never brought up the hornbeam as I didn’t want to sound pushy, and anyway, I could see up the road now. Yesterday though, I was coming back from my walk, I came across the two – it was now a two-man job – trimming and tidying up around the tree.

“Is that ok now?” the man with the mini-chainsaw asked as I approached.

“Great, thank you very much.”

“We thought we’d better get down before the weather changes, and while they had a working saw in the yard,” my friend in the high-viz yellow workwear says, “it was looking very untidy.”

“Is it one of yours?” I asked.

“They probably all are,” he said, looking around, the unspoken pride in his eyes, happy to be viewing a life’s work.

Today the tree is trim, and I can see up the road. Every time I drive out from now on, I’ll look at the tree and think of my friend, planting trees as a young man, tending them as he retires and still with pride in his work.

What more could a man ask for after a lifetime of service?

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The End is Nigh

Pre-pandemic and current lockdown number 153, my life wasn’t too different from today. I’d take Fred to school, do my work, have my lunch, collect Fred, do a bit more work and a few jobs in the afternoon, before making dinner. Of course I’d start my day with breakfast and a walk with Daisy in the park. Now I still do the day in more or less the same order, but it’s the little things I miss. The unexpected extras that pop up during a day or week – lunch in the Grand; the odd trip to Cobh to taste the Beamish in Ryans or going on an adventure with Ed Galvin to see an old building or ride a train line that he missed over the years.

A big thing I miss is being able to pop in, out of the blue, on neighbours. We’ve been friends with Finbarr and Donna since around the time they arrived in Springwell in early 2014. I met Finbarr at a housewarming, and immediately we started talking about football, and I think we were both delighted to swap numbers so we could arrange a pint some night. By that stage I’d been living in Tralee for three years without once going out for a pint, so it wasn’t a big miss, but I do enjoy the fun around a pint or two. As the saying goes, ‘It’s not the drink I love but the company it keeps.’ Over the last few years I’ve been popping over to Finbarr’s for a lunchtime coffee when he’s home on a break, or to drink a few beers in the evening while watching a football, GAA, or rugby match. Something we can’t do anymore.

What we have been doing is having a coffee outside. Nearly every day during the lockdowns, Finbarr and I manage a coffee in the open space outside our homes. We’ll text each other with a ‘coffee?’ or ‘socially distanced coffee?’ or something similar, and strangely enough, we manage to fit into each other’s schedule. Coffee may last twenty minutes, an hour or just a quick gulp in the rain. Once we had to take shelter in a neighbour’s doorway, wondering if Mike was watching us on the cameras from his office. A neighbour laughed while telling her husband to come away from our private coffee club one day, to which I replied: ‘we’re interviewing him with a view to membership.’ Family members on both sides wonder if they are losing us, and we’ve been called, ‘The Men’s Club,’ ‘Men’s Shed’, and my own favourite ‘Last of the Summer Wine.’ Sticks and stones. On Christmas Eve, we had a few beers outside Finbarr’s house, and those two bottles in the silence of that crisp evening with the bells of St Johns playing carols in the distance may only be bettered by Christmas Eves when I couldn’t wait for Santa nearly 50 years ago now.

Last night I was watching the end of the France Wales match, on my own. There were two empty cans of ale, and a glass drank dry on my little table. It was a typical match Finbarr and I would have sat through before, with maybe a few others, and over a couple more cans. At 10 o’clock, I texted him, and yes, we both agreed it was a great game that may have gone either way. I could picture Finbarr in his front room with no doubt a similar table scene. He too would have with no one to share the atmosphere with and I laughed at the thought of the two of us drinking our beers and texting each other, though we were no more than a hundred metres apart.

Finbarr is back to work on Tuesday. Let’s hope it’s a sign that the end of these times is on the way, and we can get back to doing the little things that make life so enjoyable. I baked a batch of biscotti for our last couple of outdoor coffees, and they will be eaten over the next week. Having one on my own in the kitchen while reading the paper, though, just won’t be the same.

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The Hitchhiker

He’s standing by the road on the Cork side of Macroom. The arm is out with the thumb pointing towards the city, but he’s not looking at traffic. It’s raining and it has the makings of a miserable morning. His black leather jacket goes just to the hips and looks as if the one button is holding it closed. What could be a thick, cream-coloured woolly jumper is sticking out from the lapels. Wet, combed-back hair, possibly by his fingers, reaches down to the collar of the jacket, sticking to it in places. Cars are moving slowly, the traffic is heavy and wet, dirty mist is adding to the delays.

The car behind me is far enough back and I indicate to pull in. The man looks surprised but walks over quickly and opens the door. His pockmarked, badly shaven face is younger than I expected and the blue eyes stand out under bushy eyebrows.

“I’m going to Cork”, he says, “are you going that way?”

“I am.”

He gets in. The scent of damp from being out in the mist is underlined by a heavier one of not being washed but I’ve smelt worse. His blue jeans are baggy on his skinny legs and are black at the creases, and even when sitting down the denim is nearly covering his muddy shoes.

“I’m only going as far as Ballincollig,” I say using my usual escape clause of the next town, in case things don’t go well and I need an excuse to get him out.

“That’s ok,” is the humble answer and I feel a bit of guilt at lying.

We drive on a bit when he appears to start talking to himself.

“Thank you for stopping,” he says after a couple of minutes.

“That’s ok. Were you there for long?”

More talking to himself.

“About an hour I suppose,” he looks down at his feet as he talks.

“Nobody would stop for you, even on such a dirty day and all the traffic on the road?”

“I suppose people are busy,” he looks up at me for the first time.

I realise that what I thought was my passenger talking to himself is his way of gathering his thoughts before speaking, possibly overcoming a speech impediment. We don’t make much eye contact but I feel comfortable with him.

“What are you up to in Cork?” I ask.

“Going up to the Penny Dinners, I haven’t eaten for a few days. They always do a good meal there.”

I don’t know what to say. I know of the Penny Dinners on Little Hanover Street as it gets a lot of coverage. We had the Penny Dinners in Cobh when I was at school. Our 3rd Class teacher would collect from the boys and he’d often send me around to the other classes for names, which I’d write in a little accounting notebook. It was a way of feeding those who maybe weren’t guaranteed a hot meal at home in the 1970s. The fact that people are travelling over 30 miles for a hot meal in 2019 amazes me. I discover later that he doesn’t have the money for the bus and will need to hitch home again.

“They do great work,” I say.

“They do, but they close at one so I left home early.”

Home is southwest of Macroom, about another 15 miles from where I picked him up. He lives alone in a small cottage and moved there when he was about three.

“Have you any other family?”

“No, it was just me and the father and he’s gone now.”

“Do you keep any animals?”

“No, no animals by me at all, just me at home.”

We drive on in silence.

“When did you last eat?” I ask after a while.

“Sunday morning.”

It’s now just gone ten on Tuesday.

We talk as I drive. He’s 55 and worked all his life, and has even calculated how much he earned and the tax paid during those years.

“Nearly 650,000 in earnings and about 400,00 of that to the taxman, I never married so I was in Bracket A,” he says, referring to his tax band.

The hitchhiker worked on the buildings, in factories and a bakery for over 16 years, leaving home at four every morning, six days a week. The bakery and the factories are gone, and the buildings are only for the young man now. He never went into ‘the pubs or gambling houses’, though he has a couple of cans of beer at home on Thursdays. His face is free of the tell-tale signs of the drinker, though the fingertips are stained yellow.

“Another few years and you’ll be able to retire,” I joke and he laughs and nods, “you’ll even have the free travel.”

“If I get there,” he says, “it’s hard to live it.”

I turn off at Ballincollig but head into the city along the Carrigrohane Road. My passenger doesn’t say anything about me not turning for Ballincollig. As we pass the County Hall, I say that I’ll take him all the way to the Penny Dinners.

“Thank you, very good of you,” he says in that polite, humble voice.

Cork is busy with students, cars, bikes and people going about their business. I stop at a red light by the Maltings and I say that he may as well hop out as the Penny Dinners is close by.

“Thank you,” he says getting out.

“Enjoy the meal,” I say, and he nods back in the door as he closes it gently.

The hands go in the pockets. The thick collar of the woolly jumper is pushed up over his neck by a shrug of his shoulders against the cold. The blue jeans are well over the shoes, worn at the cuffs from dragging along beneath his feet.

“It’s hard it to live it,” he’d said earlier.

I see what he means.

Christmas in Cobh

Christmas cards filling the post-box on the back of the oak, hall door and spilling out onto the brown carpet below on busy days. Fruit cake ready for decorating on top of the piano, letters for Santa sent and ham, spiced beef and turkey on order from Geasley’ butchers.  Signs in our house that Christmas was on its way in the 1970s. The buying of the tree from O’Mahoney’s was another one, though it wouldn’t go up till the week before Christmas, filling the front room with the scent of pine, and those age-old decorations were our colours of Christmas.

My father bringing the Christmas RTE Guide home from Cork, was a sure sign that Christmas was on its way. Two weeks of Christmas TV all laid out in a colourful magazine and how they managed to fit so much into a publication for listing a couple of TV channels and radio stations was an editorial feat. There wasn’t any looking at it before dinner, though later in the front room you could count the number of pages there were to Christmas and even see ‘Christmas Eve’ spelt out in big letters. We didn’t have an Advent Calendar in our house, we had the RTE Guide. I never went beyond Christmas Day; I didn’t want to look at a future where Christmas Day was in the past.

Before the RTE Guide would make its way down from Cork in my father’s briefcase the Holly Bough would have come to Rushbrooke Terrace. Dad would get it about a week earlier, and I’d scour it for stories and photos of Cobh. Christmas cards would be arriving by then, stuffing the post box each day while the rush was on: Aunt Joan in Wales, Sister Eileen in Mill Hill, London, Uncle Dick in Dublin and Uncle Billy in Athlone, godparents, cousins and family friends all thinking of us. The cards would go on the mantlepiece, in the Christmas tree and on string fixed across alcoves and over the fireplace. If there were an overflow, they’d go in the kitchen or the room we called the tenement.

As soon as it got dark on Christmas Eve I’d light the tall, red candle in the window on the stairs. It was the privilege of the youngest. Before going to bed, I’d put out the sandwich, slice of cake and a bottle of stout for Santa. The excitement was high, but you had to sleep, else Santa wouldn’t come. We’d be up early Christmas morning to see what was in our stockings, no more than old pillowslips, at the end of the bed. Santa was always good, we usually didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but the great man did seem to know what we’d like. I’d get a big present and a few smaller ones, along with the Dandy and the Shoot annuals; Dandy went up to Victor when I was about nine or ten.

Later when going downstairs, you’d see the plate covered with crumbs and the empty bottle of Guinness with the stained glass beside it. Dad would come down, and we’d get ready for the walk to 8:30am Mass in Norwood Church. There would be few cars on the road those Christmas mornings and the many families walking to Mass would string out on the road to chat. In Norwood we’d sing our carols, say our prayers and our tummies would rumble. Outside afterwards we’d greet friends, telling what we got before rushing home for breakfast. You’d be starving after being up since seven, and there was no eating before Mass. There’d be no eating after the cooked breakfast neither, as you had to keep the appetite for the dinner at 3pm.

After breakfast we’d open the presents under the tree, the ones from each other and close relatives. More fun, more delight and more playing and even reading. The excitement would level out, and, after a visit from Aunty Una and family, Ella and Jane would take over the kitchen, creating the once-a-year feast we all loved so much. The oven would be roasting meat, knives would be chopping veg and pots would be boiling potatoes and ham. The extractor would be on fulltime in the window, and my young nose would pick up more scents of Christmas.

Dad and I would set the table, first moving it in from the tenement, where it lived in the bay window for the other 364 days of the year. It was an extendable, square, pine table on four stout legs, slowly being eaten away by woodworm, as was most of the furniture in that rarely used room. We would take the top off, and the stress levels would begin to rise as we’d edge the heavy base, on its side, out the door and into the sitting room. All you could hear for a while would be ‘careful, careful, mind the door, mind the paint, mind the furniture’. Dad feared that the top wouldn’t fit again properly and he’d spend the time before dinner adjusting it or grimacing at any trembles. Once the table was in place, we’d dress it from the old oak sideboard.  Out would come the full set of fine bone china, the embroidered tablecloth and matching napkins Uncle Dick brought back from his time in Cyprus, the gravy and sauce boats, the two-sided vegetable bowls and the good wine glasses.  

With the table laid, the food ready and the TV off, the spread would come in from the kitchen. Turkey, ham, spiced beef, roast potatoes, mashed spuds, potato croquettes, stuffing, gravy, bread sauce, carrots, brussels sprouts, sliced beans and cranberry sauce. All served in the fine china, including gravy boat and lidded bowls, and placed along the embroidered tablecloth. The fire was going from mid-morning, the room would be roasting, and we’d sit down to the best dinner of the year. We had lemonade and Dad a glass of wine, with Ella and Jane graduating to Babycham as they came of age. After dinner, the plates and food were cleared and desserts put on the side-table where usually the papers lay during the rest of the year: the Christmas pudding, the trifle and the strawberry mousse, each with their specific serving dish, along with the whipped cream. More eating. Dad always had a portion of all three in his bowl, while we stuck to the one. The crackers would have been pulled by then, with the bad jokes told, and we would take a few photographs of the family with paper hats sliding off our heads

I wonder where those photos are now? Maybe Jane has some in the old albums? My memories I keep stored in the part of my brain labelled ‘Christmas in Cobh.’ Thankfully Ella gave the sideboard, tablecloth and fine bone china a home when Dad sold the house, so some of the tradition lives on in Cobh. I still love that innocent happiness of Christmas as a child, which I now try to recreate for Ruby and Freddie every year. Hopefully Lisa and I succeed in adding to their memory banks. The scents are the same, the fun and tastes of Christmas time too but it still goes too fast, much too fast.

The Hospital Shavers

The hospital ward is a space where anything can happen and where a different life takes over. On our one the metal bed frames are cream, as are the curtains we can pull around for privacy. Even the walls, floor tiles and the ceiling are shades of the same cream colour. There are six beds in two lines of three, pushed back against opposite walls and they are identical in every way. Blue covers lie over white sheets, and men of all shapes, lengths and sizes manage to look at least comfortable in the narrow beds. Poles from the ceiling carry the curtains which demarcate the separate bed areas; we share a rail between us, so if I pull my side curtain it opens onto the man beside me. Windows run along the wall opposite the door and are about two or three feet from the floor. Old windows now, large rectangles of aluminium-framed double glazing, throwing in warmth when the sun shines. The toilet is up and opposite me, and the sliding door is always open, which I’m always closing. I don’t want to see or smell it; the idea of germs is strong enough without a regular reminder. Next to my bed is the shower room, not used much and always clean; during my time I’m to only one to take a shower, though I’m probably the only one capable of washing myself too. This is the view from my bed while I read and watch the people coming and going, the doctors the nurses, the carers and the cleaners. The men who really fascinate me though are the shavers.

It’s an act of kindness and dignity to shave another man when he is incapable of such a simple task. The men who come to shave the patients do so with that dignity, as if it’s an honour. Watching them carefully applying a damp cloth to the bare face and dabbing the skin to get the bristles wet is very beautiful, as so many simple, everyday things can be when watched at a remove. They then tuck a towel under the chin, as if preparing to feed soup to a child, and the patient sits still while the cream is applied by brush. After wetting the razor, the man gets to work. The strokes are so careful, not a cheek nicked, and in the silence you hear the gentle rhythm as the razor slides the cream off the face, cutting the bristles as it goes. The man rinses the razor in his bowl of water each time, and freshly shaved skin begins to reappear with each stroke. The shaver talks with each patient, though once the shaving starts the banter from the man with the razor is answered only by a meeting of eyes, a raised eyebrow or a very slight nod. Without this fun, would it be embarrassing for the men? Is having to be shaved a sign of their incapacity, as shaving was something they always did themselves?

I wonder what the men do when not shaving, as they dress the same as the porters. Are they hospital staff who do the job as part of their daily routine, or are they dedicated shavers, doing the rounds of the wards and care homes? Do the shavers tell strangers in the pub that they shave old men for a living? Is it something they are proud of, or is it a job they keep silent? I hope they realize how important their work is to the men here. If you are clean-shaven all your life the feeling of bristle reminds you of uncleanliness, and you get a boost after a shave. The patients in the ward certainly appreciate the work; you can see it in their smiles.

The man opposite me must be in his 90s and is close to death. Family members come and go and usually leave in tears. They hold his hands and tell how much they love him, though he never wakes. This morning he gets a shave, the shaver chatting with him as he lathers the tiny face and removes the cream with his blade. The man will leave this world in the early afternoon, peacefully and without a bristle on his face.

Mr Leahy Is Still Dancing

The man from the bed by the window follows me down to the TV room. While I watch the football he sits on a chair by the wall away to my right. A tall man, probably around my age and dressed in chequered pyjamas, he’s not wearing a dressing gown but is in slippers and socks. Behind the strong-looking glasses, his eyes move in separate orbits. We make small talk about the match, though he can’t possibly see the screen from his seat and his biggest contribution is that English football has gone to the dogs since all the foreign money arrived.

After a bit he asks what by now are the usual questions: ‘What was I in for? How long was I going to be in? What do the doctors say?’ After giving him a full rundown, he tells me about being in for eight weeks, after a stroke at 5 o’clock one morning nearly killed him. Another clot in his leg has him using a walking stick, the hospital-issue aluminium type with a padded handle. Pneumonia contracted in the hospital had gone undetected until one day he passed out while doing physio for the wonky leg. Now he’s back to normal and hoping that a meeting of the brass on Friday will get him home. He’s definitely cross-eyed, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the stroke or the clot? The man sees me as an ally of sorts and finally, when finished with the questions, he warns:

“Take no notice of that fellow beside you. He’s fucking mad. He roared at one of the nurses last week. Blamed her for him falling over. Said she had pulled the floor out from under him when he was walking,” his eyes seem to be jumping all over his face as he speaks, just like, well a madman, or one of those exaggerated lunatics you see in silent movies. Then he gets up but stops behind my back, so I have to turn to see his face, the eyes still looking like they have a life of their own behind the glasses. He’s looking at the screen, but I’m wondering why he is standing behind me to do so.

“The rest of them are ok, but he’s mad, fucking mad, take no notice,” he says and walks out the door. No goodbye or see you later, just the advice. I wait for a while before going to bed, to let the other five fall asleep and when back on the ward, I close the curtains and read until my eyes won’t stay open.

The next morning begins as they always do in hospital, with a nurse waking me around six o’clock. Nurse Honey, her actual name, takes my blood pressure, makes sure my monitor is in place and reading properly, before handing me a tub of pills, which I swallow with a glass of water. After the meds Nurse Honey produces a syringe and apologises:

 “Sorry Mr Verling,’ she says, unsheathing the long needle, “this has to go into your stomach.”

“That’s fine,” I smile back, “I had two yesterday. I’m used to it.”

I never thought I’d be used to getting injections of blood thinners directly into my stomach. Spending time in hospital due to ill-health is something else I presumed was well down the line. Not so, and two months before my 50th birthday I’m lying out in a six-bed ward, fascinated and scared all at the same time. My heart isn’t working properly, so cardiograph and blood readings tell the doctors, though I feel fine. After Nurse Honey goes I fall back to sleep, making the most of the quiet on the ward.

Two hours later I’m reading my book and the ‘fucking madman’ is sitting in his chair. Mr Leahy, I heard Nurse Honey call him, is looking at me with a gentle pleading, like a man desperate for help though embarrassed to ask. Nurse Honey had put him in his chair between our beds and went to get a blanket. Mr Leahy is an elderly man who probably feels as helpless as a child once more, and doesn’t like it but hasn’t a choice. The curtain is half-drawn between us, but he pushes it back or at least tries too before I pull it fully to the wall.

“You in long?” I ask.

The others in the ward fall silent.

“One year,” he says with the index finger on his right hand pointing up and a slight flick of the wrist for emphasis.

“A year?” I ask, genuinely shocked. I thought the cross-eyed man’s eight weeks was long enough.

He nods.

“I was fine at first, but my legs have got bad since I came in. I can barely walk now.”

“A year in this ward?” I ask again.

“Here, there and everywhere”, he points around him, at imaginary places.

The others are all looking at us now. Were they familiar with this, another rookie being sucked in until the madman blew?

“Nobody wants to hold onto me. They keep sending me back here.”

He must be difficult all right I think, the warning of the ‘madman’ still playing in my head. Nobody wanted him could be true; he was probably too much trouble, too likely to fly off the handle when you least expected him. Now he’s dumped here, back where they might be able to control him, dumped on the public ward where different staff would have to deal with him because they were obliged to, an obligation of care. A year without visitors or anyone to talk to and so bad on his feet that he can’t get out of bed without help. I look at him in blue pyjamas like my father would wear and a heavy dressing gown, waiting for someone to get him ready for the day. Mr Leahy may once have been someone’s husband, a childhood sweetheart or a good friend. Why he’s here alone and for so long I don’t know, but life does have so many twists and turns.

“My feet are frozen,” he says and points to his exposed lower legs, “from there down I can’t feel a thing except the cold.”

Outside the sun is shining, the warm sun of early summer and our ward, facing south is getting the best of it, but when I look at Mr Leahy’s legs, they look lifeless. Both legs, from before the ankles and down to his toes, are shapeless, like skinned branches of a tree left to bleach in the sun. The toenails are clipped, but the skin looks dead, more like a large human crubeen than anything else.

“They look bad alright,” I say.

He puts his feet on a pillow from the bed and puts another pillow on top.

“I have to try keep them warm,” he says, settling back into the chair, resting his arms on the narrow wooden handles, before reaching behind to take the emergency-button console down from the holder on the wall and putting it between the pillows too, “this heater will do the job. They will soon begin to heat up now and get the circulation going.”

I don’t know what to say. The others are looking over still, and one of them laughs. It isn’t for me to correct him and from the look of his feet, I reckon a four-bar heater wouldn’t make a difference. Neatly and carefully, he closes up any gaps between to two pillows, bending over and flattening them together.

“That’s better,” he says while fixing the second pillow on top.

Sitting up again he pushes his fine hair back off his face, flattening the lengths over his scalp and behind his ears. Though fine and grey, it’s thick too, like the hair of a young man. I can see how he had once been young, which you can’t with everyone. Pushing his hair back is a lifetime habit, I guess, and the hairstyle is one he has groomed since he became a proud young man, and the pride is still in there. The handsome face beneath deserves to be shown, but the fine, almost wrinkle-free skin is that colour of a man who has been indoors for a long time. Mr Leahy’s high cheekbones are obvious and beneath his eyes is almost free of any bags. This is a man who likes to look tidy, aware of keeping up appearances. For Mr Leahy it must have been a change to come in here, being under the control of others is something new.

With his feet covered Mr Leahy rarely looks at me, instead staring forward as he talks and looks at some spot on the far wall. Maybe his eyesight isn’t great, I think, though I can’t see glasses anywhere. Maybe he’s used to people listening to him, and even though he doesn’t raise his voice, I can hear him clearly, as obviously can the ones across the other side of the ward. Another nurse comes with a blanket and places it over the pillows, leaving, I notice, the ‘heater’ in place. The nurse tucks the blanket under Mr Leahy’s cushions and pads it in around the gap between them.

“There, that will do you better,” he says.

“Thank you,” says Mr Leahy, like a helpless schoolboy who has been done a favour from a visiting aunt or uncle.

The nurse leaves without a word, not looking at anyone and I smile at him as he turns to check the ward from the open doorway, but he doesn’t return the gesture, just speeds off to his next task.

“How’s that now?” I ask.

“Fine,” he answers, in what I now recognise as a Cork lilt.

Mr Leahy sits no more than a couple of feet away from me, but looking out as if in a room on his own. I wonder if this been his way always or is it something he’s doing from a year inside, gradually becoming institutionalised by the daily boredom. Mr Leahy has a noble face, with the strong features set off by that mane of grey hair, and the steady stare is not intimidating but that of a man who has a lot going on in his head. Was being ignored, being alone, contributing to his condition? Is his treatment one of minimum care with the hope he’ll stay quiet and not be trouble, leaving staff to care for those who needed more immediate attention? I could have stared at him all day and I don’t think he would have noticed, unlike us who are aware of the world and don’t like the attention. I wonder what his story is, why he’s in here, what had he done with his life?

The cough of the man across the way starts like the outboard motor of a small boat trying to splutter into action. The sound is the only one now in the ward, everyone else is settled, the morning preparations are over and we are ready to face the day.

“Do you like music?” Mr Leahy asks after the coughing stops.

“I do,” I answer.

“My father, Lord have mercy on him, always wanted two things for me,” he continues, “he wanted me to have a trade and to love music.”

“Was he a musician?” I ask.

“No, but he was a beautiful dancer. You should have seen him dancing across the floor with the cousins. Everyone watching him dance,” Mr Leahy’s voice fades as if he’s watching his father dance while talking to me.

“Can you dance?”

“Yes, but not anymore,” Mr Leahy says looking at his feet, “I still remember all the jig steps though: ‘Hop one, hop down, hop one two three four.”

Mr Leahy’s feet move to his jig timings. I look at his face watching his feet move. Is he remembering a love he once danced with in a time now gone, or is it his father gliding across the floor teaching him the steps?

There is sadness in Mr Leahy but he’s not a madman, just a gentle soul alone at the end of his life.

By Your Dog Shall You Be Known

While standing outside Eason’s I see a man I know walking through the crowd. Dressed in his barrister’s suit and head down in deep conversation with an elegant looking lady, I almost don’t recognise Richard. We say a brief hello as he hurries past, while the lady with him glances at me with a look of recognition. I try to place her too, but as she’s in close discussion with Richard, I only get a side view of her face.

I’m waiting for my daughter Ruby, who’s buying a few lastminute college things around town before returning for what will, in all probability, be a few weeks away. Ruby came home for the days just gone, but we both know that with the pandemic spreading it’s for the best that she returns to Limerick until the worst of it passes.  Neither of us is saying anything, but the feeling is there. I also know that it might be my last bit of time with Ruby for the next few weeks and to make the most of our morning.  

Waiting for Ruby gives me time to stand still and watch Tralee go about its business, and I think this is my first time since the March lockdown that I have time to do it. After Richard passes a few more familiar faces go into Eason’s or carry on to Pennys. People nod or say hello, and often I won’t recognise someone as they are wearing a mask. I’m wary of coming too close to anyone and keep moving, sentry-like, up and down outside the shop. A few minutes go by of watching and moving until Richard reappears on his own, with the usual smile on his face. I smile back, happy to see him.

“How’s Daisy?” he asks.

Daisy is our family dog. A lovable ball of fur who wriggles and smiles when she sees you and though only small in stature, holds a huge place in all our hearts. I take Daisy for a walk around the town park every morning. We usually leave around eight o’clock, doing two laps of the 35-acres, meeting other dogs and their owners along the way. Who we meet and where depends on our time of leaving home. How Richard knows of Daisy and why he’s asking me about her catches me by surprise.

“She’s fine,” I answer, always happy to talk about our little ragamuffin.

“That was my Mum with me, and she asked ‘who’s that man?’ when we said hello,” Richard explains to my probably quizzical looking face,  “she meets you every morning in the park with Daisy, when she’s walking Alfie,”

“Ah, that’s why I knew her from somewhere,” I laugh, knowing now who the lady Richard was talking to earlier – Alfie’s owner.

Each day I enter the park through the kissing gates by Castle Countess. Often as I walk up the well- worn, poured-concrete steps to the path, I meet Alfie and his owner. If not right at the top of the steps, it is somewhere close by. Alfie’s problem is an infatuation with Daisy; not content with seeing her he’ll stop and not move until Daisy comes along. Daisy shows little interest in Alfie, another small dog, but it’s nothing personal, Daisy just loves humans over dogs. Even if they are ahead of us in the park, Alfie will sit down and not budge. Often Richard’s Mum will be pulling at him or cajoling him just to move but to little or no avail. The other dog with them takes no interest in Daisy except maybe to bark before going for a sniff in the leaves. For Alfie though it’s love, and most mornings I’ll have to try rush past, apologising for delaying the team out for their walk. Without Alfie by her side, I didn’t recognise Richard’s Mum in town, though we have had many laughs at the hopelessness of Alfie’s love. Lately though Alfie has fallen out of love and our chatting time has reduced as a result.

It’s the same around the park. We meet Bailey and her master every day, and each time Daisy and Bailey will have a barking match and block each other’s path until one blinks, and gives way. I’ve no idea of who Bailey’s owner is or where he lives, though we have great chats most days. There’s also Teddy who is now in love with Daisy too, a small black fellow who, like Alfie, won’t budge until he sniffs at Daisy, much to his owner’s annoyance. I’ve often spoken with another walker about our dogs, the upset he went through when one died and about caring for his sick father when in A&E one night. I don’t know his name and almost didn’t recognise him this morning when I met him carrying a plastic bag but without his dog. I was later than usual, and the man had already walked the dog and was on his way home after doing the shopping. Another woman I meet always apologises for her Yorkie snuffling around Daisy, but as I always tell her, there’s no need. One woman who doesn’t know me but whose son is a friend of Lisa’s through work, will stop to discuss politics and whatever is in the news, while her new arrival Scarlett the beagle, gets to know Daisy. Their tetchy relationship is improving, but Scarlett definitely takes after her movie heroine namesake at times, not that Daisy is the best example of how to behave in public. Owners and dogs meet at different stages of our walks but are known only to each other by our four-legged companions.

When Daisy and I come home each morning, Lisa will always ask who we met, and I’ll list off all these people whose names I do not know, starting with ‘Oh Alfie and his owner’, (now ‘Alfie and Richard’s mother,’) or ‘Bailey and Bailey’s Dad,’ or ‘the Polish lady and her funny little dog,’ and add a few lines from each conversation.  

Now I realise I’m probably one of these people in the others’ homes. I’m ‘the man with the beard with Daisy’ who is a story in another kitchen when a morning walk is over. No doubt it is the same all over the world, and there’s something warming about how the simple ways of our dogs define how we are recognised. The nod, the chat, and comments on the weather make for a pleasant beginning to a day, and start lovely friendships.

What the dogs make of it all is anyone’s guess.

The Birdman of Tralee Town Park

The man often has a trolley with him – a black mini-sized one like you see in small supermarkets. It has a distinctive red handle with a yellow trim and looks like it was moulded from the one block of plastic. The trolley comes up to about the hips and has his backpack and a couple of reusable plastic bags in it. I think it must be a recent find, and funnily enough, I haven’t seen one in any of the shops around Tralee but no doubt one of them must use them. I doubt if he ordered it from a catalogue or online, but it would be lovely if that were so.

I saw him one morning push the trolley down the laneway by St John’s Church, which leads to the town park. There are a set of seven or eight concrete steps to navigate, but luckily the church has a side ramp beside them for him to get to the small graveyard below and through the arched gate into the park beyond. The arched gateway is a fine example of the grand entrances that once led to church properties, with granite blocks of a couple of feet high and wide, stacking about 8-feet tall to support a pointed arch that matches the design of the church behind. The inner arch over the cast-iron gate is pointed too, and you can imagine lines of nuns, priests, penitents and children parading through over the years. The park borders several schools and taking pupils to mass at St John’s through the grass and trees would be preferable to trying to control them on the streets.  Not being a Tralee native I can only presume this was so, but I went to a convent school next to a church, and we were shepherded through the nuns’ gardens on mass days. When we transferred to the town school, all bets were off on getting us boys up and down the streets to St Colman’s cathedral, once out of the school grounds.

Across from the arched gate is the Garden of the Senses, which was a Millennium project initiated by the then Tralee Town Council. It has plants from around the world and sculptures which evoke our five senses. To the left when entering from the St John’s church side, behind a large bush and accessible only by the winding path is a large, flat granite sculpture on a single leg, that holds it no more than about a foot off the ground. It looks flat, but when you get a get closer you see that the surface of the stone is full of bumps and valleys cut into and over an area of about two square feet. Though I walk through the Garden of the Senses at least once a day, I never take much notice of the sculptures. I presume this large one is for touch. In its centre is a wide circle cut into the granite which works as a birdbath or drinking bowl. This is where I usually see the man with the trolley.

He always has a drink in his hand, the rim of it sticking out from a plastic bag. On some mornings it’s a brown paper bag, just to go with the stereotype. Each day he wears what looks like the same clothes: a grey hoodie under a fairly dirty looking blue rain jacket with the peak of the rain jacket hood coming out over that of the hoodie. His crumpled face is almost like the mask you’d see a 1950’s department store Santa wearing in family photos taken with lucky children. Daisy and I do a couple of laps of the park each day, and I see him nearly every day, now that the mornings are brighter, but I did see him too when the sun still wasn’t up by 8 a.m. Why he’s always out at this time I do not know, but I doubt if he’s sleeping in the park; he must be coming from somewhere, pushing that trolley of possessions.

One misty morning I lost Daisy when coming through the Garden of the Senses, at least I thought she was gone or even stolen. Usually she follows me in her own time, catching up as I walk through the Rose Garden on the other side. She often stops to sniff around the bushes or even chase a bird or two. On this morning she hadn’t reappeared by the time I made it to the path by the Ashe Memorial Hall entrance, where you lose the view of the Garden of the Senses. Not seeing Daisy scares me and I called, expecting her to come tearing out through the gap in the bushes, head up and legs going like the clappers. But she didn’t. I called and called, and whistled and whistled. No sign of her and so I headed back over to the little garden.

Inside I couldn’t see Daisy anywhere and out the back, by the entrance to St John’s, I couldn’t see her either. I started to worry. I called out ‘Daisy’ over and over again, but she still didn’t appear. I get an inner feeling of dread when things go wrong and don’t look like getting better any time soon. That feeling was now rising in my stomach and the fear that someone had dognapped Daisy was taking over. People were stopping and helping, asking other passers-by if they had seen a little dog. If Daisy had run after someone, through St John’s, she might be lost in town, vulnerable to being taken or rolled over by a truck -these were the sort of thoughts making me panic. After a couple of minutes a little old lady stopped and asked what was wrong? I told her, and she asked if that was Daisy over there, pointing into the Garden of the Senses? I looked through the bushes without their leaves to see Daisy munching down on a dinner plate of scraps. Relieved and thanking everyone I went straight over and put the collar around her golden neck. Daisy is such a scavenger she never passes free food, though her bowl at home is always full. What got me thinking though was from where did the plate of food, which looked like bread mainly, come?

I get my answer when coming through a few mornings later and see the man with the trolley breaking up a sliced pan and putting it on the white plate. He has a takeaway tea or coffee waiting on the sculpture and what looks like a roll-up in his mouth. On another morning I see him eating food from a deli keep-hot foil bag, though what it was I couldn’t tell from a distance. I always say hello now, and he usually mutters a reply.  The man is there every morning, feeding the birds and having his breakfast al fresco, happy out and not bothering anyone. I wonder if he buys the bread on discount from the supermarkets in the evening and keeps it for the morning feeding?

I see the birdman around town from time to time, but he doesn’t recognise me. Maybe in the mornings he’s coming from a flat up beyond the church, or the homeless shelter not too far away? Who knows where anyone came from or is coming from right now?

What I do know is that the birds of Tralee Town Park do well out of this kind soul and seeing him each day does me good too.

A man and his swans

The man in a baseball cap is helping people to pass by. His shoulder-length grey hair goes over the collar of his open blue jacket. A woman with two kids on their bikes looks very nervous, a lot more so than her children. One of the kids says ‘they’re really cool’ to no one in particular though I am closest to her on the footpath. The mother is carrying the little brother and his bike, while the man in the baseball cap shields her from the tall male. A few minutes later, while I’m chatting to the man, a woman passes by with her umbrella open and uses it as her shield, though I reckon it’s more of a screen than anything else.  I’m only too happy to be finally so close to the Tralee Canal cygnets, all nine of them, and their parents.

“There was eleven of them,” the man in the baseball cap answers when I comment on the nine happy cygnets.

By now we’re close to each other, no doubt far closer than social distancing guidelines and I move a bit along the bank. The man in his eagerness to talk walks after me, maybe he’s hard of hearing but wants to keep the conversation going, so I step down towards the canal and he stops, not wanting to risk the slippery ground.

“I thought I saw more the other day from the road,” I answer, “my daughter took a photo with ten of them in it only last week.”

“Two of them were taken,” he nods, “people say it’s the fox, but I reckon it was mink. The mink don’t care; they kill for the craic.”

All the time while we talk the cob stands watching at us, his long neck looking strong and unbreakable, yet so very elegant. We both agree that the cob is impressive looking and would scare anything away but obviously not a mink. The man comments on how he wouldn’t like to get a slap off one of his wings while I agree, but say that his beak looks frightening too. I’m reassured that his teeth are tiny and the mouth is really only for eating and hissing at potential threats. The man has a lovely interest in the swans, and we both say how we could stand and watch the cygnets all day.

“Your man gets fierce quare,” the man says, nodding at the cob, “especially with dogs, but you couldn’t blame him.”

The family have two nests in the small lake on the other side of the towpath, he tells me. They use one at night and the other as their day residence, but mainly hang out on the towpath while the parents are teaching the cygnets about life.  As we stand chatting people are passing by. Most have a comment or two, and everyone is impressed, bar the woman with the umbrella. Kids are fascinated, and a couple of dog owners carry their mutts and walk down the grass to keep a distance.  All the time the cygnets do not move, they do a bit of laundry or stretch their legs and give themselves a scratch. They are the cutest things, and the idea of a cygnet being an ugly duckling doesn’t make any sense when you see one up close.

Further down and beyond the bridge is another small lake, more of a turlough really, and a breeding pair is nesting there too. The man tells me how one day, not too long after this brood’s debut on the towpath, the other pen with her cygnets came swimming up the canal. When they got as far as the new arrivals, the pen turned back. One of the cygnets got out though and walked up the grass bank, and the mother missed his escape. After a while the poor cygnet got distressed and was running around the towpath looking for his family. A woman passing by assumed the lost cygnet was part of the brood from the inner lake and managed to catch it and put it in with the other family. Later that day, my man was out on his daily cygnet-watching walk and counted twelve baby swans swimming around the lake. Wondering where the extra one appeared from, he got talking to a woman, who happened to be the one to put the cygnet in earlier and was now back down checking on the family.

“Well they were back down to eleven the next morning so either yer man went home or the mink got him too,” he tells me.

We go on to talking about how the male will begin to chase the new arrivals off come October. I tell him how it’s due to the cygnets shedding their dark down and growing the white feathers like their parents. Once the cob sees the white birds, something in him tells that it is time chase them away.

“He’s vicious about it too,” the man says, “he’ll chase them up the canal there hissing and flapping his wings, biting at them to fly off. No messing with this lad, but I suppose if he isn’t strict they’ll never leave.”

I agree and love that the man knows so much from observing swans over the years of walking by the canal.

“They’re very interesting,” he says gently, as we watch the family enjoying their morning.

I nod, and we step back to leave a couple pass, a father and daughter I’m guessing. The father stops to say that there was twelve but that three of them must be have died. Us two experts nod and smile at each other, neither of us feeling the need to tell the story of the lost cygnet.

It’s not mine to tell anyway.

Oakhurst and a Tralee May Bug

Oakhurst from the Low Road

As a child I spent a lot of time around my friend Brendan’s house. Brendan and I are still friends today, a friendship lasting, in my memory, since Mrs Philip’s playschool around 1970. I know we were there for at least one year before starting at Norwood school in 1971 or maybe it was two years? It is safe to say our friendship is at least 50 years old; half a century of nonsense, double-entendres and some of the best giggling sessions known to man. On the other hand, there are the deep-thinking, thoughtful and insightful conversations that have gone on since Brendan took the side of the Indians in our playground games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’, citing their treatment at the hands of the white man as a reason. As this happened before Brendan skipped ahead a year, I’d guess we were no more than six or seven. How a young boy in 1972 Ireland could have such an empathy, while the forty or so rest of us were only interested in chasing each other around and slapping our thighs to make our imaginary horses go faster is amazing, and funny. Those of us who still know Brendan are not surprised. The boy is the father to the man, and Bren has always stayed true to that strong character.

Going around to Oakhurst, Brendan’s 1850s-built, family home, was always an adventure. The youngest of nine, Brendan had the benefit of four older brothers to add excitement to our lives. We played in the treehouse they had built over the years, and one of them always had some engine or machine going in the garage. There was even an old Morris Minor that Brendan, Mark and I drove around the gravel-lined driveway. At least we did until I sped it into the bushes one summer’s evening; whichever brother owned it hadn’t fixed the brakes. Luckily Brendan’s strict mother was inside watching Garret Fitzgerald, the then Taoiseach, address the nation on the country’s economic woes. We found an adult walking past, our English teacher, who was only too happy to help push the car out again. Counting our blessings, we put the Morris back in the garage and when Joy came out later to tell Brendan about Garret’s plans all was back to normal, though I doubt she was unaware.

The real special place for me was the tiled-floor conservatory. This was a rectangular-shaped glasshouse, with a triangular roof, and probably about 12-foot by 15-foot in diameter and another 15 or so feet high. The conservatory was attached to the side of the house, and you could walk into it from the large dining room or through the wood-lined, cloakroom corridor which ran on from the front hall. From the garden, you walked up the stone steps to a white, wooden door. The conservatory sat over part of the basement, with a foot-high brick wall to support the glass walls on the three, free-standing sides. The panels of glass making up the walls and roof must each have been about four by two, sitting in white painted frames. Brendan’s father was the Professor of Zoology in UCC at the time, and he stocked the wooden shelving, which ran around the walls of the conservatory, with lab-standard glass tanks containing stick insects, snakes, terrapins, toads, turtles, lizards and other animals probably only on show nowhere else in the country at the time outside of Dublin Zoo. There are family stories of escaped snakes reappearing, twice the size, after a year’s feeding on mice around the half-acre gardens. As I grew up playing in the house, I didn’t think such a display as anything unusual, but I loved seeing what new animal Professor O’Rourke would bring home to study. We would sit and have cake in the conservatory during warm weather days, and I loved the scents, the unusual plants and watching the exotic animals. When the doors inside were open on summer days the scents would fill the house.  Even today the heat and scents of a warm conservatory bring me right back to Oakhurst in the 1970s.

Beneath the house and the conservatory was a proper basement where we played but also where the Prof had a study, full of books, more specimens and a huge desk on which stood a powerful lamp with an attached magnifying glass for closer examinations. To us Prof O’Rourke was a large man, full of knowledge and his answers to any questions were always right. Even today if someone asks ‘how do they work out the date for Easter?’ I remember his answer when I asked the same question, probably over forty years ago. Sitting in his armchair by an open fire in the dining room, he explained how it was usually the first Sunday after the fourth full moon of the year; there are derivations, but the answer was perfect for my young brain.

From time to time a caller to the Oakhurst would have an animal for Prof O’Rourke to identify. It could be a man out walking who thought he’d discovered a new species of moth or a child with a spider in a jar worried that it might be a tarantula. If the Prof were home, he’d identify the insect as what it was, and the reassured, or disappointed, caller would thank him and head away. This came back to me Sunday morning when walking in Tralee town park.

May Bug Tralee Town Park

On the footpath I spotted a bug, dead, but it was a fair size, so I took a couple of photographs. The magic for me is that I have a neighbour and friend who is an ecologist, and a PhD graduate from Prof O’Rourke’s UCC, though many years after his retirement. David lectures at Tralee IT and has the knowledge of all things living I remember in the Prof. It being 2020 and with us in the middle of a lockdown, I WhatsApped my photos to David; it wasn’t the first time I’d consulted Dr McCormick, and I know it won’t be the last.

“Beetle called a Cockchafer, also known as a May bug. Melolontha sp.” he replied immediately.

“Appropriate name given the month,” I replied.

“Yes, they only appear in May and die off shortly after. You’ll often find the larvae in the soil,” was the definitive response.

I love how our lives rhyme with the past, that there is always a memory waiting to be triggered and a hidden loop ready to remind us of happy days, while gently urging us forward to create more. Today Brendan lectures in Economics, also a PhD in his subject, though he was briefly titled as ‘Professor O’Rourke’ at a pre-lockdown lecture he gave in Canada. I remarked on this to Brendan, who told me that his father had been made a Professor at UCC, while also on a trip to Canada.

Another echo from the past to make us smile.

The Captain and the Mules

A phone rings as I back the car into a spot near the Listowel Arms. I don’t recognise the ringtone; it’s an old one and the sound is very tinny. I look out the open window and down at my phone. Nobody nearby and mine isn’t lit up. Then I see the small Nokia, easily over ten years old, vibrating on the seat beside me, the screen shining brightly, showing a number.

 “Feck it,” I say, “he’s left his phone.”

What am I going to do now? How am I going to explain the story to the caller, whoever it is, on the phone? I park the car and answer the call.

“I left my phone in your car,” the voice says.

“You did,” I say, relieved that it’s his voice on the line, “where are you?”

“On the road, by the garage where you dropped me.”

“Stay there I’ll be right down.”

“Thank you.”

I leave the carpark and turn down the hill. Sure enough he’s standing slightly out on the road, almost exactly where I dropped him a minute ago and with his hand out like it was when I picked him up only a few minutes back again.

I stop in traffic and slide the window down, handing the phone over as he leans into the car.

“Thank you,” he says, “thank you for everything.”

“No problem,” I answer, conscious of the traffic gathering behind me, “thank you for the company.”

I drive off, leaving a car out in front of me first. Further down the road I turn around at a quiet spot and head back up the street. He’s gone, at least I can’t see him and he would be difficult to miss, just as I don’t miss seeing him not that long ago back out the road.

I’m in a hurry coming from Tralee. About halfway to Listowel I see a man ahead, and sure enough his thumb is out. He’s standing at a good place to stop, and as I have a thing about not passing hitchhikers, I pull in beside him. While I’m clearing the passenger seat he opens the door, and I get a better look at him. A well-fed man in his late 40s, blue jeans and a black t-shirt, solid working boots, thinning black hair and a rough goatee. He’s wind-blown, there is a fair wind out and the way he drops into the seat it’s as if a gust has swept him in. What catches my eye, and makes me smile, is that he’s carrying a birdcage and a bridle.

“Thank you for stopping,” he says.

“Glad to,” I reply, “were you there for long?”

“Over half an hour,” he answers while clipping in the seatbelt, “I wouldn’t mind, but the wind nearly had me over and it’s beginning to rain.”

 We head off into traffic.

“You’d think someone would stop for you.”

“Nobody wants to stop for people thumbing anymore. Everyone is in a hurry somewhere, I suppose,” he’s looking ahead as he speaks, “I’m going to outside Listowel.”

“That’s fine,” I say, “I’m on my way to Listowel myself.”

My passenger settles himself, lets out a bit of a relieved sigh and fixes the birdcage on the floor.

“What have you got there?” I ask.

“It’s an old birdcage and a bridle. I picked them up at the car boot sale in Tralee. I go every week and I always find something.”

“I go a bit myself too,” I nod, smiling at his purchases, “what are you going to do with the birdcage?”

“I’ll do it up, clean it and paint it. It’s a fine one,” he says, holding it up a bit, and I see the quality in the design. Tall, wide and made of solid looking metal and with a handle to carry it about or hang it from a stand.

“Do you keep birds?” I ask.

“I do and I breed them for selling too. If I don’t use this cage, I can always sell it.”

I drive on while we talk, regretting now that we are so near to Listowel but the traffic is heavy, which slows us down a bit; we might get to spend a bit of time together yet.

“What sort of birds to you keep?”

“All sorts. Parrots, budgies, goldfinches, canaries. I cross canaries and goldfinches to sell.”

“Goldfinches and canaries?”

“Yes, they’re called mules.”

“Mules?” I’m wondering if I’m hearing him correctly

“That’s what they call them.”

“I suppose they must be a fine yellow and great singers?” I can picture the colours, and I know the song of the goldfinch.

“Oh, beautiful looking birds and the finest singers you’ll hear,” I can hear the love in his voice, almost as if he’s looking at one, “they love singing in the morning.”

“What do you do with the ones you breed?” I wonder.

“I sell them,” he says matter of factually, “I go around the houses and the old peoples’ homes. People come to me too for them.”

I don’t ask what he gets for the mules.

“Do you keep any other animals?” I ask instead.

“Oh loads of them, the birds, ponies, goats, hens, ducks, dogs, rabbits and ferrets.”

“Ferrets? You don’t hear of many people keeping them anymore.”

“They’re great for hunting.”

“The man I’m going to meet used to keep them when we were at school, funnily enough,” I say, trying to show off my little knowledge.

“I got my first ferret when I was three years old, no two years old, and I’ve had them all my life since,” he sits up straight now, happy to be talking about ferrets.

“Two years old?” I smile as I reply.

“Yes, I was out in the bog playing, and I saw this little brown ball in a puddle of water. I picked it up and carried it into the home,” he cups his hands as he speaks, “my father said to put it by the fire in the kitchen, and I laid it on the old blanket beside the hearth.”

“What was it?” I ask.

“When he dried out he became this ball of fur and my father said that’s a baby ferret.”

My passenger is smiling at the thought of it now, probably over 40 years later, but, and as he goes on to tell me that was the beginning of a long friendship.

“I called him The Captain,” he says, “I made him a bed in a cage beside the fire and he lived there all his life. Every morning I’d come down and take the blanket off the cage and The Captain would be there waiting for me.”

He goes on to tell me how The Captain would be happy to see him for six days of the week, Monday to Saturday but Sunday mornings he’d be really excited, jumping around the cage even before the blanket came off. The Captain knew it was Sunday and Sunday was the day they went hunting.

“He knew it, he knew it every week,” my passenger says, the happiness coming into his voice as he gets into telling of The Captain.

“We’d be out the door from six in the morning till it got dark in the evening,” now he turns his head to me, “up the fields, over the hills, walking for miles, hunting rabbits, me and The Captain. We’d be everywhere. I’d come home in the evening with a few rabbits and my father never had to worry about me at all.”

His father would know if he was home or not, by looking at the cage. Friends would call around and the father would lift the blanket and say: ‘no, The Captains gone, they must be off hunting.’  If The Captain were there, the father would say: ‘Tom must be up the yard’ and he’d send the callers off to the sheds. Eventually I know my friend’s name, but there isn’t any mention of a mother in any part of our conversation.  As we pass through the Six Crosses, Tom begins a tale of true love and devotion…

One summers day when he was about 11 or 12, Tom was out in a small field with The Captain. They’d been out since early morning and it was not long after they’d stopped for lunch. Without warning a bull attacked Tom from behind, throwing him to the ground and stamping on his chest and legs when he tries to flee. Luckily something distracted the attacking bull and Tom managed to crawl into a fenced area full of calves. As he got his breath back Tom realised The Captain was gone, still in the field somewhere. There was nothing for it but to crawl back out to find The Captain; though Tom was badly injured and couldn’t walk, there was no way he was leaving without his friend. The bull was off in a far corner, so Tom crawled along the edge of the ditch until he saw The Captain moving in the grass. Over he went on his belly, grabbed The Captain and put him in under his shirt, down by his armpit, before reversing and slipping out through the ditch, onto a boreen. Tom was in pain and a long way from anywhere. He couldn’t put his legs under him and he took nearly an hour to crawl to the nearest house. The man there had a phone but not a car. He called a neighbour who drove over and took Tom home, where his father laid him out on the kitchen table. Tom was wearing an old pair of black jeans, and they were so tight his father had to cut them off him. The tight jeans were doing a vital medical job though, once his father cut them off ‘gallons of blood’ gushed out. Tom’s legs were badly torn by the bull’s hooves and his father set about patching them up.

“Three weeks I was in bed getting better,” he told me, but there wasn’t any mention of a doctor, “sure that was way back then, you stayed in bed until you could get up. Once I was better I was out again hunting with The Captain.”

As we drive along, I can see a happy look on his face as he speaks of his days with The Captain. Endless days out on the hills and fields around Listowel hunting rabbits and spending time with his friend. Days now long gone but never forgotten, memories as strong as if it were only yesterday.

Going over the bridge into Listowel he asks me to drop him by the garage at the bottom of the hill, the one on the right.

“Did you have The Captain for long?” I ask as he gathers the bridle and the birdcage, and I make the signal to pull over.

“I had The Captain until I was just gone 16,” he says, looking at where I’m pulling in, “I came down one morning, and when I pulled off the blanket he was stone cold dead inside in the cage. I still keep ferrets, but I never had one like The Captain again.”

With that he gets himself and his buys out the door, leaving his phone on the seat without either of us noticing.

This is the Egg Man

A tall man, dressed in a grey raincoat, black cap, blue jeans and black shoes comes down the stairs. While he is not very big, the man is tall and well built and in the narrow stairs he looks a lot bigger and does need to duck as he comes down the last few steps, just where the low ceiling meets the stairwell. In his hands are the empty soup bowl, plate and the mug that once held his tea. The man is smiling as his belly is full and the attractive lady behind the counter asks if all was ok with his snack? Later I discover that the snack to keep him going was a bowl of soup and many slices of freshly- baked rye bread, loaded with cheese and hummus; enough to fill any man’s belly. The man hands over his crockery to the woman behind the well-stocked counter. He thanks her and while probably not a shy man he looks like the quiet, modest type, definitely not the type to seek the limelight and in my experience all the better for that too.

“John,” the lady behind the counter addresses me, “this is Michael, the egg man, the man who’s eggs we love at home.”

I nod a hello.

“Michael,” she says next, addressing the egg man, “this is my husband John.”

We shake hands and I’ve a feeling I met Michael before but glad to be meeting him again too. In the shaking of hands Michael moves over beside me and as he does another customer comes into the shop. As she speaks with my wife Michael and I fall into chat.

The egg bowl is full with ones of all shades of brown, speckled and clear ones and all of a good size. I remark on how many eggs he brought in this morning, a cold day in February and a time traditionally when hens don’t lay as much as they would in warmer times. It’s the layer’s mash he tells me, nothing else gives the hens enough protein to produce a good nest of eggs each day.

“I tried the oat mix but it was no good,” he says, “you’ll get a few but they’ll be only small ones. The bread is useless altogether, though some people say it’s all they feed them. I don’t believe that at all ‘cos it’s pure useless.”

We go on to discuss what’s in the chicken feed and that layer’s mash has the best of all the ingredients and I can see the proof is in the laying. I ask him if the duck eggs are his too, as I notice three, half-dozen boxes on the other windowsill.

“No, not at all, though the woman who supplies them comes in on the bus with me,” he says.

The picture of the two coming in on the public service bus from Castlegregory with their stash of fresh eggs is a lovely one. I wonder what their conversation is about and how long they have known each other.

“I used to keep ducks but I got out of them, and sure not everyone eats the duck eggs these days,” he says.

I tell him how I used to love the duck eggs with their big yoke but lost my taste for them years ago. Michael nods as he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He has a lovely soft voice, clear but yet you feel like drawing nearer to him so as not to miss a word. It’s a skill that you couldn’t have if you knew you had it. As soon as you realised what a beauty you had in your voice you would either become self-conscious about it and speak less, or you would try to weaponize it and quickly cause the voice to lose all of its charms.

Michael and I talk about how life in Castlegregory and he tells me of how quiet it is at this time of year. I can only imagine, as it is a town very reliant on tourism and must be empty once the holidaying families leave in late August. Michael must have seen all the changes over the years and after decades of farming he is taking it easier I presume. While in hospital recently I met a man around the same age as Michael, retired too, after years of working on building sites. The man also ran a small farm and a roadside filling station of two pumps, one diesel, one petrol. His business had long gone as price alone was stopping him being competitive. What the man still kept was his small holding and he raised store cattle for selling on to other farmers as two-year olds. Nothing too strenuous, like Michael’s hens, but I wonder how many small farmers are there like the two around Ireland, keeping their hands in but also keeping them in connection with the rest of the country? They aren’t happy to stagnate or let the brain petrify, but keep going and will be as sharp as a tack for all of their lives. These are the people who keep rural Ireland alive and their younger successors on the way up will hopefully do the same.

I ask Michael about Sean Cummins, who I knew from my days in Dingle and I know lives over Castlegregory way.

“Ah Sean’s a lovely man,” says Michael, “he’s a neighbour of mine and I see him a lot on the road. A great man for fixing the tellies in his day.”

Which is how I knew Sean as he was the TV and aerial repairman for the whole peninsula in his time, and was in big demand.

“Sean would call to you at anytime of the day and night and he’d never let you down and sure it was probably what killed his marriage, being out all the time and never home for the dinner,” Michael says, looking at me, “and sure he’d stop for a pint too, you could in those days.”

“Well nothing worse for his wife that he’d be coming home late and smelling of drink too,” I say.

Michael nods wisely.

“Funny enough I never knew his wife was gone from Sean,” he says.


“Sean never came to me one time, and when I met him on the road the next day I said to him: ‘I told your wife the TV was giving trouble’.”

“ ‘Sure I haven’t spoken to that woman in twenty years!’ Sean said to me,” Michael is laughing as he tells me, as I am too, “twenty years, can you imagine?”

Just shows that no matter how small rural Ireland may be, it is still possible to not know what is happening next door, though I imagine Michael wouldn’t be the nosey type.

“He called round that night and had it back working in no time, a genius with the tellies was Sean,” Michael says.

He’s not the only genius from Castlegregory I’m guessing.

The One-Eared Rabbit

“Your dog can’t walk,” the woman shouts, after whistling at me to stop. Sure enough Daisy is lying in the grass bank, head down in her paws and pulling at something. A minute earlier she was playing with the woman’s dog, and I had walked on, expecting Daisy to follow, as she usually does. I walk back to Daisy, who won’t let me look at her paws, snapping and growling at me when I try. I have a fair idea of what’s happening; she’s caught those long nails on the side of her paw on the ground while twisting and turning with the little black dog. I put the collar on her and continue walking, she gets up and follows, though she stops now and again to lick her wounds.

We make it home from the park, and Daisy goes straight to her bed to recover. I give her a snack, and she seems fine, still licking the sore paws but able to walk around and greet the others in the house. All evening she’s protective of the nails, hiding her paws from me and growling if I try look. Animals are often best left alone to look after small injuries, though I expect Daisy will have me at the vets at some stage. In the morning we go for our walk around the park. Daisy is running fine, but I can tell the paws are still bothering her as she stops every now and again to give them a lick. Back home I call the vet and make an appointment for that evening. Daisy is well capable of taking it easy, and I leave her sleep for the day, though she does follow me when I go out in the garden. Each time it’s the same when I look at her paws, a growl and a snap at me, so I know she’s still having problems. During the day the secretary at the vet’s clinic calls to reschedule Daisy’s appointment, and at just gone 5pm Freddie, Daisy and I head off to the surgery.

At the clinic a man is sitting with a German Shepherd pup, who gets excited when she sees Daisy in my arms. Daisy growls a small bit, but she knows the smells of this place and isn’t very confident in her surroundings. I recognise the man with the pup from somewhere and we smile in brief acknowledgment. He’s holding onto the strong dog with a stiff leash and though it is excited the German Shepherd isn’t a threat to Daisy. The nurse comes out from the surgery behind the desk and smiles at me.

“He’ll be about ten minutes,” she says referring to the vet, “we’re a small bit behind.”

“That’s fine,” I say, “we’ll wait.”

Freddie is looking around and Daisy is now glued to me, knowing that all is not as it should be. The door to the surgery opens and a lady comes out with two pet carriers, about the size for a small dog or cat. She looks like a lady in her mid-fifties, hair in a bit of a mess from being too busy to do anything about it and her round face has a serious look, yet ready to break into a smile at any moment, I reckon. She’s wearing a cream short-sleeved top and a long dress, down below her knees. A woman who cares for others and doesn’t take any nonsense, one who may, or may not talk, if she’s not bothered. She lays the two carriers on the floor and looks at Daisy, while behind her the vet sticks his head out and calls in the man with the German Shepherd.

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” she says, her face opening up in that smile I guessed was there somewhere, “what is she? A Cairn Yorkie cross?”

I smile.

“We don’t know,” I say, “we got her as a bit of a rescue when she was nine months old but there’s definitely some Yorkie and Cairn in there. Daisy is her name.”

“Oh you’re beautiful,” she says, coming over to pet Daisy, who, of course, loves nothing better than being told she is beautiful, while being petted.

“You’re saying all the right things now,” I offer.

“I often say the best dogs are the mixes, they’re far better than a pedigree,” my new friend is saying while petting Daisy’s long hair, “you have gorgeous hair, haven’t you?”

“It’s the hair that makes me think that she is a bit of a Cairn and the face is definitely a Yorkie,” I say smiling at Daisy’s new admirer.

“Well I do a lot of judging at dog shows around the county and Daisy is definitely the best-looking dog I’ve seen in a long time,” she says, “a long time indeed. She’d win prizes”

I smile at this, as I tell Lisa regularly that we should enter Daisy in competitions, as the €1000 prize money would be nice to win. Of course, there isn’t such prize money but the joke continues.

“It’s great that the hair is long too,” she continues “I see too many with that short hair and it looks stupid, they wouldn’t win a thing if it was up to me.”

She heads off to sit on one of the three, now free, chairs. I follow her as I’m enjoying the conversation. Daisy is still in my arms and the lady continues to pet her as we talk.

“What have you got in the carriers?” I ask, “cats?

“No, rabbits.”


“Yes, I bring them in to be treated for parasites,” she says, “Do you know what’s the biggest killer of rabbits?”

I’m guessing myxomatosis or some new equivalent, but I shake my head.

“Parasites, parasites,” I’m told, “they get into their kidneys and livers and destroy them, that’s why I bring my ones in to be treated. They pick them up anywhere so you can’t take any chances.”

“How long have you had them?” I ask.

“Oh the one at the back I’ve had for about six years, a friend of mine found him in her garden and I took it in.”

“How long do they live?”

“At least ten years, more if you care for them. I’ve had the fellow in the front about two years now, so he has plenty left in him.”

“Where did he come from?”

“A rescue,” she’s looking at the two carriers all the time while she speaks and the rabbits are shuffling around, getting Daisy’s attention.

“Ah, the poor fellow,” I say.

“He’s only one ear you know,” she continues, “his mother bit the other one off in a fight when he was small. I call him Vincent, of course.”

I laugh at the idea of tough love but quickly stop when she looks at me.

“Great name,” I say to retrieve the situation.

“What else could I call him?” she laughs a bit too, “he’s a lovely fellow but very timid.”

She goes on to tell me how she found Vincent for sale at the mart in Listowel. Vincent was in a poor state and looked closed to dying. The man who was selling him is famous in the area for being cruel to animals. My new friend went to take the rabbit from him and when the man stepped in to try stop her, she turned on him.

“I ran him out of the building, shouting all kinds of abuse at him. Everyone was laughing and you never saw anyone run so fast in your life.”

So now Vincent has a good home. Getting treated for parasites regularly and is expecting to live a long life.

“I love the two of them and all my animals. The husband thinks I’m a bit cracked but sure what’s the harm.”

She was painting a lovely picture and yes, where is the harm in caring?