Monthly Archives: May 2020

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.