Category Archives: Short Reads

A read of five minutes or less

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?

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.

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.

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.

A Homeless Son

The first time I spot him he is crouched under a tree in the park, looking at his phone, an old Nokia, as if waiting for it to ring. A couple of days later he’s walking towards me, and I make a point of saying hello. He looks surprised but after a few days of me persisting, with nothing more than ‘hello’, he begins to nod in acknowledgement. I would put him in his late twenties, though the short, cropped black hair is already receding. The dirty jeans drag along under his heels, the permanent creases even blacker than the rest. A dark jumper comes down over the top of his waist, covering his hips. Smaller in height than me, though not too skinny, his eyes have the look of someone lost, someone used to being loved and the words ‘some mother’s son’ always come to me when I see him. Even in the height of a busy summer I see him somewhere in the park, and a ‘hello’, followed with a ‘how are you?’ is usually answered by a polite ‘ok, thank you’, in a difficult-to-place accent. His skin looks healthy without any tell-tale damage. I never see him drunk, or bothering anyone or even in the company of others, no matter the time of day. If you only see someone once, looking as he does, you might say he was on his way home after a night out, but daily, in the same clothes and around the same spots, can only put him among the numbers of our great modern shame: the homeless.

Towards the end of the summer, I add the riverbank to my route. The walk is well sheltered and is a bit more industrial, with the poured concrete walkway and continuous traffic close by, obvious contrasts with the peaceful surroundings of Tralee Town Park. The man disappears from the park during early August but pops up at times along the riverbank, where we continue our brief exchanges. I wonder if the tourists are too much for him in the park and he’s escaped to the riverbank for some peace?

The man disappears completely in late August. I don’t see him for weeks, until one October evening along the riverbank where he’s sitting on a bench, looking at his phone. There is an immediate look of recognition between us, and he smiles in response to my hello. I see him a few evenings in a row at the same spot, and on a few early-morning walks he’s there too. As the bench is close to some thick bushes, I wonder if that is where he sleeps at night. Seeing him always alone, in the same clothes, just looking straight ahead and always the old phone in his hand, makes me wonder how he ended up on the margins.

For the rest of the autumn and into the early winter, we pass each other regularly. As the weather turns he gets a black jacket that he keeps zipped up. One November morning I’m walking towards the little park by Lidl, when I see him coming out from the store’s carpark ahead of me with a bottle of cheap beer in his hand. As soon as he’s off the road and into the privacy of the park, he pops the bottle into his mouth, flicks the hand holding it and spits out the cap, which he picks up and puts in the bin. Then the bottle is back in the mouth and half drained in one gulp. All of this is done in seconds, while he keeps walking. He doesn’t look at me but walks over the bridge at speed, back to the riverbank, where I pass him a bit later, sitting on his bench. 

He disappears again as the weather turns nasty for the winter. I presume, or hope that he is in the homeless shelter in town. Then one day I’m looking at shampoo in a supermarket when I get a slight tap on my shoulder and an ‘excuse me’.

I turn, and it’s him.

“Oh hello,” he says in surprise, followed by “it’s you.”

I say hello and ask how he is; as usual he says ‘ok, thank you.’

In his hand is a bottle of cheap beer and he holds it up to show me.

“Can I borrow 20 cents?” he asks.

“Of course,” I answer and dig in my pocket for change. I have a load of coins and I give him the twenty cents.

“Do you need more?” I ask.

“No, just this for this,” he says, holding the coin and the bottle up to show what he means before adding a ‘thank you’ and heading off for the tills.

As I queue I see him slide into the dark evening. No repeat of the opening of the bottle with his teeth but he does put it inside the black jacket. He looks healthy, and I hope he’s got somewhere to go, somewhere warm where no one will bother him and where his gentle soul will find peace for the night.

It’s all anyone deserves.

Disappearing Casserole Dishes

My bottle opener broke just after Christmas. Luckily our kitchen scissors have a notch for opening bottles, which got me through that late December evening. A few months later and I’m still using the scissors to open bottles, and each night I say I must get a proper opener. I enjoy a bottle or two of good beer three or four nights a week, so on average, I must say that about eight times from Thursday to Sunday.  Walking past one of my favourite shops in town last week I decided it was time to indulge myself; one of the reasons I hadn’t bought a new opener was that I hadn’t paid a visit to Small Benner’s for a while but now was a perfect time.

Small Benner’s is one of those shops every town once had, should still have, and thankfully Tralee still has today. Benner’s is over the door, and the shop is small inside, but full of all things hardware. From egg slicers to knives to meat thermometers and milk jugs you’ll find all you need inside the door. Among the many top draws to Small Benner’s are the array of goods and the staff, but for me it is the quality too. What you buy lasts: the glass measuring jug I purchased a few years ago is still going strong, the cut door keys are keeping our house safe, and the cushion pads are preventing the kitchen chairs from scraping on the marble floor. Yes, you can get those pads in all shapes and sizes in Small Benner’s Tralee.

As usual there are a few people inside. When you walk in the counter is to the right, which has a gap on either end to let staff float in and out without getting in each other’s way. To your left are shelves and hooks, literally to the ceiling stocked with all the goods any home may need. There is not any discernible layout; kitchen goods go cheek by jowl with ornaments and screwdrivers. Over on the right, behind the till and beyond towards the back are batteries, lighters, gas refills, pastry brushes, butter dishes, ceramic tea cups and much, much more. Looking around you see where you can get those items you only associate with your parent’s house. The kitchen drain sieves, the egg timers, solid looking cheese graters, wooden clothes pegs, stainless steel vegetable strainers which fan open, potato steamers, tap swirls, cup hooks and sink plugs. Notice the plural here because there is plenty of every item and many choices within the range. Not just the one brand of key fobs but a few of different sizes shapes and utility and it is the same with nearly every category of stock item. How they manage to get so much into so small an area, yet display every item clearly and not mix them up is a miracle of modern commerce. They sell fishing tackle, air guns, hunting knives and duct tape. The shop never seems crowded though it is always busy and even if you are not looking for something, you will see that one item you need.

I look around for the bottle opener I want, a wooden handled one with a solid steel mechanism. There is a three-in-one of opener, corkscrew and small serrated knife which catches my eye but I cannot see my particular choice. I ask the lady behind the counter who is as knowledgeable about the stock as any catalogue could be. She knows what I’m looking for and comes out to look on the wall by the door. Beneath the shower adapter for the bath taps and the good array of carving knives, she pulls back the mass of other goods.

“We do have one of those,” she says, “but it may be out of stock.”

She asks the young man helping another customer who thinks the last one went only the previous day, but more should be in by the next Friday. We look at the three-in-one opener I was thinking of, and I have a feeling it will be my new one.

“Look after that lady first,” I say, as I keep looking, waiting to make up my mind.

The attendant turns back to help the woman she was showing casserole dishes to, who has now made up her mind.

“I’ll take the floral white one, the large one,” she says.

“Fine,” says the lady putting it by the till.

“I’d better take five of them,” says the woman.

“Okay,” says the lady behind the counter.

“All mine are gone,” the woman continues, “my daughter brings her husband’s dinner up from my house in them every day and of course they never come back.”

That night I tell Lisa of the disappearing casserole dishes while opening my bottle of Beal Bán Golden Ale with my new opener. She laughs at the beauty of it, and we both ask, almost at the same time:

“Does the husband know?”

We can only wonder.

The First Day Back After Christmas

The first day back after Christmas. The day after ‘Little Women’s Christmas’ as it fell this year. The day it all gets back to normal as people say when trying to get over that everything they looked forward to is now in the past. A dark dreary day as it happens to be today, the sun not yet up as I leave the house and the lights in neighbours’ windows showing they are back in routine too. For Daisy the dog it’s her morning walk, a chance to stretch the legs, go for a pee and assert her dominion over Tralee town park once more. Tradition means little to animals.

The sun may not be up, but its rising in the east and the lining of the black clouds is turning a shade of grey. It’s trying to rain, but that’s not putting off the thrushes and blackbirds singing their morning welcomes. I see them in the grass, digging in the rotting leaves, pulling at whatever they can find and largely ignoring me where possible. The ones who fly off don’t go far and often track back behind me soon after I pass, obviously what was in under the leaves isn’t worth abandoning to the next early riser. Cars are gently splashing along the road outside, on their way to join the queues at the roundabout. A now regular, early morning driver is already parked by the fence at the cul-de-sac end of our road, lights on inside, engine running and the steamed windows trapping the smoke of her first cigarettes of the day. Sometimes she parks further up before the junction with the road into town, with the window down on warmer days, with the smoke curling out like the turf fires of lore. Who she is I do not know, but I guess she must drop someone off earlier before making her way to our road for a fag and a relax before going to work. Maybe she heads home again, who knows? I once thought she was trying to avoid tailbacks by arriving ahead of traffic but around here the tailbacks are in the town centre and only start around the time she heads off. In the spring and summer she’s only arriving at the time I’m coming back but in these dark mornings, she’s already in place by the time I’m heading out. You can spot her regular stopping places by the gathering of butts on the road. It’s always a sign that I’m late if she is there before me and if I were the sort to do one, I’d do a scientific study of her arrival and departure times, just to see how regular she is in the mornings. Never once have we exchanged greetings and I’d be as likely to pick her out in an identity parade as I would any unknown reader of this piece.

Out on the road into town the traffic is slowing down, ready to hit the backup at the roundabout. Going over the bridge I look to the west and see the clouds getting an even brighter shade of grey. To the south they are showing tinges of pink where separating and that low winter sun must be hiding somewhere. The river is emptying, no sign of the oil slicks of last week and the service station smell is gone too. Whoever caused the spillage, whether by accident or deliberate action should be ashamed of themselves, dirtying a small river doing its best to look after the wildlife of Tralee. Thankfully my friend the otter was out hunting the other evening as the river ebbed, barely breaking the surface as he or she slid up and down through the brackish water. The upside-down V they cause in the water as they move gently upstream spreads to the banks so you can keep an eye on their progress before diving again. Over by the canal on dark evenings I often hear the crunch as they break through fish heads or maybe it’s the shell of a crab. One full moon-lit night the canal was nearly empty, nothing but a stream was making its way to the lock gates below but an otter was still swimming it, the moon gleaming on its wet back and guiding my eyes as it hunted its prey. That night the otter walked up the bank when I was coming home. I stopped and it stopped, and it moved further through the grass before darting across my path maybe ten feet from me, the full moon still catching its wet coat and its slinky tail only glistening behind. It was gone into the reeds in only a second but the image will stay in my mind for life.

No such meeting on the pavement this morning, though the well-worn path of an otter, fox or mink is clearly visible through the grass on the marsh if you look for it, so maybe such a sighting is possible at times. Ahead of me walks a woman I normally pass on the way home and I easily pass her as, as is normal, she is walking slowly with her head in her phone. Daisy is sniffing in the grass verges, looking for scraps of food leftover from the weekend late-nighters and you can see the takeaway wrappers, papers and cups mashed into the road and rocking against the edge of the footpath. I pull Daisy along as I don’t want to spend my time waiting for her to find a half-eaten chip or chase the scent of burger. She doesn’t look happy, but then she is well-fed so I know it’s only her survival instincts kicking in as she forages in the not-so-long grass. By the time we make it to the roundabout the traffic is filling the lanes, people going to the left or heading into town, queuing for their chance to go and all four approaches are the same. Single drivers may be on the phone, talking to who knows who, catching up on the first day back or telling work they are on the way. Cars with passengers look like parents taking the kids to school or even the learner-drivers learning the hard way in morning traffic, a parent beside them encouraging and warning as they progress.

Drivers stop at the roundabout to let Daisy and I cross to the island, where we wait for a gap or a slowing car to let us get to the other side. By now the morning is brightening, the sun has made its way across the country, and the last of Ireland is emerging from the darkness of a winter’s night. Headlights are still on and spitting rain is caught in the low beams, making its way to the road before the splashing tires throw it up to the sides. Daisy and I walk on to our gap in the wall which leads us along a concrete path to the road of Castle Countess.

A 1930s estate of well-kept houses, detached and semi-detached Castle Countess has the feeling of established residents who maybe into their second or third generation. The footpath runs along the end of the gardens and Daisy and I are well-known users at this stage. On brighter mornings I’ll meet people on their way to work, school or play and exchange greetings or chat but today the footpath is empty, though the road is busy, as it’s an access point for the Green school beyond. On New Year’s Day an older lady gave me a big ‘Happy New Year’ as she put rubbish in her bin and this morning she waves as she turns back into her home. The decorations are still up in most windows, though chances are they’ll be gone by this evening. Today is probably the day in most homes when life starts again and people wonder what the big fuss was about for the last eight weeks. Yesterday evening as I passed along the street I saw over a low hedge a woman and her married daughter settling down in a well-decorated front room to watch what looked like some sort of afternoon chat show. The fire was down and the large screen was welcoming them as they took up their places on the small couch, the tray in front of them full with a plate of biscuits, teapot, cups and a jug. The brief scene was contrasted in the smaller room on the other side of the front door, where the father was in an armchair, mug in hand and almost on top of another tv, which was showing oddly enough what looked like a basketball match. His room too was full of decorations and I wonder if they do it out of tradition, or for the grandchildren I often see with their mother going in and out of the warm looking home.

We go through the kissing gates and up the worn concrete steps into the beginnings of the park. The tall light is still on through the trees by where the path diverges, though the brighter spotlight above it doesn’t pop on as it usually does on darker mornings. The path we take is almost empty; we always take the one to the right, it just seems a natural flow, and it goes anti-clockwise around the park. The boys for the Green are gathering by the entrance, smoking the last ones or vaping the final vape before spending their days at the glory of learning. The tall beech tree to my right reaches as it always does for the sky, its many branches seemingly defying the laws of physics by not entangling, and now that it is empty of leaves the majesty of the tree is even more magnificent. The old stone walls of the park still stand strong and at a height of at least eight feet in parts make you feel well protected as you walk. I love the spread of trees and the mixture of species in the park, magnolias share with oaks and chestnuts which protect the younger willows and ash. A line of poplars, obviously planted with intention is a bit incongruous in the middle of the grass; maybe there was a plan to put a path there one day. Older spruce and scots pines look like grand dames, overlooking all that is happening as the boys and girls make their way to school and remind you how old this park actually is. The well-kept paths guide you through the 35 acres and I meet the groundskeeper as I nearly always do, out tidying and clearing leaves before the walkers of the day slip and do damage. You rarely see rubbish of any kind in the park, the number of bins helps but the smiling man I now pass is on top of anything before it becomes unsightly. The town is well awake to my right, the professionals of Denny Street getting back to it and shifting the money around which keeps this town going. The Christmas lights are still up, still lighting too but no doubt they too will be boxed away over the coming few days. Strangely enough I don’t meet any of my regulars this morning, no man with a limp and his terriers, not joggers who nod as they pass and not the lady who walks with a strong stride who always smiles a ‘good morning’ when we pass.

It doesn’t take long for Daisy and me to be back on the road again. I put her on the lead before the groundskeeper, as his leaf blower scares her at times. Castle Countess is still asleep, though the late arrivals for school are just leaving the rat run. Traffic is still queueing at the roundabout, more now as the wet morning has more people on the road. Daisy and I pass over the bridge with a quick glimpse for the otter who may be nosing his way up just beyond the bend; the v-shaped ripples would indicate he’s on his way. The smoking lady is leaving, joining the back of a queue which is coming to meet the traffic now. Back home the house is rising, noise is coming from upstairs and the nine o’clock news is telling its story. I give Daisy her snack and think about what I’ll write today.

Sunday Park

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Tralee Town Park is the perfect place for an early evening stroll, Sunday morning walk or even a run if you are so inclined. I tend to do my daily walks first thing in the morning, when there are fewer people about, but on Sunday’s we’re up later and by the time I make it to the park it can be very busy. On a summer’s Sunday morning I met a man, who sort of sums up how a chance encounter can lead to great fun.

Daisy and I are walking in the park. I have her off the lead, and she’s darting in and out of the trees, chasing shadows and yapping at other small dogs. As we’re coming up to the Rose Garden I spot a man sitting on a bench and drinking a can of beer. It’s only 11:00 AM, the bells of the nearby St John’s are ringing and the sight makes me smile. Dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, can of beer on the go and his bike leaning against the back of the bench and now soaking up the sun, the man just looks so happy. And why wouldn’t he be? He obviously felt he deserved the beer, he’d done his exercise and now he was being rewarded. As it was a bit early to have bought the can, he must have brought it with him; he was planning this treat, possibly well in advance.

Daisy runs up to him and in around his legs. I call her back, and the man turns to see who’s behind the voice. As he sees me he gets up.

“Terrible day for a hangover,” he says.

“It’s never a great day for a hangover,” I answer.

“True,” he says, laughing.

We’re by now side by side, and I stop walking

“I’m wrecked,” he says, “I’ve been in England for the last four days, and I’m still all over the place.”

He doesn’t look too bad, considering he’s necking a can at eleven on a Sunday morning and has been on the beer for the last four days.

“Good time?” I ask.

“Great. Over visiting the brother, the cousin came with me.  We got the bus and the boat, non-stop drinking.”

Getting the bus and boat used to be the standard way of getting to England but to do it for a four-day trip now seems very time consuming, but I think the travel was probably half of their fun.

“You know how much they charged for two whiskies on the boat coming back?” he asks.

I shake my head, but I remember in my day drinking on the boat was very cheap.

“Thirty euros” is the answer.

“Thirty euros?”

I’m genuinely shocked.

“As true as I’m standing here.”

“Wow,” I say, not doubting him but at the same time not believing that two whiskies could cost so much.

“Look,” he says, rummaging in the back pocket of his shorts, pulling out a piece of paper and giving it to me.

I open the scrunched-up receipt and there it reads, €30.00 for his two whiskies, with the time and date of 4.11 AM the previous morning.

“I hope they were worth it,” I say.

He looks at me.

“I wasn’t paying that; I told him to feck off and left them on the counter. We went off down the duty-free. A slab of Tennant’s for €9.99. Perfect I said and we grabbed two.”

“Better value there,” I laugh.

My man nods slightly while giving me a knowing look, before continuing:

“But you know what?”

“No. What?”

“I paid the money, and then the girl said you can’t take them out of the shop till we get to port. We were caught.”

“What did ye do then?”

“Went to the other bar and had a pint.”

We both laughed.

“I’ve been drinking those cans since I came home,” he says, but only with a slight touch of being under pressure.

As we’re talking two men pass by, and one is the local undertaker.

“Hey,” my man says, “I don’t want to be seeing you for a while yet.”

“If you can see me you’re doing fine,” answers the undertaker, “it’s when you can’t see me is when you’re having the trouble.”

We all laugh, and I walk off.