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.
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.