Tag Archives: Ireland

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.

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 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.

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.