The 15th of August always seems radiant to me now. But then I come from Wexford in the “Sunny South East,” so perhaps my memory is not playing tricks.
The date marks the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven. Since we believed implicitly in Catholicism this miraculous event was no less plausible than Original Sin or Limbo. Of more concrete importance, the 15th of August being a national holiday, I had a choice to make – which grandparents to spend the day with?
My paternal side would take their usual leisurely trip down to their farm near Carnsore Point. On the 15th, however, they would also visit Our Lady’s Island where the faithful commemorated the feast day with hymns, rosaries and a banner-led procession.
We never marched for my grandfather didn’t approve of such gratuitous displays of holiness, preferring his own somber, silent faith.
The old rural Ireland was already beginning to fade, and you could now catch the occasional Roy Orbison song leaking from some huckster’s transistor radio and mixing uneasily with O Sacrament Most Holy or O Salutaris Hostia.
Unfazed by such sacrilege, those seeking relief from diverse maladies hobbled along in the wake of the procession. Cures were not uncommon and the faithful lustily rejoiced in the afterglow of these supernatural happenings.
Despite such heavenly signs I usually opted to spend the day with my maternal grandfather. He had been a widower for some time but still followed his wife’s family tradition of driving the 50 miles to Tramore in Co. Waterford on the 15th.
He would cram as many of us grandchildren as would fit into his old blue Morris Minor and with a roar of the engine we would thunder off down the long and winding road. Despite his many years of driving he had never mastered the interplay between clutch and accelerator, and had gained the nickname, Dan Dare, in honor of a rocket-propelled, science fiction radio star of the time.
Tramore was a wonderland back then - its name derived from the Gaelic, Trá Mór, or Big Strand. The beach is enormous, and though we would often emerge from the Atlantic blue from the cold, still we spent hours frolicking amid the crashing waves.
But it was the slot machines, the dodgems, swings and general carnival-like atmosphere that captivated us. Though heavenly in its own way there was little hint of devotion to any virgin - sacred or secular - in this mad, swirling rural Las Vegas.
The crowds rivaled Dublin’s O’Connell Street on All-Ireland Hurling Final day. Buskers the like of Maggie Barry and The Pecker Dunne cast their spell over the hundreds gathered around them on street corners. Con men and tricksters from the nearby city of Waterford plied their wares and skills on unsuspecting culchies.
Everyone wore their Sunday best: the men uniformly attired in heavy dark suits, the collars of their white shirts sportily thrown open, their sensible ties rolled neatly and deposited next to rosary beads in jacket pockets. Many sat on the beach like so many penguins or rolled up their pants legs and waded in the surf and transient tide pools.
When the shadows deepened we would tumble back into the old Morris Minor, sunburned, and sated by bottles of Miami Orange and bars of Cadbury’s Chocolate.
Somewhere between New Ross and Wexford Town my grandfather would begin the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, never the Glorious or Joyful. I suppose that says something about his nature or, perhaps, the still keenly felt loss of his wife. We would answer by rote, some of us dozing in the soft evening light.
We had no idea that change was so close and would soon sweep this world away. The Beatles were already making a name for themselves in Hamburg, Martin Luther King was on the march in Alabama, and up the road in the partitioned North of Ireland Catholics were beginning to question their second-class citizenship.
Everything seemed permanent and in its appointed place as we thundered on, scattering Hail Mary’s and Glorias in our noisy wake on another glorious and joyful 15th of August.