Wexford’s Main Street always looked majestic to me back then. Sure, I knew O’Connell Street left it in the ha’penny place but how often did I get to Dublin?
The Main Street was particularly magical around Christmas when the shopkeepers strung lights like jungle vines across its narrow expanse.
Everyone walked the town on those December evenings before television cast its spell over the country; in fact, you could say the Main Street was our interactive television. You were there to see and be seen.
You meandered from Selskar Abbey at one end up to the Capitol Cinema at the other, and back ad infinitum, stopping only to yell at friends or whistle at the convent girls.
On weekend afternoons the country people would arrive in town. They had a different routine. The women would attend to their shopping while their menfolk waited for them in the few pubs where culchies were welcome. Everyone knew their place in Wexford and townies ruled their medieval streets with an iron fist.
I was a rarity and mixed easily with both sides, for though I lived in the town my grandfather farmed a hundred of the finest acres a mile or so out.
My father and grandfather were alike in many ways – independent men who didn’t take well to receiving orders. My grandfather, being well off, didn’t need to heed anyone; my father, being the eldest son, did.
They rarely argued, in fact they didn’t speak much, until everything would come to a head. Then my father would storm out and return to his other more remunerative life as a merchant marine. With my grandfather getting on in years, however, there was always a need for my father to return, and being the loyal eldest son he’d put bygones behind him.
My father was far from blameless for this state of affairs for he could never bring himself to ask for whatever money was his due. Pride, indeed, can cause all manner of heartbreak.
I can still summon up the memory of that bicycle in Alfie Cadogan’s shop window. It was a lovely bright blue color and had cutting edge gears. I had tracked it patiently through the autumn and it was still there in mid December.
I took a shot and requested it as a Christmas present though I knew it was far too expensive. We used to write letters to Santa Claus back then although I was having doubts about this old guy’s ability to negotiate the slated, sloping rooftops of Wexford town.
I noticed the occasional anxious look on my father’s face as Christmas approached. He had been home for over a year and the tension between him and my grandfather was mounting by the day. I prayed there would be no explosion until after the holidays.
My father seemed preoccupied that Christmas Eve when we walked downtown. However, he did stop outside Alfie Cadogan’s window and cast a wary glance at the brand new bicycle and its exorbitant price.
“Is that it?” He inquired before throwing back his shoulders and entering the shop. Then began the haggling which was excruciatingly embarrassing to me; so much so that my father became impatient with my fidgeting and told me to go on about my business, and that he’d see me on the town later.
He went to the pub instead and I slunk home to bed with all hope lost. On Christmas morning I tiptoed down the stairs dejected, but to my astonishment the beautiful blue bicycle stood gleaming beside the Christmas tree.
I knew how scarce money was, but at that age you don’t ask questions. Years later my mother let slip that my father ate his pride, phoned my grandfather and demanded his monetary due.
I don’t know if that was the cause but it all came to a head between them a couple of weeks later when my father stormed out and signed on a Blue Star vessel heading for South America.
They’re all long gone now but it’s a rare December I don’t think of that beautiful blue bicycle, my father and grandfather, and Christmas Eve on Wexford’s magical Main Street.